Old Maids' Children
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1854
"If that were my child, I'd soon break him of such capers. Only manage him right, and he'll be as good a boy as can be found anywhere."
"Very few people appear to have any right government over their children."
"Very few. Here is my sister — a sensible woman enough, and one would think the very person to raise, in order and obedience, a family of eight children. But she doesn't manage them rightly; and, what is remarkable, is exceedingly sensitive, and won't take kindly the slightest hint from me on the subject. If I say to her, 'If that were my child, Sarah, I would do so and so,' she will be almost sure to retort something about old maids' children."
"Yes, that's the way. No matter how defective the family government of anyone may be, she will not allow others to suggest improvements."
"It would not be so with me. If I had a family of children, I would not only see their faults, but gladly receive hints from all sides as to their correction."
"It's the easiest thing in the world to govern children, if you go the right way about it."
"I know. There is nothing easier. And yet my sister will say, sometimes, that she is perfectly at a loss what to do. But no wonder. Like hundreds of others, she has let her children get completely out of her control. If they don't break her heart in the end, I shall be glad."
The immediate cause of this conversation between Miss Martha Spencer and a maiden lady who had been some forty years old — was the refractory conduct of Mrs. Fleetwood's oldest child, a boy between six and seven years of age, by which a pleasant conversation had been interrupted, and the mother obliged to leave the room for a short period.
"I think, with you," said Miss Jones, the visitor, "that Mrs. Fleetwood errs very greatly in the management of her children."
"Management! She has no management at all," interrupted Miss Spencer.
"In not managing her children, then, if you will."
"So I have told her, over and over again, but to no good purpose. She never receives it kindly. Why, if I had a child, I would never allow it to cry after it was six months old. It is the easiest thing in the world to prevent it. And yet, one of Sarah's children does little else but fret and cry all the time. She insists upon it that it can't feel well. And suppose this to be the case? — crying does it no good, but, in reality, a great deal of harm. If it is sick, it has made itself so by crying."
"Very likely. I've known many such instances," remarked Miss Jones.
Mrs. Fleetwood, returning at the moment, checked this train of conversation. She did not allude to the circumstance that caused her to leave the room, but endeavored to withdraw attention from it, by some pleasant remarks calculated to interest the visitor and give the thoughts of all a new direction.
"I hope you punished Earnest, as he deserved to be," said her sister, as soon as Miss Jones had retired. "I never saw such an unruly child!"
"He certainly behaved badly," returned Mrs. Fleetwood, speaking in an absent manner.
"He behaved outrageously! If I had a child, and he were to act as Earnest did this morning — I'd teach him a lesson that he would not forget in a year."
"No doubt your children will be under very good government, Martha," said Mrs. Fleetwood, a little sarcastically.
"If they are not under better government than yours, I'll send them all to the reform school," retorted Miss Martha.
The color on Mrs. Fleetwood's cheeks grew warmer at this remark, but she thought it best not to reply in a manner likely to provoke a further insulting retort, and merely said —
"If ever you come to have children of your own, sister, you will be able to understand, better than you now do — a mother's trials, doubts, and difficulties. At present, you think you know a great deal about managing children — but you know nothing."
"I know," replied Martha, "that I could manage my own children a great deal better than you manage yours."
"If such should prove to be the case, no one will be more rejoiced at the result than I. But I look, rather, to see your children, if you should ever become a mother — worse governed than most people's."
"Yes, I do."
"Because my own observation tells me, that those people who are most inclined to see defects in family government, and to find fault with other people's management of their children — are apt to have the most unruly young scamps in their houses to be found anywhere."
"That's all nonsense. The fact that a person observes and reflects, ought to make that person better qualified to act."
"Right observation and reflection, no doubt, will. But right observation and reflection in regard to children, will make anyone modest and fearful on the subject of their right government, rather than bold and boastful. Those who, like you, think themselves so well qualified to manage children — usually make the worst managers."
"It's all very well for you to talk in that way," said Martha, tossing her head. "But, if I ever have children of my own, I'll show you whether I have the worst young scamps to be found anywhere."
