The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Children's Pets.

by Clara E. Larter.
Volume 2, 1891/92, pg. 459-462

The baby "new to earth and sky" has some of its earliest perceptions wakened by the presence of animals. It shows responsiveness to pussy or puppy at an earlier stage than it does to the presence of its human kindred. When it begins to observe, pictures of dogs and horses, cows, and hens make it "crow" as none others can. This delight is so instinctive that it is evident it is intended to serve some end of natural development. Will such end be self-gratification or self-control? The answer to that question depends on the way in which the instinct is used. Seeing how children are enchained by it, parents naturally seek to keep them happy and contented by allowing the possession of kitten or puppy; whilst for older children, rabbits, birds, etc., are brought on the scene and received with rapturous gratitude and eager promises to take the utmost care of the object that has been so greatly desired. Now it is this care that children are naturally totally unfit to exercise. But fathers and mothers, uncles and aunts, must not feel that their responsibility has ceased with the purchase and handing over of the creature to the tender mercies of the child. Sometimes from ignorance and thoughtlessness, sometimes from love of power, sometimes from carelessness, those mercies are but cruel; and if the animal is put into their charge without instruction, full, detailed, and emphatic, as to its treatment, and continuous care to see that the instructions are carried out, habits that will injure all of child's after character may be formed. With such teaching and watchfulness, the care of pets may become a potent factor in early moral training.

The diligence required in the daily search for fitting food for his rabbits, the exercise of memory demanded by having to recollect when to supply it with fresh drink, and altogether the self-denial involved in attending to its wants, when he would rather be about a newer pleasure, may yield to a boy a harvest of principles of self-sacrifice and faithfulness to duty invaluable in his future life.

If, on the other hand, he is allowed to postpone attention to its needs to his own convenience, to have the enjoyment without the sense of responsibility, the habit of indifference to the well-being of those committed to him, and of the subordination of all matters to his own gratification, is inevitably engendered and strengthened.

"The Ancient Mariner" has been too often quoted in such connection for me to cite it here. But surely the telling to children of its whole story in simple words would leave such an impression as few other tales could of the wickedness of wanton injury to any living being. The sense of awe created by the direful consequences of one act of destruction would not be lessened by the vagueness of the connection indicated. Of many mystic meanings which have been found in that exquisite allegory, this application would surely be not the least useful and effective. To create the sense that animals have feelings is no doubt difficult. There are, however, so many delightful books written for children of which animals are the heroes, that the training may be greatly aided by such being chosen to read to them, or to be put into their hands. Miss Sewell's story of "Black Beauty" has probably wakened many to kindly sympathy with horses. For little children I am old-fashioned enough still to like Mrs. Trimmer's "Story of the Robins," and to believe that nothing can surpass the interest created by the doings of Pecksie and his small brothers. Then we have Messrs. Partridge's delightful monthly, "The Animal World," and the various capital "Band of Mercy" papers.

But, as I said at first, to awaken delight and interest in animals is not the difficulty. The work is to direct that natural liking into right channels, and to take care that a child makes his interest in the creatures subservient to their good, not their existence to serve his fancies.

He catches his ideas on these matters from his elders, whose tone, alas! often fosters in him the sense that if he is gratified all is right. How often do we see parents, governess, or nurse watch with entire unconcern the misery a child is causing to some creature with which he is amusing himself. A boy, for instance, loves nothing better than to possess a whip. There is no music sweeter to his ears than the swish of its lash as he vigorously whirls it in all directions. So long as he limits himself to lash in the air, this is a pastime harmless enough. But who does not know how tame is such use compared with the exultation should there be near at hand a horse or a dog on whom to try its powers? The child merely wants to create a sensation, to gratify his love of domination over beings made to resist him. He has no sense of what his victims feel; and would not care if he had. Altruistic sentiments have not been developed in childhood! Here comes in the word of the parent--to explain that, because the whip hurts, he must not use it to touch other creatures with; that, because they give him enjoyment, he is bound to see that they do not suffer; that their helplessness in his hands is a trust. If, on the other hand, as he proudly struts round, giving a lash here and another there, a laugh greets his worst achievement, the lad never learns to associate the abuse of power with reproof and disapprobation. What in after life are the far-reaching consequences of this want of teaching, let those answer who best know how ruthless young men can be in seeking at all costs their own pleasure.

I have known a girl's character betray itself in the same way. "How fond she is of animals!" observers said, and dwelt upon the fact as a lovable trait in her nature; whereas those who had watched her with her pets, not only in her caressing moods or at odd moments, knew that a determination to make the creatures minister, at all costs, to her own gratification was the essence of her fondness. Let them become in the least troublesome, or cease to be useful in her own way, there was no method in which she would hesitate to inflict pain on the same helpless "pets." I have watched such a one many a time playing gleefully with two or three dogs running round whilst they followed, and exultingly flourishing her little whip for them to catch at. But let one of them cease to follow her phantasy, or show any inclination to a round of its own, and the same pretty whip descended mercilessly on its back. The most vindictive, the most ireful of women that girl grew up to be. The carrying out of Herbert Spencer's axiom, that the results of any course of action should be allowed to be visited on their own persons, as the true training for children, might have cured her of the evil tendencies. Boys and girls who wantonly inflict pain, if they are deaf to remonstrances and regardless of the suffering they cause, should have tried on themselves the effect of the stinging lashes they so carelessly inflict. But generally, if patiently instructed, they are not heedless. It is parents who are frequently culpably callous and indifferent. On the same ethical principle of penalty matching fault, children who let their pets die of starvation should be allowed a bread-and-water diet for a day. This would make them realize in some degree the miseries their neglected charges had suffered.

I have known pet birds and rabbits left day after day without fresh water or food, whilst their young masters and mistresses were absorbed in some more interesting occupations. When the neglect was accidentally discovered no very strong remonstrance was uttered, nor condign penalty inflicted. A mild protest of vexation, a careless "How could you be so naughty?" has been all the notice taken. So the indifference has gone on until one morning the "pets" were discovered stiff and cold, starved to death. Their loss was, of course, mourned with bitter tears and heart-breaking regrets. But if the sole consequence be simply the angry decree, "You shall keep no more animals," no real impression of the guilt of the neglect will be left. After the first passionate outburst of remorse the matter will fade from the memory with other misdemeanours of childish days.

Such cruelty should, I hold, be visited with penalty proportioned to the offence, not treated as merely excusable carelessness. It is a grave failure in one of life's first duties. Instead of being visited with the same petulant anger as is sometimes evoked by small breaches of manners, or by disagreeable and annoying pieces of mischief, it should be seriously and severely reprimanded and punished. Careful wise guarding against the danger should be the condition of allowing boys and girls to have to do with animals at all. Should there, in spite of this, be neglect, the penalties associated with either willful or careless cruelty should be as severe as those inflicted on other moral delinquencies universally considered grave.

Typed by S. Keillor, Feb 2013