How Shall we Govern our Childern? by Nora A. Smith

Children's Rights and Others

"Not the cry," says a Chinese author, "but the rising of a wild duck, impels the flock to follow him in upward flight."

Long ago, in a far-off country, a child was born; and when his parents looked on him they loved him, and they resolved in their simple hearts to make of him a strong, brave, warlike man. But the God of that country was a hungry and an insatiable God, and he cried out for human sacrifice; so, when his arms had been thrice heated till they glowed red with the flame of the fire, the mother cradled her child in them, and his life exhaled as a vapor.

A child was born in another country, and the tender eyes of his mother saw that his limbs were misshapen and his life-blood a sickly current. Yet her heart yearned over him, and she would have tended and trained him and loved him better than all the rest of her strong, well-favored brood; but when the elders of her people knew that the child was a weakling, they decreed that he should die, and she bent her head to the law, which was stronger than her love.

In a third land a child was to be born, and the proud father made ready gifts, and purchased silken robes, and prepared a feast for his friends; but, alas! when the longed-for soul entered the world it was housed in a woman-child's body, and straightway the joy was changed into mourning. Bitter reproaches were heaped upon the mother, for were there not enough women already on the earth? and the fiat went forth that the babe should straightway be delivered from the trials of existence. So, while its hold on life was yet uncertain, the husband's mother placed wet cloths upon its lips, and soon the faint breath stopped, and the white soul went fluttering heavenward again.

In still another of God's fair lands a child entered the world, and he grew toward manhood vigorous and lusty; but he heeded not his parents' commands, and when his disobedience had been long continued, the fathers of the tribe decreed that he should be stoned to death, for so it was written in the sacred books. And as the youth was the absolute property of his parents, and as by common consent they had full liberty to deal with him as seemed good to them, they consented unto his death, that his soul might be saved alive, and the evening sun shone crimson on his dead body as it lay upon the sands of the desert.

* * * * *

At a later day and in a Christian country two children were born, one hundred years apart, and the world had now so far progressed that absolute power over the life of the offspring was denied the parents. The one was ruled with iron rods; he was made to obey with a rigidity of compliance and a severity of treatment in case of failure which made obedience a slavish duty, and he was taught besides that he was a child of Satan and an heir of hell. He found no joy in his youth, and his miserable soul groveled in fear of the despot who dominated him, and of the blazing eternity which he was told would be the punishment for his sins. His will was broken; he was made weak where he might have been strong; and he did evil because he had learned no power of self-restraint: yet his people loved him, and they had done all these things because they wished to purge him wholly from all uncleanness.

The parents of the other child were warned of the lamentable results of this gloomy training, and they said one to another: "Our darling shall be free as air; his duties shall be made to seem like pleasures, or, better still, he shall have no duty but his pleasure. He shall do only what he wills, that his will may grow strong, and he can but choose the right, for he knows no evil. We will hold up before him no bugbear of future punishment, for doubtless there is no such thing; and if there be, it will not be meted out to such a child. He will love and obey his parents because they have devoted themselves to his happiness, and because they have never imposed distasteful obligations upon him, and when he grows to manhood he will be a model of wisdom and of goodness."

But, lo! the child of this training was as great a failure as the child of austerity and gloom. He was capricious, lawless, willful, disobedient, passionate; he thought of no one's pleasure save his own; he cared for his parents only in so far as they could be of use to him; and like a wild beast of the jungle he preyed upon the life around him, and cared not whom he destroyed if his appetites were satisfied.

"In every field of opinion and action, men are found swinging from one extreme to the other of life's manifold arcs of vibration." This perpetual movement may be the essential condition of existence, for death is cessation of motion; or it may be a never-ending effort of the mind to reach an ideal which discloses itself so seldom as to make its permanent abiding-place a matter of uncertainty. Doubtless there is somewhere a middle to the arc, and in the lapse of ages the needle may at last find the "pole-point of central truth" and be at rest; but as yet, in every department of labor and thought, it is vibrating, and after tarrying a while at one extreme it swings unsatisfied back to the other.