A low, fretful cry, or rather whine, had been heard from a child near the door of the room, for some time. It was one of those annoying, irritating cries, that proceed more from a fretful state of mind, than from any adequate external exciting cause. Martha paused a moment, and then added —
"Do you think I would allow a child to cry around the house half of its time, as Ellen does? No, indeed. I'd soon settle that."
"How would you do it?"
"I'd make her stop crying."
"Suppose you couldn't?"
"Couldn't! That's not the way for a mother to talk."
"Excuse me, Martha," said Mrs. Fleetwood, rising. "I would rather not hear such remarks from you, and now repeat what I have before said, more than once — that I wish you to leave me free to do what I think right in my own family; as I undoubtedly will leave you free, if ever you should have one."
And Mrs. Fleetwood left the room, and taking the little girl who was crying at the door by the hand, led her upstairs.
"What is the matter, Ellen?" she asked as calmly and as soothingly as the irritating nature of Ellen's peculiar cry or whine would permit her.
"Earnest won't play with me," replied the child, still crying.
"Come up into my room, and see if there isn't something pretty there to play with."
"No — I don't want to," was the crying answer.
"Yes, come." And Mrs. Fleetwood led along the resisting child.
"No — no — no — I don't want to go. I want Earnest to play with me."
"Humph! I'd stop that pretty quick!" remarked Miss Spencer to herself, as the petulant cry of the child grew louder. "I'd never allow a child of mine to go on like that."
Mrs. Fleetwood felt disturbed. But experience had taught her that whenever she spoke from an irritated state, her words rather increased than allayed the evil she sought to correct. So she drew the child along with her, using some force in order to do it, until she reached her chamber. Her strongest impulse, on being alone with Ellen, who still continued crying, was to silence her instantly by the most summary process to which parental authority usually has resort in such cases; but her mother's heart suggested the better plan of diverting Ellen's mind, if possible, and thus getting it into a happier state. In order to do this, she tried various means, but without effect. The child still cried on, and in a manner so disturbing to the mother, that she found it almost impossible to keep from enforcing silence by a stern threat of instant punishment. But, she kept on, patiently doing what she thought to be right, and was finally successful in soothing the unhappy child. To her husband, with whom she was conversing on that evening about the state into which Ellen had fallen, she said —
"I find it very hard to get along with her. She tires my patience almost beyond endurance. Sometimes it is impossible to bear with her crying, and I silence it by punishment. But I observe that if I can produce a cheerful state by amusing her and getting her interested in some play or employment, she retains her even temper much longer, than when she has been stopped from crying by threats or punishment. If I only had patience with her, I could get along better. But it is so hard to have patience with a fretful, ever-crying child."
Of the mental exercises through which Mrs. Fleetwood passed, Miss Martha Spencer knew nothing. She saw only the real and supposed errors of her mode of government, and strongly condemned them. Her doctrine was, in governing children, "implicit obedience must be had at all hazards." Obedience she believed to be a thing easily obtained by anyone who chose to enforce it. Nowhere, it must be owned, did she see children as orderly and obedient as she thought they should be. But that she did not hesitate to set down to the fault of the parents. Her influence in the family of her sister was not good. To some extent she destroyed the freedom of Mrs. Fleetwood, and to some extent disturbed the government of her children by interfering with it, and attempting to make the little ones do as she thought best. Her interference was borne, about as well as it could be by her sister, who now and then gave her a "piece of her mind," and in plain, straight forward terms. Mrs. Fleetwood's usual remark, when Martha talked about what she would do, if she had children, was a good humored one, and generally something after this fashion —
"Old maids' children are the best in the world, I know. They never cry, are never disobedient, and never act disorderly!"
Martha hardly relished this mode of "stopping her," but it was generally effective, though sometimes it produced a slight ebullition.
At last, though the chances in favor of matrimony had become alarmingly few, Martha was wooed, won, and married to a gentleman named Mr. Laurie, who removed with her to the West.
"There is some prospect at last," Mrs. Fleetwood said to her husband, with a smile, on the occasion of Martha's wedding, "of sister's being able to bring into practice her theories in regard to family government. I only hope the mother's children may be as good as the old maid's."
"I doubt if they will," remarked the husband, smiling in turn.
