Gentle Child Training
Gentle Measures in the Management
and Training of the Young
By Jacob Abbott, 1871
The principles on which a firm parental authority may be
established and maintained, without violence or anger, and the right
development of the moral and mental capacities be promoted—by methods in
harmony with the structure and the characteristics of the young mind.
Chapter 6. Rewarding Obedience.
The mode of action described in the last two chapters for
training children to habits of obedience, consisted in discouraging
disobedience by connecting some certain, though mild and gentle
disadvantage, inconvenience, or penalty—with every transgression. In
this chapter is to be considered another mode, which is in some respects the
converse of the first, inasmuch as it consists in the encouragement of
obedience, by often—not necessarily always—connecting with it some
advantage, or gain, or pleasure; or, as it may be stated summarily—the
cautious encouragement of obedience by rewards.
This method of action is more difficult than the other in
the sense that it requires more skill, tact, and delicacy of perception and
discrimination, to carry it successfully into effect. The other demands only
firm—but gentle and steady persistence. If the penalty, however slight it
may be, 'always comes,' the effect will take care of itself. But judiciously
to administer a system of rewards, or even of commendations, requires tact,
discrimination, and skill. It requires some observation of the peculiar
characteristics of the different minds acted upon—and of the effects
produced—and often some intelligent modification of the measures is
required—to fit them to varying circumstances and times.
'Obedience must not be Bought'.
If the bestowing of commendation and rewards is made a
matter of mere blind routine, as the assigning of gentle penalties may
be—the result will become a mere system of 'bribing', or rather 'paying'
children to be good. And goodness which is bought, if it deserves the name
of virtue at all, is certainly virtue of a very inferior quality.
Whether a reward conferred for obedience shall operate as
a bribe, or rather as a price paid—for a 'bribe', strictly speaking, is a
price paid, not for doing right—but for doing wrong—depends sometimes on
very slight differences in the management of the particular case—differences
which an undiscriminating mother will not be very ready to appreciate.
A mother, for example, going into the village on a summer
afternoon, leaves her children playing in the yard, under the general charge
of Susan, who is at work in the kitchen, whence she can observe them from
time to time through the open window. She thinks the children will be safe,
provided they remain in the yard. The only thing to be guarded against is
the danger that they may go out through the gate into the road.
'Two Different Modes of Management'.
Under some circumstances, as, for example, where the
danger to which they would be exposed in going into the road was very great,
or where the mother cannot rely upon her power to control her children's
conduct by moral means in any way, the only safe method would be to fasten
the gate. But if she prefers to depend for their safety on their voluntary
obedience to her commands—and wishes, moreover, to promote the spirit of
obedience by rewarding rather than punishing, she can make her rewards of
the nature of hire or not, according to her mode of management.
If she wishes to 'hire' obedience, she has only to say to
the children that she is going into the village for a little time—and that
they may play in the yard while she is gone—but must not go out of the gate;
adding, that she is going to bring home some oranges or candies, which she
will give them if she finds that they have obeyed her—but which she will not
give them if they have disobeyed.
Such a promise, provided the children have the double
confidence in their mother which such a method requires—namely, first, a
full belief that she will really bring home the promised rewards, if they
obey her; and secondly—and this is a confidence much less frequently felt by
children—and much less frequently deserved by their mothers—a conviction
that, in case they disobey, no importunities on their part or promises for
the next time will induce their mother to give them the good things—but that
the rewards will certainly be lost to them unless they are deserved,
according to the conditions of the promise—in such a case—that is, when this
double confidence exists, the promise will have great influence upon the
children. Still, it is, in its nature, 'hiring' them to obey. I do not say
that this is necessarily a bad plan, though I think there is a better.
Children may, perhaps, be trained gradually to habits of obedience, by a
system of direct rewards—and in a manner, too, far more agreeable to the
parent and better for the child than by a system of compulsion through
threats and punishment.
'The Method of Indirect Rewarding'.
But there is another way of connecting pleasurable ideas
and associations, with submission to parental authority in the minds of
children, as a means of alluring them to the habit of obedience—one that is
both more efficient in its results, and more healthful and beneficial in its
action, than the practice of bestowing direct recompenses and rewards.
Suppose, for example, in the case above described, the
mother, on leaving the children, simply gives them the command that they are
not to leave the yard—but makes no promises—and then, on returning from the
village with the bonbons in her bag, simply asks Susan, when she comes in,
whether the children have obeyed her injunction not to leave the yard. If
Susan says yes, she nods to them, with a look of satisfaction and
pleasure—and adds: "I thought they would obey me. I am very glad. Now I can
trust them again."
Then, by-and-by, towards the close of the day,
perhaps—and when the children suppose that the affair is forgotten, she
takes an opportunity to call them to her, saying that she has something to
"You remember when I went to the village today, I left
you in the yard and said that you must not go out of the gate—and you
obeyed. Perhaps you would have liked to go out into the road and play
there—but you would not go because I had forbidden it. I am very glad that
you obeyed. I thought of you when I was in the village—and I thought you
would obey me. I felt quite safe about you. If you had been disobedient
children, I would have felt uneasy and anxious. But I felt safe. When I had
finished my shopping, I thought I would buy you some bonbons—and here they
are. You can go and sit down together on the carpet and divide them. Mary
can choose one—and then Jane; then Mary—and then Jane again; and so on until
they are all chosen."
'Difference in the Character of the Effects'.
It may, perhaps, be said by the reader that this is
substantially the same as giving a direct reward for the obedience. I admit
that it is in some sense 'substantially' the same thing—but it is not the
same in form. And this is one of those cases where the effect is
modified very greatly by the form. Where children are directly
promised a reward if they do so and so, they naturally regard the
transaction as of the nature of a contract or a bargain, such that when they
have fulfilled the conditions on their part the reward is their due, as,
indeed, it really is; and they come and demand it as such. The tendency,
then, is, to divest their minds of all sense of obligation in respect to
doing right—and to make them feel that it is in some sense optional with
them whether to do right and earn the reward, or not to do right and lose
In the case, however, last described, which seems at
first view to differ only in form from the preceding one, the commendation
and the bonbons would be so connected with the act of obedience as to
associate very agreeable ideas with it in the children's minds—and thus to
make doing right appear attractive to them on future occasions, while, at
the same time, they would not in any degree deprive the act itself of its
spontaneous character, as resulting from a sense of duty on their
part, or produce the impression on their minds that their remaining within
the gate was of the nature of a service rendered to their mother for
hire—and afterwards duly paid for.
The lesson which we deduce from this illustration and the
considerations connected with it may be stated as follows:
'The General Principle'.
That the rewards conferred upon children with a view of
connecting pleasurable ideas and associations with good conduct, should not
take the form of compensations stipulated for beforehand—and then conferred
according to agreement, as if they were of the nature of payment for a
service rendered. But the rewards should come as the natural expression of
the satisfaction and happiness felt by the mother in the good conduct of her
child—expressions as free and spontaneous on her part—as the good conduct
was on the part of the child.
The mother who understands the full import of this
principle—and whose mind becomes fully possessed of it, will find it
constantly coming into practical use in a thousand ways. She has undertaken,
for example, to teach her little son to read. Of course learning to read is
irksome to him. He dislikes extremely to leave his play—and come to take his
lesson. Sometimes a mother is inconsiderate enough to be pained at this. She
is troubled to find that her boy takes so little interest in so useful a
work—and even, perhaps, scolds him—and threatens him for not loving study.
"If you don't learn to read," she says to him, in a tone of irritation and
displeasure, "you will grow up to be a dunce—and everybody will laugh at
you—and you will be ashamed to be seen."
But let her imagine that she herself was to be called
away two or three times a day, for half an hour, to study Chinese, with a
very exacting teacher, always more or less impatient and dissatisfied with
her progress; and yet the irksomeness and difficulty for the mother, in
learning to decipher Chinese, would be as nothing compared with that of the
child in learning to read. The only thing that could make the work even
tolerable to the mother would be a pretty near, distinct and certain
prospect of going to China under circumstances that would make the knowledge
of great advantage to her. But the child has no such near, distinct and
certain prospect of the advantages of knowing how to read. He has scarcely
any idea of these advantages at all. You can describe them to him—but the
description will have no perceptible effect upon his mind. Those faculties
by which we bring the future vividly before us so as to influence our
present action—are not yet developed in the child. His cerebral organization
has not yet advanced to that condition, any more than his bones have
advanced to the hardness, rigidness—and strength of manhood. His mind is
only capable of being influenced strongly by what is present, or, at least,
very near. It is the design of Divine Providence that this should be so. The
young child is not created with faculties to look much forward; and the
mother who is pained and distressed because he will not look forward, shows
a great ignorance of the nature of the childish mind—and of the manner of
its development. If she finds fault with her boy for not feeling distinctly
enough the future advantages of learning to lead him to love study now, she
is simply finding fault with a boy for not being possessed of the most
slowly developed faculties of a man.
The way, then, to induce children to attend to such
duties as learning to read, is not to reason with them on the advantages of
it—but to put it simply on the ground of authority. "It is very irksome, I
know—but you must do it. When you are at play—and having a very pleasant
time, I know very well that it is hard for you to be called away to study
over your letters and your reading. It was very hard for me when I was a
child. It is very hard for all children; but then it must be done."
