THE CHRISTIAN MOTHER
by John Abbott, 1833, Worcester, Mass.
Published by the American Tract Society
The Mother's AUTHORITY
I have thus endeavored to show the mother how much her happiness is dependent upon the good or bad character of her children. Your own reflections and observation have, doubtless, impressed this subject most deeply upon your heart. The question has probably often presented itself to your mind, while reading the previous chapter, "How shall I govern my children, so as to secure their virtue and happiness?" This question I shall now endeavor to answer.
OBEDIENCE is absolutely essential to proper family government. Without this, all other efforts will be in vain. You may pray with, and for your children; you may strive to instruct them in religious truth; you may be unwearied in your efforts to make them happy, and to gain their affection. But if they are in habits of disobedience, your instructions will be lost, and your toil in vain. And by obedience, I do not mean languid and dilatory yielding to repeated threats—but prompt and cheerful acquiescence in parental commands. Neither is it enough that a child should yield to your arguments and persuasions. It is essential that he should submit to your authority.
I will suppose a case in illustration of this last
remark. Your little daughter is sick; you go to her with the medicine which
has been prescribed for her, and the following dialogue ensues.
"Here, my daughter, is some medicine for you."
"I don't want to take it, mamma."
"Yes, my dear, do take it, for it will make you feel better."
"No it won't, mother; I don't want it."
"Yes it will, my child; the doctor says it will."
"Well, it doesn't taste good, and I don't want it."
The mother continues her persuasions, and the child persists in its refusal. After a long and wearisome conflict, the mother is compelled either to throw the medicine away, or to resort to compulsion, and force down the unpalatable drug. Thus, instead of appealing to her own supreme authority, she is appealing to the reason of the child, and, under these circumstances, the child of course refuses to submit.
A mother, not long since, under similar circumstances, not being able to persuade her child to take the medicine, and not having sufficient resolution to compel it, threw the medicine away. When the physician next called, she was ashamed to acknowledge her lack of government, and therefore did not tell him that the medicine had not been given. The physician finding the child worse, left another prescription, supposing the previous one had been properly administered. But the child had no idea of being convinced of the propriety of taking the bitter dose, and the renewed efforts of the mother were unavailing. Again the fond and foolish—but cruel parent—threw the medicine away, and the fever was left to rage unchecked in its veins. Again the physician called, and was surprised to find the inefficacy of his prescriptions, and that the poor little sufferer was at the verge of death. The mother, when informed that her child must die, was in an agony, and confessed what she had done. But it was too late. The child died. And do you think that mother gazed upon its pale corpse with any common emotions of anguish? Do you think the idea never entered her mind that she was the destroyer of her child? Physicians will tell you that many children have been thus lost. Unaccustomed to obedience when well, they were still more averse to it when sick. The efforts which are made to induce a stubborn child to take medicine, often produce such an excitement as entirely to counteract the effect of the prescription; and thus is a mother often called to weep over the grave of her child, simply because she has not taught that child to obey.
It is certainly the duty of parents to convince their children of the reasonableness and propriety of their requirements. This should be done to instruct them, and to make them acquainted with moral obligation. But there should always be authority sufficient to enforce prompt obedience, whether the child can see the reason of the requirement or not. Indeed, it is impossible to govern a child by mere argument. Many cases must occur, in which it will be incapable of seeing the reasonableness of the command; and often its wishes will be so strongly opposed to duty, that all the efforts to convince will be in vain.
The first thing therefore to be aimed at, is to bring your child under total subjection. Teach him that he must obey you. Sometimes give him your reasons; again withhold them. But let him perfectly understand that he is to do as he is bid. Accustom him to immediate and cheerful acquiescence in your will. This is obedience. And this is absolutely essential to good family government. Without this, your family will present one continued scene of noise and confusion; the toil of rearing up your children will be almost intolerable, and, in all probability, your heart will be broken by their future licentiousness or ingratitude.
We come now to the inquiry, HOW is this habit of obedience to be established? This is not so difficult a matter as many imagine. It does not require profound learning, or a mysterious skill, which pertains but to the few. Where do you find the best regulated families? Are they in the houses of the rich? Do the children of our most eminent men furnish the best patterns for imitation? Obviously not. In some of the most humble dwellings we find the beautiful spectacle of an orderly and well regulated family. On the other hand, in the mansions of the wealthiest or most eminent men of our country, we may often find a family of rude girls and ungovernable boys—a picture of wild misrule. It is not greatness of talent, or profound learning, which is requisite to teach a child obedience. The principles by which we are to be guided are very simple and very plain.
Never give a command which you do not intend shall be obeyed!
There is no more effectual way of teaching a child disobedience, than by giving commands which you have no intention of enforcing. A child is thus habituated to disregard its mother; and in a short time the habit becomes so strong, and the child's contempt for the mother so confirmed, that entreaties and threats are alike unheeded.
