The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Early Tendencies in the Child: How to Check Them or Develop
by Mrs. Edward Sieveking
Lecture given at the Wakefield Branch of the P.N.E.U., etc.
Tendencies are the clues to personality. They are a revelation of the tides that govern its waters, that urge them to encroach ever further up on the shore of progress, or to recede little by little on the opposite shore of decadence. In everyone in whom they exist, they show the soul's point of view; even when in a very initial stage, we meet with them in the little child. We come across them daily, hourly, but yet it needs a trained sense to recognise them, to label them, to understand to the full, what their later meaning will be, when the child is a grown human being.
Tendencies are always prophetical for those among us who have eyes, and who use them. They prophesy what they will eventually lead to, if not interfered with, or hindered; and this prophecy is not in evidence once or twice merely, but continually, insistently before us, week in, week out.
We don't stone prophets now as we were accustomed to do in medieval days; instead, we treat them as a rule with silent indifference, with perfect nonchalance; they don't concern us, we say in effect; and so these prophets in the home—these tendencies in our children—speak—very plainly sometimes, so that outsiders hear them, though parents are often deaf to them—and we don't grasp the message until, having lived on the land for the requisite number of years as undisputed possessors, they can claim it incontrovertibly in the end, and we ourselves wake up some day to find ourselves evicted and powerless before them. Then it is too late; the possessors of the land have acted on their rights, their sign is now up over the door, and we have practically no one but ourselves to blame for not having long ago turned them out, while yet there was time and opportunity.
Dispossessing is never an easy task; obliterating an impression firmly stamped wears away the material upon which it is impressed, even if we can succeed in rubbing it out, and even then the surface can never be renewed in quite its early strength and freshness.
There is nothing in the world with such a strong grasp of possession as an evil habit, or indeed a habit of any sort—it is a veritable fact that if you "sow a habit you reap a character." Are there not habits of our own, made carelessly in other days, that take so much dispossessing, so much obliterating, that at times we almost despair of ever really casting them from us for good? We perhaps remember, looking back now into the past, in how seemingly trivial and pleasant a manner they came first to us, as it were, on a little visit; then stayed on and on, making themselves quite at home, and in effect dispossessing us of our birthright, our character—and eventually, till we become at last grimly conscious that now it would require so tremendous an effort that it would shake our house of personality to its foundations if we took them by the shoulders and thrust them out of doors, with all their accumulated possessions, and thus dispossessed them for good and all.
Some of us never make this effort, but realizing how enormous a demand it would make upon our resources, decide weakly, in effect, not to make it, and abjectly let ourselves be thrust into the veriest corner that some possessing habit may have its way, and we allow it to reign supreme in the living-room of our character. But when it comes to seriously considering this point of view with regard to our children, there is not one of us, if we thought carefully and definitely of the matter, but would take any trouble, make any effort, rather than suffer such a dispossessing to happen in their case, through lack of our recognising in their early days the dangerous tendencies against which we could wage continual warfare. For it is then or never with tendencies, with impressions.
If we let evil tendencies, mistaken tendencies, take possession then, we cannot tell when they will be driven out: if we let bad impressions be made then on the soft, as yet unmarked material of the child's mind, it may be years before we can succeed in effacing them, even if we ever succeed in doing so.
Archdeacon Wilburforce says that there is "amongst the curiosities of a continental museum, a brick from the walls of ancient Babylon, which bears the imprint of the cipher of one of Babylon's mighty kings. Right over the centre of the royal cipher is deeply impressed the footprint of one of the pariah dogs which wandered about that ancient city. It was the invariable custom in ancient Babylon to stamp the bricks used for public works with the cipher of the reigning monarch, and while this brick was lying in its soft and plastic state, some wandering dog had, apparently accidentally, trodden upon it. Long ages passed! The king's image and super-scription is visible, but defaced—well nigh illegible, almost obliterated. The name of that mighty ruler cannot be deciphered; the footprint of the dog is clear, sharply defined, deeply impressed, as on the day on which it was made."