The way in this, as in all other similar cases, to reduce
the irksomeness of disagreeable duties to a minimum, is not to attempt to
convince or persuade the child—but to put the performance of them simply on
the ground of submission to parental authority. The child must leave his
play and come to take his lesson, not because he sees that it is better for
him to learn to read, than to play all the time; nor because he is to
receive a reward in the form of compensation—but because his mother requires
him to do it.
If, therefore, she concludes, in order to connect
agreeable ideas with the hard work of learning to read, that she will often,
at the close of the lessons, tell him a little story, or show him a picture,
or have a frolic with him, or give him a piece of candy or a lump of sugar,
or bestow upon him any other little gratification—it is better not to
promise these things beforehand, so as to give to the coming of the child,
when called, the character of a service rendered for hire. Let him come
simply because he is called; and then let the gratifications be bestowed as
the expressions of his mother's satisfaction and happiness, in view of her
boy's ready obedience to her commands and faithful performance of his duty.
'Obedience, though Implicit, need not be Blind'.
It must not be supposed from what has been said that
because a mother is not to 'rely upon' the reason, and the respect to future
advantages to accrue from efforts or sacrifices, as motives of present
action, that she is not to employ the influence of these motives at all. It
is true that those faculties of the mind by which we apprehend distant
things and govern our conduct by them are not yet developed in the child;
but they are 'to be' developed—and the aid of the parent will be of the
greatest service in promoting the development of them. At proper times,
then, the pleasures and advantages of knowing how to read
should be described to the child—and presented moreover in the most
attractive form. The proper time for doing this would be when no lesson is
in question—during a ride or a walk, or in the midst of a story, or while
looking at a book of pictures. A most improper time would be when a command
had been given and was disregarded, or was reluctantly obeyed; for then such
representations would only tend to enfeeble the principle of authority by
bringing in the influence of reasonings and persuasions to
make up for its disobedience. It is one of those cases where a force is
weakened by reinforcement—as a plant, by being long held up by a stake,
comes in the end not to be able to stand alone.
So a mother cannot in any way more effectually undermine
her authority, as 'authority', than by attempting to eke out its force by
arguments and cajolings and coaxings.
'Authority not to be made Oppressive'.
While the parent must thus take care to establish the
'principle of authority' as the ground of obedience on the part of his
children—and must not make their doing what he requires any the less acts of
'obedience', through vainly attempting to diminish the hardship of obeying a
command by mingling the influence of reasonings and persuasions with it—he
may in other ways do all in his power—and that will be a great deal—to make
the acts of obedience easy, or, at least, to diminish the difficulty of
them, and the severity of the trial which they often bring to the child.
One mode by which this may be done is by not springing
disagreeable obligations upon a child suddenly—but by giving his mind a
little time to form itself to the idea of what is to come. When Johnny and
Mary are playing together happily with their blocks upon the floor—and are,
perhaps, just completing a tower which they have been building, if their
mother comes suddenly into the room, announces to them abruptly that it is
time for them to go to bed, throws down the tower and brushes the blocks
into the basket—and then hurries the children away to the undressing, she
gives a sudden and painful shock to their whole nervous system—and greatly
increases the disappointment and pain which they experience in being obliged
to give up their play. The delay of a single minute would be sufficient to
bring their minds around easily and gently into submission to the necessity
of the case. If she comes to them with a smile, looks upon their work with
an expression of interest and pleasure upon her countenance—and then says,
"It is bed-time, children—but I would like to see you finish your tower."
One minute of delay like this, to soften the suddenness
of the transition, will make the act of submission to the necessity of
giving up play and going to bed, in obedience to the mother's command,
comparatively easy; instead of being, as it very likely would otherwise have
been, extremely vexatious and painful.
'Give a Little Time'.
In the same way, in bringing to a close an evening party
of children at play, if the lady of the house comes a little before the time
and says to them that after "one more play," or "two more plays," as the
case may be," the party must come to an end," the closing of it would be
made easy; while by waiting till the hour had come—and then suddenly
interrupting the gaiety, perhaps in the middle of a game, by the abrupt
announcement to the children that the clock has struck—and they must stop
their plays and begin to get ready to go home, she brings upon them a sudden
shock of painful surprise, disappointment—and, perhaps, irritation.
So, if children are to be called away from their play for
any purpose whatever, it is always best to give them a little notice, if it
be only a moment's notice, beforehand. "John, in a minute or two I shall
wish you to go and get some wood. You can be getting your things ready to be
left." "Mary, it is almost time for your lesson. You had better put Dolly to
sleep and lay her in the cradle." "Boys, in ten minutes it will be time for
you to go to school. So do not begin any new whistles—but only finish what
you have begun."
On the same principle, if boys are at play in the open
air—at ball, or skating, or flying kites—and are to be recalled by a bell,
obedience to the call will be made much more easy to them by a preliminary
signal, as a warning, given five minutes before the time.
Of course, it will not always be convenient to
give these signals and these times of preparation. Nor will it be always
necessary to give them. To determine how and in what cases it is best to
apply the principle here explained will require some tact and good judgment
on the part of the parent. It would be folly to lay down a rigid rule of
this kind to be considered as always obligatory. All that is desirable is
that the mother should understand the principle—and that she should apply it
as far as she conveniently and easily can do so. She will find in practice
that when she once appreciates the value of it—and observes its kind and
beneficent working, she will find it convenient and easy to apply it far
more generally than she would suppose.
'No weakening of Authority in this'.
It is very plain that softening thus the hardship for the
child of any act of obedience required of him, by giving him a little
time—implies no abatement of the authority of the parent—nor does it detract
at all from the implicitness of the obedience on the part of the child. The
submission to authority is as complete in doing a thing in five minutes—if
the order was to do it in five minutes—as in doing it at once if the order
was to do it at once. And the mother must take great care, when thus trying
to make obedience more easy by allowing time, that it should be prompt
and absolute when the time has expired.
The idea is, that though the parent is bound fully to
maintain his authority over his children, in all its force, he is also bound
to make the exercise of it as little irksome and painful to them as
possible—and to prevent as much as possible the pressure of it from
encroaching upon their juvenile joys. He must insist inexorably on being
obeyed; but he is bound to do all in his power to make the yoke of
obedience, light and easily to be borne.
'Influence on the healthful Development of the Brain'.
Indeed, besides the bearing of these views on the
happiness of the children, it is not at all improbable that the question of
health may be seriously involved in them. The organs in childhood,
are in an exceedingly immature, tender—and delicate condition; and all
sudden, sharp—and, especially, painful emotions, greatly excite—and
sometimes cruelly irritate them.
When we consider how seriously the action of the
digestive organs, in people in an ordinary state of health, is often
interfered with by mental anxiety or distress; how frequently, in people
subject to headaches, the paroxysm is brought on by worryings or
perplexities endured incidentally on the preceding day; and especially how
often violent and painful emotions, when they are extreme, result in decided
and sometimes in permanent and hopeless insanity—that is, in an irreparable
damage to some delicate mechanism in the brain—we shall see that there is
every reason for supposing that all sudden shocks to the nervous system of
children, all violent and painful excitements, all vexations and
irritations—and ebullitions of ill-temper and anger—have a tendency to
disturb the healthy development of the cerebral organs—and may, in many
cases, seriously affect the future health and welfare, as well as the
present happiness, of the child.
It is true that mental disturbances and agitations of
this kind cannot be wholly avoided. But they should be avoided as far as
possible; and the most efficient means for avoiding them is a firm, though
calm and gentle, establishment and maintenance of parental authority—and
not, as many mothers very mistakingly imagine, by unreasonable
indulgences—and by endeavors to manage their children by persuasions,
bribings—and maneuverings , instead of by commands. The most indulged
children—and the least governed—are always the most petulant and irritable
children. While a strong parental government, if regular, uniform and
just—and if administered by gentle measures—is the most effectual of all
possible instrumentalities for surrounding childhood with an atmosphere of
calmness and peace.
In a word, while the mother is bound to do all in her
power to render submission to her authority easy and agreeable to her
children, by softening as much as possible the disappointment and hardship
which her commands sometimes occasion—and by connecting pleasurable ideas
and sensations with acts of obedience on the part of the child, she must not
at all relax the authority itself—but must maintain it under all
circumstances in its full force, with a very firm and decided, though still
Chapter 7. The Art of Training.
It is very clear that the most simple and the most
obvious of the modes by which a parent may establish among his children the
habit of submission to his authority, are those which have been already
described, namely, punishments and rewards. Punishments, gentle in
their character—but invariably enforced, as the sure results of acts of
insubordination. And rewards for obedience, occasionally and
cautiously bestowed, in such a manner that they may be regarded as
recognitions simply, on the part of the parent, of the good conduct of his
children—and expressions of his gratification—and not in the light of
payment or hire. These are obviously the most simple modes—and the ones most
ready at hand. They require no exalted or unusual qualities on the part of
father or mother, unless, indeed, we consider gentleness, combined with
firmness and good sense—as an assemblage of rare and exalted qualities. To
assign—and firmly and uniformly to enforce, just but gentle penalties for
disobedience; and to recognize—and sometimes reward, special acts of
obedience and submission—are measures fully within the reach of every
parent, however humble may be the condition of his intelligence or his
attainments of knowledge.
'Another Class of Influences'.
