The child comes to the table. He looks a little weary, knowing the task before him.
"Now what will you have?" asks his fond mamma. "What would you like, dear?"
The child gazes at the dishes there present, and is somewhat attracted toward one or more of them; but his brain thrusts upon him images of other viands, and memories of triumph in securing some vaguely remembered delicacy. He wavers in his mind, and wiggles his knife uncertainly. "I guess—I'll have"—Mamma is all attention. "Have some of this nice potato!" she urges. He had inclined toward the potato previously, but rebels at its being urged upon him. Also the cooing adjective affronts him. He has heard things called nice before, usually when he did not want them.
"No, I don't want any potato," he says. "I want—I'll have some sweet potato!"
Unhappily there is no sweet potato, and the good mamma smilingly excuses the lack. "We will have some to-morrow," she promises; and, to distract him from thought of the impossible, "Won't you have a chop?"
"No—yes—I'll have one chop. On this plate, not on that plate. I won't have it on that plate!"
"But this plate is warm, dear."
"I want it on my own plate!"
"Very well. Will you have some gravy?"
"Yes, I guess so. Not on the potato! Don't put it on the potato! I won't eat it if you put it on the potato!"
In time he eats, though not with eagerness. In his young mind is a vague sense of annoyance and discomfort, as if he were in some way defrauded of his dinner. The present dinner, rather gloomily going down, is contrasted with other possible dinners, not now to be attained. What he has suffers by comparison with all the things he has not, and a dim memory of previous disappointments oppresses him.
"He never did eat well," says his mother. "We have hard work to find what he will eat." There may be some digestive disturbance, but there is a quite needless psychological disturbance added. Choice is a wearing thing, even to the trained scanner of menus.
To select a meal exactly to one's taste, and not be haunted by the unchosen dishes, means the prompt and skilful exercise of a widely cultivated taste. Most of us gladly prefer to have some experienced cook and caterer set a good meal before us. A pleased anticipation at a well-known dinner table is a more agreeable frame of mind than that of one who must needs select, spurred by a tall darkey with a pencil.
A child has not a cultivated taste nor the calmness of experience. A choice, even from objects before him, is uncertain enough. He is apt to speedily regret and wish to change. To be called upon to order a meal is a real tax upon him. While he exerts himself in this direction, any proposition is likely to be resented; and, to one who is on tiptoe in effort to decide, an insinuating suggestion from without is extremely irritating.
This method of consulting a child's preferences before he has them, introducing alternatives not present and then harassing the wavering young mind with persuasive propositions, rapidly developes a halting, fretful, back-stitch sort of temper, always wishing it had done the other thing.
The old-fashioned method was to compel a child to eat "what was set before him," all of it, quite regardless of his personal taste or constitutional limitations. Nothing but palpable nausea convinced these obdurate parents of earlier generations that there were some things the little victim could not eat. This was a foolish and cruel method. Children differ widely in digestive power and preference, and their tastes are marked and sensitive. Eating what he does not like is far more painful to a child than to an adult. But his tastes and limitations can be discovered without concentrating his own attention on them. It is bad to treat a child's tastes with less consideration than those of older human beings; but there is no reason why they should be treated with more. The simple lesson can be taught of eating what he likes and leaving what he dislikes without vociferous proclamation of these preferences; and, if he really thinks of something else he would like to have for dinner, teach him to ask for it for another time. He can readily understand that cooking takes time, and extra dishes cannot be served at a moment's notice.
A family is usually composed of several persons, all of whom should be treated with justice. If it is reduced to two only,—if there is only mother and child to decide between,—the decision should be fairly balanced. The practical issues of daily life are almost always open to a child's understanding.
Mamma, we will say, is reading. Mabel is busy with doll's dressmaking.
"O mamma! will you please get me the scissors?"
"Can you not get them as easily, dear?"
"I don't know just where they are, and I've been fussing ever so long with this yoke; and now I've got it just right, and I'm afraid, if I put it down, I'll forget again!"
Mamma looks at the flushed, earnest little face, lays her book down, and gets the scissors.
Again. Mamma is stuffing the turkey. "Mabel, will you please bring me down the largest needle on my cushion?"
"Oh, but, mamma, I'm so busy with my paints!"
"Yes; but you are upstairs already, and my hands are in the stuffing. Please hurry, dear."
Mabel brings the needle promptly. She knows that mamma is considerate of her, and she is considerate of mamma.