What is the suggestion that we should read into this parable? Surely this: that it is for us to be on the watch for these early prophetical beginnings in our boys and girls in nursery days, for it will not do to leave them to chance. It will not do to say comfortably to ourselves, "Oh, he'll grow out of that," if a boy is accustomed to take the biggest share for himself at table, or the lion share of sweets, or the best seat at an entertainment, or the easiest chair in the drawing room, etc. It is a comfortable, easy doctrine, but unfortunately it is not true. He will not grow out of it, but more and more in it, if no effort is made to check the habit. Impressions made on the soft clay of character during nursery days are very, very difficult to eradicate indeed. You remember what Miss Ellice Hopkins says à propos of this:—"That little habit of self-indulgence which you in your foolish fondness have allowed in that boy of yours, may in after life come out as the very impurity which you have endeavoured so earnestly to guard him against." My own conviction about the matter is that the tendencies that show in quite early days remain with us, as weakened or strengthened companions, all through the days of our life. They have in fact "come to stay"; and our business, as fathers and mothers, is just this, as it seems to me, to keep a vigorous look-out for small beginnings: to think nothing too trivial in the way of the a character sign.
You know those splendid word-pictures of Walter Pater's. "How insignificant, at the moment, seem the influences of the sensible things which are tossed and fall and lie about us, so, or so, in the environment of early childhood. How indelibly, as we afterwards discover, they affect us; with what capricious attractions and associations they figure themselves on the white paper, the smooth wax, of our ingenuous souls, as 'with lead in the rock for ever,' giving form and feature, and as it were assigned house-room in our memory to early experiences of feeling and thought, which abide with us ever afterwards, thus and not otherwise. The realities and passions, the rumours of the greater world without, steal in upon us, each by its own special little passage-way through the wall of custom about us; and never afterwards quite detach themselves from this or that accident, or trick, in the mode of their first entrance to us."
Unless we are careful to be on the watch for early tendencies, early impressions, the footprint of some pariah tendency will stamp itself so deeply on the personality of the child that we may never eradicate it, with all our efforts, in later life; never dispossess the alien intruder whose sign has been put up over the door. Faults are the complaints of the soul; and just as we are often disfigured all our lives by the impressions left on face or body by some childish illness, so do faults given in to, and allowed to run riot in the character of a child, leave deep scores.
A case in point rises in my memory as I speak, of a very intellectual, highly educated, thoroughly earnest-minded and good mother, whom I used to know very well years ago. She was absolutely devoted to her son: absolutely self-denying for his sake: absolutely self-less where he was concerned; but with all her love, all the devotion, all the absorption in him that her daily life held, she had, unluckily, no eye for tendencies, and so the tares of his evil tendencies grew fast and loose among the wheat of her careful planting, until it was practically choked out of existence. To go to lunch with her, as I remember doing in childhood days, was to go through a very painful process; he raced round and round the table, pestering her unceasingly for different things to eat, and was most insufferable and unruly,—for whatever impulse came uppermost, he obeyed it at once, and the evidence of her spoiling was written in large letters all over him, though I personally didn't grasp that fact then! Her strongest reprimand was a gentle foolish remonstrance, which the boy brushed aside as easily as he would a gossamer across his path on an autumn morning.
He grew up as might have been expected—spoiling his own life as well as the lives of others: a human wreck: one of those who are at the mercy of their impulses—and impulses, after all, are only grown-up tendencies. The last I heard of him, I remember, was that whenever his own wardrobe was scanty, he used to come home when he knew his younger brother was away, go up into his room and turn out all his drawers, choose the newest of his coats and trousers, ties, &c., that suited his fancy and go back to town with them! And yet with all his flaws of character, and tendencies to run wild, he was brilliantly clever, a fine-looking young man outwardly, and very attractive indeed—and yet a moral wreck!
I give this instance as an example of the position in which neglected evil tendencies in early youth land a man or a woman later in life.
There is one marked bad tendency among children to-day which I think needs considerable checking. It is that of destructiveness. They all have it, boys and girls alike; and we are apt to say weakly, "That is their pleasure in having a toy, that they may break it," and the joy seems to be in taking it to pieces to see how it is made; but that it does not spring from this reason is manifest, as they in very rare cases attempt to put it together again when they have seen how it is constructed. The reason, therefore, is farther to seek. Of old, in our great-grandfathers' days, it apparently was not a nursery impulse, for have there not come down to us cherished toys—may one not say "lavendered" toys?—the flotsam and jetsam of another age—that they played with, cared for, and would let no harm touch.