There is, however, another class of influences to be
adopted, not as a substitute for these simple measures—but in connection and
cooperation with them, which will be far more deep, powerful—and permanent
in their results, though they require much higher qualities in the parent
for carrying them successfully into effect. This higher method consists in
a systematic effort to develop in the mind of the child a love of the
principle of obedience, by express and appropriate training.
'Parents not aware of the Extent of their
Many parents, perhaps indeed nearly all, seem, as we have
already shown, to act as if they considered the duty of obedience on the
part of their children as a matter of course. They do not expect their
children to read or to write without being taught; they do not expect a dog
to fetch and carry, or a horse to draw and to understand commands and
signals, without being 'trained'. In all these cases they perceive the
necessity of training and instruction—and understand that the initiative is
with 'them'. If a horse, endowed by nature with average good qualities, does
not work well—the fault is attributed at once to the man who undertook to
train him. But what mother, when her child, grown large and strong, becomes
the trial and sorrow of her life by his ungovernable disobedience and
insubordination, takes the blame to herself in reflecting that he was placed
in her hands when all the powers and faculties of his soul were in embryo,
tender, pliant and unresisting, to be formed and fashioned at her will?
'The Spirit of filial Obedience not Instinctive'.
Children, as has already been remarked, do not require to
be taught and trained to eat and drink, to resent injuries, to cling to
their possessions, or to run to their mother in danger or pain. They have
natural instincts which provide for all these things. But to speak, to read,
to write; to tell the truth—and to obey their parents; to forgive injuries,
to face bravely imaginary dangers, and bear patiently unavoidable pain—are
attainments for which no natural instincts can adequately provide. There are
instincts that will aid in the work—but none that can of themselves be
relied upon without instruction and training.
In actual fact, children usually receive their
instruction and training in respect to some of these things incidentally—as
it happens—by the rough knocks and frictions—and various painful experiences
which they encounter in the early years of life. In respect to others, the
guidance and aid afforded them is more direct and systematic. Unfortunately
the establishment in their minds of the principle of obedience comes
ordinarily under the former category. No systematic and appropriate efforts
are made by the parent to implant it. It is left to the uncertain and fitful
influences of accident—to remonstrances, reproaches and injunctions called
forth under sudden excitement in the various emergencies of domestic
discipline—and to other means, vague, capricious and uncertain—and having no
wise adaptedness to the attainment of the end in view.
'Requires appropriate Training'.
How much better and more successfully the object would be
accomplished, if the mother were to understand distinctly at the outset—that
the work of training her children to the habit of submission to her
authority is a duty, the responsibility of which devolves not upon her
children—but upon her! That it is a duty, moreover, of the highest
importance—and one that demands careful consideration, much forethought—and
the wise adaptation of means to the end.
The first thought of some parents may possibly be—that
they do not know of any other measures to take in order to teach their
children submission to their authority, than to reward them when they obey,
and punish them when they disobey. To show that there are other methods, we
will consider a particular case.
Mary, a young lady of seventeen, came to make a visit to
her sister. She soon perceived that her sister's children, Adolphus and
Lucia, were entirely ungoverned. Their mother coaxed, cajoled, remonstrated,
advised, gave reasons—did everything, in fact, except simply to command. And
the children, consequently, did pretty much what they pleased. Their mother
reproached the children for their undutiful behavior. But the reproaches
produced no effect.
"The first thing that I have to do," said Mary to
herself, in observing this state of things, "is to teach the children to
obey—at least to obey 'me'. I will give them their first lesson at once."
'Mary makes a Beginning'.
So she proposed to them to go out with her into the
garden and show her the flowers, adding that if they would do so she would
make each of them a bouquet. She could make them some very pretty bouquets,
she said, provided they would help her—and would follow her directions and
obey her implicitly while gathering and arranging the flowers.
This the children promised to do—and Mary went with them
into the garden. There, as she passed about from border to border, she gave
them a great many different directions in respect to things which they were
to do, or which they were not to do. She gathered flowers—and gave some to
one child—and some to the other, to be held and carried—with special
instructions in respect to many details, such as directing some flowers to
be put together—and others to be kept separate—and specifying in what manner
they were to be held or carried. Then she led them to a bower where there
was a long seat—and explained to them how they were to lay the flowers in
order upon the seat—and directed them to be very careful not to touch them
after they were once laid down. They were, moreover, to leave a place in the
middle of the seat entirely clear. They asked what that was for. Mary said
that they would see by-and-by. "You must always do just as I say," she
added, "and perhaps I shall explain the reason afterwards, or perhaps you
will see what the reason is yourselves."
After going on in this way until a sufficient number and
variety of flowers were collected, Mary took her seat in the vacant place
which had been left—and assigned the two portions of the seat upon which the
flowers had been placed to the children, giving each the charge of the
flowers upon one portion, with instructions to select and give to her such
as she should call for. From the flowers thus brought she formed two
bouquets, one for each of the children. Then she set them both at work to
make bouquets for themselves, giving them minute and special directions in
regard to every step. If her object had been to cultivate their taste and
judgment, then it would have been better to allow them to choose the flowers
and determine the arrangement for themselves; but she was teaching them
'obedience', or, rather, beginning to form in them the 'habit' of obedience;
and so, the more numerous and minute the commands the better, provided that
they were not in themselves unreasonable, nor so numerous and minute as to
be vexatious, so as to incur any serious danger of their not being readily
and good-humoredly obeyed.
'The Art of Training'.
When the bouquets were finished Mary gave the children,
the two which had been made for them; and the two which they had made for
themselves she took into the house and placed them in glasses upon the
parlor mantel-piece—and then stood back with the children in the middle of
the room to admire them.
"See how pretty they look! And how nicely the work went
on while we were making them! That was because you obeyed me so well while
we were doing it. You did exactly as I said in everything."
'A Beginning only'.
Now this was an excellent 'first lesson' in training the
children to the habit of obedience. It is true that it was 'only' a first
lesson. It was a beginning—but it was a very good beginning. If, on the
following day, Mary had given the children a command which it would be
irksome to them to obey, or one which would have called for any special
sacrifice or self-denial on their part, they would have disregarded it.
Still they would have been a little less inclined to disregard it than if
they had not received their first lesson; and there can be no doubt that if
Mary were to continue her training in the same spirit in which she commenced
it she would, before many weeks, acquire a complete ascendancy over them—and
make them entirely submissive to her will.
And yet this is a species of training, the efficacy of
which depends on influences in which the hope of reward or the fear of
punishment does not enter. The bouquets were not promised to the children at
the outset, nor were they given to them at last as rewards. It is true that
they saw the advantages resulting from due subordination of the inferiors to
the superior in concerted action—and at the end they felt a satisfaction in
having acted right; but these advantages did not come in the form of
rewards. The efficacy of the lesson depended on a different principle
'The Philosophy of it'.
The philosophy of it was this: Mary, knowing that the
principle of obedience in the children was extremely weak—and that it could
not stand any serious test, contrived to bring it into exercise a great many
times under the lightest possible pressure. She called upon them to do a
great many different things, each of which was very easy to do—and gave them
many little prohibitions which it required a very slight effort of
self-denial on their part to regard; and she connected agreeable
associations in their minds with the idea of submission to authority,
through the interest which she knew they would feel in seeing the work of
gathering the flowers and making the bouquets go systematically and
prosperously on—and through the commendation of their conduct, which she
expressed at the end.
Such people as Mary do not analyze distinctly, in their
thoughts, nor could they express in words, the principles which underlie
their management; but they have an instinctive mental perception of the
adaptation of such means to the end in view. Other people, who observe how
easily and quietly they seem to obtain an ascendency over all children
coming within their influence—and how absolute this ascendency often
becomes, are frequently surprised at it. They think there is some mystery
about it; they say it is "a knack that some people have;" but there is no
mystery about it at all—and nothing unusual or strange, except so far as
practical good sense, considerate judgment, and intelligent observation and
appreciation of the characteristics of childhood, are unusual and strange.
Mary was aware that, although the principle of obedience
is seldom or never entirely obliterated from the hearts of children—that is,
that the impression upon their minds, which, though it may not be absolutely
instinctive, is very early acquired, that it is incumbent on them to obey
those set in authority over them—is seldom wholly effaced. This sentiment
had become extremely feeble in the minds of Adolphus and Lucia; and that it
was like a frail and dying plant, which required very delicate and careful
nurture to quicken it to life and give it its normal health and vigor. Her
management was precisely of this character. It called the weak and feeble
principle into gentle exercise, without putting it to any severe test—and
thus commenced the formation of a 'habit of action'. Anyone will see that a
course of training on these principles, patiently and perseveringly
continued for the proper time, could not fail of securing the desired end,
except in cases of children characterized by unusual and entirely abnormal
We cannot here follow in detail the various modes in
which such a manager as Mary would adapt her principle to the changing
incidents of each day—and to the different stages of progress made by her
pupils in learning to obey—but can only enumerate certain points worthy of
the attention of parents, who may feel desirous to undertake such a work of
'Three practical Directions'.
1. Relinquish entirely the idea of expecting children to
be 'spontaneously' docile and obedient. Relinquish entirely the practice of
scolding or punishing them vindictively when they are disobedient. Instead
of so doing, understand that submissiveness and obedience on their part
is to be the result of wise, careful, and persevering, though gentle
training, on the part of the parent.