It is by no means necessary to argue over every little service, but a few test cases keep in mind the idea of justice. If what a child wants will give more pleasure to the child than trouble to the adult, do it. If it is more trouble to the adult than pleasure to the child, do not do it; and let the child understand, first, last, and always, the balance of human rights.
I knew a girl of thirteen who had not yet learned to keep herself covered at night. She slept with her mother; and, if she wakened chilly, she would murmur, without opening her eyes, "Mother, cover me up!" And her mother would do it. This was unfair to the child. It allowed her to commit a gross injustice; and her mother was "compounding a felony," as it were, in indulging her. The child was already awake, and quite capable of pulling up the blankets. There was no reason why her tired mother should lose sleep for the purpose. The practical way to exhibit this would be for the mother to waken the child with the same demand. A few applications would be sufficient. If verbal remonstrance was preferred (usually an inferior method), the mother might quietly reply: "By no means. You are perfectly able to do it. It is not fair to waken me for that. I do not get to sleep again as quickly as you do, and am tired next day." A child already reasonably trained would easily see the force of that argument.
A big boy is persistently late to breakfast. This annoys his mother at the time, and delays her work afterward. She saves and keeps hot various viands for him, taking many extra steps; and her day's work is rendered a little more difficult. If the breakfast hour is that most convenient to the family needs, simply explain to the boy that breakfast is at such a time only; that he will be called in due season; and that, if he is not down within the given time, he will find no breakfast whatsoever. This course, firmly followed, works like a charm. Most people dislike going without breakfast. A child should have sufficient sleep, of course; but, if his hours are reasonable, there is no justice in incommoding the working mother for the sake of a little natural laziness. With very little children we ingeniously manage to ignore some of their really important questions and actions, and at the same time to let them trample on our ears and brains with senseless iteration of unnecessary words.
A small boy is eating his supper, while his mother puts little sister to bed.
"Mother!" he bawls. "Mother! Mo-o-ther!"
At last she leaves her task to come to him, he still shouting; and this is his communication: "Mother! This is baker's bread!"
"Yes, dear," says the too tender mamma, and goes back again.
That child should have been met, not with anger or punishment, but with very simple sarcasm and protest.
"Yes, that is baker's bread,—and that is a plate,—and that is a spoon. I knew all these things when I arranged your supper. Do you think it is fair to call me downstairs just to say that?"
The bubbling fluency of a child's mind, the tendency to repetition and sometimes foolishness, is natural enough, and not to be blamed; but we should help the child to outgrow it instead of submitting to his wearisome reiterance.
"But, my dear, you said that before. I understand. Now do not say it again."
To say, "Yes, dear," a dozen times to the same question or statement is not strengthening to the child's mental habits. Similarly, when a child asks palpably foolish questions,—foolish by his own standard,—he needs not consideration, but mild ridicule. And, if he can answer his own question, let him: it is no kindness to do all his work. Children are not benefited by a too soft and yielding environment, nor do they always love best those who treat them with too much consideration. Fairness, not severity nor constant concession, is what a child appreciates. If we behave fairly to the child (as we would to a grown person), giving to him the healthy reaction of common justice, we help him to live easily and rightly in the world before him.
Even love is open to measurement by results. The love we have for our children is not developed in us as a pleasurable exercise, but is distinctly for the child's benefit. "The maternal sacrifice" is what our scientific friends call it. In studying early forms of life, we find the mother sacrificing everything for the good of the young, from which we draw the general inference that it is for the good of the young to have the mother sacrifice everything. More discriminating study will show us a great difference in maternal methods. Where the mother's loss is the gain of the young, she cheerfully submits to it; but, where the young is not benefited by her loss, we do not find it.
The eggs of the hen are carefully brooded by the mother; the eggs of the frog are left floating on the water in suitable places. There is no special virtue in the hen's brooding or vice in the frog's neglect; the mother does what is necessary for the young. The mother-cat licks her little ones elaborately, and teaches them to make their toilettes similarly. The cow licks the calf for a while, but gives it no instructions in washing its ears with its paws.
The mother-love is essential to the best care of the young, and therefore it is given us. It is the main current of race preservation, and the basis of all other love-development on the higher grades. But it is not, therefore, an object of superstitious veneration, and in itself invariably right. The surrender of the mother to the child is often flatly injurious, if carried to excess. To put it in the last extreme, suppose the mother so utterly sacrifices herself to the child as to break down and die. She then robs the child of its mother, which is an injury. Suppose she so sacrifices herself to the child as to cut off her own proper rest, recreation, and development. She thus gives the child an exhausted and inferior mother, which is an injury to him. There are cases, perhaps, where it might be a mother's duty to die for her child; but, in general, it is more advantageous to live for him. The "unselfish devotion" of the mother we laud to the skies, without stopping to consider its effect on the child. This error is connected with our primitive religious belief in the doctrine of sacrifice,—one of those early misconceptions of a great truth.