It is not difficult to see if we do not check this habit of recklessly destroying things in our children, how in after years it will lay waste and destroy other people's happiness, other people's lives, when the boy is a man. But I do not think that we shall be far wrong if we trace the reason of this habit of destructiveness in great part to a habit among many parents to-day of encouraging and providing for the lavish spending of money by their children.
In England to-day we do not inculcate the values of money, or simplicity, or self-denying habits of life, and so we are face to face with these two extremes: excessive luxury in an upper class of society, and excessive poverty and want in another. Look at two of our most fashionable public schools to-day. What can be said of parents who promote such tendencies in their sons at school as that of the lavish expenditure of money on their clothes? Only quite lately I heard of a mother who have her son, as pocket money, £30 to spend on himself when he went back to school after the holidays; and of another who tipped her little boy with £2 10$ after his visit to the dentist.
What do you suppose all this exuberance of pocket money goes in? It fosters three chief tendencies which are already rampant in our midst, viz., want of economy in dress; want of self-restraint in eating, and the greed for adding monies to monies by the excitement of gambling.
What is perhaps the commonest expression to-day on most little boys' lips in talking to one another? Is it not, "I bet you it was such and such a thing"? Does not that show which way the wind sets plainly enough, even though the sentence, in itself, is a trifle?
There is so much lack of proportion in the way we look at things to-day in many matters connected with children. It reminds me of an exemplification of this which I met with a little time ago in an actress friend of mine, a very delightful modern girl, who gave me a vivid description of a certain incident in her career before she achieved success. She and her friend—a fellow-actress—had clubbed together and taken two rooms, and their joint "takings," if one may so call their stage earnings, covered just the cost of the rooms and over very frugal meals besides. One evening this girl came back to her rooms after rehearsal, and the hungry friend exclaimed, "Well, where is our supper?" The reply was, "There is none; I've got it round my waist!"—and she displayed a resplendent yellow silk sash!
To anyone behind the scenes at some of our big public schools, the bills which most boys run up in one term for clothes alone, point to the extravagant habits into which the parents have suffered them to get—nay, into which they have aided and abetted them. For it is first and foremost, undeniably, the parents' fault—may one use a stronger word still and call it one of the blatant sins of the day?—that these things are so. And it is because so many parents to-day will not face things—will not "call a spade a spade," and dig up with it the decadent tendencies in their children, which began, sure enough, in their own nurseries at home. It is because in the home the parents were too greatly "cumbered with much serving" of society "tables," to be able to train their own children; to be able to watch closely—and it must be closely—to recognise rightly in which direction a tendency is leading, that we have to-day to face the results in our public schools. And we must remember this, that the boys in whom these pariah tendencies have already stamped their trade-mark, and who are at school to-day, will be the citizens of to-morrow, with the future of the nation in their hands, and the future of our girls more especially.
Yes, that last is the point one needs to press home as a dominant warning idea. Into what sort of hands are we presently going to entrust the future of the girls of to-day? Surely in the minds of all of us who know and believe in the tremendous force of heredity, grave fears will rise for the children who will be born to them in the days that are coming. Fears for the country, fears for the mothers who bear them. For at any rate, I think most people will agree with me that the girl of to-day is a finer product of the country—more high principled—more enthusiastic over work—far less subject to the evil tendencies besetting the public school—than the boy.
There is no finer material anywhere to-day than the English girl of the upper middle class. She is farther forward in many ways, speaking psychologically, than the average young man of the same age. He is indeed very often quite unable to understand her grip of unseen motive powers for action; therefore, when she begins talking of them, if she does do so, he is completely at sea: her words are practically Hindustanee to him. She is, as a rule, possessed of far keener spiritual sight, and insight also.
Have you ever watched the faces of the boys coming out of school some morning, at one of the great public school centres? I have, often, and the sight is not an inspiring one. I remember one particular morning walking down a certain High Street when they were all pouring out of the classrooms, like so many ants out of an ant-hill. Here and there, it is true, amongst the crowd of faces there were one or two bright and promising; but the owners of them were generally walking apart from the rest, and had what one must call the student expression—dreamy, intellectual. But for the others, and these were by far the greater number,—well, they were greedy-looking, sensual, common; and some were scored rather deeply with the imprint of pariah tendencies.