"Mary, let that book alone," says a mother to her little
daughter, who is trying to pull the book from the table.
Mary stops for a moment, and then takes hold of the book again.
Pretty soon the mother looks up and sees that Mary is still playing with the book. "Did not you hear me tell you to let that book alone?" she exclaims—"Why don't you obey?"
Mary takes away her hand for a moment, but is soon again at her forbidden amusement. By and by, down comes the book upon the floor. Up jumps the mother, and hastily giving the child a passionate blow, exclaims, "There then, obey me next time." The child screams, and the mother picks up the book, saying, "I wonder why my children do not obey me better."
This is not a very interesting family scene, but every one of my readers will admit that it is not an uncommon one. And is it strange that a child, thus managed, should be disobedient? No! She is actually led on by her mother to insubordination—she is actually trained to pay no heed to her directions. Even the improper punishment which sometimes follows transgression, is not inflicted on account of her disobedience, but for the accidental consequences. In the case above described, had the book not fallen, the disobedience of the child would have passed unpunished. Let it be an immutable principle in family government, that your word is law!
I was once, when riding in the country, overtaken by a
rain shower, and compelled to seek shelter in a farm house. Half a dozen
rude and ungovernable boys were racing about the room, in such an uproar as
to prevent the possibility of conversation with the father, who was sitting
by the fire. As I, however, endeavored to make some remark, the father
shouted out, "Stop that noise, boys."
They paid no more heed to him than they did to the rain. Soon again, in an irritated voice, he exclaimed, "Boys, be still, or I will whip you; as sure as you are alive I will." But the boys, as though accustomed to such threats, screamed and quarreled without intermission.
At last the father said to me, "I believe I have got the worst boys in town; I never can make them mind me."
The fact was, these boys had the worst father in town! He was teaching them disobedience as directly and efficiently as he could. He was giving commands which he had no intention of enforcing—and they knew it! This, to be sure, is an extreme case. But just so far as any mother allows her authority to be disregarded, so far does she expose herself to the contempt of her children—and actually teaches them lessons of disobedience.
And is there any difficulty in enforcing obedience to any
definite command? Take the case of the child playing with the book. A mild
and judicious mother says distinctly and decidedly to her child, "My
daughter, you must not touch that book." The child hesitates for a moment,
but yielding to the strong temptation, is soon playing with the forbidden
book. The mother immediately rises, takes the child, and carries her into
her chamber. She sits down and says calmly, "Mary, I told you not to touch
the book, and you have disobeyed me. I am very sorry, for now I must punish
Mary begins to cry, and to promise not to do so again.
"But Mary," says the mother, "you have disobeyed me, and you must be punished."
Mary continues to cry, but the mother seriously and calmly punishes her. She inflicts real pain—pain that will be remembered.
She then says, "Mary, it makes mother very unhappy to have to punish you. She loves her little daughter, and wishes to have her a good girl."
She then perhaps leaves her to herself for a few minutes. A little solitude will deepen the impression made.
In five or ten minutes she returns, takes Mary in her lap, and says, "My dear, are you sorry that you disobeyed mother?"
Almost any child would say, "Yes!"
"Will you be careful and not disobey me again?"
"Well, Mary," says her mother, " I will forgive you, so far as I can; but God is displeased; you have disobeyed him as well as me. Do you wish me to ask God to forgive you?"
"Yes, mother," answers the child.
The mother then kneels with her daughter and offers a simple prayer for forgiveness, and the return of peace and happiness. She then leads her out, humbled and subdued. At night, just before she goes to sleep, she mildly and affectionately reminds her of her disobedience, and advises her to ask God's forgiveness again. Mary, in child-like simplicity, acknowledges to God what she has done, and asks him to forgive her, and take care of her, during the night.
When this child awakes in the morning, will not her young affections be more strongly fixed upon her mother, in consequence of the discipline of the preceding day? As she is playing about the room, will she be likely to forget the lesson she has been taught, and again reach out her hand to a forbidden object? Such an act of discipline tends to establish a general principle in the mind of the child, which will be of permanent operation, extending its influence to every command, and promoting the general authority of the mother and subjection of the child.
I know that some mothers say that they have not time to pay so much attention to their children. But the fact is, that not one-third of the time is required to take care of an orderly family, which is necessary to take care of a disorderly one. To be faithful in the government of your family, is the only way to save time. Can you afford to be distracted and harassed by continued disobedience? Can you spare the time to have your attention called away, every moment, from the business in which you are engaged, by the mischievousness of your willful children?
Look at the parent surrounded by a family of children who
are in the habit of doing as they please. She is very busy, I will suppose,
upon some article of dress, which it is important should be immediately
finished. Every moment she is compelled to raise her eyes from her work, to
see what the children are about. Samuel is climbing upon the table. Jane is
drawing out the andirons. John is galloping about the room upon the tongs.
The mother, almost deafened with noise, wonders what makes her children so
much more troublesome than other people's.