"We shall see."
Years passed, and Martha, now Mrs. Laurie, remained in the West. Her sister frequently heard from her by letter, and every now and then received the announcement of a fine babe born to the proud mother; who as often spoke of her resolution to do her duty towards her children, and especially in the matter of enforcing obedience. She still talked eloquently of the right modes of domestic government, and the high and holy duties of parents.
"Let me be blamable in what I may," said she, in one of these letters, "it shall not be a disregard to the best interests of my children."
"I hope not, indeed," said Mrs. Fleetwood, after reading the passage to her husband. "But those who really understand the true character of children, and are sensible of the fact that they inherit from their parents all the evil and disorderly tendencies not fully overcome in themselves — feel too deeply the almost hopeless task they assume, to boast much of what they will do with their children. A humble, reserved, even trembling consciousness of the difficulties in the way of the parent, is the most promising state in which a parent can assume his or her responsibilities. To look for perfect order and obedience is to look for what never comes. Our duty is to sow good seed in the minds of our children, and to see that the ground be kept as free from evil weeds as possible. The time of fruit is not until reason is developed; and we err in expecting fruit at an early period. There will come the tender blade, green and pleasant to the eye, and the firm, upright stalk, with its leaves and its branches; and flowers, too, after a while, beautiful, sweet-smelling flowers; but the fruit of all our labor, of all our careful culture, appears not until reason takes the place of mere obedience, and the child becomes the man. This view saves me from many discouragements; and leads me, in calm and patient hope, to persevere, even though through months, and, I might almost say, years — little prospect of ultimate fruit becomes apparent. But, good seed must bring forth good fruit."
After a while, Mrs. Laurie ceased to write in her old strain. She sometimes spoke of her two eldest sons as fine boys, and of her two little girls as dear, sweet creatures; but generally omitted saying anything more about her family, than that all were in good health.
Ten years after Martha's marriage and removal to the West, during which time the sisters had not met, business required Mr. Fleetwood to go to Cincinnati, and he proposed that his wife should accompany him, and pay a visit to Mrs. Laurie, who lived in Springfield, Ohio. Mrs. Fleetwood readily consented, and they started in the pleasant month of October.
On arriving at Springfield, they were met by Mr. Laurie at the stage-office and taken to his house, where the sisters met, overjoyed at seeing each other once more.
"Is that one of your children?" asked Mrs. Fleetwood, after she had laid aside her bonnet and riding-dress, and seated herself in her sister's chamber. A red-faced boy, with pouting lips, and a brow naturally or artificially so heavy as almost to conceal his organs of vision — stood holding on to one side of the door, and swinging himself in and out, all the while eyeing fixedly his aunt, of whose intended visit he had been advised.
"Yes, that is my oldest. Henry, come here and speak to your aunty."
But Henry did not change either attitude, motion, nor expression, any more than if he had been a swinging automaton.
"Did you hear me?" Mrs. Laurie spoke with a slight change in her voice and manner.
The boy remained as impassive as before.
"Come, dear, and shake hands with me," said Mrs. Fleetwood.
Henry now put one of his thumbs into his mouth, but neither looked nor acted less savagely than at first.
Mrs. Laurie was fretted at this unfavorable exhibition of himself by her son. She felt as if she would like to get hold of him and box his ears until they burned for a week.
"Henry! Come here!" She spoke in a tone of command. The door was quite as much impressed, as her son.
"Either come and speak to your aunty, or go downstairs immediately."
The boy moved not.
This was too much for Mrs. Laurie, and she started towards him. Henry let go of the door, and went downstairs about as quietly as a horse would have gone.
"He's such a strange, shy boy," said Mrs. Laurie, apologetically. "But he has a good heart, and you can do almost anything with him. How is Earnest? the dear little fellow."
"Earnest is almost a man. He is as large as I am," replied Mrs. Fleetwood.
"Indeed! I can't think of him as anything but a bright little boy, not so large as my Henry."
As she said this, her Henry, who had gone clattering downstairs a few moments before, presented himself at the door again, and commenced swinging himself, and taking observations of the state of affairs within the chamber. The mother and aunt both concluded within their own minds, that it was as well not to take any notice of him, and therefore went on with their conversation. Presently a happy, singing voice was heard upon the stairs.