2. If the children have already formed habits of
disobedience and insubordination, do not expect that the desirable change
can be effected by sudden, spasmodic and violent efforts, accompanied by
denunciations and threats—and declarations that you are going to "turn over
a new leaf." The attempt to change perverted tendencies in children by such
means is like trying to straighten a bend in the stem of a growing tree by
blows with a hammer.
3. Instead of this, begin without saying at all what you
are going to do, or finding any fault with the past—and, with a distinct
recognition of the fact that whatever is bad in the 'native tendencies' of
your children's minds is probably inherited from their parents—and, perhaps,
specially from yourself—and that whatever is wrong in their 'habits of
action' is certainly the result of your bad training; proceed cautiously and
gently—but perseveringly and firmly, in bringing the bent stem gradually up
to the right position. In doing this, there is no amount of ingenuity and
skill, however great, that may not be usefully employed; nor is there, on
the other hand, except in very rare and exceptional cases, any parent who
has an allotment so small as not to be sufficient to accomplish the end, if
conscientiously and faithfully employed.
Chapter 8. Methods Exemplified.
In order to give a more clear idea of what I mean by
forming habits of obedience in children, by methods other than those
connected with a system of rewards and punishments, I will specify some such
methods, introducing them, however, only as illustrations of what is
intended. For, while in respect to rewards and punishments,
something like special and definite rules and directions may be given; these
other methods, as they depend on the tact, ingenuity and inventive powers of
the parents for their success, depend also in great measure upon these same
qualities for the discovery of them. The only help that can be received from
others, must consist of suggestions and illustrations, which
can only serve to communicate to the mind some general ideas in respect to
'Recognizing the Right.'
1. A very excellent effect is produced in
forming habits of obedience in children, by simply 'noticing' their good
conduct when they do right—and letting them see that you notice it. When
children are at play upon the carpet—and their mother from time to time
calls one of them—Mary, we will say—to come to her to render some
little service; it is very often the case that the mother is accustomed,
when Mary obeys the call at once, leaving her play immediately and coming
directly, to say nothing about the prompt obedience—but to treat it as a
matter of course. It is only in the cases of failure that she seems to
notice the action. When Mary, greatly interested in what for the moment she
is doing, delays her coming, mother says, "You ought to come at once, Mary,
when I call you—and not make me wait in this way!" In the cases when Mary
did come at once, she had said nothing.
Mary goes back to her play after the reproof, a little
disturbed in mind, at any rate, and perhaps considerably out of sorts.
Now Mary may, perhaps, be in time induced to obey more
promptly under this management—but she will have no heart in making the
improvement—and she will advance reluctantly and slowly, if at all. But if,
at the first time that she comes promptly—and then, after doing the errand,
is ready to go back to her play, her mother says, "You left your play and
came at once when I called you. That was right. It pleases me very much to
find that I can depend upon your being so prompt, even when you are at
play," Mary will go back to her play pleased and happy; and the tendency of
the incident will be to cause her to feel a spontaneous and cordial interest
in the principle of prompt obedience in time to come.
Johnny is taking a walk through the fields with his
mother. He sees a butterfly and sets off in chase of it. When he has gone
away from the path among the rocks and bushes as far as his mother thinks is
safe, she calls him to come back. In many cases, if the boy does not come at
once in obedience to such a call, he would perhaps receive a scolding. If he
does come back at once, nothing is said. In either case no decided effect
would be produced upon him.
But if his mother says, "Johnny, you obeyed me at once
when I called you. It must be hard, when you are after a butterfly and think
you have almost caught him, to stop immediately and come back to your mother
when she calls you; but you did it," Johnny will be led by this treatment to
feel a desire to come back more promptly still the next time.
Of course there is an endless variety of ways by which
you can show your children that you notice and appreciate the efforts they
make to do right. Doubtless there is a danger to be guarded against. To
adopt the practice of noticing and commending what is right—and paying 'no
attention whatever' to what is wrong, would be a great perversion of this
There is a danger more insidious than this—but still very
serious and real—of fostering a feeling of vanity and self-conceit
by constant and inconsiderate praise. These things must be guarded
against; and to secure the good aimed at—and at the same time to avoid the
evil, requires the exercise of the tact and ingenuity which has before been
referred to. But with proper skill and proper care the habit of noticing and
commending, or even noticing alone, when children do right—and of even being
more quick to notice and to be pleased with the right, than to detect and be
dissatisfied with the wrong—will be found to be a very powerful means of
training children in the right way.
Children will act with a great deal more readiness and
alacrity to preserve a good character which people already attribute to
them, than to relieve themselves of the opprobrium of a bad one with which
they are charged. In other words, it is much easier to allure them to
what is right—than to drive them from what is wrong.
2. There is, perhaps, nothing more irksome
to children, than to listen to fault-finding advice given to them in a
direct and simple form—and perhaps there is nothing that has less
influence upon them in the formation of their characters than advice so
given. And there is good reason for this; for if it is practical and
particular at all, it must be so with reference to their own daily
experience in life—in which case it becomes more irksome still, as they
necessarily regard it as an indirect mode of fault-finding. Indeed, this
kind of advice is almost certain to assume the form of half-concealed
fault-finding, for the subject of the counsel given would be, in almost all
cases, suggested by the errors, or shortcomings, or failures which had been
recently observed in the conduct of the children.
The art, then, of giving to children general advice and
instruction in respect to their conduct and behavior, consists in making it
definite and practical—and at the same time contriving some way of divesting
it entirely of all direct application to themselves in respect to their
'past' conduct. Of course, the more we make it practically applicable to
them in respect to the future the better.
There are various ways of giving advice of this
character. It requires some ingenuity to invent them—and some degree of tact
and skill to apply them successfully. But the necessary tact and skill would
be easily acquired by any mother whose heart is really set upon finding
gentle modes of leading her child into the path of duty.
'James and his Cousins'.
James, going to spend one of his college vacations at his
uncle's, was taken by his two cousins, Walter and Ann—eight and six years
old—into their room. The room was all in confusion. There was a set of
book-shelves upon one side, the books upon them lying tumbled about in all
directions. There was a case containing playthings in another place, the
playthings broken and in disorder; and two tables, one against the wall—and
the other in the middle of the room, both covered with litter. Now if James
had commenced his conversation by giving the children a lecture on the
disorder of their room—and on the duty, on their part, of taking better care
of their things, the chief effect would very probably have been simply to
prevent their wishing to have him come to their room again.
But James managed the case differently. After going about
the room for a few minutes with the children—and looking with them at their
various treasures—and admiring what they seemed to admire—but without
finding any fault, he sat down before the fire and took the children upon
his lap—one upon each knee—and began to talk to them. Ann had one of her
picture-books in her hand, some of the leaves torn—and the rest defaced with
"Now, Walter," said James, "I'm going to give you some
advice. I am going to advise you what to do and how to act when you go to
college. By-and-by you will grow to be a young man—and will then, perhaps,
go to college."
The idea of growing to be a young man and going to
college was very pleasing to Walter's imagination—and brought his mind into
what may be called a receptive condition—that is, into a state to receive
readily—and entertain with favor, the thoughts which James was prepared to
James then went on to draw a very agreeable picture of
Walter's leaving home and going to college, with many details calculated to
be pleasing to his cousin's fancy—and came at length to his room—and to the
circumstances under which he would take possession of it. Then he told him
of the condition in which different scholars kept their respective rooms—how
some were always in disorder—and everything in them topsy-turvy, so that
they had no pleasant or home-like aspect at all; while in others everything
was well arranged—and kept continually in that condition, so as to give the
whole room, to everyone who entered it, a very charming appearance.
"The books on their shelves were all properly arranged,"
he said, "all standing up in order—those of a like size together. Jump down,
Ann—and go to your shelves—and arrange the books on the middle shelf in that
way, to show him what I mean."
Ann jumped down—and ran with great alacrity to arrange
the books according to the directions. When she had arranged one shelf, she
was proceeding to do the same with the next—but James said she need not do
any more then. She could arrange the others, if she pleased, at another
time, he said. "But come back now," he added, "and hear the rest of the
"I advise you to keep your book-shelves in nice order at
college," he continued; "and so with your apparatus and your cabinet. For at
college, you see, you will perhaps have articles of educational
apparatus—and a cabinet of instruments, instead of playthings. I advise you,
if you should have such things, to keep them all nicely arranged upon their
Here James turned his chair a little, so that he and the
children could look towards the cabinet of playthings. Walter climbed down
from his cousin's lap and ran off to that side of the room—and there began
hastily to arrange the playthings.
"Yes," said James, "that is the way. But never mind that
now. I think you will know how to arrange your educational instruments and
your cabinet very nicely when you are in college; and you can keep your
playthings in order in your room here, while you are a boy, if you please.
But come back now and hear the rest of the advice."
So Walter came back and took his place again upon James's
"And I advise you," continued James, "to take good care
of your books when you are in college. It is pleasanter, at the time, to use
books that are clean and nice—and then, besides, you will like to take your
college books with you, after you leave college—and keep them as long as you
live, as memorials of your early days—and you will value them a great deal
more if they are in good order."
Here Ann opened the book which was in her hand—and began
to fold back the dog's-ears and to smooth down the leaves.
'The Principle Involved'.