Another day, I went up to a conference in town, and sitting quietly by myself at the far end of the hall, thinking of nothing in particular, except that I feared I had not brought a sufficient stock of thought-out questions in readiness for the coming discussions, I was struck into keen, immediate enthusiasm by the entrance at the door beside me of a group of girls. They paused a moment and then walked up to the platform: and on my asking one of the conference secretaries, I found they were students who had come to give addresses in connection with the conference.
What had struck me into such keen admiration was not so much their splendid physique—they were all fine examples of the girl of to-day—and all were differently fine, and, without exception, they were all very striking-looking; but it was not that, it was the look in their faces, it was what I call the "enthusiasm look" as of a human being trained to act—and lighted by the spirit of enthusiasm within—perfectly alert. Each one was a girl who, at the call of emergency, would answer promptly—"Ready!" In every one of the faces there was the light of strong-trained tendencies for good—the most absolute opposite to the boys which it were possible to conceive.
If one tries in thought to imagine these two direct opposites brought together in marriage later on, one is inevitably forced into the question: "How will it answer?"
What will be the effect on the girl when, in the future, she drifts into being married to one of them—married, but not mated? For one can only "mate" with one's equal, and the decadent boy will by now be grown into the decadent young man, and he further still from the goal at which the woman is aiming. He will be a decade behind her in thought, in point of view, in aim. He has used himself up in boyhood—he is blasé before his time—she is turning her face towards the sunrise, and he is not turning his thither simply because he not only does not believe in one, but does not want to believe in one.
How can the girl "look up" to a man such as he is? What has caused his different outlook? It may be his home training; it may be that he and the girl have been brought up in most cases with diametrically opposite methods of education (for, practically, the lines of education in our public schools are much the same as they were three hundred years ago); but whatever the reason may be, they are too diverse to meet on the same grounds. How can she do otherwise than feel the drag of the chain that binds her to him? She "is mated to a clown, and the coarseness of his nature will have power to drag her down." [paraphrased from Tennyson's poem, Locksley Hall: "thou art mated with a clown, and the grossness of his nature will have weight to drag thee down."] What can be the effect he will have on her but a lowering one, a decadent one? If she keeps to her old ideals she will be alone, and whenever he turns, so to speak, she will be conscious of a jarring jerk to the marriage chain. There is nothing in all the world that is so separating, so disintegrating as regards all intimate mental intercourse, as fundamental misunderstanding between two people.
To be understood is to be saved—it is the supremest need of human beings. Unless you are understood you cannot do yourself full justice, you cannot rise to the heights to which you would otherwise rise. Unless you are understood you are walking on the blind side of people; you are strangers still to each other—yes, even if the other is your nearest relation.
As a girl said to me the other day, "The wrong impressions which people give are among the curses of life." And this is the truth, for wrong impressions are the reverse side of understanding and recognition. So that it is above all things necessary that in the case of our children, we should be on the watch for tendencies in nursery days; necessary, too, that we should have the right judgment for them when they come before us, that we should not decide hastily and treat them wrongly, for the checking or developing of them must all be done—as an old hospital nurse used to say to me—"by littles," that is to say, consistently, regularly, and with intention. For, as a modern doctor [Joseph Bell, speaking of germs] says, "The importance of the infinitely little is incalculable." And if we are not in touch, as it were, with our children (and how can this be managed effectually and practically if we are not constantly with them in their work and in their play, whenever possible?) we shall not be in sympathy with those developments, those tendencies, which require the sunshine of sympathy and intuitive understanding in which to grow and expand.
Playing at sympathy is no good at all: it is moreover a very dangerous game; for a child being almost always an actor at heart, recognises without hesitation that it is not real, only simulated, and your chance with him is gone.
There is one thing worse even than this recognition, and this is the keen disappointment which some sensitive children feel at the failure of a "venture," if one may so call it, with the mother or father in whom their childish hopes centre; when they feel instinctively—though such a child would never own this to anyone—that the mother or father has failed in sympathy.
I remember such a case in a little boy who, being very delicate, had always been kept much at home. One afternoon he had been working hard at some painting with his governess in the schoolroom, and after he had taken special pains in finishing it off carefully (it being intended for his mother) he and the governess took it to the mother's boudoir.
The little boy gave a timid knock, and when she called out "Come in," he went up to her chair where she was sitting writing busily at her desk, and said, shyly, "I've been painting this for you, mother," holding out, as he spoke, the painting.
