The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Responsibility of Parentage.

by T. Fred Gardner, M.D., M.R.C.P. Lond.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 763-770

[T. Fred Gardner was a doctor at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Bournemouth (2 hours southwest of London) for 30 years, When he died suddenly in 1912, he left a wife, a son who was in medical school, and a daughter. A hospital ward was named after him.]

[A paper read before the Bournemouth and Boscombe Branch, April 20th, 1904.]

A very large subject, and one too great for me to attempt were it not for the hope that in this Bournemouth Branch of the Parents' National Educational Union, we may have some one or two more gifted, and with wider knowledge, to whom it may be given in the subsequent discussion to make this paper--which serves but to suggest one or two thoughts on this very wide subject--to make this paper a peg upon which they may hang many illuminating thoughts, and the garnered experience of more parental years than I lay claim to.

This responsibility of parentage is a many-sided subject, and the first side of it which I would bring before you is the State side. Public opinion needs to be educated; the religious side is well known and appreciated; parents understand that they are responsible for their children's up-bringing; some realise the necessity for giving their offspring a good education; some observe the need for a moral education; some for family pride, or other incentive, think it necessary to make provision for their children, even after they have left the parental roof; but there has been some laxity in the State control of parentage.

It is true, licenses to marry must be obtained; banns [engagement announcements] must be published; consent of parents must be obtained when the contracting parties are below a certain age; but all these laws avail nothing against the marriages of persons who are of age, who agree to marry, and who may be utterly unfit, mentally, physically, or morally, or all these combined, and whose responsibility in the matter never troubles them, nor, apparently, the country in which they dwell, until, when they become parents, it dawns upon them, or more often their luckless friends and relatives, that they ought never to have been married at all.

Public opinion, then, needs educating in these matters, and I trust before this paper closes I shall have made out a sufficient case in favour or State control being made more stringent, that the influence of this Educational Union may be thrown into the scale on the side of a better appreciation of the responsibility which parentage brings, and the need for some State interference beyond that in vogue at the present time.

For the purposes of my subject, I want to treat of parents in esse and parents in posse. Those who are parents; those who may be parents.

Some of us are parents now, and whether we are bad or good parents, we have parental responsibility, and must make the best of it. I shall have something to say to such presently. Some of us may beome parents some time in the near or far future. I wish to say something to them now at once.

The children we have will presently be growing up, and may be the parents of the next decade. How can we train the for this important function?

So my subject is divided for me.

First of all, let me say a word or two about heredity. The pendulum of public opinion swings to and fro, and just now heredity is somewhat under a cloud. Some years ago, we all thought consumption was hereditary. A consumptive father had consumptive children; then we became more enlightened, and we said, "No, the soil is more liable to invasion by the tubercle bacillus, but there is no necessity per se for the consumptive parent to have consumptive children." Granted the soil is more liable, by care and hygienic living the child may be saved from its tubercular enemy, and so the hereditary idea lost some of its immutability, some of its terror. And this is true, but I think it has done much to lead people to think that if this goes on in all classes of cases, that everything hereditary may thus be warded off; that, in fact, given any hereditary predisposition, this predisposition may, by care, by attention to environment, by education, by removal from predisposing causes, be so safeguarded that the child born with some ugly predisposition may be made an angel of light if only proper care is taken. This may be true of tuberculosis, because one day we shall be wholly free from tubercle bacilli--not just yet, not even in our day, but there is no doubt the great strides of late years in teaching how this plague is to be exorcised have led to such a diminution that it is only a question of time when people of all civilised nations will insist on rigid segregation of the sufferers from so infectious a disease, and it will be criminal to sell tuberculised milk and flesh of animals, and then will come the dawn of a day when the last tubercle bacillus will prey upon the human race, and consumption with its vast array of allied diseases will go the way of gaol-fever, typhus, and some other of the diseases banished by the goddess Hygeia. But though this theory of immunity from the possibilities of an hereditarily-contracted disease may be true, I doubt very much whether we can think the same of the moral sphere. All experience shows that here we have no bacillus which we can destroy. Vicious parents generate vicious children; drink-soaked parents beget children who have in them a tendency to alcoholism; insane and mentally-weak parents inevitably have children more prone to like deviation from the normal standard of sanity.

Consumption in a parent causes a soil predisposed to tubercular infection; insanity makes a child more prone to mental disease, more especially through the mother's side; cancer, gout, goitre, and other diseases leave their mark on the off-spring. Highly neurotic parents beget children whose nervous systems are unstable, and liable to mental and nervous disease. Thus the marriage of Henry V. to the daughter of the mad King Charles of France inflicted a mad King upon England in the person of Henry VI., and deluged both France and England with blood.