In a word, by the simple expedient of shifting the
time, in the imagination of the children, when the advice which he was
giving them would come to its practical application, he divested it of all
appearance of fault-finding in respect to their present conduct—and so
secured not merely its ready admission—but a cordial welcome for it, in
Any mother who sees and clearly apprehends the principle
here illustrated—and has ingenuity enough to avail herself of it, will find
an endless variety of modes by which she can make use of it, to gain easy
access to the hearts of her children, for instructions and counsels which,
when they come in the form of fault-finding advice, make no impression
'Expectations of Results must be Reasonable'.
Some people, however, who read without much
reflection—and who do not clearly see the principle involved in the case
above described—and do not understand it as it is intended—that is, as a
single specimen or example of a mode of action capable of an endless variety
of applications, will perhaps say, "Oh, that was all very well. James's talk
was very good for the purpose of amusing the children for a few minutes
while he was visiting them—but it is idle to suppose that such a
conversation could produce any permanent or even lasting impression upon
them; still less, that it could work any effectual change in respect to
their habits of order."
That is very true. In the work of forming the hearts and
minds of children it is "line upon line—and precept upon precept" which is
required; and it cannot be claimed that one such conversation as that of
James is anything more than 'one line'. But it certainly is that. It would
be as unreasonable to expect that one single lesson like that could
effectually and completely accomplish the end in view, as that one single
watering of a plant will suffice to enable it to attain completely its
growth—and enable it to produce in perfection its fruits or its flowers.
But if a mother thus often clothes the advice or
instruction which she has to give to her children in some imaginative guise
like this, advising them what to do when they are on a journey, for example,
or when they are making a visit at the house of a friend in the country. Or,
in the case of a boy, what she would counsel him to do in case he were a
young man employed by a farmer to help him on his farm, or a clerk in a
store, or a sea-captain in charge of a ship, or a general commanding a force
in the field. Or, if a girl, what dangers or what undesirable habits or
actions she should avoid when traveling in Europe, or when, as a young lady,
she joins in picnics or goes on excursions, or attends concerts or evening
parties, or in any of the countless other situations which it is pleasant
for young people to picture to their minds, introducing into all, so far as
her ingenuity and skill enable her to do it, interesting incidents and
details—she will find that she is opening to herself an avenue to her
children's hearts for the sound moral principles that she wishes to
inculcate upon them, which she can often employ easily, pleasantly—and very
advantageously, both to herself and to them.
When a child is physically sick, it may be of
little consequence whether the medicine which is required is agreeable or
disagreeable to the taste. But with moral remedies the case is
different. Sometimes the whole efficiency of the treatment administered as a
corrective for a moral disorder depends upon the readiness and willingness
with which it is taken. To make it disagreeable, consequently, in such
cases, is to neutralize the intended action of it—a result which the methods
described in this chapter greatly tend to avoid.
Chapter 9. Della and the Dolls.
This book may, perhaps, sometimes fall into the hands of
people who have, temporarily or otherwise, the charge of young children
without any absolute authority over them, or any means, or even any right—to
enforce their commands, as was the case, in fact, with the older brothers or
sister referred to in the preceding illustrations. To such people, these
indirect modes of training children in habits of subordination to their
will, or rather of yielding to their influence, are specially useful. Such
people may be interested in the manner in which Della made use of the
children's dolls, as a means of guiding and governing their little mothers.
Della had a young sister named Maria—and a cousin whose
name was Jane. Jane used often to come to make to a visit Maria—and when
together the children were accustomed to spend a great deal of time in
playing with their dolls. Besides dressing and undressing them—and playing
take them out to excursions and visits, they used to talk with them a
great deal—and give them much useful and valuable information and
Now Della contrived to obtain a great influence and
ascendency over the minds of the children by means of these dolls. She fell
at once into the idea of the children in regard to them—and treated them
always as if they were real people; often speaking of them and to them, in
the presence of the other children, in the most serious manner. This not
only pleased the children very much—but enabled Della, under pretense of
talking to the dolls, to communicate a great deal of useful instruction to
the children—and sometimes to make very beneficial and lasting impressions
upon their minds.
'Lectures to the Dolls'.
For instance, sometimes when Jane was making a visit to
Maria—and the two children came into her room with their dolls in their
arms, she would speak to them as if they were real people—and then taking
them in her hands would set them before her on her knee—and give them a very
serious lecture in respect to the proper behavior which they were to observe
during the afternoon. If Della had attempted to give precisely the same
lecture to the children themselves, they would very soon have become
restless and uneasy—and it would have made very little impression upon them.
But being addressed to the dolls, they would be greatly interested in it—and
would listen with the utmost attention; and there is no doubt that the
counsels and instructions which she gave made a much stronger impression
upon their minds than if they had been addressed directly to the children
themselves. To give an idea of these conversations I will report one of them
"How do you do, my children?" she said, on one such
occasion. "I am very glad to see you. How nice you look! You have come—Josie
(Josie was the name of Jane's doll), to make Rosalie a visit. I am very
glad. You will have a very pleasant time, I am sure; because you never
quarrel. I observe that, when you both wish for the same thing, you don't
quarrel for it and try to pull it away from one another; but one waits like
a lady until the other has done with it. I expect you have been a very good
girl—Josie, since you were here last."
Then, turning to Jane, she asked, in a somewhat altered
tone, "Has she been a good girl, Jane?"
"She has been a 'pretty' good girl," said Jane, "but she
has been sick."
"Ah!" said Della in a tone of great concern—and looking
again at Josie, "I heard that you had been sick. And you don't look very
well now. You must take good care of yourself—and if you don't feel well,
you must ask your mother to bring you in to me and I will give you a dose of
my medicine—my 'aqua saccharina'. I know you always take your medicine like
a little heroine when you are sick, without making any difficulty or trouble
'Aqua saccharina' was the Latin name which Della gave to
a preparation of which she kept a supply in a small vial on her table, ready
to make-believe give to the dolls when they were sick. Maria and Jane were
very fond of playing that their dolls were sick and bringing them to Della
for medicine, especially as Della always recommended to them to taste the
medicine themselves from a spoon first, in order to set their children a
good example of taking it well.
Sometimes Della would let the children take the vial
away, so as to have it always at hand in case the dolls should be taken
suddenly worse. But in such cases as this, the attacks were usually so
frequent—and the mothers were obliged to do so much tasting to encourage the
patients, that the vial was soon brought back nearly or quite empty, when
Della used to replenish it by filling it nearly full of water—and then
pouring a sufficient quantity of sugar into the mouth of it from the
sugar-bowl with a spoon. Nothing more was necessary except to shake up the
mixture in order to facilitate the process of solution—and the medicine
'A Medium of Reproof.'
Della was accustomed to use the dolls not only for the
purpose of instruction—but sometimes for reproof, in many
ingenious ways. For instance, one day the children had been playing upon the
piazza with blocks and other playthings—and finally had gone into the house,
leaving all the things on the floor of the piazza, instead of putting them
away in their places, as they ought to have done. They were now playing with
their dolls in the parlor.
Della came to the parlor—and with an air of great mystery
beckoned the children aside—and said to them, in a whisper, "Leave Josie and
Rosalie here—and don't say a word to them. I want you to come with me. There
is a secret—something I would not have them know on any account."
So saying, she led the way on tiptoe, followed by the
children out of the room—and round by a circuitous route to the piazza.
"There!" said she, pointing to the playthings; "see! all
your playthings left out! Put them away quick before Josie and Rosalie see
them. I would not have them know that their mothers leave their playthings
laying around in that way. They would think that they might leave their
playthings laying around too—and that would make you a great deal of
trouble. You teach them, I have no doubt, that they must always put their
playthings away—and they must see that you set them a good example. Put
these playthings all away quick—and carefully—and we will not let them know
anything about your leaving them out."
So the children went to work with great alacrity—and put
the playthings all away. And this method of treating the case was much more
effectual in making them disposed to avoid committing a similar fault
another time, than any direct rebukes or expressions of displeasure
addressed personally to them would have been.
Besides, a scolding would have made them unhappy.
But this method did not make them unhappy at all; it amused and entertained
them. If you can lead children to cure themselves of their faults in such a
way that they shall have a good time in doing it—there is a double gain.
In due time, by this kind of management—and by other
modes conceived and executed in the same spirit, Bella gained so great an
ascendency over the children that they were far more ready to conform to her
will—and to obey all her directions, than they would have been to submit to
the most legitimate authority which was maintained, as such authority too
often is, by fault-finding and threats—and without any
sympathy to the fancies and feelings which reign over the hearts of the
children in the little world in which they live.
Chapter X. The Power of Sympathy.
(What Abbott means by the power of sympathy in the
mind of a child, is its tendency to imbibe the opinions or sentiments, of
those whom he loves and respects.)
'The Child with the Parent.'
The subject of sympathy between children and parents is
to be considered in two aspects: first, that of the child with the parent;
and secondly, that of the parent with the child. That is to say, an emotion
may be awakened in the child by its existence and manifestation in the
parent—and secondly, it may be awakened in the parent by its existence in
We are all ready to acknowledge in words, the great power
and influence of sympathy—but very few are aware how very vast this power
is—and how inconceivably great is the function which this principle fulfills
in the formation of the human character—and in regulating the conduct of
'Mysterious Action of the Principle of Sympathy'.
There is a great mystery in the nature of it—and in the
manner of its action. This we see very clearly in the simplest and most
striking material form of it—the act of gaping. Why and how does the
witnessing of the act of gaping in one person, or even the thought of it,
produce a tendency to the same action in the nerves and muscles of another
person? When we attempt to trace the chain of connection through the eye,
the brain—and the thoughts—through which line of agencies the chain of cause
and effect must necessarily run—we are lost and bewildered.