She, with easy conventionalism of manner and without turning round, said, "Oh, have you, dear? Thank you so much."
The little boy waited by her chair:—"Won't you look at it, mother?" he asked, after a moment, tentatively.
She turned round in that unseeing, hurried way which deceives no one, which is therefore always a needless expenditure of—untruth (!) and said "Very pretty, dear; now run away, for I'm busy."
The boy said nothing, but moved away from the desk, and as the door of the room closed behind him, he looked up at the governess, his eyes full of unshed tears, and said, "Poor mother, I oughtn't to have worried her with this—she's so busy." No other word came from him; no complaint of her lack of sympathy, he was far too loyal even to allow to himself that she had failed in sympathy.
But there it was nevertheless—she had failed. She hadn't understood her child—she was out of touch with him, she had mixed up her duties, for surely her first duty of all was to her child, and whatever the writing was, it could and should have waited.
Children, after all, do not ask for so very much from us in the way of sympathy; but they do want it "little and strong!" It must never be feigned, it must never by flummery, it must be the genuine article, for there is not one quicker than a child at recognising genuineness in an adult or the reverse; they may not always know how to explain to you that they've found you out—that's another matter altogether, and is because, as a rule, they are as yet unfledged as to their conversational pinions, and so are practically dumb; but you need not flatter yourself they have not seen the trade-mark in the corner of your offered gift of sympathy, and know it for what it is worth.
(To be continued.)
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Tendencies often begin in games. There is no such thing as a "close time" for tendencies, therefore our watch must be kept with no "intervals for refreshment." It is in the "playing fields" of our nurseries that they first make their appearance, and if we are not accustomed to being constantly with our children, naturally we are not au fait [familiar] with all their exits and entrances, and, consequently, very often it happens that the pariah tendencies have made a clear-cut, deep impression on the surface of the personality, when eventually they come before our notice.
I remember a curious game being started by my own children not long ago. It was called the "Lottery Game," and consisted of little slips of paper being handed round to each by the eldest child, with the name of a toy—of which the spelling was delightfully original, and it be found in no dictionary extant—written inside. Then a shuffle of the papers ensued, and amid great excitement each child drew and opened his or her slip. The content of one or two was unbounded, but the dismay of those not so fortunate was equally great, for they recognised that they had played—and lost, and had to give up to the one who had drawn it, a cherished and beloved toy. In most cases the unfortunate ones recognised that the fate was inexorable that had befallen them, and did not attempt to keep the toy back.
This game had gone on for some little time one afternoon until nearly all the Christmas presents which the children had been given had changed hands, and then, on recognising and thinking over the moral ethics of the game, we decided to insist on the rules being altered, viz., that at the end of each round all the toys should be restored to their proper original owners. But this turned out to be its death-blow; for little by little its vitality dwindled, till at last it was heard of no more. The curious fact of the case was, however, this: that to my knowledge the children had, to all intents and purposes, as far as they were concerned, invented this game with its gambling tendency, and had never met with it elsewhere. This, to me, seems to point to one thing which should be more widely recognised than I think is the case. Gambling, if one tracks it back to its beginning, was initially but the craving for excitement—the revulsion from tedium and monotony. A perfectly natural desire, if one comes to think of it. It was only the swing of the pendulum which made the Puritans look on pleasure and excitement as wrong. It is most unbecoming and unsuitable for some personalities to paper their souls' rooms dun-coloured—they themselves, in such case, never show to advantage at all. Excitement—in other words, stimulus—is necessary to some natures. Some people never do such good work as when they are moved by excitement. Excitement—or, if you like the word better, "stimulus"—is the glow of the fire within the mind, lighting up the God-given power within of enthusiasm, and sending out as a means of stirring up others to action, burning words—inspired actions.
You remember what F.W. Robertson (of Brighton) said on the subject of excitement: "Excitement—by which I mean that which stirs and gives us a vivid consciousness of actually being . . . Some people can be wound up and go for years without winding up again, but you cannot wind up a Geneva watch in that way. The truth is that it is a living life that she needs: successions of the habitual and the impulsive . . . the impulsive to make her feel voluntariness—the life of feeling, instead of the horrid deadness of machinery. The only remedy against this would be to discover, if possible, a new invigorating excitement before the old has worn out. She is happy, calm, bright, active, good, energetic, when moved . . . Her heart sets her intellect and her powers in motion—not her intellect—her heart . . . My nature resembles hers in many things—impulsive, sustained in good by stimulus—flagging without it . . . The key to all her character is its impulsiveness: the whole secret of her 'inward happiness' lies not in the blunting, but in the right direction of it."
