The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
By J. M. Scott-Moncrieff.
"A man must stand erect, not be kept erect by others." In this invertebrate age, gregarious action seems the only action possible to many of us, and as we lean our weight on custom and example these words sound in our ears startling as a trumpet call--"A man must stand erect."
What has the world come to that our young people cannot rise in time for breakfast, cannot go early to bed, cannot take a daily constitutional, cannot read a "solid" book of their own unaided motion without the stimulus of a sixpenny fine imposed by some society. The correspondence columns of many papers teem with requests for the addresses of such societies. "Is there any association for practising an hour a day?" enquires *Pianissimo* in one number, to be replied to by several kindred spirits in the next. The loss of original effort which results is evident. "Keep my conscience" is the unanimous bleat of those who herd together in these unions, and would fain be taken in charge by secretaries and treasurers. A regular payment of any fines incurred keeps clear the score, and the conscience comfortably held in leading strings becomes less and less capable of individual action.
I must allude in passing to the mischief done to children and young people in permitting them to sign rules, and take on themselves obligations with which they are unlikely to comply. The sacredness of a promise cannot but suffer in their eyes, when one after another is so lightly made and inevitably broken. Where a man's imagination and experience make him aware of the future bearing of any undertaking to which he pledges himself, the child's ignorance incapacitates him, and therefore he ought not to be allowed to undertake far-reaching obligations.
Again, the plan of compounding for failure in duty by payment of a fine is dangerous. To hand our authority over ourselves to any outside power because it is irksome to maintain it, is to weaken that authority. It is true that to parents supreme authority over their children's souls is at first God-given, as over their bodies. But it is only a delegated power, and as we watch for and encourage the growing energy and life of the child, so that from being carried about, and fed, and provided for, he shall stand erect and act for himself, so we should dictate and judge for him only until he is able to control and think for himself.
In the nursery the year-old baby's first attempts to stand alone are anticipated and hailed by his nurse with homely phrases of encouragement--"Stand up like a man; let us see how big you are." So later, when the developing powers of reflection and will become apparent, we should encourage their exercise and guide them on. "Be yourself--be all it is in *you* to be; think, exert that power of which you feel conscious, and it will become stronger."
We are too much inclined to prop our children up with good habits, "customs, modes, and maxims," instead of rousing or instilling the principle from which these will result. "Thought from without" we take too easily on trust, both for ourselves and them, whereas we should
Heave to light and clear of rust
In the schoolroom no doubt quick minds take readily what George Eliot calls "that strong starch of unexplained rules and discounted facts, which saves ignorances from any painful sense of limpness;" but those who aim at well informed minds before well-formed manners for their sons and daughters are not anxious to shield them from a consciousness of ignorance. "Know thyself, feel thy limitations, seek and find what power of escape from them is in thee." Thus they interpret the ancient oracle. On these lines it is advisable to watch the evolution of your child's character, to supply his mental wants as, *not before*, they arise; as soon as may be to indicate sources of supply and encourage him to supply himself, as Sydney Smith said, "to use precepts sparingly and opportunely;" to use censure with much discrimination; to encourage thought, so to put things that your child shall make comparisons and draw conclusions for himself; to elicit these, and make them as much as possible in his own words the rules by which he shall conduct himself. "You found it much easier, didn't you, to remember the words in your translation the day you wrote them down after looking them up? How neatly you have put them in double columns. Is it easiest to learn them that way?" Your child thinks; says yes; feels that he has exercised a personal choice, and your suggestion has a far more permanent effect than a command. Put him, open eyed, upon the track of truth, he will prize her most when he finds her himself. Perhaps reading to himself is irksome; do not, therefore make a habit of reading to him, but stimulate his mind. Begin a new story, and, pausing where the interest is strongest, leave the book in his hands while you attend to some other matter. When you come back most probably he looks up with eager face to tell you how the plot has developed. In this way, if you lead the horse to the water curiosity will make him drink. Lead him little by little to investigate and observe for himself; do not forestall with stereotyped explanations the knowledge he is almost in sight of; encourage him to take a step or two further, and find out for himself. Mental as well as physical food should not be given until hunger demands it; and if there be no appetite look to it. Rouse that; it is a truism that the mind requires exercise, rest, variety; suffers from inaction, overwork, scarcity, and surfeit, just as the body does. Both must be trained to healthy, independent action if the child, and hereafter the man, is to stand erect.