Other states and conditions in which the mental element
is more apparent are communicated from one to another in the same or, at
least, in some analogous way. Being simply in the presence of one who is
amused, or happy, or sad—causes us to feel amused, or happy, or sad
ourselves—or, at least, has that tendency—even if we do not know from what
cause the emotion which is communicated to us, proceeds. A person of a
joyous and happy disposition often brightens up at once any little circle
into which he enters, while a morose and melancholy man carries gloom with
him wherever he goes. Eloquence, which, if we were to hear it addressed to
us personally and individually, in private conversation, would move us very
little, will excite us to a pitch of the highest enthusiasm if we hear it in
the midst of a vast audience; even though the words—and the gestures—and the
inflections of the voice—and the force with which it reaches our ears, were
to be precisely the same in the two cases. And so a joke, which would
produce only a quiet smile if we read it by ourselves at the fireside alone,
will evoke convulsions of laughter when heard in a crowded theater, where
the hilarity is shared by thousands.
A new element, indeed, seems to come into action in these
last two cases; for the mental condition of one mind is not only
communicated to another—but it appears to be increased and intensified by
the communication. Each does not feel 'merely' the enthusiasm or the mirth
which would naturally be felt by the other—but the general emotion is vastly
heightened by its being so largely shared. It is like the case of the live
coal, which does not merely set the dead coal on fire by being placed in
contact with it—but the two together, when together, burn far more brightly
than when apart.
'Wonderful Power of Sympathy'.
So much for the reality of this principle; and it
is almost impossible to exaggerate the extent and the magnitude of the
influence it exerts in forming the character and shaping the ideas and
opinions of people—and in regulating all their ordinary habits of thought
and feeling. People's opinions are not generally formed or controlled
by arguments or reasonings—as they might fondly suppose. They are imbibed by
sympathy from those whom they like or love—and who are, or have been, their
associates. Thus people, when they arrive at maturity, adhere in the main to
the associations, both in religion and in politics, in which they have been
brought up, from the influence of sympathy with those whom they love. They
believe in this or that doctrine or system—not because they have been
convinced by proof—but chiefly because those whom they love believe in them.
On religious questions, the arguments are presented to
them, it is true, while they are young, in catechisms and in other forms of
religious instruction—and in politics by the conversations which they
overhear; but it is a mistake to suppose that arguments thus offered have
any material effect as processes of reasoning, in producing any logical
conviction upon their minds. An English boy is Whig or Tory because his
father—and his brothers—and his uncles are Whigs or Tories. He may, indeed,
have many arguments at his command with which to maintain his opinions—but
it is not the force of the arguments that has convinced him, nor do they
have any force as a means of convincing the other boys to whom he offers
them. 'They' are controlled by their sympathies, as he is by his. But if he
is a popular boy—and makes himself a favorite among his companions, the very
fact that he is of this or that party will have more effect upon the other
boys, than the most logical and conclusive trains of reasoning that can be
So it is with the religious and political differences in
this and in every other country. Everyone's opinions—or rather the opinion
of people in general, for of course there are many individual exceptions—are
formed from sympathy with those with whom in mind and heart they have been
in friendly communication during their years of childhood and youth. And
even in those cases where people change their religious opinions in adult
age, the explanation of the mystery is generally to be found, not in seeking
for the 'argument which convinced them'—but for the 'person who led them',
in the accomplishment of the change. For such changes can very often—and
perhaps generally, be traced to some person or people whose influence over
them, if carefully scrutinized, would be found to consist really not in the
force of the arguments they offered—but in the magic power of a silent
and perhaps unconscious sympathy. The way, therefore, to convert people
to our ideas and opinions is to make them like us or love us—and then to
avoid arguing with them—but simply let them perceive what our ideas and
The well-known proverb, "Example is better than
precept," is only another form of expressing the predominating power of
sympathy; for example can have little influence except so far as a
sympathetic feeling in the observer leads him to imitate it. So that,
example is better than precept—means only that sympathy has more influence
in the human heart than reasoning.
'The Power of Sympathy in Childhood'.
This principle, so powerful at every period of life, is
at its maximum in childhood. It is the origin, in a very great degree, of
the spirit of imitation which forms so remarkable a characteristic of
the first years of life. The child's thoughts and feelings being
spontaneously drawn into harmony with the thoughts and feelings of those
around him whom he loves—leads, of course, to a reproduction of their
actions—and the prevalence and universality of the effect, shows how
constant and how powerful is the cause. So the great secret of
success for a mother, in the formation of the character of her children, is
to make her children respect and love her—and then simply to 'be' herself
what she wishes them to be.
And to make them respect and love her, is to control them
by a firm government where control is required—and to indulge them almost
without limit, where indulgence will do no harm.
'Special Application of the Principle'.
But besides this general effect of the principle of
sympathy in aiding parents in forming the minds and hearts of their
children, there are a great many cases in which a father or mother who
understands the secret of its wonderful and almost magic power, can avail
themselves of it to produce special effects. One or two examples will show
more clearly what I mean.
William's aunt Maria came to pay his mother a visit in
the village where they lived. On the same day she went to take a walk with
William—who is about nine years old—to see the village. As they went along
together upon the sidewalk, they came to two small boys who were trying to
fly a kite. One of the boys was standing upon the sidewalk, embarrassed a
little by some entanglement of the string.
"Hey, fellow!" said William, as he and his aunt
approached the spot, "get out of the way with your kite—and let us go by."
The boy hurried out of the way—and, in so doing, got his
kite-string more entangled in the branches of a tree which grew at the
margin of the sidewalk.
Now William's aunt might have taken the occasion, as she
and her nephew walked along, to give him some kind and friendly instruction
or counsel about the duty of being kind to everybody in any difficulty,
trouble, or perplexity, whether they are young or old; showing him how we
increase the general sum of happiness in so doing—and how we feel happier
ourselves when we have done good to anyone, than when we have increased in
any way, or even slighted or disregarded, their troubles. How William would
receive such a lecture, would depend a great deal upon his disposition and
state of mind. But in most cases such counsels, given at such a time,
involving, as they would, some covert though very gentle censure, would
cause the heart of the boy to close itself in a greater or less degree
against them, like the leaves of a sensitive-plant shrinking from the touch.
The reply would very probably be, "Well, he had no business to be on the
sidewalk, right in our way."
William and his aunt walked on a few steps. His aunt then
stopped, hesitatingly—and said, "How would it do to go back and help that
boy disentangle his kite-string? He's a little fellow—and does not know as
much about kites and kite-strings as you do."
Here the suggestion of giving help to perplexity and
distress, came associated with a compliment instead of what implied
censure—and the leaves of the sensitive-plant expanded at once—and
widely, to the congenial influence.
"Yes!" said William; "let's go!"
So his aunt turned and went back a step or two—and then
said, "You can go and do it without me. I'll wait here till you come back. I
don't suppose you want any help from me. If you do, I'll come."
"No," aid William, "I can do it alone."
So William ran on with great alacrity to help the boys
clear the string—and then came back with a beaming face to his aunt—and they
William's aunt made no further allusion to the affair
until the end of the walk—and then, on entering the gate, she said, "We have
had a very pleasant walk—and you have taken very good care of me. And I am
glad we helped those boys out of their trouble with the kite."
"So am I!" said William.
'Analysis of the Incident'.
Now it is possible that some one may say that William was
wrong in his harsh treatment of the boys, or at least in his lack of
consideration for their perplexity; and that his aunt, by her mode of
treating the case, covered up the wrong, when it ought to have been brought
distinctly to view and openly amended. But when we come to analyze the case,
we shall find that it is not at all certain that there was anything wrong on
William's part in the transaction, so far as the state of his heart, in a
moral point of view, is concerned. All such incidents are very complicated
in their nature—and in their bearings and relations. They present many
aspects which vary according to the point of view from which they are
regarded. Even grown people do not always see all the different aspects of
an affair in respect to which they are called upon to act or to form an
opinion—and children, perhaps, never; and in judging their conduct, we
must always consider the aspect in which the action is presented to their
minds. In this case, William was thinking only of his aunt. He wished to
make her walk convenient and agreeable to her. The boy disentangling his
string on the sidewalk was to him, at that time, simply an obstacle in his
aunt's way—and he dealt with it as such, sending the boy off as an act of
kindness and attention to his aunt solely. The idea of a sentient being
suffering distress which he might either increase by harshness or relieve by
help, was not present in his mind at all. We may say that he ought to have
thought of this. But a youthful mind, still imperfect in its development,
cannot be expected to take cognizance at once of all the aspects of a
transaction which tends in different directions to different results. It is
true, that he ought to have thought of the distress of the boys, if we mean
that he ought to be taught or trained to think of such distress when he
witnessed it; and that was exactly what his aunt was endeavoring to do. We
ourselves have learned, by long experience of life, to perceive at once the
many different aspects which an affair may present—and the many different
results which may flow in various directions from the same action; and we
often inconsiderately blame children, simply because their minds are yet so
imperfectly developed that they cannot take simultaneous cognizance of more
than one or two of them. This is the true understanding of most of what is
called heedlessness in children—and for which, poor things, they
receive so many harsh reprimands and so much punishment.