Nowhere are these extremes more noticeable than in the government of children. Centuries ago, in the patriarchal period, the father of the family seems also to have exercised the functions of a criminal judge; but the uniting of the two sets of duties in one person does not appear to have inspired the children with insurmountable awe, for laws are found both in Numbers and Deuteronomy fixing the penalty of disobedience, and of the striking of a parent by a child.

Still later, the Roman father possessed arbitrary powers of life and death over his children; but it is probable that natural affection and a more advanced civilization commonly made the law a dead letter.

Though the world in time grew to feel that life belonged to the being who held it, not to those who gave it birth, still discipline has for ages been directed more to the body than to the mind, with an idea apparently that the pains of the flesh will save the soul. Pious parents until within recent dates have regarded the flogging of children as absolutely a religious obligation, and many a tender mother has steeled her heart and strengthened her arm to give the blows which she regarded as essential to the spiritual well-being of her child.

The birch rod and the Bible were the Parents' Complete Guide to domestic management in Puritan days, and no one can deny that this treatment, though rather a heroic one, seems to have produced fine, strong, self-denying men and women.

Governor Bradford, in 1648, speaks feelingly of the godliness of a Puritan woman whose office it was to "sit in a convenient place in the congregation, with a little birchen rod in her hand, and keep the children in great awe;" and, from the frequency with which chastisement is mentioned in early Puritan records, it seems pretty clear that the sober little lads and lasses of the day did not suffer from over-indulgence.

When this wholesale whipping began to fall into disuse, many philosophers prophesied the ruin of the race, but these gloomy predictions have scarcely found their fulfillment as yet.

There has been, however, a colossal change in discipline, from the days when disobedience was punishable with death to the agreeable moral suasion of the nineteenth century, as exemplified in the "fin de siècle" nonsense rhyme:—

  "There once was a hopeful young horse
  Who was brought up on love, without force:
  He had his own way, and they sugared his hay;
  So he never was naughty, of course."

The results of this delightful method of treatment seem rather problematic, and the modern child is universally acknowledged to be no improvement upon his predecessors in point of respect and filial piety at least.

A superintendent's report, written thirty years ago for one of the New England States, regrets that, even then, home government had grown lax. He wittily says that Young America is rampant, parental influence couchant; and no reversal of these positions is as yet visible in 1892.

To those who note the methods by which many children are managed, it is a matter of wonderment that the results in character and conduct are not very much worse than they are. Dr. Channing wisely says, "The hope of the world lies in the fact that parents cannot make of their children what they will." Happy accidents of association and circumstance sometimes nullify the harm the parent has done, and the tremendous momentum of the race-tendency carries the child over many an obstacle which his training has set in his path.

It seems crystal-clear at the outset that you cannot govern a child if you have never learned to govern yourself. Plato said, many centuries ago: "The best way of training the young is to train yourself at the same time; not to admonish them, but to be always carrying out your own principles in practice," and all the wisdom of the ancients is in the thought. If, then, you are a fit person to be trusted with the government of a child, what goal do you propose to reach in your discipline; what is your aim, your ideal?

1. The discipline should be thoroughly in harmony with child-nature in general, and suited to the age and development of the particular child in question.

2. It should appeal to the higher motives, and to the higher motives alone.

3. It should develop kindness, helpfulness, and sympathy.

4. It should never use weapons which would tend to lower the child's self-respect.

5. It should be thoroughly just, and the punishment, or rather the retribution, should be commensurate with the offense.

6. It should teach respect for law, and for the rights of others.

Finally, it should teach "voluntary obedience, the last lesson in life, the choral song which rises from all elements and all angels," and, as the object of true discipline is the formation of character, it should produce a human being master of his impulses, his passions, and his will.

