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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Morals in the Home

by W. J. Greenstreet, M.A.
Volume 2, 1891/92, pgs. 93-96


Assuming the inadequacy of a purely intellectual training and the necessity of a place for morals in our education, it is my object to sketch in outline the ideas of a French philosopher on a subject so important from every point of view. Some of my readers may be acquainted with the brilliant speculations of the late M. Guyau in this field. In the singularly suggestive volume entitled "Education et Heredite" he instituted a happy analogy between hypnotic suggestion and the process of education. The analogy between suggestion and instinct he was probably the first to point out. Suggestion resembles instinct because it induces a consciousness of obligation, the feeling in the mind of the patient that he is compelled to do the act suggested. Suggestion in the hypnotic sleep is powerful because the mind is in a state of disaggregation. Education is powerful in the case of the young because the mind is rudimentary. "Suggestion is the transformation by which an organism more passive tends to bring itself into harmony with an organism more active; the latter dominates the former and eventually controls its external movements, its volitions, and its internal convictions." It is the application of this notion to morality that makes this volume of unusual professional interest.

Suggestion is an instrument by which the educator will be able to modify instinct of inherited habits. We know how often the fact that a man or woman is more or less afraid in the dark may be traced back to the "bogey" of nursery days. Here suggestion has given rise to habit; it has introduced into the child a practical belief which is spontaneously realised. By means of this new instrument we can persuade the child that he is or is not what he really is. Let us see what use can be made of this weapon. If we repeatedly assure the child that he is capable of good and incapable of evil, will it give him the power to do good?--will it make him impotent for evil? If we make him believe that he is morally free, will the idea of moral liberty be spontaneously realised? If we repeatedly taunt a lad and tell him that he has no brains, what effect will our action have upon him? These and similar questions arise in the ordinary course of our daily work, and to these questions we have to find answers; upon the nature of the answers we find will depend our good or evil influence over those in our charge.

Habits may be created by direct suggestion. By habits we are to understand, with Guyau, reflex impulses, permanent in their character, which may (1) strengthen, (2) replace, or (3) check other impulses of hereditary origin. In many cases it is quite enough to tell a child, or to let him assume, that you believe him to be able to do this or that, to be incapable of telling a lie, and so forth, to stimulate him to justify your assumption. Consistently treat your boys as gentlemen, and they will always act in a gentlemanly way. But assume that their impulses are bad, be always suspicious of their motives, and the process of auto-suggestion will intervene with lamentable effect. It is in this way that vices--not necessarily hereditary--are developed under unskillful training. Again, when something wrong has been done by the child, it is unwise to assume that the culprit was actuated in his wrong-doing by the worst motives. Most of the sins of childhood are the outcome of want of deliberation, not of deliberate intent. If we ascribe to a fault deliberate intent we are very likely to ensure its repetition on the first opportunity. As Guyau puts it: "Say to the child, 'You did not of course intend to do so, but see what your act leads to; imagine how people who do not know you would interpret what you have done.' If a man followed by a vaguely threatening mob, turns round and shouts to them, 'You want to hang me, do you?' there is every likelihood that they will at once proceed to apply the formula he has found for them." We must not give the child the formulas of its instincts, lest he proceed at once to carry them into action. It is just as dangerous to make children conscious of their evil tendencies as it is useful to make them conscious of their good tendencies. Sentiments are much more complex and need more delicate treatment than actions. Parents should beware of reproaching their children for want of affection. The mere statement in naked brutality, "You don't love me," is far more likely to persuade the child of the truth of the assertion, and to increase its indifference, than to check or even to decrease it. If we want the moral feeling to develop we must encourage it. There is no development without action; therefore we must excite into action what we wish to develop. A reproach in the above case does not excite into action. The most it can do is to repress the wrong action, and thus check the unwelcome development.