"Jane, let those andirons alone," she exclaims. Jane runs away for a moment, chases Charles around the room, and returns to her mischief.
"Charles, put up those tongs." Charles pays no heed to the direction.
The mother, soon seeing how he is ripping the carpet and bruising the furniture, gets up, gives Charles a shake, and places the tongs in their proper situation; but by the time she is fairly seated, and at her work again, Charles is astride the shovel, and traveling at the top of his speed.
I need not continue this picture. But every one knows that it is not exaggerated. Such scenes do often occur. Thousands of immortal spirits are trained up in this turbulence, and anarchy, and noise—for time and for eternity. Now this mother will tell you that she has not time to bring her children into subjection. Whereas, had she been faithful with each individual child, she would have saved herself an immense amount of time and toil.
We will suppose the case of another mother, who has the same work to perform. She has taught her children prompt and implicit obedience. She gives three of them perhaps some blocks, in one corner of the room, and tells them that they may play "build houses," but that they must not make much noise, and must not interrupt her, for she wishes to be busy. The other three she places in another corner of the room, with their slates, and tells them that they may play "make pictures." The children, accustomed to such orderly arrangements, employ themselves very quietly and happily for perhaps three quarters of an hour. The mother goes on uninterrupted in her work. Occasionally she raises her eyes and says an encouraging word to her children, now noticing the little architects in the corner, and now glancing her eye at the drawings upon the slates; thus showing the children that she sympathizes with them, and takes an interest in their enjoyments. The children are pleased and happy. The mother is undisturbed.
She does not let them continue their amusements till they
are weary of them. But after they have played perhaps three quarters of an
hour, she says, "Come, children, you have played long enough; you may take
up all your little blocks and put them away in the drawer."
"O, mother," says Maria, "do let me play a little while longer, for I have got my house almost done."
"Well, you may finish it," says the judiciously kind mother, "but tell me as soon as it is done."
In a few minutes Maria says, "There, mamma, see what a large house I have built!" The mother looks at it, and adds a pleasant word of encouragement, and then tells them to put all their blocks in the proper place. She tells the children with the slates to hang them up, and to put away their pencils; so that, the next day, when slates and blocks are wanted, no time may be lost in searching for them.
Now which mother has the most time? and which mother has the happiest time? And which mother will find the most comfort in the subsequent character and affection of her children?
Perhaps some one will say, this is a pleasing picture, but where are we to look for its reality? It is indeed to be regretted that such scenes are of so infrequent occurrence. But it is far from being true that they do not occur. There are many such families of happy parents and affectionate children. And these families are not confined to the wealthy and the learned. It requires not wealth, and it requires not extensive learning, to train up such a family. The principle of government is simple and plain. It is to begin with enforcing obedience to every command. It is to establish the principle that a mother's word is never to be disregarded. Every judicious parent will, indeed, try to gratify her children in their reasonable wishes. She will study to make them happy; but she will never allow them to gratify themselves in contradiction to her wishes.
To illustrate this, let us refer to the children playing with the blocks. The mother tells them to put up the blocks. Maria asks permission to play a few moments longer, till she can finish her house. The mother, desirous of making her children as happy as she can, grants this reasonable wish. Here is a judicious indulgence. But suppose again that the children had continued playing without regard to their mother's command. They intend perhaps to continue their amusement only till they complete the pile then in progress. Here is an act of direct disobedience. The children are consulting their own inclinations instead of the commands of their mother. A judicious parent will not allow such an act to pass unnoticed or unpunished. She may perhaps think, considering the circumstances of the case, that a serious reprimand is all that is required. But she will not fail to seize upon the occasion to instill into their minds a lesson of obedience.
Is it said that by noticing such little things a mother must be continually finding fault? But it is not a little thing for a child to disobey a mother's commands! This one act of disregarding authority prepares the way for another. It is the commencement of evil which must be resisted. The very first appearances of insubordination must be checked. There are doubtless cases of trifling faults occurring, which a wise parent will judge it expedient to overlook. Children will be thoughtless and inadvertent. They will occasionally err from strict propriety, without any real intention of doing wrong. Judgment is here requisite in deciding what things must be overlooked; but we may be assured, I think, that direct and open disobedience is not, in any case, to be classed among the number of trifling faults. The eating of an apple banished our first parents from paradise. The atrocity of the offence consisted in its disobedience of a divine command.
Now, every mother has power to obtain prompt obedience—if she commences with her children when they are young. They are then entirely in her hands. All their enjoyments are at her disposal.