The journey's end being fixed, one must next decide what route will reach it, and will be short, safe, economical, and desirable; and the roads to the presumably ideal discipline are many and well-traveled. Some of them, it is true, lead you into a swamp, some to the edge of a precipice; some will hurl you down a mountain-side with terrific rapidity; others stop half-way, bringing you face to face with a blank wall; and others again will lose you entirely on a bleak and trackless plain. But no matter which route you select, you will have the wise company of a great many teachers, parents, and guardians, and an innumerable throng of fair and lovely children will journey by your side.

The road of threat and fear, of arbitrary and over-severe punishment, has been much traveled in all times, though perhaps it is a little grass-grown now.

The child who obeys you merely because he fears punishment is a slave who cowers under the lash of the despot. Undue severity makes him a liar and a coward. He hates his master, he hates the thing he is made to do; there is a bitter sense of injustice, a seething passion of revenge, forever within him; and were he strong enough he would rise and destroy the power that has crushed him. He has done right because he was forced to do so, not because he desired it; and since the right-doing, the obedience, was neither the fruit of his reason nor his love, it cannot be permanent.

The feeling of justice is strong in the child's mind, and you have constantly wounded that feeling. You have destroyed the sense of cause and effect by your arbitrary punishments. You have corrected him for disobedience, for carelessness, for unkindness, for untruthfulness, for noisiness, and for slowness in learning his lessons.

How is he to know which of these offenses is the greatest, if all have received the same punishment? Why should giving him a good thrashing teach him to be kind to his little sister? Why should he learn the multiplication table with greater rapidity because you ferule him soundly? Have you ever found pain an assistance to the memory?

If he has little intellectual perception of the difference between truth and falsehood, why should you suppose that smart strokes on any portion of the body would quicken that perception?

Is it not clear as the sun at noonday that, since he observes the punishment to have no necessary relation to the offense, and since he observes it to be light or severe according to your pleasure,—is it not clear that he will suppose you to be using your superior strength in order to treat him unfairly, and will not the supposition sow seeds of hatred and rebellion in his heart?

Another road to discipline is that of bribery.

To endeavor to secure goodness in a child by means of bribery, to promise him a reward in case he obeys you, is manifestly an absurdity. You are destroying the very traits in his character you are presumably endeavoring to build up. You are educating a human being who knows good from evil, and who should be taught deliberately to choose the right for the right's sake, who should do his duty because he knows it to be his duty, not for any extraneous reward connected with it. A spiritual reward will follow, nevertheless, in the feeling of happiness engendered, and the child may early be led to find his satisfaction in this, and in the approval of those he loves.

There are, of course, certain simple rewards which can be used with safety, and which the child easily sees to be the natural results of good conduct. If his treatment of the household pussy has been kind and gentle, he may well be trusted with a pet of his own; if he puts his toys away carefully when asked to do so, father will notice the neat room when he comes home; if he learns his lessons well and quickly, he will have the more time to work in the garden; and the suggestion of these natural consequences is legitimate and of good effect.

It is always safer, no doubt, to appeal to a love of pleasure in children than to a fear of pain, yet bribes and extraneous rewards inevitably breed selfishness and corruption, and lead the child to expect conditions in life which will never be realized. Though retribution of one kind or another follows quickly on the heels of wrong-doing, yet virtue is commonly its own reward, and it is as well that the child should learn this at the beginning of life. Froebel says: "Does a simple, natural child, when acting rightly, think of any other reward which he might receive for his action than this consciousness, though that reward be only praise?…

"How we degrade and lower the human nature which we should raise, how we weaken those whom we should strengthen, when we hold up to them an inducement to act virtuously!"

Emulation is often harnessed into service to further intellectual progress and the formation of right habits of conduct, and this inevitably breeds serious evils.

It is well to set before the child an ideal on which he may form himself as far as possible; but when this ideal sits across the aisle, plays in a neighboring back yard, or, worse still, is another child in the same family, he is hated and despised. His virtues become obnoxious, and the unfortunate evildoer prefers to be vicious, that he may not resemble a creature whose praises have so continually been sung that his very name is odious.