In matters of opinion, for instance, how does a child learn to judge between right and wrong? First, the two must be put before him in broad and simple ways--the black very black, the white very white--until he learns to know the one distinctly from the other. Later, in the nursery stories which best convey such ideas, you present him with less bold and self-evident pictures. Right and wrong, he learns are more often relative than absolute--he must remember what went before, must reflect on what is likely to result, before he forms an opinion--and so you prepare him to appreciate that most delicate problem--the mixed nature of human motives--and when his difficulties meet him in his own experience, he will not take refuge in either extreme, as unthinking people do, but will draw his own conclusion, and, "calling a grey thing grey, not black," if that is how he sees it.
In matters of conduct, too, a great deal may be done by parents to encourage a healthy individuality. Where your child shows a harmless preference, and can give a reason, encourage it. The very consciousness that he may do the things he feels he *can* do, may put in practice his original ideas in regard to methods of study, arrangement of his possessions, carpentry, drawing, etc.--may depart from tradition in trifles--if he has any good reason for trying some new little notion of his own, this sense of encouraged freedom of appreciated experiments helps to build up a sturdy individuality of character, by which he will hold his own when the strain and stress of the world come upon him. He is not a bit afraid of singularity, that is half life's battle. True, he will not always take the right path, with sheep-like obedience, because "everybody does it," or, "people will think" this or that, and his good behaviour won't have the pretty consistency of unreasoning habit, but on the other hand, under different influences, he is not so likely to run with the multitude to do evil, as a child who has not learnt to be a law unto himself.
And now to preach to ourselves. We parents, do we always show the courage of our opinions in our own conduct? "Where shall that happy race of men be found, who shall seek truth with an unbiassed soul,* and speak it without fear of the odium of singularity?" wrote Dr. Watts 150 years ago, and the race has not yet been discovered. Sometimes one is seen here or there among us, as if strayed from another planet, who, merely by standing erect, towers head and shoulders over the crowd. He does not only as much as is customary in any direction, but as much more as is in him. He is never one of a dozen or a gross. We others are seldom content unless we can run our energies into an approved mould, and be philosophic, humane, aesthetic, *comme il faut.* Uneasy when we feel any opinionative stirring of our latent, imprisoned self, we clap on the hatches of a custom or a fashion, and smother the thing.
Your erect man acts differently. Emerson has put him in a sentence, when he describes what he calls central natures. "He whose word or deed you cannot predict, who answers you without any supplication in his eye, who draws his determination from within, and draws it instantly, that man rules." Bigots and fanatics, according to Carlyle, are the only men who have ever effected anything in this world, and historical illustrations of characters such as both he and Emerson mean are too numerous to mention. Analysed they all have this in common--they were men who stood erect. To do so, to be unfashionably good, unaffectedly aesthetic, consistently humane, to be practical philosophers, sincere speakers, we require an innate principle of uprightness. Do you remember where Jane Eyre in the great crisis of her life sees and shrinks from her duty? "I cannot do it. But then a voice within me averred that I could do it, and foretold that I should do it. I wanted to be weak that I might avoid the further passage of awful suffering I saw laid out for me. Let me be torn away then,' I cried, 'Let another help me?' 'No, you shall tear yourself away, none shall help you.'" The struggle ends with a foregone conclusion, she attains with painful endeavour the height of duty. We may quote proverbs to the effect that union is strength, two heads are better than one, and demand the leading strings and crutches of public opinion, until we fear to take one step without them. But while we dally and search for precedents, time is lost. Now or never, life must be realised in action. "Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years," said Marcus Aurelius; "death hangs over thee. While thou livest, *while it is in thy power,* be good." And again, with simple brevity, bracing as a fresh wind, "No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such."
Typed July 2013