God has thus given her all the power she needs to govern and guide them as she pleases. We have endeavored to show, by the preceding illustrations, that the fundamental principle of government is—when you do give a command, invariably enforce its obedience. And God has given every mother the power. He has placed in your hands a helpless babe, entirely dependent upon you; so that if it disobeys you, all you have to do is to cut off its sources of enjoyment, or inflict bodily pain, so steadily and so invariably that disobedience and suffering shall be indissolubly connected in the mind of the child. What more power can a parent ask for than God has already given? And if we fail to use this power for the purposes for which it was bestowed, the sin is ours, and upon us and upon our children must rest the consequences. The exercise of discipline must often be painful—but if you shrink from duty here, you expose yourself to all that sad train of woes which disobedient children leave behind them. If you cannot summon sufficient resolution to deprive of enjoyment, and inflict pain when it is necessary, then you must feel that a broken heart and an old age of sorrow will not be unmerited. And when you look upon your dissolute sons and ungrateful daughters, you must remember that the time was when you might have checked their evil propensities.
If you love 'momentary ease' better than your children's welfare and your own permanent happiness, you cannot murmur at the lot you have freely chosen. And when you meet your children at the bar of God, and they point to you and say, "It was through your neglect of duty that we are banished from heaven—and consigned to endless woe!" you must feel what no tongue can tell. Ah! it is dreadful for a mother to trifle with duty. Eternal destinies are committed to your trust. The influence you are now exerting will go on, unchecked by the grave or the judgment, and will extend onward through those ages to which there is no end!
Upon the subject of obedience there are a few other suggestions of importance to be made.
1. First then, there is a very great diversity in the natural dispositions of children. Some are very tender in their feelings, and easily governed by affection. Others are naturally independent and self-willed. Sometimes a child gets its passions excited and its will determined, and it cannot be subdued but by a very great effort. Almost every faithful mother is acquainted with such contests, and she knows that they often form a crisis in the character of the child. If the child then obtains the victory, it is almost impossible for the mother afterward to regain her authority. The child feels that he is the victor, and his mother the vanquished; and it is with very great difficulty that he will be compelled to renounce his independence.
If, on the other hand, the mother conquers, and the child is subdued, he feels that the question is settled, and he has but little disposition to resume hostilities with one who has proved herself superior. I have known many such contests, severe and protracted, which were exceedingly painful to a parent's feelings. But, when once entered upon, they must be continued till the child is subdued. It is not safe, on any account, for the parent to give up and retire vanquished.
The following instance of such a contest occurred a few
years since. A gentleman, sitting by his fireside one evening, with his
family around him, took the spelling-book and called upon one of his little
sons to come and read. John was about four years old. He knew all the
letters of the alphabet perfectly, but happened at that moment to be in
rather a sullen mood, and was not at all disposed to gratify his father.
Very reluctantly he came as he was bid, but when his father pointed to the
first letter of the alphabet, and said, "What letter is that, John?" he
could get no answer. John looked upon the book, sulky and silent.
"My son," said the father, in a serious and decided tone. "What letter is that?"
John refused to answer. The contest was now fairly commenced. John was willful, and determined that he would not read. His father knew that it would be ruinous to his son to allow him to conquer. He felt that he must, at all hazards, subdue him. He took him into another room, and punished him. He then returned, and again showed John the letter. But John still refused to name it. The father again retired with his son, and punished him more severely. But it was unavailing; the stubborn child still refused to name the letter. Again the father inflicted punishment as severely as he dared to do it, and still the child, with his whole frame in agitation, refused to yield. The father was suffering from the most intense concern. He regretted exceedingly that he had been drawn into the contest. He had already punished his child with a severity which he feared to exceed. And yet the willful sufferer stood before him, sobbing and trembling, but apparently as unyielding as a rock.
I have often heard that parent mention the acuteness of
his feelings at that moment. His heart was bleeding at the pain which he had
been compelled to inflict upon his son. He knew that the question was now to
be settled—who should be master! And after his son had withstood so
long and so much, he greatly feared the result. The mother sat by,
suffering, of course, most acutely, but perfectly satisfied that it was
their duty to subdue the child, and that in such a trying hour a mother's
feelings must not interfere. With a heavy heart the father again took the
hand of his son to lead him out of the room for farther punishment. But, to
his inconceivable joy, the child shrunk from enduring any more suffering,
and cried, "Father, I'll say the letter." The father, with feelings not
easily conceived, took the book and pointed to the letter.
"A," said John, distinctly and fully.
"And what is that?" said the father, pointing to the next letter.
"B," said John.
"And what is that?"
"C," he continued.
"And what is that?" pointing again to the first letter.
"A," said the now humbled child.
"Now carry the book to your mother, and tell her what the letter is."
"What letter is that, my son?" said the mother.
"A," said John. He was evidently perfectly subdued. The rest of the children were sitting by, and they saw the contest, and they saw where was the victory. And John learnt a lesson which he never forgot—that his father had an arm too strong for him. He learned never again to wage such an unequal warfare. He learnt that it was the safest and happiest course for him to obey!