If the child grows accustomed to the comparison of himself with others and the endeavor to excel them, he becomes selfish, envious, and either vain of his virtue and attainments, or else thoroughly disheartened at his small success, while he grudges that of his neighbor. George Macdonald says: "No work noble or lastingly good can come of emulation, any more than of greed. I think the motives are spiritually the same."

To what can we appeal, then, in children, as motives to goodness, as aids in the formation of right habits of thought and action? Ah! the child's heart is a harp of many strings, and touched by the hand of a master a fine, clear tone will sound from every one of them, while the resultant strain will be a triumphant burst of glorious harmony.

Touch delicately the string of love of approval, and listen to the answer.

The child delights to work for you, to please you if he can, to do his tasks well enough to win your favorable notice, and the breath of praise is sweet to his nostrils. It is right and justifiable that he should have this praise, and it will be an aid to his spiritual development, if bestowed with discrimination. Only Titanic strength of character can endure constant discouragement and failure, and yet work steadily onward, and the weak, undeveloped human being needs a word of approval now and then to show him that he is on the right track, and that his efforts are appreciated. Of course the kind and the frequency of the praise bestowed depend entirely upon the nature of the child.

One timid, self-distrustful temperament needs frequently to bask in the sunshine of your approval, while another, somewhat predisposed to vanity and self-consciousness, feeds a more bracing moral climate.

There is no question that cleanliness and fresh air may be considered as minor aids to goodness, and a dangerous outbreak of insubordination may sometimes be averted by hastily suggesting to the little rebel a run in the garden, prefaced by a thorough application of cool water to the flushed face and little clenched hands; while self-respect may often be restored by the donning of a clean apron.

Beauty of surroundings is another incentive to harmony of action. It is easier for the child to be naughty in a poor, gloomy room, scanty of furniture, than in a garden gay with flowers, shaded by full-leafed trees, and made musical by the voice of running water.

Dr. William T. Harris says: "Beauty cannot create a new heart, but it can greatly change the disposition," and this seems unquestionable, especially with regard to the glory of God's handiwork, which makes goodness seem "the natural way of living." Yet we would not wish our children to be sybarites, and we must endeavor to cultivate in their breasts a hardy plant of virtue which will live, if need be, on Alpine heights and feed on scanty fare.

It is a truism that interesting occupation prevents dissension, and that idle fingers are the Devil's tools.

A child who is good and happy during school time, with its regular hours and alternated work and play, often becomes, in vacation, fretful, sulky, discontented, and in arms against the entire world.

The discipline of work, if of a proper kind, of a kind in which success is not too long delayed, is sure and efficacious. Success, if the fruit of one's own efforts, is so sweet that one longs for more of the work which produced it.

The reverse of the medal may be seen here also. The knotted thread which breaks if pulled too impatiently; the dropped stitches that make rough, uneven places in the pattern; the sail which was wrongly placed and will not propel the boat; the pile of withered leaves which was not removed, and which the wind scattered over the garden,—are not all these concrete moral lessons in patience, accuracy, and carefulness?

We may safely appeal to public opinion, sometimes, in dealing with children. The chief object in doing this "is to create a constantly advancing ideal toward which the child is attracted, and thereby to gain a constantly increasing effort on his part to realize this ideal." There comes a time in the child's development when he begins to realize his own individuality, and longs to see it recognized by others. The views of life, the sentiments of the people about him, are clearly noted, and he desires to so shape his conduct as to be in harmony with them. If he sees that tale-bearing and cowardice are looked upon with disgust by his comrades, he will be a very Spartan in his laconicism and courage; if his father and older brothers can bear pain without wincing, then he will not cry when he hurts himself.

Oftentimes he is obdurate when reproved in private for a fault, but when brought to the tribunal of the disapproval of other children, he is chagrined, repents, and makes atonement. He is uneasy under the adverse verdict of a large company, but the condemnation of one person did not weigh with him. It is usually not wise, however, to appeal to public opinion in this way, save on an abstract question, as the child loses his self-respect, and becomes degraded in his own eyes, if his fault is trumpeted abroad.