A little girl, for example, undertakes to water her
sister's plants. In her praiseworthy desire to do her work well and
thoroughly, she fills the mug too full—and spills the water upon some books
that are lying upon the table. The explanation of the misfortune is simply
that her mind was filled, completely filled, with the thoughts of helping
her sister. The thought of the possibility of spilling the water, did not
come into her mind at all. There was no room for it while the other thought,
so engrossing, was there; and to say that she 'ought' to have thought of
both the results which might follow her action, is only to say that she
ought to be older.
'Sympathy as the Origin of childish Fears'.
The 'power of sympathy' in the mind of a child—that is,
its tendency to imbibe the opinions or sentiments manifested by others in
their presence—may be made very effectual, not only in inculcating
principles of right and wrong—but in relation to every other idea or
emotion! Children are afraid of thunder and lightning, or of robbers at
night, or of ghosts—because they perceive that their parents, or older
brothers or sisters, are afraid of them. Where the parents do not believe in
ghosts, the children are not afraid of them; unless, indeed, there are
domestics in the house, or playmates at school, or other companions from
whom they take the contagion. So, what they see that their parents
value—they prize themselves. They imbibe from their playmates at school a
very large proportion of their tastes, their opinions, and their ideas—not
through arguments or reasoning—but from sympathy! And most of the wrong or
foolish notions of any kind that they have acquired have not been
established in their minds by false reasoning—but have been taken by
sympathy, as a disease is communicated by infection; and the remedy is in
most cases, not reasoning—but a countervailing sympathy.
'Afraid of a Kitten'.
Little Jane was very much afraid of a kitten which her
brother brought home—the first that she had known. She had, however, seen a
picture of a tiger or some other feline animal devouring a man in a
forest—and had been frightened by it; and she had heard too, perhaps, of
children being scratched by cats or kittens. So, when the kitten was brought
in and put down on the floor, she ran to her sister in great terror—and
began to cry.
Now her sister might have attempted to reason with her by
explaining the difference between the kitten and the wild animals of the
same class in the woods—and by assuring her that thousands of children have
kittens to play with and are never scratched by them so long as they treat
them kindly—and all without producing any sensible effect. But, instead of
this, she adopted a different plan. She took the child up into her lap—and
after quieting her fears, began to talk to the kitten.
"Poor little pussy," said she, "I am glad you have come.
You never scratch anybody, I am sure, if they are kind to you. Jennie will
give you some milk some day—and she and I will like to see you lap it up
with your pretty little tongue. And we will give you a ball to play with
some day upon the carpet. See, Jennie, see! She is going to lie down upon
the rug. She is glad that she has come to such a nice home. Now she is
putting her head down—but she has not any pillow to lay it upon. Wouldn't
you like a pillow, kitty? Jennie will make you a pillow some day, I am sure,
if you would like one. Jennie is beginning to learn to sew—and she could
make you a nice pillow—and stuff it with cotton wool. Then we can see you
lying down upon the rug, with the pillow under your head that Jennie will
have made for you—all comfortable."
Such a talk as this, though it could not be expected
entirely and at once to dispel Jennie's unfounded fears, would be far more
effectual towards beginning the desired change than any arguments or
reasoning could possibly be.
Any mother who will reflect upon the principle here
explained will at once recall to mind many examples and illustrations of its
power over the hearts and minds of children which her own experience has
afforded. And if she begins practically and systematically to appeal to it,
she will find herself in possession of a new element of power—new, at least,
to her realization—the exercise of which will be as easy and agreeable to
herself as it will be effective in its influence over her children.
Chapter 11. Sympathy— the Parent
with the Child.
I think there can be no doubt that the most effectual way
of securing the confidence and love of children—and of acquiring an
ascendancy over them—is by sympathizing with them in their child-like hopes
and fears—and joys and sorrows—in their ideas, their fancies—and even in
their caprices—in all cases where duty is not concerned. Indeed, the more
child-like, that is, the more peculiar to the children themselves, the
feelings are that we enter into with them, the closer is the bond of
kindness and affection that is formed.
If a gentleman coming to reside in a new town concludes
that it is desirable that he should be on good terms with the boys in the
streets, there are various ways by which he can seek to accomplish the end.
Fortunately for him, the simplest and easiest mode is the most effectual. On
going into the village one day, we will suppose he sees two small boys
playing horse. One boy is horse—and the other driver. He stops to look at
them with a pleased expression of countenance—and then says, addressing the
driver, with a face of much seriousness, "That's a first-rate horse of
yours. Would you like to sell him? He seems to be very spirited." The horse
immediately begins to prance and caper. "You must have paid a high price for
him. You must take good care of him. Give him plenty of oats—and don't drive
him hard when it is hot weather. And if ever you conclude to sell him, I
wish you would let me know."
So saying, the gentleman walks on—and the horse,
followed by his driver, goes galloping forward in high glee.
Now, by simply manifesting thus a fellow-feeling with the
boys in their childish play, the stranger not only gives a fresh impulse to
their enjoyment at the time—but establishes a friendly relationship between
them and him which, without his doing anything to strengthen or perpetuate
it, will of itself endure for a long time. If he does not speak to the boys
again for months, every time they meet him they will be ready to greet him
with a smile.
The incident will go much farther towards establishing
friendly relations between him and them than any presents that he could make
them—except so far as his presents were of such a kind—and were given in
such a way, as to be expressions of kindly feeling towards them—that is to
say, such as to constitute of themselves a manifestation of sympathy.
The uncle who gives his nephews and nieces presents, let
them be ever so costly or beautiful—and takes no interest in their affairs,
never inspires them with any feeling of personal affection. They like him as
they like the apple-tree which bears them sweet and juicy apples, or the cow
that gives them milk—which is on their part a very different sentiment from
that which they feel for the kitten that plays with them and shares their
joys—or even for their dolls, which are only pictured in their imagination
as sharing them.
'Sophronia and Aurelia'.
Miss Sophronia calls at a house to make a visit. A
child of seven or eight years of age is playing upon the floor. After a
little time, at a pause in the conversation, she calls the child—addressing
her as "My little girl"—to come to her. The child—a shade being cast over
her mind by being thus unnecessarily reminded of her littleness—hesitates to
come. The mother says, "Come and shake hands with the lady, my dear!" The
child comes reluctantly. Miss Sophronia asks what her name is, how old she
is, whether she goes to school, what she studies there—and whether she likes
to go to school—and at length releases her. The child, only too glad to be
free from such a tiresome visitor, goes back to her play—and afterwards the
only ideas she has associated with the person of her visitor are those
relating to her school and her lessons, which may or may not be of an
Presently, after Miss Sophronia has gone, Miss Aurelia
comes in. After some conversation with the mother, she goes to see what
the child is building with her blocks. After looking on for a moment with an
expression of interest in her countenance, she asks her if she has a doll.
The child says she has four. Miss Aurelia then asks which she likes best—and
expresses a desire to see that one. The child, much pleased, runs away to
bring it—and presently comes back with all four. Miss Aurelia takes them in
her hands, examines them, talks about them—and talks to them; and when at
last the child goes back to her play, she goes with the feeling in her heart
that she has found a new friend.
Thus, to bring ourselves near to the hearts of children,
we must go to them by entering into 'their world'. They cannot come to us by
entering ours. They have no experience of it—and cannot understand it. But
we have had experience of theirs—and can enter it if we choose; and in that
way we bring ourselves very near to them.
'Sympathy must be Sincere'.
But the sympathy which we thus express with children, in
order to be effectual, must be sincere and genuine—and not pretended. We
must renew our own childish ideas and imaginations—and become for the
moment, in feeling, one with them, so that the interest which we express in
what they are saying or doing may be real—and not merely pretended. They
seem to have a natural instinct to distinguish between an honest and actual
sharing of their thoughts and emotions—and all mere condescension and
pretense, however adroitly it may be disguised.
'Lack of Time'.
Some mothers may perhaps say that they have not time thus
to enter into the ideas and occupations of their children. They are
engrossed with the serious cares of life, or busy with its various
occupations. But it does not require time. It is not a question of time—but
of manner. The farmer's wife, for example, is busy ironing, or sewing, or
preparing breakfast for her husband and sons, who are expected every moment
to come in hungry from their work. Her little daughter, ten years old, comes
to show her a shawl she has been making from a piece of calico for her doll.
The busy mother thinks she must say, "Yes; but run away now, Mary; I am very
busy!"—because that is the easiest and quickest thing to say; but it is just
as easy and just as quick to say, "What a pretty shawl! Play now that you
are going to take Minette out for a walk in it!" The one mode sends the
child away repulsed and a little disappointed; the other pleases her and
makes her happy—and tends, moreover, to form a new bond of union and
sympathy between her mother's heart and her own.
A merchant, engrossed all day in his business, comes home
to his house at dinner-time—and meets his boy of fifteen on the steps
returning from his school. "Well, James," he says, as they walk together up
stairs, "I hope you have been a good boy at school today." James, not
knowing what to say, makes some inaudible or unmeaning reply. His father
then goes on to say that he hopes his boy will be diligent and attentive to
his studies—and improve his time well, as his future success in life will
depend upon the use which he makes of his advantages while he is young; and
then leaves him at the head of the stairs, each to go to his room.
