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Ch. 2: The Effect of Minding the Mind

Obedience, we are told, is a virtue. This seems simple and conclusive, but on examination further questions rise.

What is "a virtue"?

What is "obedience"?

And, if a virtue, is it always and equally so?

"There is a time when patience ceases to be a virtue." Perhaps obedience has its limits, too.

A virtue is a specific quality of anything, as the virtue of mustard is in its biting quality; of glass, transparency; of a sword, its edge and temper. In moral application a virtue is a quality in mankind whereby we are most advantaged. We make a distinction in our specific qualities, claiming some to be good and some bad; and the virtues are those whereby we gain the highest good. These virtues of humanity change in relative value with time, place, and circumstance. What is considered a virtue in primitive life becomes foolishness or even vice in later civilisation; yet each age and place can show clear reason for its virtues, trace their introduction, rise into high honour, and gradual neglect.

For instance, the virtue of endurance ranks high among savages. To be able to bear hunger and heat and cold and pain and dire fatigue,—this power is supreme virtue to the savage, for the simple reason that it is supremely necessary to him. He has a large chance of meeting these afflictions all through life, and wisely prepares himself beforehand by wilfully undergoing even worse hardships.

Chastity is a comparatively modern virtue, still but partially accepted. Even as an ideal, it is not universally admired, being considered mainly as a feminine distinction. This is good proof of its gradual introduction,—first, as solely female, a demand from the man, and then proving its value as a racial virtue, and rising slowly in general esteem, until to-day there is a very marked movement toward a higher standard of masculine chastity.

Courage, on the other hand, has been held almost wholly as a masculine virtue, from the same simple causes of sociological development; to this day one hears otherwise intelligent and respectable women own themselves, without the slightest sense of shame, to be cowards.

A comparative study of the virtues would reveal a mixed and changeful throng, and always through them all the underlying force of necessity, which makes this or that quality a virtue in its time.

We speak of "making a virtue of necessity." As a matter of fact, all virtues are made of necessity.

A virtue, then, in the human race is that quality which is held supremely beneficial, valuable, necessary, at that time. And what, in close analysis, is obedience? It is a noun made from the verb "to obey."

What is it to obey? It is to act under the impulse of another will,—to submit one's behaviour to outside direction.

It involves the surrender of both judgment and will. Is this capacity of submission of sufficient value to the human race to be called a virtue? Assuredly it is—sometimes. The most familiar instance of the uses of obedience is among soldiers and sailors, always promptly adduced by the stanch upholders of this quality.

They do not speak of it as particularly desirable among farmers or merchants or artists, but cling to the battlefield or the deck, as sufficient illustrations. We may note, also, that, when our elaborate efforts are made to inculcate its value to young children, we always introduce a railroad accident, runaway, fire, burglar, or other element of danger; and, equally, in the stories of young animals designed for the same purpose, the disobedient little beast is always exposed to dire peril, and the obedient saved.

All this clearly indicates the real basis of our respect for obedience.

Its first and greatest use is this: where concerted action is necessary, in such instant performance that it would be impossible to transmit the impulse through a number of varying intelligences.

That is why the soldier and sailor have to obey. Military and nautical action is essentially collective, essentially instant, and too intricate for that easy understanding which would allow of swift common action on individual initiative. Under such circumstances, obedience is, indeed, a virtue, and disobedience the unpardonable sin.

Again, with the animals, we have a case where it is essential that the young should act instantly under stimuli perceptible to the mother and not to the young. No explanation is possible. There is not speech for it, even if there were time. A sudden silent danger needs a sudden silent escape. Under this pressure of condition has been evolved a degree of obedience absolutely instinctive and automatic, as so beautifully shown in Mr. Thompson's story of the little partridges flattening themselves into effacement on their mother's warning signal.

With deadly peril at hand, with no brain to give or to receive explanation, with no time to do more than squeak an inarticulate command, there is indeed need for obedience; and obedience is forthcoming. But is this so essential quality in rearing young animals as essential in human education? So far in human history, our absolute desideratum in child-training is that the child shall obey. The child who "minds" promptly and unquestioningly is the ideal: the child who refuses to mind, who, perhaps, even says, "I won't," is the example of all evil.