Stories of brave deeds, poems of heroism, self-sacrifice, and loyalty, have their places in creating a sentiment of ideality in the child's breast,—a sentiment which remains fixed sometimes, even though it be not in harmony with the feeling of the majority.

Now and then some noble soul is born, some hero so thrilled with the ideal that he rises far above the public sentiment of his day; but usually we count him great who overtops his fellows by an inch or two, and he who falls much below the level of ordinary feeling is esteemed as almost beyond hope.

To seek for the approval of others, even though they embody our highest ideals, is truly not the loftiest form of aspiration; but it is one round in the ladder which leads to that higher feeling, the desire for the benediction of the spirit-principle within us.

Although discipline by means of fear, as the word is commonly used, cannot be too strongly condemned, yet there is a "godly fear" of which the Bible speaks, which certainly has its place among incentives in will-training. The child has not attained as yet, and it is doubtful whether we ourselves have done so, to that supreme excellence of love which absolutely casteth out fear.

A writer of great moral insight says: "Has not the law of seed and flower, cause and effect, the law of continuity which binds the universe together, a tone of severity? It has surely, like all righteous law, and carries with it a legitimate and wholesome fear. If we are to reap what we have sown, some, perhaps most of us, may dread the harvest."

The child shrinks from the disapproval of the loved parent or teacher. By so much the more as he reverences and respects those "in authority over him" does he dread to do that which he knows they would condemn. If he has been led to expect natural retributions, he will have a wholesome fear of putting his hand in the fire, since he knows the inevitable consequences. He understands that it is folly to expect that wrong can be done with impunity, and shrinks in terror from committing a sin whose consequences it is impossible that he should escape. He knows well that there are other punishments save those of the body, and he has felt the anguish which follows self-condemnation. "There is nothing degrading in such fear, but a heart-searching reverence and awe in the sincere and humble conviction that God's law is everywhere."

Such are some of the false and some of the true motives which can be appealed to in will-training, but there are various points in their practical application which may well be considered.

May we not question whether we are not frequently too exacting with children,—too much given to fault-finding? Were it not that the business of play is so engrossing to them, and life so fascinating a matter on the whole,—were it not for these qualifying circumstances, we should harass many of them into dark cynicism and misanthropy at a very early age. I marvel at the scrupulous exactness in regard to truth, the fine sense of distinction between right and wrong, which we require of an unfledged human being who would be puzzled to explain to us the difference between a "hawk and a handsaw," who lives in the realm of the imagination, and whose view of the world is that of a great play-house furnished for his benefit. If we were one half as punctilious and as hypercritical in our judgment of ourselves, we should be found guilty in short order, and sentenced to hard labor on a vast number of counts.

There are many comparatively small faults in children which it is wise not to see at all. They are mere temporary failings, tiny drops which will evaporate if quietly left in the sunshine, but which, if opposed, will gather strength for a formidable current. If we would sometimes apply Tolstoi's doctrine of non-resistance to children, if we would overlook the small transgression and quietly supply another vent for the troublesome activity, there would be less clashing of wills, and less raising of an evil spirit, which gains wonderful strength while in action.

Do we not often use an arbitrary and a threatening manner in our commands to children, when a calm, gentle request, in a tone of expectant confidence, would gain obedience far more quickly and pleasantly?

Some natures are antagonized by the shadow of a threat, even if it accompanies a reasonable order; and if we acknowledge that the oil of courtesy is a valuable lubricator in our dealings with grown people, it seems proper to suppose that it would not be entirely useless with children. We cannot expect to get from them what we do not give ourselves, and it is idle to imagine that we can address them as we would a disobedient dog, and be answered in tones of dulcet harmony.

Again, what possible harm can there be in sometimes giving reasons for commands, when they are such as the child would appreciate? We do not desire to bring him up under martial rule; and if he feels the wisdom of the order issued, he will be much more likely to obey it pleasantly. Cases may frequently occur in which reasons either could not properly be given, or would be beyond the child's power of comprehension; but if our treatment of him has been uniformly frank and affectionate, he will cheerfully obey, believing that, as our commands have been reasonable heretofore, there is good cause to suppose they may still be so.