I think we should recognise therefore its demand, and answer it by giving it full satisfaction away from the dangerous courses it would otherwise take. We ought to provide for children—as we are now doing for grown-up people of a less educated class—rational ways of escaping from monotony, from tedium; or, rather, let me use that most expressive word of a past generation—the vapours! With children, as with grown-up people, the vapours will rise like a poisonous exhalation if we are not careful to provide healthy rational excitements for those among us who are not sufficient unto ourselves, and who have minds of sluggish depths. Little recurrent excitements of looking forward to them, are like the lamps breaking the monotony of a long street on a winter evening.
Just think how much pleasure a child gets out of a trip up the line in spring or summer, with mother or father (if one lives in the country or the suburbs), with a basket of sponge cakes and a bottle of milk for an impromptu tea, to some little village common unknown before; the joy of finding a new nest, or a new flower in some hitherto unvisited lane near by; the delightful excitement of the journey (which stations); the digging up roots of flowers or creepers for the children's own garden at home. Such expeditions are veritable shining lights of pleasures which light up a whole week of lessons. And these sorts of excitements could be readily thought of, mapped out and carried out by all of us—by those of the most economical turn of mind. The simpler they are, so much the better—the happiness the children get out of them is immeasurable. On looking back to my own childhood days, it seems to me that my chief pleasure of the week was the Saturday morning walk up the Downs, which my mother used regularly to take me, to a certain charming little fir wood—Saturday morning being the day when my nurse had to clean our the day nursery. Those kinds of simple, very easy pleasures to manage, make keen impressions on the child's mind, and, in after years, are among the very joys of memory.
It is in just such pleasures as these that we can foster and develop those tastes, those tendencies in our children, which are there if we will tend them and train them. Look at the time and opportunities for growing, that such an expedition as the one I have just been suggesting provides! There is no more valuable pursuit, or one more healthful for mind and body, than that of the study of natural history, none more engrossing—I had almost said none more exciting, for those who are "in the swim" know well what a thrill of excitement runs through you on tracking down a bird that is new to you, or in making your own some new experience of the reason or instinct of an animal. Natural history is a book filled from cover to cover with absorbing stories—stories of which the youngest among us need have no expurgations, as is an advisable practice sometimes in other publications. For every evil there is, somewhere, its antidote. That, I take it, is a deep, firmly-rooted conviction in most minds. For the evil tendency which perhaps fastens on a child indoors, let us try the recurrent treatment of out-of-door expeditions: to foster the taste for birds, beasts and reptiles, for fishing, for boating, for the search for and after definition of wild flowers. If he is selfish, there are opportunities in plenty for thought for others, for sharing treasures, for denying himself, if the store brought in the basket is inadequate to demand of prolonged healthy appetites, for economy in order with pocket-money saved to buy some natural history book in order to discover "what's what" among the findings brought home from the expedition.
Now as to those tastes which we should try to develop in our children. There are a few tendencies to-day which I think we are apt to disregard and not develop as we should. Reverence is one of them: the reason is not far to seek. As a nation we are not greatly distinguished by it, as everyone will allow. We are not a nation of idealists, nor are we a nation with much reverence for tradition! And it seems to me this is a pity—for some traditions are infinitely worthy of reverence. It seems to me that we greatly need to develop the latent tendencies of reverence, idealism of aim, and loyalty. It was one of the greatest poets the world have ever known who said "reverence is the angel of the world." If that is so, then, to all intents and purposes, our angel is seldom indeed in our midst. We are too materialistic; we are too unimaginative. But this fact remains nevertheless as a truth—that all really great men are idealists at heart, and all have a deep sense of loyalty, of reverence for some tradition that has come down to us as a sacred heritage from the long dead hands of men in far-off ages. In view of this, what can we do but condemn the attitude of most children towards their parents nowadays? The attitude of easy camaraderie has something that is dear to the parents certainly in one sense, because, as a school-mistress once said to me, "there is not greater compliment than for a child to put you on his level," for it means that he takes your interest and sympathy for granted; but what can one say about the lack of courtesy, of reverence to parents, which is so self-evident among children to-day? Is this the parents' fault again? Perhaps in some measure it is. Only the other day a woman said to me, "I don't want my children to reverence me; if I do, later on they'll find me out!" Think of the covert irony of the words!
