Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 39

ANCESTRAL WISDOM.


I did think of having a chapter about children before finishing my book; but this is not going to be the kind of chapter I thought of. Like most mothers, I suppose, I think myself an authority on the subject; and, which is to me more assuring than any judgment of my own, my father says that I have been in a measure successful in bringing mine up,--only they're not brought up very far yet. Hence arose the temptation to lay down a few practical rules I had proved and found answer. But, as soon as I began to contemplate the writing of them down, I began to imagine So-and-so and So-and-so attempting to carry them out, and saw what a dreadful muddle they would make of it, and what mischief would thence lie at my door. Only one thing can be worse than the attempt to carry out rules whose principles are not understood; and that is the neglect of those which are understood, and seen to be right. Suppose, for instance, I were to say that corporal punishment was wholesome, involving less suffering than most other punishments, more effectual in the result, and leaving no sting or sense of unkindness; whereas mental punishment, considered by many to be more refined, and therefore less degrading, was often cruel to a sensitive child, and deadening to a stubborn one: suppose I said this, and a woman like my Aunt Millicent were to take it up: her whippings would have no more effect than if her rod were made of butterflies' feathers; they would be a mockery to her children, and bring law into contempt; while if a certain father I know were to be convinced by my arguments, he would fill his children with terror of him now, and with hatred afterwards. Of the last-mentioned result of severity, I know at least one instance. At present, the father to whom I refer disapproves of whipping even a man who has been dancing on his wife with hob-nailed shoes, because it would tend to brutalize him. But he taunts and stings, and confines in solitude for lengthened periods, high-spirited boys, and that for faults which I should consider very venial.

Then, again, if I were to lay down the rule that we must be as tender of the feelings of our children as if they were angel-babies who had to learn, alas! to understand our rough ways, how would that be taken by a certain French couple I know, who, not appearing until after the dinner to which they had accepted an invitation was over, gave as the reason, that it had been quite out of their power; for darling Désirée, their only child, had declared they shouldn't go, and that she would cry if they did; nay, went so far as to insist on their going to bed, which they were, however reluctant, compelled to do. They had actually undressed, and pretended to retire for the night; but, as soon as she was safely asleep, rose and joined their friends, calm in the consciousness of abundant excuse.

The marvel to me is that so many children turn out so well.

After all, I think there can be no harm in mentioning a few general principles laid down by my father. They are such as to commend themselves most to the most practical.

And first for a few negative ones.

1. Never give in to disobedience; and never threaten what you are not prepared to carry out.

2. Never lose your temper. I do not say never be angry. Anger is sometimes indispensable, especially where there has been any thing mean, dishonest, or cruel. But anger is very different from loss of temper.

[Footnote: My Aunt Millicent is always saying, "I am grieeeved with you." But the announcement begets no sign of responsive grief on the face of the stolid child before her. She never whipped a child in her life. If she had, and it had but roused some positive anger in the child, instead of that undertone of complaint which is always oozing out of every one of them, I think It would have been a gain. But the poor lady is one of the whiny-piny people, and must be in preparation for a development of which I have no prevision. The only stroke of originality I thought I knew of her was this; to the register of her children's births, baptisms, and confirmations, entered on a grandly-ornamented fly-leaf of the family Bible, she has subjoined the record of every disease each has had, with the year, month, and day (and in one case the hour), when each distemper made its appearance. After most of the main entries, you may read, "Cut his (or her) first tooth"--at such a date. But, alas for the originality! she has just told me that her maternal grandmother did the same. How strange that she and my father should have had the same father I If they had had the same mother, too, I should have been utterly bewildered.]

3. Of all things, never sneer at them; and be careful, even, how you rally them.

4. Do not try to work on their feelings. Feelings are far too delicate things to be used for tools. It is like taking the mainspring out of your watch, and notching it for a saw. It may be a wonderful saw, but how fares your watch? Especially avoid doing so in connection with religious things, for so you will assuredly deaden them to all that is finest. Let your feelings, not your efforts on theirs, affect them with a sympathy the more powerful that it is not forced upon them; and, in order to do this, avoid being too English in the hiding of your feelings. A man's own family has a right to share in his good feelings.

5. Never show that you doubt, except you are able to convict. To doubt an honest child is to do what you can to make a liar of him; and to believe a liar, if he is not altogether shameless, is to shame him.

The common-minded masters in schools, who, unlike the ideal Arnold, are in the habit of disbelieving boys, have a large share in making the liars they so often are. Certainly the vileness of a lie is not the same in one who knows that whatever he says will be regarded with suspicion; and the master, who does not know an honest boy after he has been some time in his class, gives good reason for doubting whether he be himself an honest man, and incapable of the lying he is ready to attribute to all alike.

This last is my own remark, not my father's. I have an honest boy at school, and I know how he fares. I say honest; for though, as a mother, I can hardly expect to be believed, I have ground for believing that he would rather die than lie. I know I would rather he died than lied.

6. Instil no religious doctrine apart from its duty. If it have no duty as its necessary embodiment, the doctrine may well be regarded as doubtful.

7. Do not be hard on mere quarrelling, which, like a storm in nature, is often helpful in clearing the moral atmosphere. Stop it by a judgment between the parties. But be severe as to the kind of quarrelling, and the temper shown in it. Especially give no quarter to any unfairness arising from greed or spite. Use your strongest language with regard to that.