But perhaps some one says it was cruel to punish the child so severely. Cruel! It was mercy and love. It would indeed have been cruel had the father, in that hour, been unfaithful, and shrunk from his painful duty. The passions he was then, with so much self-sacrifice, striving to subdue, if left unchecked, would, in all probability, have been a curse to their possessor, and have made him a curse to his friends. It is by no means improbable that upon the decisions of that hour depended the character and happiness of that child for life—and even for eternity. It is far from improbable that, had he then conquered, all future efforts to subdue him would have been in vain, and that he would have broken away from all restraint, and have been miserable in life, and lost in death! Cruelty! May the Lord preserve children from the indulgence of those who so regard such self-denying kindness.
It is always best, if possible, to avoid such collisions. Many children are taught implicit obedience, without ever entering into such a contest with their parents. And it is certainly preferable to govern a child by the mild procedure of ordinary discipline, rather than enter into such a formidable conflict, where great severity is often required. Wisdom, therefore, teaches us to guard against giving a child an opportunity of summoning all its energies to disobey. They are peculiar occasions, and peculiar moods of mind, which generally elicit this strength of rebellious feeling. A little foresight will often enable us, without surrender of authority, to calm the rising feeling, instead of exciting it to its utmost strength. We may sometimes, by judicious management, check the rebellion in its first appearance—before it has gained sufficient strength to call all our power into exercise to put it down!
As an illustration, let us suppose that James and Mary are playing together in the evening, and James gets vexed and strikes his sister. He has done this without any provocation, and ought to be punished, and to ask his sister's forgiveness. But the mother has perceived that, during the whole day, James has manifested a very unpleasant disposition. He has been irritable and unyielding. She sees that now he is excited and angry. Every parent knows that such variations of feeling are not uncommon. One day a child is pleasant and affectionate; the next, every thing seems to go wrong; little things vex, and the whole disposition seems to be soured. The mother perceives that her son is in this frame of mind. He has done wrong, and ought to ask his sister's forgiveness. But she knows that, in this excited and unamiable frame of mind, he will be strongly tempted to resist her authority. Unreasonably vexed as he is, it would be one of the hardest acts of submission for him to ask the forgiveness of his sister. If the mother tells him to do so, the temptation to refuse is so strong, that, in all probability, he will decline obeying. She must then punish him. And here comes the contest, which must be continued, if it is commenced, till the child submits. Now, how is this contest to be avoided? By overlooking the fault? Most certainly not. The mother rises, takes James by the hand, and says, "My son, you have been doing very wrong; you are behaving badly, and must not stay with us any longer; I will carry you to bed." She accordingly leads him away to his chamber.
Just before leaving him for the night, she tells him in a kind but sorrowful tone, how much she is displeased, and how much God must be displeased with his conduct. As usual, she hears him say his prayers, or kneels by the bedside, and prays that God will forgive him. She then leaves him to his own reflections and to sleep.
He is thus punished for his fault. And as he lies in his bed, and hears his brothers and sisters happy downstairs, he feels how much wiser and better it is to be a good boy. In the morning he awakes. Night has given repose to his excited feelings. He thinks how unhappy his yesterday's misconduct made him, and resolves to be more upon his guard for the future. All his rebellious feelings are quelled by the soothing influence of sleep. His passions are not aroused. The mother can now operate upon his mind without any fear of having a contest with a determined and stubborn will.
When the children come down in the morning, she calls James and Mary before her. Taking the hand of each, she mildly says, "My son, you made us all unhappy last night by striking your little sister; I hope you are sorry for what you did." "Yes, mother, I am," says James; being led easily now to the feelings of penitence and submission, to which, during the moments of irritation and excitement, he could not, at least without great difficulty, have been driven. Thus, by judicious management, the desired object is attained, and perfectly attained, while the contest is avoided. The fault is not overlooked, and James is humbled.
But had the mother, regardless of the child's peculiar state of feeling, commanded him immediately to ask forgiveness of his sister, it would, in all probability, have led to a scene actually painful to both mother and son. And the final effect of the discipline would, perhaps, have been less beneficial upon the mind of the child. But cases will sometimes occur when it is not possible thus to avoid the strife. When such an emergency rises, it is the duty of the parent boldly and resolutely to meet it. If, from false feeling, you then shrink, you are disloyal to the sacred trust which God has committed to your care. Is it kindness for a mother to let her child die, rather than compel it to take the bitter prescription which is to restore it to health and strength? And is it kindness to let those passions conquer, which, unsubdued, will be, for time and eternity, a scourge to their possessor? If there is any cruelty in the world which is truly horrendous—it is the cruelty of a falsely indulgent and unfaithful parent!
Let it be particularly understood, however, that all we here inculcate is firmness in the discharge of parental duty, in those cases where such collisions between parents and children are unavoidable. They can, however, in most cases, be avoided. If, for instance, a child disobeys you, you can simply punish it for the act of disobedience, and there let the difficulty end. It is not necessary that you should always require that the thing at first commanded should be done. You direct a little girl to give a book to her sister. She refuses; and you may take two distinct courses to maintain your violated authority. You may go and take the book yourself and give it to the sister, and then inflict such a punishment upon the disobedient one as the offence deserves. Or, you may insist upon obedience; and to enforce it, enter upon a contest which may be long and painful. Now, whichever of these plans you adopt, be firm and decided in the execution of it. The former is, however, in almost all cases, the wisest and best.