Parental success is judged by ability to "make the children mind": to be without that is failure. All this has no reference whatever to the kind of behaviour required. The virtue in the child is simply to do what it is told, in any extreme of folly or even danger. Witness the immortal fame of Casabianca. Being told to "stay," this sublime infant stayed, though every instinct and reason was against it, and he was blown up unflinching in pursuance of duty. The effect of minding on the mind is here shown in extreme instance. Under the pressure of the imposed will and judgment of his father, the child restrained his own will and judgment, and suffered the consequences. The moral to be drawn is a very circuitous one. Although obedience was palpably injurious in this case, it is held that such perfect surrender would in most cases be highly beneficial.

That other popular instance, beginning


"Old 'Ironsides' at anchor lay
In the harbor of Mahon."


is more practical. The judicious father orders the perilously poised son to


"Jump! Jump, boy, far into the deep!"


and he jumps, and is hauled out by the sailors.

As usual, we see that the reason why obedience is so necessary is because of imminent danger, which only obedience can escape. With this for a practical background, and with the added proviso that, unless obedience is demanded and secured when there is no danger, it will not be forthcoming when there is, the child is "trained to obey" from the first. No matter how capricious and unnecessary the command, he must "mind," or be punished for not "minding." We may fall short of success in our efforts; but this is our ideal,—that a child shall do what he is told on the instant, and thus fulfil his whole scale of virtue as well as meet all the advantages of safety.

Our intense reverence for the virtue of obedience is easily traceable. In the first place there is the deep-seated animal instinct, far outdating human history. For uncounted ages our brute mother ancestors had reared their brute young in automatic obedience,—an obedience bred in the bone by those who obeyed and lived, any deficiency in which was steadily expurgated by the cutting off of the hapless youngster who disobeyed. This had, of course, a reflex action on the mother. When one's nerve-impulse finds expression through another body, that expression gives the same sense of relief and pleasure as a personal expression. When one wills another to do something which the other promptly does, it gives one an even larger satisfaction than doing what one wills one's self. That is the pleasure we have in a good dog,—our will flows through his organism uninterrupted. It is a temporary extension of self in activity that does not weary.

This is one initial reason for the parental pleasure in obedience and displeasure in disobedience. When the parent emits an impulse calling for expression through the child, and the child refuses to express it, there is a distinct sense of distress in the parent, quite apart from any ulterior advantage to either party in the desired act. Almost any mother can recall this balked feeling, like the annoyance of an arrested sneeze.

To this instinct our gradually enlarging humanness has added the breadth of wider perceptions and the weight of growing ideas of authority, with the tremendous depth of tradition and habit. Early races lived in constant danger, military service was universal, despotism the common government, and slavery the general condition. The ruling despot exacted obedience from all; and it was by each grade exacted remorselessly from its inferiors. No overseer so cruel as the slave. Where men were slaves to despotic sovereigns, their women were slaves to them; and the women tyrannised in turn over their slaves, if they had any. But under every one else were always the children, defenceless absolutely, inferior physically and mentally. Naturally, they were expected to obey. As we built out of our clouded brains dim and sinister gods, we predicated of them the habits so prominent in our earthly rulers: the one thing the gods would have was obedience, which, therefore, grew to have first place in our primitive religion. The early Hebrew traditions of God, with which we are all so familiar, picture him as in a continuous state of annoyance because his "children" would not "mind." In the centuries of dominance of the Roman Catholic Church, obedience became additionally exalted. The power and success of that magnificent organisation depended so absolutely on this characteristic that it was given high place in the vows of religious societies,—highest of all by the Jesuits, who carried it to its logical extreme, the subordinate being required to become as will-less as a corpse, actuated solely by the commands of his superior. Even militarism offers no better instance of the value and power of obedience than does "the Church."

It now becomes clear why we so naturally venerate this quality: first, the deep brute instinct; second, the years of historic necessity and habit; third, the tremendous sanction of religion. It is only a few centuries since the Protestant Reformation broke the power of church dominance and successfully established the rebellion of free thought. It is less than that since the American Revolution and the French Revolution again triumphantly disobeyed, and established the liberty of the individual in matters temporal. Since then the delighted brain has spread and strengthened, thinking for itself and doing what it thought; and we have seen some foretaste of what a full democracy will ultimately bring to us. But this growth of individual freedom has but just begun to penetrate that stronghold of all habit and tradition, the Home. Men might be free, but women must still obey. Women are beginning to be free, but still the child remains,—the under-dog always; and he, at least, must obey. On this we are still practically at one,—Catholic and Protestant, soldier and farmer, subject and citizen.

