Formation of Character Volume 5 Pt 1. Chapter 5



HAVE you ever played at “Consequences,” dear reader? This is how it goes. He said to her, “It’s a cold day.” She said to him, “I like chocolates.” The consequence was, they were both put to death, and the world said, “It serves them right.”
          Just so exquisitely inconsequent is the game of “consequence” in real life, at which many a child is an unwilling player, and just so arbitrary their distribution. We are all born heirs to all the Russias if a certain aptness at autocratic government can be construed into a title. Watch the children in the street play at keeping school; how the school mistress lavishes “handers,” how she corners and canes her scholars! And the make-believe scholars enter into the game. They would do the same if they had the chance, and their turn will come.
          How does it work in real life, this turn for autocracy, which, you may observe, gives zest to most of the children’s games?
          Little Nancy is inclined to be fretful; her nurse happens to be particularly busy this morning looking out the children’s summer clothing. She is a kind-hearted woman, and fond of Nancy, but, “Why does
the child whine so?” And a hasty box on the little ear emphasises the indignant query. There is mischief already, which is the cause of the whining; and, by that concussion, Nancy is “put to death,” like the people in the game; not for a year or two, though, and nobody associates nurse with the family sorrow; and she, for her part, never thinks again of that hasty blow. But, you object, nurse is ignorant, though kind; with the child’s parents, it is otherwise. Yes, but not entirely otherwise. Mr Lindsay, who is a book-lover, goes into his den to find his little boy of four, making “card-houses,” with some choice volumes he has clambered after; down they go, bump, and the corners are turned, and the books unsightly objects evermore. “What are you doing here, child? Go to the nursery, and don’t let me see you here again!” Ah, me! Does he know how deep it cuts? Does he know that the ten minutes’ romp with “father” in his room is the supreme joy of the day for little Dick? And does he know that everything is for ever and ever to a little child, whose experience has not yet taught him the trick of hoping when things look dark? But, “It is for the child’s good.” Is it? Dick does not yet know what is wrong. “Never touch books which are not given you to play with,” would have instructed him, and hindered similar mischief in the future.
          How is it that devoted nurse and affectionate father cause injurious “concussions,” moral and physical, to a child’s tender nature? A good deal is to be set down to ignorance or thoughtlessness; they do not know, or they do not consider, how this and that must affect a child. But the curious thing is, that grown-up people nearly always err on the same lines.
The arbitrary exercise of authority on the part of parent, nurse, governess, whoever is set in authority over him, is the real stone of stumbling and rock of offence in the way of many a child.
          Nor is there room for the tender indulgent mother to congratulate herself and say, “I always thought Mrs Naybor was too hard on her children,” for the most ruinous exercise of arbitrary authority is when the mother makes herself a law unto her child, with power to excuse him from his duties, and to grant him (more than papal) indulgences. This sort of tender parent is most tenacious of her authority, no one is permitted to interfere with her rule—for rule it is, though her children are notably unruly. She answers all advice and expostulation with one formula: “My children shall never have it to say that their mother refused them anything it was in her power to give.”
          “In her power.” This mother errs in believing that her children are hers—in her power, body and soul. Can she not do what she likes with her own?
          It is worth while to look to the springs of conduct in human nature for the source of this common cause of the mismanagement of children. There must be some unsuspected reason for the fact that persons of weak and of strong nature should err in the same direction.
          In every human being there are implanted, as we know, certain so-called primary or natural desires, which are among the springs or principles out of which his action or conduct flows. These desires are neither virtuous nor vicious in themselves; they are quite involuntary: they have place equally in the savage and the savant: he who makes his appeal to any one of those primary desires is certain of a hearing. Thus, every man has an innate desire for companionship;
every man wants to know, however little worthy the objects of his curiosity: we all want to stand well with our neighbours, however fatuously we lay ourselves out for esteem: we would, each of us, fain be the best at some one thing, if it be only a game of chance which excites our emulation; and we would all have rule, have authority, even if our ambition has no greater scope than the rule of a dog or a child affords. These desires being primary or natural, the absence of any one of them in a human being makes that person, so far, unnatural. The man who hates society is a misanthrope; he who has no curiosity is a clod. But, seeing that a man may make shipwreck of his character and his destiny by the excessive indulgence of any one of these desires, the regulating, balancing, and due ordering of these springs of action is an important part of that wise self-government which is the duty of every man.
