Put Them in Their Place
I WOULD not go so far as to say that ‘children should be seen and not heard.’ Such a sentiment, is nowadays called ‘mid-Victorian’ or ‘antediluvian’ (these terms are practically synonymous, in current usage), and I have no desire to brand myself a spiritual contemporary of either Noah or Victoria. As for our unrepressed children, however, I must confess to a little dizziness at their ever-increasing visibility and din.
Being the father of three such children, I find myself swept joyously off the old and charted courses laid down for juvenile conduct; and, instead of desiring to hold these young adventurers in leash, I admit, with alarm, that their dashing irregularity fascinates me. In disregard of every proper parental responsibility, I actually egg them on. It is, then, my fear of what may result from our common waywardness, my children’s and my own, that prompts me to set forth here, as a solemn admonition to myself no less than to others, certain lessons from history which invite modern youth to become ancient, or at least mediaeval, in their judgments and behavior. Whoover publicly addresses youth to-day ordinarily brings his remarks to a climax in asserting cheerily that, notwithstanding certain surface indications of delinquency and depravity, the lives of our self-expressed boys and girls are fundamentally wholesome, and their moral prospects extremely bright. Against this compliant thesis I shall now pit several historical examples.
Consider the Chinese. During how many placid centuries did their civilization endure, fixed and firm as a graveyard, based on the splendid principle that the best people are all dead! The aged great-grandfather, not yet quite dead, was the most important and worthy of beings still alive, and at the other end of the merit list was the latest, great-grandchild, contemptibly unimportant except as a possible contributor to the comfort and prestige of its elders. The living and the dead resembled alcoholic liquors in that their degrees of excellence advanced with their antiquity. The farther away from his birth a man proceeded, the more worthy of respect was he. When even death was behind him and he had thus become a god, the memory of his slightest wish remained a binding obligation upon his descendants. Thus the young lived in a decent and orderly submission, nourished by the hope that they too might some day grow old and begin to enjoy life.
Now, consider the Chinese again. Where are they to-day, and why are they there? They are in a sanguinary turmoil of ceaseless civil wars, and all because the young folks, rebellious against the inscrutable wisdom of their ancestors, have been trying to make three new ideas grow up where only one old one used to be, or perhaps where there really was none at all. Such waywardness invited chaos, and chaos gayly accepted the invitation.
Chaos has never been more valiantly held at bay than in our own New England of the seventeenth century. Notwithstanding the ribald writings of those who seek to defame our Puritan ancestors, it is common knowledge among all well-taught school children that the younger generation in those steady days was notoriously decorous and filial. The reason for this juvenile sobriety is not remote. It may be read in the 1648 edition of The Book of the General Lauues and Libertyes Concerning the Inhabitants of the Massachusets. The following passages seem to indicate a desire on the part of the authorities to discourage juvenile self-expression beyond rather clearly prescribed limits.
13 If any child, or children, above sixteen years old, and of sufficient understanding, shall CURSE, or SMITE their natural FATHER, or MOTHER; he or they shall be put to death: unless it can be sufficiently testified that the Parents have been very unchristianly negligent in the education of such children; or so provoked them by extream and cruel correction; that they have been forced thereunto to preserve themselves from death or maiming. Exod. 21. 17. Lev. 20. 9. Exod. 21. 15.
14 If a man have a stubborn or REBELLIOUS SON, of sufficient years & understanding (viz) sixteen years of age, which will not obey the voice of his Father, or the voice of his Mother, and that when they have chastened him will not harken unto them: then shal his Father & Mother being his natural parents, lay hold on him, & bring him to the Magistrates assembled in Court & testifie unto them, that their Son is stubborn & rebellious & will not obey their voice and chastisement, but lives in sundry notorious crimes, such a son shal be put to death. Deut. 21. 20. 21.
That these statutes were rarely if ever enforced did not, I presume, altogether nullify their restraining influence upon the turbulent spirit of youth. I am not, however, recommending their reënactment. They would, I feel sure, incite my own children to experimental violence upon me, and to a tentative and insincere obduracy.
It is not, however, merely the adolescents who are to-day ruffling the placidity of the ages. Our infants are likewise in revolt against the traditions of decency and order; or, more exactly, the parents of infants are thus revolting in their behalf. This is ‘the century of the child.’ Whatever ministers to his, or her, supposed welfare must be provided, though the heavens fall. Neighboring adults continue to exist entirely at their own risk. Nay, more; they are expected to join in worshipful applause at the new deity’s attributes, real and imagined. Though all of us to-day must pay at least lip service to this cult of posterity worship, we may find solace in the bold resistance offered by certain of our sturdy forebears. The diary of John Quincy Adams, for example, shows him to have been of those who refused to bow the knee in one of the early, and indeed perennial, ceremonies leading toward the full dedication of the child. At age twenty, he wrote: —
Dined at Judge Sargeant’s with Mr. and Mrs. Shaw. Mr. Porter and his lady were there upon a visit from Rye with a child about six weeks old, which forsooth immediately after dinner must be produced, and handed about from one to another; and very shrewd discoveries were made of its resemblance to all of the family by turns, whereas in fact it did resemble nothing but chaos. How much is the merciful Author of Nature to be adored for implanting in the heart of man a passion stronger than the power of reason, which affords delight to the parent at the sight of his offspring, even at a time when to every other person it must be disgusting. Yet it appears to me that parents would do wisely in keeping their children out of sight at least until they are a year old, for I cannot see what satisfaction, either sensual or intellectual, can be derived from seeing a misshapen, bawling, slobbering infant, unless to persons particularly interested.
The moral bravery of this assertion would, of course, be considerably illuminated if we might be sure that young Adams gave public and timely utterance to the sentiments he wrote in his diary. At any rate, his position as slated was soundly conservative of human rights, and courageously defiant toward the special privileges demanded by and for the rampantly immature. Along with the Chinese and the Puritans, therefore, Adams affords inspiration and warning to those of us to-day who would struggle to conserve the rights of middle age, and later, against the rampancy of youth.
The very least that we conservers can do toward easing our anxieties is to write them down in our diaries, or, when opportunity offers, get them published — anonymously.