Let us untangle the real necessity from this vast mass of hoary tradition, and see if obedience is really the best thing to teach a child,—if "by obedience" is the best way to teach a child. And let careful provision here be made for a senseless inference constantly made when this question is raised. Dare to criticise a system of training based on obedience, and you are instantly assumed to be advocating no system at all, no training, merely letting the child run wild and "have his own way." This is a most unfair assumption. Those who know no other way of modifying a child's behaviour than through "making him mind" suppose that, if he were not made to mind, he must be utterly neglected. Child-training to their minds is to be accomplished only through child-ordering; and many think the training quite accomplished if only the subject is a model of obedience. Others, a little more open-minded, and who have perhaps read something on the subject, assume that, if you do not demand obedience of the child, it means that you must "explain" everything to him, "reason" with him from deed to deed; and this they wearily and rightly declare to be impossible. But neither of these assumptions is correct. One may question the efficacy of the Salisbury method without being thereby pledged to vegetarianism. One may criticise our school system, yet not mean that children should have no education.

The rearing of children is the most important work, and it is here contended that, in this great educational process, obedience, as a main factor, has a bad effect on the growing mind. A child is a human creature. He should be reared with a view to his development and behaviour as an adult, not solely with a view to his behaviour as a child. He is temporarily a child, far more permanently a man; and it is the man we are training. The work of "parenthood" is not only to guard and nourish the young, but to develope the qualities needed in the mature.

Obedience is defended, first, as being necessary to the protection of the child, and, second, as developing desirable qualities in the adult. But the child can be far better protected by removing all danger, which our present civilisation is quite competent to do; and "the habit of obedience" developes very undesirable qualities. On what characteristics does our human pre-eminence rest? On our breadth and accuracy of judgment and force of will. Because we can see widely and judge wisely, because we have power to do what we see to be right, therefore we are the dominant species in the animal kingdom; therefore we are consciously the children of God.

These qualities are lodged in individuals, and must be exercised by individuals for the best human progress. If our method of advance were that one person alone should be wise and strong, and all other persons prosperous through a strict subservience to his commands, then, indeed, we could do no better for our children than to train them to obey. Judgment would be of no use to them if they had to take another's: will-power would be valueless if they were never to exercise it.

But this is by no means the condition of human life. More and more is it being recognised that progress lies in a well-developed average intelligence rather than in a wise despot and his stupid serfs. For every individual to have a good judgment and a strong will is far better for the community than for a few to have these qualities and the rest to follow them.

The "habit of obedience," forced in upon the impressible nature of a child, does not develope judgment and will, but does develope that fatal facility in following other people's judgment and other people's wills which tends to make us a helpless mob, mere sheep, instead of wise, free, strong individuals. The habit of submission to authority, the long, deeply impressed conviction that to "be good" is to "give up," that there is virtue in the act of surrender,—this is one of the sources from which we continually replenish human weakness, and fill the world with an inert mass of mind-less, will-less folk, pushed and pulled about by those whom they obey.

Moreover, there is the opposite effect,—the injurious reaction from obedience,—almost as common and hurtful as its full achievement; namely, that fierce rebellious desire to do exactly the opposite of what one is told, which is no nearer to calm judgment than the other.

In obeying another will or in resisting another will, nothing is gained in wisdom. A human creature is a self-governing intelligence, and the rich years of childhood should be passed in the guarded and gradual exercise of those powers.

Now this will, no doubt, call up to the minds of many a picture of a selfish, domineering youngster, stormily ploughing through a number of experimental adventures, with a group of sacrificial parents and teachers prostrate before him. Again an unwarranted assumption. Consideration of others is one of the first laws of life, one of the first things a child should be taught; but consideration of others is not identical with obedience. Again, it will be imagined that the child is to be left to laboriously work out for himself the accumulated experiments of humanity, and deprived of the profits of all previous experience. By no means. On the contrary, it is the business of those who have the care of the very young to see to it that they do benefit by that previous experience far more fully than is now possible.