          It is not that the primary desires are the only springs of action; we all know that the affections, the appetites, the emotions, play their part, and that reason and conscience are the appointed regulators of machinery which may be set in motion by a hundred impulses. But the subject for our consideration is the punishments inflicted on children; and we shall not arrive at any safe conclusion unless we regard these punishments from the point of view of the punisher as well as from that of the punished.
          Now every one of the primary desires, as well as of the affections and appetites, has a tendency to run riot if its object be well within its grasp. The desire for society undirected and unregulated may lead to endless gadding about and herding together. The fine principle of curiosity may issue in an inordinate
love of gossip, and of poor disconnected morsels of knowledge served up in scraps, which are of the nature of gossip. Ambition, the desire of power, comes into play when we have a live thing to order; and we rule child and servant, horse and dog. And it is well that we should. The person who is (comparatively) without ambition has no capacity to rule. Have you a nurse who “manages” children well? She is an ambitions woman, and her ambition finds delightful scope in the government of the nursery. At the same time, the love of power, unless it be duly and carefully regulated and controlled, leads to arbitrary behaviour—that is, to lawless, injurious behaviour—towards those under our rule. Nay, we may be so carried away, intoxicated, by a fierce lust of power that we do some terrible, irrevocable deed of cruelty to a tender child-body or soul, and wake up to never-ending remorse. We meant no harm; we meant to teach obedience, and, good God! we have killed a child.
          Within the last few years tales have been told in the newspapers of the savage abuse of power, free for the time being from external control; tales, which, be they true or not, should make us all commune with our hearts and be still. For, we may believe it, they who have done these things are no worse than we could be; they had opportunity to do ill deeds, and they did them. We have not been so far left to ourselves. But let us look ourselves in the face; let us recognise that the principle which has betrayed others into the madness of crime is inherent in us also, and that whether it shall lead us to heights of noble living or to criminal cruelty is not a matter to be left to the chapter of accidents. We have need of the divine grace to prevent and follow us, and we have need to
seek consciously, and diligently use, this grace to keep us who are in authority in the spirit of meekness, remembering always that the One who is entrusted with the rod of iron is meek and lowly of heart.
          In proportion as we keep ourselves fully alive to our tendency in this matter of authority may we trust ourselves to administer the law to creatures so tender in body and soul as are the little children. We shall remember that a word may wound, that a look may strike as a blow. It may indeed be necessary to wound in order to heal, but we shall examine ourselves well before we use the knife. There will be no hasty dealing out of reproof and punishment, reward and praise, according to the manner of mood we are in. We shall not only be aware that our own authority is deputed, and to be used with the meekness of wisdom; but we shall be very careful indeed in our choice of the persons in whose charge we place our children. It is not enough that they be good Christian people. We all know good Christian persons of an arbitrary turn who venture to wield that rod of iron which is safe in the hands of One alone. Let them be good Christian persons of culture and self-knowledge; not the morbid self-knowledge that comes of introspection, but that wider, humbler cognisance of self that comes of a study of the guiding principles and springs of action common to us all as human beings, and which brings with it the certainty that—“I am just such an one as the rest, and might even be as the worst, were it not for the grace of God and careful walking.”
          It is no doubt much easier to lay down our authority and let the children follow their own lead, or be kept in order by another, than to exercise
constant watchfulness in the exercise of our calling. But this is not in our option; we must rule with diligence. It is necessary for the children that we should; but we must keep ourselves continually in check, and see that our innate love of power finds lawful outlet in the building up of a child’s character, and not in the rude rebuff, the jibe and sneer, the short answer and hasty slap which none of us older people could conceivably endure ourselves, and yet practise freely on the children “for their good.”