Educational opinion tends, more and more every day, to the absolute conviction that the natural punishment, the effect which follows the cause, is the only one which can safely be used with children.

This is the method of Nature, severe and unrelenting it may be, but calm, firm, and purely just. He who sows the wind must reap the whirlwind, and he who sows thistles may be well assured that he will never gather figs as his harvest. The feeling of continuity, of sequence, is naturally strong in the child; and if we would lead him to appreciate that the law is as absolute in the moral as in the physical world, we shall find the ground already prepared for our purpose.

Much transgression of moral law in later years is due to the fatal hope in the evil-doer's mind that he will be able to escape the consequences of his sin. Could we make it clear from the beginning of life that there is no such escape, that the mills of the gods will grind at last, though the hopper stand empty for many a year,—could we make this an absolute conviction of the mind, I am assured that it would greatly tend to lessen crime.

And this is one of the defects of arbitrary punishment, that it is sometimes withheld when the heart of the judge melts over the sinner, leading him to expect other possible exemptions in the future. Is it not sometimes given in anger, also, when the culprit clearly sees it to be disproportionate to the crime?

Here appears the advantage of the natural punishment,—it is never withheld in weak affection, it is never given in anger, it is entirely disassociated from personal feeling. No poisoned arrow of injustice remains rankling in the child's breast; no rebellious feeling that the parent has taken advantage of his superior strength to inflict the punishment: it is perceived to be absolutely fair, and, being fair, it must be, although painful, yet satisfactory to that sense of justice which is a passion of childhood.

Our American children are as precocious in will-power as they are keen-witted, and they need a special discipline. The courage, activity, and pioneer spirit of the fathers, exercised in hewing their way through virgin forests, hunting wild beasts in mountain solitudes, opening up undeveloped lands, prospecting for metals through trackless plains, choosing their own vocations, helping to govern their country,—all these things have reacted upon the children, and they are thoroughly independent, feeling the need of caring for themselves when hardly able to toddle.

Entrust this precocious bundle of nerves and individuality to a person of weak will or feeble intelligence, and the child promptly becomes his ruler. The power of strong volition becomes caprice, he does not learn the habit of obedience, and thus valuable directive power is lost to the world.

"The lowest classes of society," says Dr. Harris, "are the lowest, not because there is any organized conspiracy to keep them down, but because they are lacking in directive power." The jails, the prisons, the reformatories, are filled with men who are there because they were weak, more than because they were evil. If the right discipline in home and school had been given them, they would never have become the charge of the nation. Thus we waste force constantly, force of mind and of spirit sufficient to move mountains, because we do not insist that every child shall exercise his "inherited right," which is, "that he be taught to obey."

It is a grave subject, this of will-training, the gravest perhaps that we can consider, and its deepest waters lie far below the sounding of my plummet. Some of the principles, however, on which it rests are as firmly fixed as the bed of the ocean, which remains changeless though the waves continually shift above:—

1. If we can but cultivate the habit of doing right, we enlist in our service one of the strongest of human agencies. Its momentum is so great that it may propel the child into the course of duty before he has time to discuss the question, or to parley with his conscience concerning it.

2. We must remember that "force of character is cumulative, and all the foregone days of virtue work their health into this." The task need not be begun afresh each morning; yesterday's strokes are still there, and to-day's efforts will make the carving deeper and bolder.

3. We may compel the body to carry out an order, the fingers to perform a task; but this is mere slavish compliance. True obedience can never be enforced; it is the fruit of the reason and the will, the free, glad offering of the spirit.

4. Though many motives have their place in early will-training,—love of approval, deference to public opinion, the influence of beauty, hopeful occupation, respect and rev for those in authority,—yet these are all preparatory, the preliminary exercises, which must be well practiced before the soul can spread her wings into the blue.

5. There is but one true and final motive to good conduct, and that is a hunger in the soul of man for the blessing of the spirit, a ceaseless longing to be in perfect harmony with the principles of everlasting and eternal right.