It is necessary for the good of humanity that the interests of the one be subordinate to the interests of the many, but it does not follow that an indiscriminate surrender of one's own interests always benefits society. On the contrary, a steady insistence on the rights of the individual is essential to the integrity of the social structure and its right workings. So it is necessary for the good of the child that the interests of the mother be subordinated to his interests, but it does not follow that her indiscriminate surrender of personal interests always benefits him. On the contrary, a too self-sacrificing mother tends to develope a selfish, short-sighted, low-grade personality in the growing life she seeks to benefit, where her honest maintenance of her own individual rights would have had a very healthy effect. Not what the child wishes, nor what the mother wishes, is the standard of measurement, but what is really beneficial to the child. If the mother is frankly and clearly unselfish in their daily intercourse, and then as frankly and clearly demands her own share of freedom and consideration, the child gets a fairer view of human rights than if he simply absorbs his mother as a natural victim.
Little Mary has a visitor. Her mother is most polite and entertaining, is with them when they desire it, and lets them alone when they prefer. Then her mother has a visitor. "Mary," she says, "I am to have company this week. I shall of course have to give a good deal of time and attention to my friend, as you did to Hattie when she was here. So you must not feel badly if you do not see as much of mamma as usual."
There must be the previous polite conduct of mamma to point to. The childish mind needs frequent and conspicuous proof that mamma is forgetting herself for his pleasure; and then he should be rationally called upon to forget himself for her pleasure, when it is plainly fair and necessary.
The beautiful principles of kindergarten teaching are frequently misapplied in the too conciliatory and self-denying methods of the well-meaning mamma. Kindness, politeness, constant love, and all due consideration the child should have; but justice is as important to him as affection. It must always be remembered that the mother's love is not an end in itself, nor the expression of it a virtue in itself. It is to be measured, like every other natural function, by its use.
When a child is reared in an atmosphere of unreasoning devotion and constant surrender, he grows up to expect it, and to carry a sense of grievance if he does not get it. The natural tendency of the mother to love her own young is strong in us,—the maternal passion; but, like all passions, it needs conscientious and rational restraint. The human soul has grown to such a stage of development that we are capable of loving and serving great numbers of people. The woman, who is still confined to the same range of interests which occupied her in the earliest grades of human life, inherits her share of this socially developed power of loving, and concentrates it all upon her own immediate family.
Like an ever-enlarging burning glass, still focussed upon one spot, the healthy, natural affection of the animal mother for its young has grown to what is really an immense social affection, too large for one family to profitably sustain. The child will get a far more just and healthful idea of human relation when he finds himself lifted and led on by a mother whose life has a purpose of its own, than when he finds himself encompassed and overwhelmed by a mother who has no other object or interest than himself.
The whole question has to be constantly measured by comparing it with the rest of life. Are our methods with children those which best fit men and women for doing their share to maintain and develope human life? Does not the most casual survey of life to-day show people practising much amiability and devotion at home, strenuously loving their own immediate families and friends, and most markedly deficient in that general love for one another which is not only the main commandment of our religion, but the plainest necessity for social progress? And is not this deficiency to be accounted for, not by any inability on our part for social devotion,—for every day's list of accidents shows the common fund of heroism and self-sacrifice to be large,—but by the training which makes it the habit of our lives to love and serve only those nearest to us?
The mother is the strongest formative influence in the child's life. If he sees that she thinks only of him, lives only for him, what is he to learn by it? To think only of himself? Or only of her? Or only of his children? Does the best care of a child require the concentrated and unremittent devotion of an entire mother?
A larger intelligence applied to the subject may show us that there are better ways of serving our children than those we now follow. The woman who grows up in the practice of considering the needs of people in general, and of so ordering her life as to benefit them, will find a new power and quality in her love for her own dear ones. With that widening of the soul-range of the mother will come a capacity to judge the child as one of the people of the world, besides being her own especially beloved. A study of what all children need will help her to understand what her own child needs far more accurately than when she thinks of him as the only one. The continuous application of the mother to the child is not so advantageous as the quality of her companionship and influence, and her sacrificial devotion too often weakens his sense of justice and makes him selfish.
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