          “To this day,” says an American author,[1] the old tingling pain burns my cheeks as I recall certain rude and contemptuous words which were said to me when I was very young, and stamped on my memory for ever. I was once called ‘a stupid child’ in the presence of strangers. I had brought the wrong book from my father’s study. Nothing could be said to me to-day which would give me a tenth part of the hopeless sense of degradation which came from those words. Another time, on the arrival of an unexpected guest to dinner, I was sent, in a great hurry, away from the table to make room, with the remark that ‘it was not of the least consequence about the child; she could just as well have her dinner afterward.’ ‘The child’ would have been only too happy to help in the hospitality of the sudden emergency if the thing had been differently put; but the sting of having it put that way I never forgot. Yet, in both these instances, the rudeness was so small in comparison with what we habitually see that it would be too trivial to mention, except for the bearing of the fact that the pain it gave has lasted until now.”
          What, is it severity in these maudlin days to call a child ‘stupid’? A pretty idiot he’ll make of himself when the world comes to bandy names with him if he’s to be brought up on nothing but the butter and honey of soft speeches.” This is a discordant protest, not at all in harmony with the notions of perfect child-living with which we are amusing ourselves in these days; but we cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to it. “Don’t make a fool of the child,” was the warning young mothers used to get from their elders. But we have changed all that, and a child’s paradise must be prepared for the little feet to walk in. “He’s so happy at school,” we are told, and we ask no more. We have reversed the old order; it used to be, “If he’s good, he will be happy”; now we say, “If he’s happy, he will be good.” Goodness and happiness are regarded as convertible terms, only we like best to put “happy” as the cause, and “good” as the consequent. And the child brought up on these lines is both happy and good without much moral effort of self-compelling on his own part, while our care is to surround him with happy-making circumstances until he has got into the trick, as it were, of being good.
          But there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark. Once upon a time there was a young mother who conceived that every mother might be the means of gracing her offspring with fine teeth: “For,” said she, “it stands to reason that for every year of wear and grind you save the child’s teeth, the man will have a fine set a year the longer.” “Nonsense, my dear madam,” said the doctor, “you are ruining the child’s teeth with all this pappy food; they’ll be no stronger than egg-shells. Give him
plenty of hard crusts to crunch, a bone to gnaw; he must have something to harden his teeth upon.” Just so, of the moral “teeth” by means of which the child must carve out a place for himself in this full world. He must endure hardness if you would make a man of him. Blame as well as praise, tears as well as smiles, are of human nature’s daily food; pungent speech is a tool of the tongue not to be altogether eschewed in the building of character; let us call a spade a spade, and the child who brings the wrong book “stupid,” whether before strangers or behind them. Much better, this, than a chamber-conference with “Mother” about every trifle, which latter is apt to lead to a habit of morbid introspection.
          We are, in truth, between Scylla and Charybdis: on this side, the six-headed, many-toothed monster of our own unbridled love of power; on that, the whirlpool which would engulf the manly virtues of our poor little Ulysses. If we must choose, let it be Scylla rather than Charybdis; better lose something through the monster with the teeth, than lose ourselves in the whirlpool. But is there not a better way?

                    Weigh his estate and thine; accustom’d, he,
                    To all sweet courtly usage that obtains
                    Where dwells the King. How, with thy utmost pains,
                    Canst thou produce what shall full worthy be?
                    One, ‘greatest in the kingdom,’ is with thee,
                    Whose being yet discerns the Father’s face,
                    And, thence replenish’d, glows with constant grace:
                    Take fearful heed lest he despised be!
                    Order thy goings softly, as before
                    A Prince; nor let thee out unmannerly
                    In thy rude moods and irritable: more,
                    Beware lest round him wind of words rave free.
                    Refrain thee; see thy speech be sweet and rare:
                    Thy ways, consider’d; and thine aspect, fair.


[1] Bits of Talk about Home Matters, by Helen Hunt Jackson.