"There comes my little Martha, the light of the whole house," said Mrs. Laurie. In a few moments, a sweet-faced child presented herself, and was about entering, when Henry stepped into the door, and, putting a foot against each side, blocked up the way. Martha attempted to pass the rude boy, and, in doing so, fell over one of his feet, and struck her face a severe blow upon the floor. The loud scream of the hurt child, the clattering of Henry downstairs, and the excited exclamation of the mother as she sprang forward, were simultaneous. Mr. Laurie and Mr. Fleetwood came running up from the room below, and arrived in time to see a gush of blood from the nose of Martha, as her mother raised her from the floor.
"Isn't it too much!" exclaimed Mrs. Laurie. "I think that it is the worst boy I ever saw in my life!"
The application of a little cold water soon staunched the flow of blood, and a few kind words soothed the feelings of the child, who sat in her mother's lap, and answered her aunt when she spoke to her, like a little lady, as she was.
"Where are the rest of your children?" asked Mrs. Fleetwood. The gentlemen were now seated with the ladies.
"You've had a pretty fair sample of them," replied Mr. Laurie, smiling good humoredly, "and may as well be content with that for the present. To say the best of them — they are about as wild a set of young scamps as ever made each other miserable, and their parents, too, sometimes."
"Why, Mr. Laurie!" exclaimed his wife, who had not forgotten her old opinions, freely expressed, about the ease with which children could be governed. "I'm sure you needn't say that. I think our children quite as good as other people's, and a little better than some I could name."
"Well, perhaps they are — but nothing to brag of at that," replied Mr. Laurie. "Children are children — and you can't make anything more out of them."
"But children should be made orderly and obedient," said Mrs. Laurie, with some dignity of expression.
"If they can," pleasantly returned the father. "So far, we, at least, have not succeeded to our wishes in this respect. As to order and obedience, they seem to be cardinal sins rather than cardinal virtues, at present. But I hope better things after a while."
As this was said, someone was heard tumbling rather than walking upstairs, and, in a moment after, in bolted a boy about seven years old, crying out —
"Hen' says Uncle and Aunt Fleetwood have come! Have they, mom?"
The boy stopped short on perceiving that strangers were present.
"Yes, my son, your Uncle and Aunt Fleetwood are here," said Mr. Fleetwood, reaching out his hand to the little fellow. Remembering Martha's former rigid notions about the government of children, he felt so much amused by what he saw, that he could hardly help laughing out immoderately. "Come here," he added, "and let me talk to you."
The boy went without hesitation to his uncle, who took him by the hand and said, with a half wicked glance at the mother, yet with a broad good humored smile upon his face,
"That must be a very knowing hen of yours. I should like to have some of her chickens."
"What hen?" asked the boy, with a serious air.
"Why, the hen that told you we were here."
"No hen told me that." The boy looked mystified.
"Oh! I thought you said Hen' told you so."
"No, it was Henry!"
"Say, no sir, my son." Mrs. Laurie's face was not pale, certainly, as she said this.
The boy did not think it worth while to repeat the formality.
"Oh! it was your brother Henry," replied Mr. Fleetwood, with affected seriousness. "I thought that must have been a very knowing hen." The boy, and his sister who had recovered from the pain of her fall, laughed heartily. "Now tell me your name?"
"Say John, sir. Where are your manners?" spoke up the mother, who remembered that, with all her sister's imperfect management of her children, she had succeeded in teaching them to be very respectful in their replies to older people, and that Earnest, when she last saw him, was a little gentleman in his manners when anyone spoke to him.
"Mo-ther!" came now ringing up the stairs, in a loud, screeching little voice. "Mo-ther! Hen' won't let me come up."
"I declare! That boy is too bad! He's a perfect torment!" said Mrs. Laurie, fretfully. "I'm out of all heart with him."