But still there is always one sense in which children should be loyal to a never-failing reverence of motherhood, for fatherhood—and it is the same sort of idea as the assertion, "The king can do no wrong." This it is good and wholesome for the child to feel, whatever the parents may be; for they are, whatever their faults, the unworthy representatives of a Divine system. It is a miserable fact that they should be obliged, because of the actualities before their eyes, to be able to respect only in the abstract, but there is no help for it. And, owing to the prevalence among us as a nation of abnormally low ceilings to the living rooms of our thoughts, we have not grasped the fact that if we are not a nation with many ideals, and consequently do not teach them to our children, they will see us as we are—and the sight will not be particularly inspiring. So that perhaps we have only ourselves to thank for the ordinarily disrespectful attitude of English children to-day towards their parents.
This is not the case in Russia, neither is it in Germany. It used not to be the case formerly in England, as our own grandparents have testified. I remember being told a little story in connection with this, about my grandfather, which made a keen impression on me. My grandfather—when the incident occurred—was a young man, "walking the hospitals." He had come home one evening to dine with his father—his mother having promised to spend some hours with a friend—and while he and his father sat over their wine after dinner, an argument had arisen between them. He left home about ten o'clock, and his mother was surprised, on her return journey in the coach—the Hackney coach of other days—to see him come up to the window and open the door, saying he was coming back with her. On her asking why he was going back again, he answered that on thinking over the discussion which he and his father had had at dinner, he had come to the conclusion that he had not spoken to him quite as a son should, and had come back to beg his pardon for his discourtesy. His mother said afterwards that, curiously enough, on her mentioning the matter (when he had gone) to his father, he had told her that he did not remember his son having spoken in any way disrespectfully to him.
The contrast between this—what one might call old-world courtesy and delicacy of conscience—and the manner and conscience of to-day, is surely enormous. Cases of conscience of that sort, if we met with them to-day, would seem to us abnormal indeed. Looking back on my own life's experience, I cannot call to mind a single instance of any like incident—and it would require a greater effort of mind than my imagination could manage in a year to conceive of any of the specially modern type of boy being moved to such introspection, as would prompt him to take the trouble to return at any time, after parting with his parents, to apologize because he thought he had not spoken quite respectfully to them. And yet to me there is something very fine about the temper of mind which would so fear it had been guilty of a slight breach in reverence, that its owner could not rest until he had tried to do away with the possible impression made by it, and to disavow any intention of being discourteous. Then there is the tendency to method. Some of us are born tidy; others never get tidy, however much we try to root up tendencies to mislay things. There is the tendency to mislay things which seems to come into the world with some people; in the same sort of way as the tendency to mislay themselves (practically a lack of sense of direction), which leads them to lose their way inevitably when trying to find a house in a new neighbourhood. It seems indeed almost incurable—this last failing, though one can, by making a dead set at the first named propensity, inculcate the habit of mind in the child of believing (and acting on the belief) in "a place for everything, and everything in its place."
To develop habits of tidiness, and a sense of the fitness of abode of certain things in certain places, is no easy task. It demands unparalleled patience and great need of the repetition of injunctions before the habit gains ground, and your object is attained, of some particular article owning a name and an address, and, what is more, being found at its own proper address when called for!
As regards the tendencies to borrow other people's possessions, I think the rule should be even more strict. They should be lent only on condition that immediately they are done with, they should be put back in their place. I speak from experience specially, when I say that this should be insisted on de rigueur. The numbers and numbers of pairs of scissors and pencils and penholders that have gone into Limbo since my boys have been of an age to use them is inconceivable! If one is busied about many things throughout the day, it takes some effort to be able to remember exactly the time when the "return of the native," in the shape of the borrowed possession, should be taking place, and some trouble to exert the voice of authority to recall it. But this effort—this trouble—should be gone through with. I think Miss Mason gives a month of close watchings and tellings and insistings before the average boy learns the habit of shutting the door behind him. She has not at all over-stated the time required. To sow the habit of returning borrowed scissors, pencils, penholders, and the like much-coveted possessions among children, it needs a bag of seeds so big that one can hardly carry anything else at the time, so incessantly and constantly is the occupation of sowing required.