Now for a few of my father's positive rules:

1. Always let them come to you, and always hear what they have to say. If they bring a complaint, always examine into it, and dispense pure justice, and nothing but justice.

2. Cultivate a love of giving fair-play. Every one, of course, likes to receive fair-play; but no one ought to be left to imagine, therefore, that he loves fair-play.

3. Teach from the very first, from the infancy capable of sucking a sugar-plum, to share with neighbors. Never refuse the offering a child brings you, except you have a good reason,--and give it. And never pretend to partake: that involves hideous possibilities in its effects on the child.

The necessity of giving a reason for refusing a kindness has no relation to what is supposed by some to be the necessity of giving a reason with every command. There is no such necessity. Of course there ought to be a reason in every command. That it may be desirable, sometimes, to explain it, is all my father would allow.

4. Allow a great deal of noise,--as much as is fairly endurable; but, the moment they seem getting beyond their own control, stop the noise at once. Also put a stop at once to all fretting and grumbling.

5. Favor the development of each in the direction of his own bent. Help him to develop himself, but do not push development. To do so is most dangerous.

6. Mind the moral nature, and it will take care of the intellectual. In other words, the best thing for the intellect is the cultivation of the conscience, not in casuistry, but in conduct. It may take longer to arrive; but the end will be the highest possible health, vigor, and ratio of progress.

7. Discourage emulation, and insist on duty,--not often, but strongly.

Having written these out, chiefly from notes I had made of a long talk with my father, I gave them to Percivale to read.

"Rather--ponderous, don't you think, for weaving into a narrative?" was his remark.

"My narrative is full of things far from light," I returned. "I didn't say they were heavy, you know. That is quite another thing."

"I am afraid you mean generally uninteresting. But there are parents who might make them useful, and the rest of my readers could skip them."

"I only mean that a narrative, be it ever so serious, must not intrench on the moral essay or sermon."

"It is much too late, I fear, to tell me that. But, please, remember I am not giving the precepts as of my own discovery, though I have sought to verify them by practice, but as what they are,--my father's."

He did not seem to see the bearing of the argument.

"I want my book to be useful," I said. "As a mother, I want to share the help I have had myself with other mothers."

"I am only speaking from the point of art," he returned.

"And that's a point I have never thought of; any farther, at least, than writing as good English as I might."

"Do you mean to say you have never thought of the shape of the book your monthly papers would make?"

"Yes. I don't think I have. Scarcely at all, I believe."

"Then you ought."

"But I know nothing about that kind of thing. I haven't an idea in my head concerning the art of book-making. And it is too late, so far at least as this book is concerned, to begin to study it now."

"I wonder how my pictures would get on in that way."

"You can see how my book has got on. Well or ill, there it all but is. I had to do with facts, and not with art."

"But even a biography, in the ordering of its parts, in the arrangement of its light and shade, and in the harmony of the"--

"It's too late, I tell you, husband. The book is all but done. Besides, one who would write a biography after the fashion of a picture would probably, even without attributing a single virtue that was not present, or suppressing a single fault that was, yet produce a false book. The principle I have followed has been to try from the first to put as much value, that is, as much truth, as I could, into my story. Perhaps, instead of those maxims of my father's for the education of children, you would have preferred such specimens of your own children's sermons as you made me read to you for the twentieth time yesterday?"

Instead of smiling with his own quiet kind smile, as he worked on at his picture of St. Athanasius with "no friend but God and Death," he burst into a merry laugh, and said,--

"A capital idea! If you give those, word for word, I shall yield the precepts."

"Are you out of your five wits, husband?" I exclaimed. "Would you have everybody take me for the latest incarnation of the oldest insanity in the world,--that of maternity? But I am really an idiot, for you could never have meant it!"

"I do most soberly and distinctly mean it. They would amuse your readers very much, and, without offending those who may prefer your father's maxims to your children's sermons, would incline those who might otherwise vote the former a bore, to regard them with the clemency resulting from amusement."

"But I desire no such exercise of clemency. The precepts are admirable; and those need not take them who do not like them."

"So the others can skip the sermons; but I am sure they will give a few mothers, at least, a little amusement. They will prove besides, that you follow your own rule of putting a very small quantity of sage into the stuffing of your goslings; as also that you have succeeded in making them capable of manifesting what nonsense is indigenous in them. I think them very funny; that may be paternal prejudice: you think them very silly as well; that may be maternal solicitude. I suspect, that, the more of a philosopher any one of your readers is, the more suggestive will he find these genuine utterances of an age at which the means of expression so much exceed the matter to be expressed."

The idea began to look not altogether so absurd as at first; and a little more argument sufficed to make me resolve to put the absurdities themselves to the test of passing leisurely through my brain while I copied them out, possibly for the press.

The result is, that I am going to risk printing them, determined, should I find afterwards that I have made a blunder, to throw the whole blame upon my husband.

What still makes me shrink the most is the recollection of how often I have condemned, as too silly to repeat, things which reporting mothers evidently regarded as proofs of a stupendous intellect. But the folly of these constitutes the chief part of their merit; and I do not see how I can be mistaken for supposing them clever, except it be in regard of a glimmer of purpose now and then, and the occasional manifestation of the cunning of the stump orator, with his subterfuges to conceal his embarrassment when he finds his oil failing him, and his lamp burning low.


George MacDonald