It is true that environment, care, and avoidance of all influences likely to foster evil may lead the children of neurotic parents to escape the Nemesis of worse trouble than mere neuroses, but I believe such children will always be victims to over-pressure, and their outgoings of nerve strength should be strictly controlled and economised, or trouble will undoubtedly follow.

The intermarriage of near relatives has again and again proved disastrous, and an eminent writer in the National Encyclopaedia says that "marriages of first cousins are now condemned as reckless hardihood where they are not passed over as too absurd for sensible persons."

An eminent alienist [expert in mental illness] declared only a few weeks ago in my hearing, that in every case of primary dementia--a disease which particularly affects young people,and which most often leads to the most hopeless and most terrible form of insanity--in every case the parents would be found to have been victims of alcohol, venereal disease, or were what he illuminatingly called "high neurotics."

Surely these facts show the necessity for some greater interference than now exists in the promiscuous marriages which are taking place on every side, where young persons, too ignorant to know the risks they run, too infatuated to reveal to each other the bars and impediments which exist, and sometimes knowingly exist, between them, yet become the parents of children who are merely a burden to themselves, their parents, and the State, and which ought never to have been born at all. Too late the State finds it has to deal with wastrels, criminals, and lunatics. The production of these classes is often the result of the most preventible of first causes--the ill-sorted marriage of the disreputable, the diseased, and the unfit.

To turn from this somewhat loathsome side of the subject, let us consider the product of a healthy marriage, the child of healthy parents, and discuss the factors which go towards the making or marring of the child physically, morally, spiritually, if you will.

There can be little doubt that these factors commence to be active throughout the whole pre-natal existence. Again and again in medical history, some impression conveyed to the mother before the birth of her child, has been potent in the physical sphere, and instances are not uncommon where moral factors have made their mark so indubitably upon the yet unborn that no doubt can arise that maternal impressions during this pre-natal period are of great import even upon the character of the child.

I would have, then, all prospective parents careful of their offspring even in this pre-natal period. The mother should be shielded from the possibility of coarse sights, coarse sounds, depressing surroundings, and, as far as possible, from all distressing or worrying circumstances. Travel in beautiful scenery, an environment of calm and quiet, attention to matters of art, and thoughts bent on noble and elevating things will all leave their impress on the mind and character of the child that is to be, and I firmly believe that much of the after-history of every one of us is thus guided and formed in a way which few of us recognise or fully appreciate. Then, when the child is yet young, a babe too frail to appear to notice, I believe the environment is all-important. A sunny south or west nursery will beget cheerfulness of temperament when a north or east attic, which is the only room that can be spared by worldly parents, will foster a morose or melancholy temperament for the after years. Gentle voices, fresh air, clean surroundings, are not only hygienic; they are character-forming in the yet unconscious infant--what responsibility of parentage lies in these early parental days! Then the child gets older, it sees its great exemplars in whom? In its parents! How careful should we parents be, and with what heart-searchings should we ponder our heavy responsibility here! We are the exemplars--God help us! Who is sufficient for these things? Believe me, I speak in no mood as preaching to others what I practise myself, but I believe we parents are responsible for the whole gamut of character which our children present. They are bone or our bone, flesh of our flesh; they inherit our vices, our virtues, we have inoculated them by our personality, with our faults and our failings; we know often only too well what they are, what their potency is, and can be. We have these tiny characters to mould, and we know, or ought to know, where are likely to be the weak links where the strain will be most severely felt. Have we done all we could to assist these young lives committed to our care, by shielding them from contamination, by placing safeguards round them, by planning to shield the weak plaes, to fortify them? Above all, have we so studied our own characters and purified them so as to fit us to be exemplars to our children? For whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, exemplars we are and ever shall be, for good or ill to our children. Who is sufficient for these things? You tell your child to speak the truth, but it notices you do not always speak the truth. Which, think you, is more potent in its effect on your child, your practice or your precept? You tell your child that it should be kind and gentle and loving, and you are cross and irritable, and lose your temper! Is your child more likely to notice what you say, or what you are? A thousand times what you are, and you need no words of mine to assure you that you cannot deceive these little ones. They read you and your character innocently but thoroughly; they know you, and no subterfuge, no deceit, will blind them to the realities of your being, whether they be good, or whether they be evil. So their character-building goes on. They watch you, they live with you day by day, and slowly but surely your example, your ideas of right and evil, your notions of religion, your attitude to your neighbours--your character, in a word, is being slowly absorbed by them for imitation most likely, sometimes alas! to their undoing, sometimes to their greatest good. Here I should like to say a word in strong approval of the idea set forth by Dr. Schofield in a previous lecture to this society, that the unconscious mind of these little ones is registering its impressions, and a very real and formative character is being built up in this subliminal mind, fraught with all sorts of possibilities for the future. How fearful, then, is our parental responsibility! I should be wanting in my duty to the subject if I did not speak on one characteristic of this responsibility, and that is the religious side.