All this is very well. Advice given under such
circumstances and in such a way produces, undoubtedly, a certain good
effect—but it does not tend at all to bring the father and son together. But
if, instead of giving this common-place advice, the father asks—supposing it
to be winter at the time—"Which kind of skates are the most popular among
the boys nowadays, James?" Then, after hearing his reply, he asks him what
'his' opinion is—and whether any great improvement has been made within a
short time—and whether any of the patent inventions are of much consequence.
The tendency of such a conversation as this, equally brief with the other,
will be to draw the father and son more together. Even in a moral point of
view, the influence would be, indirectly, very beneficial; for although no
moral counsel or instruction was given at the time, the effect of such a
participation in the thoughts with which the boy's mind is occupied is to
strengthen the bond of union between the heart of the boy and that of his
father—and thus to make the boy far more ready to receive and be guided by
the advice or admonitions of his father on other occasions.
Let no one suppose, from these illustrations, that they
are intended to inculcate the idea that a father is to lay aside the
parental counsels and instructions that he has been accustomed to give to
his children—and replace them by talks about skates! They are only intended
to show one aspect of the difference of effect produced by the two kinds of
conversation—and that the father, if he wishes to gain and retain an
influence over the hearts of his boys, must descend sometimes into the world
in which they live—and with which their thoughts are occupied—and must enter
it, not merely as a spectator, or a fault-finder, or a counselor—but as a
sharer, to some extent, in the ideas and feelings which are appropriate to
'Ascendancy over the Minds of Children'.
Sympathizing with children in their own pleasures and
enjoyments, however childish they may seem to us when we do not regard them,
as it were, with children's eyes—is, perhaps, the most powerful of all the
means at our command for gaining a powerful ascendancy over them. This will
lead us not to interfere with their own plans and ideas—but to be willing
that they should be happy in their own way. In respect to their duties,
those connected, for example, with their studies, their serious
employments—and their compliance with directions of any kind emanating from
superior authority, of course their will must be under absolute subjection
to the will of those who are older and wiser than they. In all such things
they must bring their thoughts and actions into accord with ours. In these
things they must come to us, not we to them. But in everything that relates
to their child-like pleasures and joys, their modes of recreation and
amusement, their playful explorations of the mysteries of things—and the
various novelties around them in the strange world into which they find
themselves ushered—in all these things we must not attempt to bring them to
us—but we must go to them. In this, their own sphere, the more perfectly
they are at liberty, the better; and if we join them in it at all, we must
do so by bringing our ideas and wishes into accord with theirs.
The effect of our sympathy with children in winning their
confidence and love, is all the more powerful when it is exercised in cases
where they are naturally inclined not to expect sympathy—that is, in
relation to feelings which they would suppose that older people would be
inclined to condemn. Perhaps the most striking example of this is in what is
commonly called foolish fears. Now a fear is foolish or otherwise,
not according to the absolute facts involving the supposed danger—but
according to the means which the person in question has of knowing the
facts. A lady, for example, in passing along the sidewalk of a great city
comes to a place where workmen are raising an immense and ponderous iron
safe, which, slowly rising, hangs suspended twenty feet above the walk. She
is afraid to pass under it. The foreman, however, who is engaged in
directing the operation, passing freely to and fro under the impending
weight, as he has occasion—and without the least concern, smiles, perhaps,
at the lady's "foolish fears." But the fears which might, perhaps, be
foolish in him, are not so in her, since he 'knows' the nature and the
strength of the machinery and securities above—and she does not. She only
knows that accidents do sometimes happen from lack of due precaution in
raising heavy weights—and she does not know—and has no means of knowing,
whether or not the due precautions have been taken in this case. So she
manifests good sense—and not folly, in going out of her way to avoid all
possibility of danger.
This is really the proper explanation of a large class of
what are usually termed foolish fears. Viewed in the light of the
individual's knowledge of the facts in the case, they are sensible fears—and
not foolish ones at all.
A girl of twelve, from the city, spending the summer in
the country, wishes to go down to the river to join her brothers there—but
is stopped by observing a cow in a field which she has to cross. She comes
back to the house—and is there laughed at for her foolishness in being
"afraid of a cow!"
But why should she not be afraid of a cow? She has heard
stories of people being gored by bulls—and sometimes by cows—and she has no
means whatever of estimating the reality or the extent of the danger in any
particular case. The farmer's daughters, however, who laugh at her, know the
cow in question perfectly well. They have milked her—and fed her—and tied
her up to her manger a hundred times; so, while it would be a very foolish
thing for them to be afraid to cross a field where the cow was feeding, it
is a very sensible thing for the stranger-girl from the city to be so.
Nor would it certainly change the case much for the
child, if the farmer's girls were to assure her that the cow was perfectly
peaceable—and that there was no danger; for she does not know the girls any
better than she does the cow—and cannot judge how far their statements or
opinions are to be relied upon. It may possibly not be the cow they think it
is. They are very positive, it is true; but very positive people are often
mistaken. Besides, the cow may be peaceable with them—and yet be disposed to
attack a stranger. What a child requires in such a case is sympathy and
help, not ridicule.
She does meet with sympathy in the form of the farmer's
son, a young man browned in face and plain in attire, who comes along while
she stands loitering at the fence looking at the cow—and not daring after
all, notwithstanding the assurances she has received at the house—to cross
the field. His name is Joseph—and he is a natural gentleman—a class of
people of whom a much larger number is found in this humble guise—and a much
smaller number in proportion among the fashionables in elegant life, than is
often supposed. "Yes," says Joseph, after hearing the child's statement of
the case, "you are right. Cows are sometimes vicious, I know; and you are
perfectly right to be on your guard against such as you do not know when you
meet them in the country. This one, as it happens, is very kind; but still,
I will go through the field with you."
So he goes with her through the field, stopping on the
way to talk a little to the cow—and to feed her with an apple which he has
in his pocket.
It is in this spirit that the fears—and antipathies—and
false imaginations of children are generally to be dealt with; though, of
course, there may be many exceptions to the general rule.
'When Children are in the Wrong'.
There is a certain sense in which we should feel a
sympathy with children in the wrong that they do. It would seem paradoxical
to say that in any sense there should be sympathy with sin—and yet there is
a sense in which this is true, though perhaps, strictly speaking—it is
sympathy with the trial and temptation which led to the sin,
rather than with the act of transgression itself.
In whatever light a nice metaphysical analysis would lead
us to regard it, it is certain that the most successful efforts that have
been made by philanthropists for reaching the hearts and reforming the
conduct of criminals and malefactors, have been prompted by a feeling of
compassion for them, not merely for the sorrows and sufferings which they
have brought upon themselves by their wrongdoing—but for the mental
conflicts which they endured, the fierce impulses of appetite and passion,
more or less connected with and dependent upon the material condition of the
bodily organs, under the onset of which their feeble moral sense, never
really brought into a condition of health and vigor, was over-borne. These
merciful views of the diseased condition and action of the soul in the
commission of crime are not only in themselves right views for man to take
of the crimes and sins of his fellow-man—but they lie at the foundation of
all effort that can afford any serious hope of promoting reformation.
This principle is eminently true in its application to
children. They need the influence of a kind and considerate sympathy when
they have done wrong—more, perhaps, than at any other time. And the effects
of the proper manifestation of this sympathy on the part of the mother will,
perhaps, be greater and more beneficial in this case than in any other. Of
course the sympathy must be of the right kind—and must be expressed in the
right way, so as not to allow the tenderness or compassion for the
wrong-doer, to be mistaken for approval or justification of the wrong.
A boy, for instance, comes home from school in a state of
great distress—and perhaps of indignation and resentment, on account of
having been punished. Mothers sometimes say at once, in such a case, "I
don't pity you at all. I have no doubt you deserved it." This only increases
the tumult of commotion in the boy's mind, without at all tending to help
him to feel a sense of his guilt. His mind, still imperfectly developed,
cannot take cognizance simultaneously of all the parts and all the aspects
of a complicated transaction. The sense of his wrong-doing, which forms in
his teacher's and in his mother's mind so essential a part of the
transaction, is not present in his conceptions at all. There is no room for
it, so totally engrossed are all his faculties with the stinging
recollections of suffering, the tumultuous emotions of anger and
resentment—and now with the additional thought that even his mother has
taken part against him. The mother's conception of the transaction is
equally limited and imperfect, though in a different way. She thinks only
that if she were to treat the child with kindness and sympathy, she would be
taking the part of a bad boy against his teacher; whereas, in reality, she
might do it in such a way as only to be taking the part of a suffering
boy against his pain.
It would seem that the true and proper course for a
mother to take with a child in such a case, would be to soothe and calm his
agitation—and to listen, if need be, to his account of the affair, without
questioning or controverting it at all, however plainly she may see that,
under the blinding and distorting influence of his excitement, he is
misrepresenting the facts. Let him tell his story. Listen to it patiently to
the end. It is not necessary to express or even to form an opinion on the
merits of it. The ready and willing hearing of one side of a case does not
commit the tribunal to a decision in favor of that side. On the other hand,
it is the only way to give weight and a sense of impartiality to a decision
Thus the mother may sympathize with her boy in his
troubles, appreciate fully the force of the circumstances which led him into
the wrong—and help to soothe and calm his agitation—and thus take his
part—and place herself closely to him in respect to his suffering,
without committing herself at all in regard to the original cause of it; and
then, at a subsequent time, when the tumult of his soul has subsided, she
can, if she thinks best, far more easily and effectually lead him to see
wherein he was wrong.