In the above remarks allusion has been made to the variations of feeling to which children are subject. No one, who has had any thing to do with education, can have failed to observe this. Almost every individual is conscious of seasons when he seems to be afflicted with a kind of morbid sensitiveness. Our spirits often rise and fall with bodily health; and he has gained a great victory over his body, and a great triumph of mind, who can invariably preserve the same calm and cheerful spirit, undisturbed by harassing cares, or the irritations of a diseased frame. The nervous system of some individuals is so delicately constructed, that an east wind, or a damp day, will completely unhinge the mind. When we see some of the wisest and best of men oppressed with these infirmities, we must learn forbearance and sympathy with children. At such times, a judicious mother, knowing that the irritability is as much a bodily as a mental infirmity, will do all in her power to calm and soothe. She will avoid every thing calculated to jar the feelings, and will endeavor, by mild amusements or repose, to lull these feelings asleep. By this method she will save the child much unhappiness, and will promote an amiable and sweet disposition. Probably many children have had their feelings permanently soured by utter disregard of these variations of mind. The disposition of a child is of too delicate a texture to be handled with a rough and careless grasp. Its affectionate and gentle feelings should be elicited by maternal sympathy and love. And we should endeavor to assuage its occasional irritability, by calling away the mind from objects of unpleasant excitement, and alluring it to cheering contemplations.
It is clear that there is a striking difference in the natural dispositions of children; but nothing can be more evident than that a good disposition may be soured by mismanagement—and that a child of naturally unamiable feelings may, by judicious culture, become mild and lovely. The cultivation of the disposition is an important part of education. Hence the necessity of studying the moods and the feelings of the child, and of varying the discipline to meet these changes. Cases will undoubtedly arise, when the parent will find it difficult to judge what is duty. Such cases will, however, be infrequent. The obvious general policy is, when a child is in this excited state, to remove him as much as possible from the power of temptation. And if he commits a fault which it is necessary to notice, let the punishment be of such a kind as is calculated to soothe him. For instance, give him a comfortable seat by the fire, and tell him that he must not leave the chair for half an hour. Place in his hand some pleasing book, or some plaything which will amuse him. In this way let the punishment be adapted to the peculiarity of the moral disorder.
This is not the mockery of punishment which it may seem. The child feels it to be real, and it is of a nature to operate beneficially. Some faults, however, he may commit, which, under the circumstances of the case, it may be inexpedient to notice. He may speak peevishly to his sister. The mother does not appear to notice it; she, however, sees the importance of immediately allaying this peevish spirit, and she endeavors to plan some amusement which will promote good humor. Perhaps she lays down her work and joins the children in their amusements, till, through her happy influence, cheerfulness and good humor are restored.
"Here, my son," perhaps she says, "I would like to have you take your slate, and sit down in your chair, and see if you can draw some animal so correctly that I can tell what it is. And Maria, you may take your slate and chair, and sit by his side, and do the same."
The children are quite animated with their new play. They are soon busily at work, and whispering together, that their mother may not hear what animals they are drawing. By this simple artifice, the little cloud of irritated feeling which was rising, is entirely dispelled. Had the mother, on the other hand, punished the child for the incidental peevishness of remark, the mind would not have been so speedily or so pleasantly brought into its desired state. Or, had the mother taken no notice of the occurrence, the disposition of the child would have been injured by the allowed increase of the ill-humor, and, in all probability, a quarrel might soon have ensued. Constant watchfulness, on the part of the mother, will soon enable her to foresee many dangers, and prevent many difficulties.
2. Never punish when the child has not intentionally done wrong. Children are often very unjustly punished. Things which are really wrong are overlooked, and again, punishment is inflicted on account of some accident, when the child is entirely innocent. Such a course of procedure not only destroys, in the mind of the child, the distinction between accident and crime, but is in itself absolutely wrong. The parent has all the power, and she may be the most relentless tyrant, and the child can have no redress. There is no oppression more cruel than that often thus exercised by passionate parents over their children. It is frequently the case that a mother, who does not intend to be guilty of injustice, neglects to make a proper distinction between faults and accidents. A child is playing about the room, and accidentally tears its clothes, or breaks a window with the ball which it is allowed to bounce upon the floor. The mother, vexed with the trouble it will cause her, hastily punishes the poor child. A child may be careless, and so criminally careless as to deserve punishment. In that case, it ought not to be punished for the accident, but for the carelessness, which is a fault.