Then there are other tendencies which should be carefully encouraged, and these are the initial attempts which force themselves up from time to time in quite early childhood for music, for painting, for gardening, for acting, or for some perhaps not so popular hobbies. These are safe vents of childhood, because when a child is interested he is good: it is only when he is bored or idle that he is in mischief. "Find out men's wants, and meet them there," was a saying of one of the most learned humankind savants of a past day, and it is very true now; for if you watch carefully you will find out what the wants of the child's nature are, and it is for you to meet them—and if you can, to satisfy them—or rather to help him to satisfy them.
There is nothing in the world like the guardianship of a good pursuit that one loves. I had almost said that to have a hobby is to be saved; but what I do mean is that if one cares enough about some one pursuit, such as music, painting, handicraft of some sort, or mental craft, it becomes verily and indeed the shining sword which turns every side to keep the way of Life. A friend may fail one, a life-long companion may die, but a hobby—the possession of some real absorbing pursuit—is a joy for ever: it lives in the fortress of one's mind, in the citadel of one's heart, it is impregnable and an ever-living safeguard from the dangers that beset those who live, if one may so call it, unabsorbed lives.
I am quite aware, in conclusion, that there are many tendencies in our children to which we cannot at once give a name; these have to be laid aside in a corner of our minds to be labelled later on, after we have carefully noted from time to time their reappearances and apparent trend. As it is, most of us register impressions received from the children far too little, and so consequently we are in the dark as regards full tides and ebb tides of tendencies in them. But this is a mistake which can easily be rectified by examining and weighing in our personal mental balance the things which the waves wash up at our feet in every-day life. Very often, I think, the reason that dilatory habits begin in children is due to our not having discovered and encouraged enough the redeeming tendencies which they had in them, but which had not been brought out enough into the air and sunshine of every-day life, and had not had in consequence room enough and opportunity enough to develop. The dilatory habit itself is often due to some physical mal-nutrition: our part again, it seems to me, is to find out what the "want" of that nature is, and to "meet" it with a new direction of interests. What we all need more in our households is a sense of direction: to check and divert certain tendencies, and to encourage and pilot others. Still there is, as Anthony Hope says, "such a lamentable gulf between feeling that something must be done, and discovering what it is"; and really to find out the truth in children's tendencies is a difficult matter indeed, and practically needs as much thinking out and exercise of right judgment as we are able to give.
One thing we have to remember in connection with this subject: we have to be convinced absolutely of the supreme importance of the work of directing tendencies in our girls and boys. And the reason for this is the fact that it is the individual that determines the tendencies of the age he lives in. Look what a tremendous tendency to his age—to all ages—Francis, the little poor man of Assisi, gave! Look at the inspiration which such a leader of thought as William Penn awoke in his day! Look at the tendency of Mr. Waugh, the children's friend to-day, has started! Look nearer home still at the fresh impetus such women as Miss Buss, Mrs. Massingberd, Miss Beale, Miss Mason have given, and one sees how one strong personality sways his or her generation: introduces fresh ideas, fresh vital tendencies by which the age is regenerated. For it is, after all, the individual who counts—the individual into whose hands the future is given. And it is the pilotage of the individual when he is a child, and at his most impressionable age, which is laid in the fathers' and mothers' hands. If they watch for with judgment, and direct wisely his early tendencies, they are in effect directing the tendencies of the future—they are from afar moving the rudder of the world that is going to be in the time that is coming, when they themselves must stand aside.
It is, without doubt, a tremendous responsibility to recognize and check the pariah tendency whenever it arises; as it is also to recognise and encourage wisely the good tendency that sometimes comes before our eyes in such a "questionable form" that it puzzles us and interferes with our personal comfort. Still, when one realizes to the full the far-reaching consequences of what we are doing, we cannot fail to make the endeavour consistently, patiently, sympathetically; and even if, with all our efforts, we do not see the results, still to be absolutely sure they are to come.
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, November 2008
|Top||Copyright © 2002-2014 AmblesideOnline. All rights reserved. Use of these resources subject to the terms of our License Agreement.||Home|