— Surprising as it seems, I believe it to be true that not a little positively false morality is taught children by respectable and educated persons, — not consciously, of course, but through want of thought as to the impression made upon the child’s mind by the words and actions of its elders. It is not only ignorant and irresponsible nurses, but too commonly the child’s own mother, who confuses its sense of right and wrong by putting the expedient before it in the place of the right. This happens every time a child is bribed to obey by the promise of some reward. He learns that he is to do right not because he knows it is such, or because simple obedience is imperative, but because the doing the right thing is to bring him some advantage. Conversely, therefore, if to do it brought some disadvantage, or even if it brought nothing with it to gratify the child’s wishes, it would no longer be right. Motives to right-doing are too often urged which, if not actually bad, are certainly not the best: as when children are told that their friends will not love them unless they behave in a certain prescribed manner. The appeal to affection is no doubt legitimate in its place and degree, but the parents’ affection ought not to be held up as a prize for right conduct. A father may properly tell his children that he is pleased when they do right and grieved when they do wrong, but a child should never be allowed to believe that, whether pleased or grieved, his father has ceased or could cease to love him.
The root-truth about the matter seems to me to be this : that a child’s parents stand to it, while it is young, in the place of God himself. All its conceptions of truth and goodness come to it through this channel, and justice, love, faith, and all the virtues dawn upon the child’s soul as they are embodied in its parents’ speech and action toward itself and its brothers and sisters. When a father or mother does an injustice to one child in favor of another, it is not the one child alone that is harmed, but both. Justice in the abstract children know little of, and to preach about it to them would be of slight use; but every little one understands it in the concrete, and many a child’s heart has swelled with an indignation against injustice that was not wholly nor mostly selfish, but a righteous instinct asserting itself against a visible wrong.
A truthful child is generally strictly veracious, and does not comprehend any deviation from the letter of truth ; so that it is often necessary, to save it from moral confusion, to explain what may seem to it like untruth. If it become impossible to keep a promise made to a child, the hindering circumstances ought to be mentioned, or at least it should be explained that there are such. Again, the Bible command, Parents, provoke not your children to wrath, is often forgotten, while the corresponding one, Children, obey your parents, is quoted and enforced. A great deal of injustice is often done, moreover, in settling disputes among children, by not allowing for provocation received.
A most obvious practical rule in the training of children is, Always take for granted that they mean to be good. If to give a dog, or a child, a bad name is an excellent recipe for making him deserve it, to let it be a matter of course that he is to behave properly is to go a considerable way toward having him behave so. I have seen mothers actually put it into a child’s head to be naughty, when it had never occurred to the little one to be so. In this connection I would utter a protest against a kind of infant literature, usually illustrated, in which greedy Tom and slovenly Jane, cruel Peter and vain Polly, are vividly described in the act of making themselves unpleasant.
Manners and morals are closely connected, though parents attentive to their children’s training in the one are strangely negligent with regard to the other.
Example goes a mile where precept goes an inch, with children, and I believe that the irreverence towards their elders which is justly blamed in children of the present age (and, perhaps justly also, in especial among Americans) is largely owing to the greater freedom of companionship with their elders nowadays allowed to children. Few people will restrain themselves in speech on account. of the presence of the little ones, and these consequently hear an immense deal of personal comment and criticism
which they ought not to hear, if they are to keep that respect for their elders in general which surely it is desirable they should retain so long as it is possible. To the same cause is due the sophistication of children, so noticeable, and to my mind so deplorable. A boy need not be a baby because he does not know at ten what his grandfather did not know till he was twenty. The modest simplicity and the fresh and tender bloom of girlhood, — no, it has not all disappeared yet! I believe that a child who, without being coddled and “ babified,” yet is kept a child so long as, according to its years, it is called one has a physical advantage over the child too early initiated into the knowledge of manhood or womanhood. Parents do not realize the physical wear and tear that accompany premature development of the brain; and the undue tax upon the nervous and vital forces, when a child engages in the occupations and amusements of a grown person, leaves it, in maturer years, low in physical resources just when it has most call upon them. To follow this vast and important subject leads one easily far afield. There has been a great deal of theorizing upon it, some of it valuable indeed, yet one would think that observation and reflection might tell any reasonably sensible parent all he needs to know. One would think so ; yet my fellow-creatures scarcely ever appear to me so fallible as in their parental characters.