Our system of obedience cuts the child off from precisely this advantage, and leaves him longing to do the forbidden things, generally doing them, too, when he gets away from his tutelage. The behaviour of the released child, in its riotous reaction against authority as such, as shown glaringly in the action of the average college student, tells how much judgment and self-control have been developing behind the obedience.

The brain grows by exercise. The best time to develope it is in youth. To obey does not develope the brain, but checks its growth. It gives to the will a peculiar suicidal power of aborting its own impulse, not controlling it, but giving it up. This leaves a habit of giving up which weakens our power of continued effort.

All this is not saying that obedience is never useful in childhood. There are occasions when it is; and on such occasions, with a child otherwise intelligently trained, it will be forthcoming. We make a wide mistake in assuming that, unless a child is made to obey at every step, it will never obey. A grown person will obey under sharp instant pressure.

If there is a sudden danger, and you shriek at your friend, "Get up—quick!" or hiss a terrified, "Sh! Sh! Be still!" your friend promptly obeys. Of course, if you had been endeavouring to "boss" that friend with a thousand pointless caprices, he might distrust you in the hour of peril; but if he knew you to be a reasonable person, he would respond promptly to a sudden command.

Much more will a child so respond where he has full reason to respect the judgment of the commander. Children have the automatic habit of obedience by the same animal inheritance that gives the mother the habit of command; but we so abuse that faculty that it becomes lost in righteous rebellion or crushed submission. The animal mother never misuses her precious authority. She does not cry, "Wolf! Wolf!" We talk glibly about "the best good of the child," but there are few children who are not clearly aware that they are "minding" for the convenience of "the grown-ups" the greater part of the time. Therefore, they suspect self-interest in even the necessary commands, and might very readily refuse to obey in the hour of danger.

It is a commonplace observation that the best children—i.e., the most submissive and obedient—do not make the best men. If they are utterly subdued, "too good to live," they swell the Sunday-school list of infant saints, die young, and go to heaven: whereas the rebellious and unruly boy often makes the best citizen.

The too obedient child has learned only to do what he is told. If not told, he has no initiative; and, if told wrong, he does wrong. Life to him is not a series of problems to be solved, but a mere book of orders; and, instead of understanding the true imperious "force" of natural law, which a wise man follows because he sees the wisdom of the course, he takes every "must" in life to be like a personal command,—a thing probably unreasonable, and to be evaded, if possible.

The escaped child, long suppressed under obedience, is in no mood for a cheerful acceptance of real laws, but imagines that there is more "fun" in "having his own way." The foolish parent claims to be obeyed as a god; and the grown-up child seeks to evade God, to treat the laws of Nature as if she, too, were a foolish parent.

Suppose you are teaching a child arithmetic. You tell him to put down such and such figures in such a position. He inquires, "Why?" You explain the reason. If you do not explain the reason, he does not understand the problem. You might continue to give orders as to what figures to set down and in what places; and the child, obeying, could be trotted through the arithmetic in a month's time. But the arithmetic would not have gone through him. He would be no better versed in the science of numbers than a type-setter is in the learned books he "sets up." We recognise this in the teaching of arithmetic, and go to great lengths in inventing test problems and arranging easy stages by which the child may gradually master his task. But we do not recognise it in teaching the child life. The small acts of infancy are the child's first problems in living. He naturally wishes to understand them. He says, "Why?" To which we reply inanely, "Because I tell you to!" That is no reason. It is a force, no doubt, a pressure, to which the child may be compelled to yield. But he is no wiser than he was before. He has learned nothing except the lesson we imagine so valuable,—to obey. At the very best, he may remember always, in like case, that "mamma would wish me to do so," and do it. But, when cases differ, he has no guide. With the best intentions in life, he can but cast about in his mind to try to imagine what some one else might tell him to do if present: the circumstances themselves mean nothing to him. Docility, subservience, a quick surrender of purpose, a wavering, untrained, easily shaken judgment,—these are the qualities developed by much obedience.

Are they the qualities we wish to develope in American citizens?

Charlotte Perkins Gilman