Why do we make children work? Because we wish in the first place to teach them to "will," and then to succeed in what they have willed, i.e., to be conscious of their own power. Self-confidence is then a requisite sentiment which must be developed at all costs. Doubt is the parent of sterility. Confidence is the parent of fecundity. How are we to develop the ethical sentiment by perception of and reflection upon action? As suggestion in hypnotism creates the sense of obligation, so we must try and awaken the same sense in our scheme of education. There is no better remedy for the temptation assailing the instincts than the suggestion of idea and action, of precept and example. In proportion to the vigour of the child's personality is his positive enjoyment of restriction, so long as he has freedom of choice within the limits marked out. This instinctive and wholesome admiration for moral strength--namely, will--is akin to the boy's admiration for physical strength. As the child is readily moulded upon what is just and true, the child will become just and true. We do not want to break the child's will; we want to strengthen it and to direct it. A stubborn self-willed child needs more careful management than any of its fellows. We want it to have a strong will, but we do not want it to be obstinate. We must therefore cultivate with watchful care those qualities that make it more than strong (in the sense of obstinate).

The sentiment of authority is composed of three elements:--Moral affection and respect, the habit of submission--the result of repeated submission, and fear. Make the two latter subordinate to the former, make the affection a reward for merit, make "love begets love" our motto. As the child begins to love, the reward surpasses in value all other rewards. With the advent of reason, fear as an element vanishes; the child obeys, not because it has contracted the habit of obedience, but because it loves and respects. Reason will only suppress the habit of submission and fear as soon as the affection is strong enough to compensate for them. Why is this? Analyse the sentiment of fear. Fear is only a moral agent when spontaneous, and a balancing of motives will only end in loss of spontaneity; for the child will either follow out his whim and disobey, or if obedient he will be so because he was too great a coward to resist, or he will be obedient and harbor mutinous feeling against authority. In both cases fear ceases to be spontaneous, and therefore will cease to be moral. In the same way cowardice or a rebellious disposition may be created by corporal punishment. At any rate, when corporal punishment is administered there must be no manifestation of passion or brutality; there may be indignation, but there must be no violence. The punishment must be, in the child's mind, the logical outcome of his act, and it should be infrequent, the exception and not the rule. It should have a moral colour; it should be symbolical; moral pain should from the first be blended with the physical pain, which it should gradually replace. Punishment in itself works no transformation of character except in so far as it is transfigured in recollection; it must take its place among the habitual motives of the child. From the outset make the children see that our commands are reasonable, and we add confidence to the affection and respect they already feel towards us. "If," says Guyau,"the art of education consists in the formation of good habits, it is clear that we must strengthen those habits by the consciousness and the belief that they are rational."

Although the sense of obligation is the essential feature in the ethical sentiment, there may be other elements in the approval of an action. Horror at cruelty contains an element of anger. Now anger is at bottom anti-social. It is of supreme importance that at the earliest possible period the child should be familiarised with the notion that there is a social ideal. The ideal of humanity must rise above the hereditary instincts and gradually modify them in its own direction. Cultivate sociability. Sulkiness is the preliminary symptom of unsociability. Analyse it. Its formula, says Guaya, is "love to displease those whom your action will displease." Here is a lethargy of the will; the child, in the presence of another's will, succumbs and prefers to yield rather than resist. Once the habit is acquired the child becomes accustomed to abide by a fault instead of atoning for it. The vague sense of uneasiness which might produce remorse is counterbalanced by the satisfaction of its amour-propre. If we never allow sulkiness to persist, if we soon give the kiss of reconciliation, the child's sullenness will melt away, and the complex sentiment of active remorse will come into play to re-establish the equilibrium of good-fellowship compromised.

Bad Temper is another very complex state of mind which must be suppressed as early as possible. A single exhibition of anger or jealousy is comparatively easily disposed of; but the general tendency to bad temper is a moral atmosphere which is very difficult to dissipate. Here the secret is--make the child happy. Keep it in good humour, never let it brood over fancied slights, always present to it the affectionate side of your character

Do what you can to strengthen the sense of solidarity. Train a child to take more pleasure in the happiness of others than in his own. If the altruistic sentiments are developed so far as to enable a child to form a high opinion of others, a counterpoise is afforded to his own personal merits.

I hope that this abstract of some of M. Guyau's views upon the treatment of children may lead the readers of this review to consult a volume which contains many bold and original suggestions with regard to education and the home.


Proofread by Brandy Vencel, March 2013