The father stepped to the head of the stairs, and spoke rather sternly to the rebellious Henry. Little feet, were soon heard pattering up, and the youngest of the young hopefuls made her appearance, and, soon after, Henry pushed his really repulsive face into the door and commenced grimacing at the other children, thereby succeeding in what he desired to do, namely, starting little Maggy, the youngest, into a whining, fretful cry, because "Hen' was making faces" at her. This cry, once commenced, was never known to end without the application of something more decided in its effects than words. It was in vain that the mother used every persuasive, diverting and soothing means in her power: the crying, loud enough to drown all conversation, continued, until, taking the child up hurriedly in her arms, she bore her into another room, where she applied some pretty severe silencing measures, which had, however, the contrary effect to that desired.
The child cried on, but louder than before. For nearly ten minutes, she sought by scolding and whipping to silence her, but all was in vain. It is doubtful, after the means used to enforce silence, whether the child could have stopped if she had tried. At last, the mother locked her in a closet, and came, with a flushed face and mortified feelings, back to the room from which she had retired with Maggy.
The moment Mrs. Laurie left, her husband, with a word and a look, brought the three children into order and quietness. Henry was told, in a low voice, and in a tone of authority, that he never thought of questioning, to go up into the garret and remain there until he sent for him. The boy retired without the slightest hesitation.
When Mrs. Laurie returned, Mr. Fleetwood, who was a man of frank, free, and pleasant manners, could not resist the temptation he felt to remind her of the past; he, therefore, said, laughingly,
"You have doubtless found out, by this time, Martha, that old maids' children are the best."
This sally had just the effect he designed it to have. It was an apology for the children, as it classed them with other real children, in contradistinction to the imaginary offspring of the unmarried, that are known by every one to be faultless children.
Replied Mrs. Laurie, feeling an immediate sense of relief, "I own to the error I committed before marriage. It seemed to me the easiest thing in the world to manage children, when I thought about it, and saw where parents erred, or appeared to err, in their modes of government. I did not then know what was in children. All their perverseness, I laid to the account of bad management. Alas! I have had some sad experiences in regard to my error. Still, I cannot but own that children are made worse by injudicious treatment, and also, that mine ought to be a great deal better than they are."
"Like the rest of us," returned Mr. Fleetwood, "you have no doubt discovered, that it is one thing to think about the government of children, and another thing to be in the midst of their disturbing sphere, and yet act as if you did not feel it. Theory and practice are two things. It seems, when we think coolly, that nothing can be easier than to cause the one exactly to correspond to the other. But whoever makes the trial, especially where the right government of children is concerned, will find it a most difficult matter. What makes the government of their children so hard a thing for parents, is the fact that the evils of the children have been inherited from them, and therefore the reaction of these evils upon themselves is the more disturbing. We haven't as much patience with the faults of our own children, often, as other people have. They fret and annoy us, and take away our ability to speak in a proper tone and act with befitting dignity toward them, and thus destroy their respect for us."
"Nothing can be truer," said Mrs. Laurie. "I stand rebuked. I am self-condemned, every day, on this very account. I used to think that your government and that of Sarah's over your children, to be very defective. But it was far better than the government that I have been able to exercise over mine. Ah me!"
"Don't sigh over the matter so terribly, Martha," spoke up the husband. "We shall get them right in the end. Never give up the ship, is my motto in this and everything else. But I wouldn't have our brother and sister here think for a moment that the scenes they have witnessed are enacted every day. Their visit is an occasion of some excitement to our young folks, and they had to show off a little. They will cool down again, and we shall get on pleasantly enough."
"That is all very true," said Mrs. Laurie, more cheerfully. "I never saw them act quite so outrageously before, when anyone came in. There is much good in them, and you will see it before you leave us."
"No doubt in the world of that," replied Mr. Fleetwood; "there is good in all children, and it is our duty to exercise great forbearance towards their evils, and be careful lest, by what we do or say, we strengthen, rather than break them."
And the good that was in Mrs. Laurie's children was clearly seen by Mr. and Mrs. Fleetwood during their stay; but, that good was, alas! not strengthened as it might have been, nor were the evils they inherited kept quiescent, as they would to a great extent have remained, had the mother been more patient and forbearing — had her practice been as good as her theory.
It is easy for us to see how others ought to act toward their children, but very hard for us to act right toward our own.