This injustice is far more extensively practiced than is generally imagined. The most common cause of unjust punishment, is confounding the accidental consequences of an act—with the real guilt which a child incurred while performing that act. We are all too much inclined to estimate guilt by consequences. A child who has been permitted to climb upon the chairs, and take things from the table, accidentally pushes off some valuable article. The mother severely punishes the child. Now, where did this child do wrong? You never taught him that he must not climb upon the table. Of course, in that there was no disobedience, and he was not conscious of doing anything improper. If merely a book had fallen, probably no notice would have been taken of it. But the simple fact, that one thing fell instead of another, cannot alter the nature of the offence. If it had been the most valuable watch which had fallen, and thus had been entirely ruined—if it had occurred purely through accident, the child deserves no punishment. Perhaps someone says, there is no need of arguing a point which is so clear. But is it not clear that such acts of injustice are very frequent? And is not almost every mother conscious that she is not sufficiently guarded upon this point? A mother must have great control over her own feelings—a calmness and composure of spirit which is not easily disturbed—or she will be occasionally provoked to acts of injustice by the misfortunes of which her children are the innocent cause.
Does any one ask what should be done in such cases as the
one referred to? The answer is plain. Children ought to be taught not to do
what will expose property to damage; and then, if they do what is thus
prohibited, consider them guilty—whether damage results or not. If the
child, in the above-named case, had been so taught, this would have been an
act of direct disobedience. And a faithful mother would probably pursue some
such course as this. Without any manifestation of anger, she would calmly
and seriously say to her son, "My son, I have often told you that you must
not climb upon the table. You have disobeyed me."
"But, mother," says the son, "I did not mean to do any harm."
"I presume you did not, my son; I do not accuse you of doing harm, but of having disobeyed me. The damage was accidental, and you are not accountable for it; but the disobedience was deliberate, and very wrong."
"I am very sorry to punish you, but I must do it. It is my duty."
She would then punish him, either by the infliction of pain, or by depriving him, for a time, of some of his usual privileges or enjoyments. The punishment, however, would be inflicted for the disobedience—and not for the accident which attended the disobedience. The child could not but feel that he was justly condemned.
But the question still remains, what is to be done, upon the original supposition that the child had never been taught that it was wrong to climb upon the table, or to throw his ball about the room? In that case the mother has, manifestly, no right to blame the child. The fault is hers—in not having previously taught him the impropriety of such conduct. All she can now do, is to improve the occasion, to show him the danger of such amusements, and forbid them in future.
If the child be very young, the mother will find it necessary occasionally to allude to the accident, that the lesson may be impressed upon the mind. If she did not do this, the occurrence might soon pass from his memory, and in a few days he might again, through entire forgetfulness, be engaged in his forbidden sports.
Allowance must also be made for the ignorance of a child. You have, perhaps, a little daughter, eighteen months old, who often amuses herself in tearing to pieces some old newspaper which you give her. It is, to her, quite an interesting experiment. Some day you happen to have your attention particularly occupied for a length of time, and at last raise your eyes, to see what keeps her so quiet upon the floor. Behold, she has a very valuable book in her hand, which she has almost entirely ruined; and your first impulse is to punish her, or, at least, severely to reprove her for the injury. But has she really been doing any thing deserving of punishment or censure? Certainly not. How can she know that it is proper for her to tear one piece of paper, but wrong for her to tear another? She has been as innocently employed as she ever was in her life. The only proper thing to be done, in such a case, is to endeavor to teach the child that a book must be handled with care, and must not be torn. But how can she be taught this without punishing her? She may be taught by the serious tone of your voice, and the sad expression of your countenance, that she has been doing something which you regret. In this way she may be easily taught the difference between a book and a newspaper.
A little boy, about two years old, was in the habit of
amusing himself by scribbling upon paper with a pencil. The father came into
the room one day, and found that the little fellow had exceedingly defaced a
new book. The marks of his pencil were all over it. Perfectly unconscious of
the mischief he was doing, the child continued his employment as the father
entered. In many cases, the parent, in irritation, would have roughly taken
the book away, and inflicted a severe blow upon the cheek of the child. I
thought I perceived that this was the first emotion in the mind of this
parent, though he was of an unusually calm and collected spirit. If it was,
however, he immediately saw its impropriety; for, approaching his child, he
said, in a perfectly mild and pleasant tone, "O! my son, my son, you are
spoiling the book."
The child looked up in amazement.
"That is a book, my son; you must not scribble upon that. See here," turning over the leaves, "you will spoil father's book. Here is some paper for you. You may write upon this, but you never must write in the book."
The father then took the book, injured as it was, and laid it aside, without any exhibition of excited feeling. Now, how manifestly is this the proper course to pursue, in such a case; and yet how few children are there who, in such circumstances, would have escaped undeserved punishment.
These illustrations are sufficient to show the importance of making allowance for ignorance, and for accidents. And they also show how frequently children suffer, when they are not to blame. If a child is punished when innocent, as well as when guilty, the distinction between right and wrong is obliterated from his mind. Hence it becomes an important rule in family government—never to punish when the child has not intentionally done wrong.
