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Ch. 9: The Respect Due To Youth

Since we have so carefully and thoroughly beaten back the new brain-growth which should distinguish each successive generation, and fostered in every way the primitive mental habits of our forefathers, the natural consequence is a prolonged survival of very early tendencies. Outside, in the necessary contact and freedom of the world's life, crude ideas must change, and either become suited to the times or lost entirely. But in the privacy of the home, under the conditions of family life and the dominant influence of feminine conservatism, we find a group of carefully cherished rudiments which never could have survived without such isolation.

Among primitive races the stranger is an object of legitimate derision. The differences in his speech and manner are held as visible inferiorities, and his attempts to assimilate are greeted with unchecked merriment. This attitude of mind is still common in children, who are passing through the same stage of culture individually. Among intelligent and well-bred grown people such an attitude of mind is rightly despised. To them the stranger is entitled to respectful consideration because he is a stranger; and nothing could be ruder, in the estimation of such persons, than to laugh at the stranger's efforts to learn our language and manners.

How great is the difference between this common good breeding in the world at large and the barbaric crudity of our behaviour at home to that most sacred stranger, the child! He comes to us absolutely ignorant of our methods of living, be they wise or unwise; and he must needs learn every step of his way in the paths we have prepared for him. Unfortunately, we have prepared very little. A few physical conveniences, perhaps, in the way of high chairs and cradles, or nursing-bottles to supplement maternal deficiency; but in psychic conveniences—in any better recognition of the childish attitude of mind and its natural difficulties—we make small progress.

Calm, wondering, unafraid, the stranger enters the family circle. He has no perspective, no gradations of feeling in regard to the performances he finds going on about him. He has neither shame for the truths of real life nor respect for the falsehoods of artificial life. In soberness and eager interest he begins the mysterious game of living.

Now what is the attitude of the family toward this new-comer? How does the intelligent adult treat the stranger within his gates? He treats him with frequent ridicule and general gross disrespect. Not "unkindly," perhaps,—that is, not with anger and blows or undue deprivations,—but as if being a child was a sort of joke. A healthy child is merry with the free good spirits of a spring-tide lamb; but that pure mirth has nothing in common with ridicule. Who of us has not seen a clear-eyed child struck dumb and crimson by the rude laughter of his elders over some act which had no element of humour except that it was new to him? We put grandpa's hat on the downy head of the baby, and roar with laughter at his appearance. Do we put baby's cap on grandma, and then make fun of the old lady's looks? Why should we jeer at a baby more than at an old person? Why are we so lacking in the respect due to youth?

Every child has to learn the language he is born to. It is certain that he will make mistakes in the process, especially as he is not taught it by any wise system, but blunders into what usage he can grasp from day to day.

Now, if an adult foreigner were learning our language, and we greeted his efforts with yells of laughter, we should think ourselves grossly rude. And what should we think of ourselves if we further misled him by setting absurd words and phrases before him, encouraging him to further blunders, that we might laugh the more; and then, if we had visitors, inciting him to make these blunders over again to entertain the company? Yet this is common household sport, so long as there is a little child to act as zany for the amusement of his elders. The errors of a child are not legitimate grounds of humour, even to those coarse enough to laugh at them, any more than a toddling baby's falls have the same elements of the incongruous as the overthrow of a stout old gentleman who sits down astonished in the snow.

A baby has to fall. It is natural, and not funny. So does the young child have to make mistakes as he learns any or all of the crowding tasks before him; but these are not fair grounds for ridicule.

I was walking in a friend's garden, and met for the first time the daughter of the house, a tall, beautiful girl of nineteen or twenty. Her aunt, who was with me, cried out to her in an affected tone, "Come and meet the lady, Janey!"

The young girl, who was evidently unpleasantly impressed, looked annoyed, and turned aside in some confusion, speaking softly to her teacher who was with her. Then the aunt, who was a very muscular woman, seized the young lady by her shoulders, lifted her off the ground, and thrust her blushing, struggling, and protesting into my arms—by way of introduction! Naturally enough, the girl was overcome with mortification, and conceived a violent dislike for me. (This story is exactly true, except that the daughter of the house was aged two and a half.)

Now why,—in the name of reason, courtesy, education, justice, any lofty and noble consideration,—why should Two-and-a-half be thus insulted? What is the point of view of the insulter? How does she justify her brutal behaviour? Is it on the obvious ground of physical superiority in age and strength? It cannot be that, for we do not gratuitously outrage the feelings of all persons younger and smaller than ourselves. A stalwart six-foot septuagenarian does not thus comport himself toward a small gentleman of thirty or forty. It cannot be relationship; for such conduct does not obtain among adults, be they never so closely allied. It has no basis except that the victim is a child, and the child has no personal rights which we feel bound to respect.

A baby, when "good," is considered as a first-rate plaything,—a toy to play with or to play on or to set going like a machine-top, that we may laugh at it. There is a legitimate frolicking with small children, as the cat plays with her kittens; but that is not in the least inconsistent with respect. Grown people can play together and laugh together without jeering at each other. So we might laugh with our children, even more than we do, and yet never laugh at them. The pathetic side of it is that children are even more sensitive to ridicule than grown people. They have no philosophy to fall back upon; and,—here is the hideously unjust side,—if they lose their tempers, being yet unlearned in self-restraint,—if they try to turn the tables on their tormentors, then the wise "grown-up" promptly punishes them for "disrespect." They must respect their elders even in this pitiful attitude; but who is to demand the respect due to youth?

There is a deal of complaint among parents over the "impertinence" of children. "How dare you speak to me like that!" cries outraged authority. Yet "that" was only the expression used just before by the parent to the child.

"Hold your tongue!" says the mother. "Hold yours!" answers the child, and is promptly whipped for impertinence. "I'll teach you to answer me like that!" says angry mamma. And she does.