To those parents who think little of religion, of course, their wish would probably be that their children will think as little too. So, probably, they will, but for those who think that religion will best fit their children for the life that now is, as well as for that which is to come, I can think of no greater responsbility than the right formation of the child's views by the example of its parents in this respect. And the relationship is here even more intimate. You are a father, and you have ideas of God as a Father. You teach your children to regard the Creator as such. What sort of an ideal of fatherhood are you giving these children? Just what they see in you, of your care for them, your justice, your pity, your willingness to listen to their troubles; just so much multiplied by infinity will they believe in that other Father of which you are the human exemplar.

If I may diverge one moment into a by-path which has a very intimate relationship to my subject, I believe we, as parents, will do wisely to emphasize the love, the tenderness, the Father-likeness of the God as revealed by the One Who came to reveal the Father, and which appeals to the young mind as indeed a gospel of good news, rather than to insist on the semi-pagan notions of a Jehovah calling down vengeance on David's enemies.

So we come to the last part of our subject--How to train children for the responsibilities of parentage. Here let me say at once I have no feeling but one of surprised astonishment at those who think children should be brought up ignorant of the subject of reproduction, its laws, necessities, nature, and responsibilities. Ignorance is not innocence, and it is far better that your child should be taught these subjects by a clean-minded person, intelligently, and at the right age, instructed in the subject, than to be taught all that is to be known on the subject by a prurient school-fellow with none of the safeguards which you, as your child's well-wisher, would naturally supply. You will recognise that your children may become parents, and you will supervise their friendships, having given them the best ideals from your own example, from literature, and from general education, you will have prepared the ground for a right choice to be made when your child has grown old enough to court or to be courted.

Here begins often the testing-time of how far the parents' character-building has been on rock or sand. The natural selection of our children in this important matter will be of necessity determined by the character they possess, and the character they admire in others. How far that passionate first love will be rightly placed or misplaced will depend very much on you--the parent. All very well to say marriages are made in Heaven, and that these things are outside your control. They are made very much on earth by the ideals you--the parent--have put before your children, and their ideas as to the character of the world, and what you have taught them is its greatest good. Reading some of the breach of promise cases which disfigure our latter-day journalism, one thinks there is something to be said for what we English often hold in some contempt--the marriage arrangement as made in France. Here in England, we allow two young inexperienced people to be attracted to one another by very evanescence attractions--a pretty face, a gallant exterior, often the sum total. Eternal vows of faithfulness and protestations of infinite affection result in the cold cross-examination of the law courts, and a very disillusionary aftermath of mundane damages.

There seems something to be said for the careful weighing by experienced parents of the more material and well-tried methods which go so far to make or mar the married state, and often there results from the more worldly-wise cogitations of the experienced considerations of the French parents, a far happier married life than the quickly burnt-up volcano of passionate love outpoured by the impulsive lovers whose young innocence is their sole excuse for rushing headlongto a life of necessary disillusion and misery. Here character-building will stand the test. And if the parents have so used their responsibility as to provide their children with those traits of character which, at an age which thinks of marriage, these children ought to possess, then there need be little fear but that these children, in their turn becoming parents, will give to their offspring a nature and a character which will, in its turn, be fair, lasting, and of good report.

And so the responsibility of parentage is ever far-reaching in its effect on posterity. We are by our conduct as parents to-day unconsciously moulding the far-off days when we shall have ceased to be. As Lowell so graphically says, "I know not a more serious thing than the responsibility incurred by all human affections. Only think of this; whoever loves you is growing like you. Neither he not you can hinder it, save at the cost of alienation. Oh! if you are grateful but for one creature's love, rise to the height of so pure a blessings, drag them not down by the very embrace with which they cling to you, but through their gentleness secure their consecration."

            "As one lamp lights another nor grows less,
            So nobleness enkindleth nobleness."[from "Yussouf" by James Russell Lowell]

Typed by Wanda Collins, Mar. 2024; Proofread by LNL, June 2024