3. Never think that your child is too young to obey. We are ingenious in framing excuses for neglecting our duty with our children. At one time they are too young—at another time they are too sick. Some parents always find an excuse, of one kind or another, for letting their children have their own way. A child may, at a very early age, be taught obedience. We can easily teach a kitten, or a little dog, that it must not touch the meat which is placed before the fire, that it must leave the room when bidden, and a thousand other acts of ready obedience.
A Frenchman has recently collected a large number of canary birds for a show. He has taught them such implicit obedience to his voice, as to march them in platoons across the room, and directs them to the ready performance of many simple maneuvers.
Now, can it be admitted that a child, fifteen months or two years of age, is inferior in understanding to a canary bird? And must the excuse be made for such a child, that he does not know enough to be taught obedience? A very judicious mother, who has brought up a large family of children, all of whom are now in situations of respectability and usefulness, remarked that it was her practice to obey her children for the first year of their life—but ever after she expected them to obey her. She, of course, did not mean by this remark, that the moment the child was one year of age, a sudden and total change took place in her management. During the early months of its infancy she considered it to be her duty to do every thing in her power to make the child comfortable and happy. She would endeavor to anticipate all its needs. She would be obedient to the wishes of the child. But, by the time the child was one year of age, she considered it old enough to be brought under the salutary regulations of a well disciplined family.
I am aware that many parents will say that this is altogether too early a period to commence the government of a child, and others equally numerous, perhaps, will say that it is too late; that a beginning should be made at a much earlier period. In fact, the principle which really ought to guide in such a case, is this—that the authority of the mother ought to be established over the child as soon as it is able to understand a command or prohibition expressed by looks and gestures. This is at a much earlier period than most parents imagine. Let the mother who doubts it try the experiment, and see how easily she can teach her child that he must not touch the tongs or andirons; or that, when sitting in her lap at table, he must not touch the cups and saucers. A child may be taught obedience in such things then, as well as at any period of its life. And how much trouble does a mother save herself, by having her child thus early taught to obey! How much pain and sorrow does she save her child by accustoming it, in its most tender years, to habits of prompt obedience.
4. Guard against too much severity. By pursuing a steady course of efficient government, severity will very seldom be found necessary. If, when punishment is inflicted, it is done with composure and with solemnity, occasions for punishment will be very infrequent. Let a mother ever be affectionate and mild with her children. Let her sympathize with them in their little sports. Let her gain their confidence by her assiduous efforts to make them happy. And let her feel, when they have done wrong, not irritated, but sad; and punish them in sorrow, but not in anger. Fear is a useful and a necessary principle in family government. God makes use of it in governing his creatures. But it is ruinous to the disposition of a child, exclusively to control him by this motive. How unhappy must be that family where the parent always sits with a face deformed with scowls, and where the voice is always uttered in tones of severity and command! Such parents we do see. Their children fear them. They are always under restraint in their presence; and home becomes to them an irksome prison, instead of the happy retreat of peace and joy.
But where the mother greets her children with smiles; and rewards their efforts to please her, with caresses; and addresses them in tones of mildness and affection, she is touching those chords in the human heart which vibrate in sweet harmony; she is calling into action the noblest and the loveliest principles of our nature. And thus does she prepare the way for every painful act of discipline to come with effectual power upon the heart. The children know that she does not love to punish. In all cases in which it can be done, children should thus be governed by kindness. But when kindness fails, and disobedience ensues, let not the mother hesitate for a moment to fall back upon her last resort, and punish as severely as is necessary. A few such cases will teach almost any child how much better it is to be obedient—than disobedient.
By being thus consistent and decided in government, and commencing with the infancy of each child, in all ordinary cases great severity may be avoided. And it is never proper for a parent to be harsh, and unfeeling, and forbidding, in her dealings with her children. The most efficient family government may be almost entirely administered by affection, if it be distinctly understood that disobedience cannot pass unpunished. I cannot but pity those unhappy children who dare not come to their parents in confidence and love; who are continually fearing stern looks and harsh words; and who are consequently ever desirous to get away from home, that they may enjoy themselves. Every effort should be made to make home the most desirable place; to gather around it associations of delight; and thus to form in the mind of your child an attachment for peaceful and purifying enjoyments. This will most strongly fortify his mind against vice. And when he leaves the paternal roof, he will ever look back with fond recollections to its joys, and with gratitude to those who made it the abode of so much happiness. In future years, too, when your children become the heads of families, they will transmit to their children the principles which you have implanted. Thus may the influence of your instructions extend to thousands yet unborn.
How little do we think of the tremendous responsibilities which are resting upon us; and of the wide influence, either for good or for evil, which we are exerting! We are setting in operation a train of causes which will trickle down through all coming time.
Long after we have gone to our eternal home, our words and our actions will be aiding in the formation of character. We cannot then stop the causes which our lives have set in progress, and they will go on elevating immortals to virtue and to heaven—or urging them onward in passion, and sin, and woe!
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