In the baby's first attempt to speak we amused ourselves mightily over his innocent handling of rude phrases,—overheard by chance or even taught him, that we might make merry over the guileless little mouth, uttering at our behest the words it did not understand. Then, a year or so older, when he says the same things, he is laboriously and painfully taught that what is proper for a parent to say to a child is not proper for a child to say to a parent. "Why?" puzzles the child. We can give no answer, except our large assumption that there is no respect due to youth.

Ask any conscientious mother or father why the new human being, fresh from God as they profess to believe, not yet tainted by sin or weakened by folly and mistake, serene in its mighty innocence and serious beyond measure, as its deep eyes look solemnly into life,—why this wonderful kind of humanity is to be treated like a court fool. What can the parent say?

From the deeper biological standpoint, seeing the foremost wave of advancing humanity in each new generation, there is still less excuse for such contemptuous treatment. In the child is lodged the piled up progress of the centuries, and, as he shall live, is that progress hastened or retarded. Quite outside of the natural affection of the parent for the offspring stands this deep, human reverence for the latest and best specimen of its kind. Every child should represent a higher step in racial growth than its parents, and every parent should reverently recognise this. For a time the parent has the advantage. He has knowledge, skill, and power; and we feel that in the order of nature he is set to minister to the younger generation till it shall supplant him. To develope such a noble feeling has taken a long time, and many steps upward through those cruder sentiments which led toward it. Yet it is the rational, conscious feeling into which the human being translates the whole marvellous law of parental love.

To the animal this great force expresses itself merely in instinct; but, as such, it is accepted and fulfilled, and the good of the young subserved unquestioningly. In low grades of human life we have still this animal parental instinct largely predominating, coloured more or less with some prevision of the real glory of the work in hand. Yet so selfish is human parentage that in earlier times children have been sold as slaves in the interests of parents, have been and still are set to work prematurely; and in certain races the father looks forward to having a son for various religious benefits accruing to him, the father.

Sentiments like these are not conducive to respect for youth. The mother is not generally selfish, in this sense. Her error is in viewing the child too personally, depending too much on "instinct," and giving very little thought to the matter. She loves much and serves endlessly, but reasons little. The child is pre-eminently "her" child, and is treated as such. Intense affection she gives, and such forms of discipline and cultivation as are within her range, unflagging care and labour also; but "respect" for the bewitching bundle of cambric she has so elaborately decorated does not occur to her.

Note the behaviour of a group of admiring women around a baby on exhibition. Its clothes are prominent, of course, in their admiration; and its toes, fingers, and dimples generally. They kiss it and cuddle it and play with it, and the proud mamma is pleased. When the exhibitee is older and more conscious, it dislikes these scenes intensely. Being "dressed up" and passed around for the observation and remark of the grown-up visitors is an ordeal we can all remember.

Why cannot a grown person advance to make the acquaintance of a child with the same good manners used in meeting an adult? Frankness, naturalness, and respect, these are all the child wants. And precisely these he is denied. We put on an assumed interest—a sort of stage manner—in accosting the young, and for all our pretence pay no regard to their opinions or confidence, when given. Really well-intentioned persons, parents or otherwise, will repeat before strangers some personal opinion, just softly whispered in their ears, with a pair of little arms holding fast to keep the secret close; dragging it out remorselessly before the persons implicated, while the betrayed child squirms in wretchedness and anger.

To do this to a grown-up friend would warrant an angry dropping of acquaintance. Such traitorous rudeness would not be tolerated by man or woman. But the child,—the child must pocket every insult, as belonging to a class beneath respect.

Is it not time that we summoned our wits from their wool-gathering,—however financially profitable the wool may be,—and gave a little honest thought to the status of childhood? Childhood is not a pathological condition, nor a term of penal servitude, nor a practical joke. A child is a human creature, and entitled to be treated as such. A human body three feet long is deserving of as much respect as a human body six feet long. Yet the bodies of children are handled with the grossest familiarity. We pluck and pull and push them, tweak their hair and ears, pat them on the head, chuck them under the chin, kiss them, and hold them on our laps, entirely regardless of their personal preferences. Why should we take liberties with the person of a child other than those suitable to an intimate friendship at any age?

"Because children don't care," some one will answer. But children do care. They care enormously. They dislike certain persons always because of disagreeable physical contact in childhood. They wriggle down clumsily, all their clothes rubbed the wrong way, with tumbled hair and flushed, sulky faces from the warm "lap" of some large woman or bony, woolly-clothed man, who was holding them with one hand and variously assaulting them with the other, and rush off in helpless rage. No doubt they "get used to it," as do eels to skinning; but in this process of accustoming childhood to brutal discourtesy we lose much of the finest, most delicate development of human nature. There is no charge of cruelty, unkindness, or neglect involved in this.

Discourtesy to children is practised by the most loving and devoted parents, the most amiable of relatives and visitors. Neither is it a question of knowledge on the part of the elder. These rudenesses are practised by persons of exquisite manners, among their equals. It is simply a case of survival of an undeveloped field of human nature,—a dark, uncultivated, neglected spot where we have failed to grow. The same forces which have so far civilised us will work farther when we give them room. We have but to open our minds and widen our sphere of action to become civilised in these domestic relations. It is the citizenship—the humanness—of the child we need to recognise, not merely its relative accomplishments compared to ourselves. Also the tendencies and restraint born of power and freedom should teach us to respect the child precisely because of its helplessness. The principle that urges even the bullying school-boy to "take a fellow of his own size," and which forbids torturing a captive, killing an unarmed man, or insulting an inferior, ought to put more nobility into our conduct in relation to the child. As so much weaker, strength should respect him; and, as one bound to supersede us, wisdom should recognise his power.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman