Practical Hints from a Father to His Daughter

William Sprague, 1835

Early Friendships

The development of the social principle, is one of the earliest exhibitions of human nature. This, in connection with the benevolent affections, constitutes the foundation of friendship. Hence we find that strong attachments often exist between children, long before the judgment is sufficiently developed to decide in respect to the qualities which should enter into the character of a friend. A glance at your own experience, will convince you that it has been conformed to this law of our condition. You will find, on a review of your childhood, that you have formed many friendships, without much discrimination; some of which may have already given place to others; while some, perhaps, may continue to the evening of life.

The importance of early friendships is to be estimated by the influence which they exert in forming the character. That this influence must be very great, no one can question who has considered either the constitution of our nature, or the actual results which are found in experience. We are originally constituted creatures of habit, subject in a high degree to the influence of example. And though many of the impressions which the mind receives in childhood, are necessarily worn out in its progress to maturity yet those which remain are wrought into the very texture of the character, and become the most efficient principles of action. Every person who attentively examines his own character, or who is intimately acquainted with the process by which the characters of others have been formed will find sufficient proof of the reality and extent of this influence.

Who has not heard on witnessing the wreck of parental hopes in a ruined and wretched child that it was the melancholy result of bad early associations? And who, on the other hand, has not watched with delight the gracious influence of a virtuous friendship upon the unfolding faculties of the mind and dispositions of the heart?

If so much importance is attached to the friendships which you form in early life, you will at once perceive that the choice of your friends ought to be a matter of the most deliberate caution. For though your earliest attachments must necessarily result from circumstances not within your control yet, in respect to those which are formed subsequently to the period of childhood, you may call to your aid judgment and reflection.

A rule on this subject which you should never fail to observe is: not too hastily to offer your confidence not to consent to an unreserved intimacy with anyone, until you have gained a thorough knowledge of the character! The effect of disregarding this rule, would be to expose you, at least, to the charge of imprudence, and not improbably, to many more serious evils. You may safely calculate that considerable suspicion is to be attached to professions which are made by those who have had little opportunity to know you; while you may reasonably expect, on the other hand, that a friendship which is the result of an ultimate acquaintance, will be a lasting source of pleasure and advantage.

In respect to the character of your particular friends, I hardly need say that you are not to expect to find those who are free from imperfection or sin. You will recollect that in common with yourself, they belong to a race of fallen beings; and it would be strange indeed, if there should not be occasion, both on your part and theirs for mutual condescension to each other's infirmities, and mutual forgiveness of each other's errors.

But you ought, in no case, unnecessarily to contract an intimate friendship with one whose example, on the whole, you would not choose to imitate; for this obvious reason, that the tendency of such a friendship to assimilate its subjects is so strong, that there is little probability, in any given case, of its being counteracted.

One quality which is of great importance in an intimate friend, is an amiable temper. Everyone knows how much of the unhappiness of life results from the haughty, irritable, and unkind feelings of those with whom we are even remotely associated. Of course, the evil becomes greater in proportion to the nearness of the relation which we sustain to them. A person of an unamiable temper was never formed either to enjoy or impart the highest pleasure connected with friendship. For though one of this character may be sincerely attached to you, and may be, on the whole, quite desirous of promoting your happiness it would be very strange if your interaction with her should not frequently be embittered by hasty or unkind expressions.

I advise you, therefore, in the selection of your friends, to have particular reference to the natural disposition; and, as a general rule, not to admit to your unreserved confidence any who would be likely often to wound your sensibility, and whose feelings are not, and cannot be attuned to the enjoyments of a refined friendship.

Another trait which it is desirable that your intimate friends should possess, is a good and cultivated mind and understanding. I do not mean that you are to consider it indispensably requisite that a friend should be possessed of uncommon genius, or should have made great attainments in any of the departments of science or literature. But there is a wide difference between the accomplishments of which I now speak, which fall to the lot of comparatively few, and that intellectual barrenness which must give an effectual barrier to all pleasant or useful interaction.

One important purpose which you ought to propose to yourself in an intimate friendship, is the culture of the understanding; for besides the advantages for improvement which are connected with an unreserved interaction, it would be obviously wrong that so much time as that interaction would probably occupy should be spent, without contributing, in any degree, to the strength or development of the intellectual faculties.

If your most intimate associates are people of good sense and a good degree of improvement you can hardly fail to derive some intellectual advantage from mingling in their society. You will breathe an atmosphere which will operate almost insensibly to invigorate the powers of your mind. But if, on the other hand, you are most conversant with those, whose minds are cast in an inferior mold, and whose opportunities of mental cultivation are very narrow you will not only lose much positive advantage but it will be strange if your own mind do not gradually come to sympathize in the imbecility and barrenness with which it is so constantly brought in contact!

As another quality which you ought to regard in the choice of your friends, I would mention discretion. This is something quite distinct from genius but though it is a less dazzling quality it is probably more important both to happiness and usefulness. Many a girl of a brilliant and cultivated mind, has sacrificed her own character and the comfort of her friends, to indiscretion. If your most intimate friends are of this character the evil to yourself will be twofold: you will partake of the unhappiness which they will frequently bring upon themselves, and you will often yourself be subject to embarrassment and perplexity in consequence of their imprudence.

Never be attracted, then, in the selection of a friend, by any appearance of eccentricity. In almost every case, you will find it associated with some kind of indiscretion; and wherever this exists in any considerable degree it will be enough to poison the most intimate friendship. Let your friends be those who have the reputation of being prudent and judicious. Better that they should possess these qualities, than every artificial accomplishment.

I will only add in respect to the character of your particular friends, that it is exceedingly desirable that they should be people who maintain a serious regard for true religion, and who live under its practical influence. In the formation of your friendships, as well as in everything else, you are to recollect that you are an immortal and accountable creature and to keep in view your preparation for a future world. Nothing will serve more effectually to prevent or banish all serious impressions, than an unrestrained interaction with the vain and careless! Whatever other attractions such people may possess, you may rest assured that the single fact that they treat the Gospel with levity or indifference, is a sufficient reason why they should not be your chosen friends!

Indeed, the more engaging they are in other respects the more reason would you have to dread their influence as companions; because they would throw around an impious life, so many more dangerous attractions. Let your intimate friends therefore be, at least, people who pay a conscientious regard to the duties of true religion; and if they have deeply felt its power you ought to regard it as an additional recommendation. If you rightly improve the privilege, you will not have occasion at the close of life, to lament that your most intimate associates were people of exemplary piety. But if you should choose friends of an opposite character, you have great reason to fear that the remembrance of it will embitter your closing hour with unavailing regrets!

Let me here remark, as a direction which you will do well always to keep in mind, that your particular friends should not be very numerous. My reasons for this advice are the following. To meet all the claims which many intimate friendships would involve, would require too much of your time; and would necessarily interfere with the duties connected with your station in life. You could derive no advantage from having many intimate friends, which would not be as well secured to you by a smaller circle, and indeed just in proportion as the number is extended beyond a moderate limit you will defeat the purposes which such a friendship is designed to answer.

For it is impossible, from the nature of the case, that you should bestow the same degree of confidence and affection upon a great number, as upon a few. And as the advantage to be derived is in some measure in proportion to the strength and intimacy of the friendship, it is obvious that the more numerous is your circle of particular friends the less satisfaction and benefit you can expect to receive.

It is equally true, on the other hand, that the greater the number to whom you offer your confidence the less will your confidence be valued in each particular case; for there is no exception here from the general rule, that things are cheap in proportion as they are common. Be satisfied, then, with a few choice friends, and do not be ambitious to be the confidant of all your acquaintances.

Another suggestion closely connected with the one which I have just made is, that you should not be fickle in your friendships. Do not hastily give up one friend for the sake of gaining another. Wherever this disposition is revealed, it is sure to excite disgust and to attach suspicion to any subsequent professions. Be as cautious as you will in forming your attachments but when they are once formed, never let them be broken, unless on some ground that you can justify to your reason and conscience! One single instance of the unreasonable desertion of a friend, would do an injury to your character, which time could scarcely wear out, or future fidelity retrieve.

It only remains that I suggest a FEW HINTS in respect to the manner in which your interaction with your friends should be regulated.

That you should treat them with a high degree of confidence, is implied in the fact that you extend to them your intimate friendship. Never wound them by any unreasonable expressions of distrust, or by withholding from them anything which they have a right to know. Be particularly cautious not to excite curiosity by dropping a hint in relation to subjects which, from any consideration you do not feel willing fully to explain. Such mysterious allusions often excite painful suspicions in the mind, and have frequently been instrumental in separating best friends. It would be too paltry a consideration for which to wound the feelings, or to expose yourself to the loss, of a valued friend that you might be amused by witnessing the common operations of curiosity.

But while I would have you as unreserved in your interaction with your friends, as the relation which you bear to them demands I would also have you beware of the opposite extreme of pouring into their ears everything which you may happen to know, without discrimination! In your interaction with a censorious world, it would be strange if you would not sometimes hear bad remarks upon their character, which, however unmeaning in themselves, could not be repeated in their hearing, without giving pain. Make it a rule, therefore, never to carry any unfavorable report to a friend unless you believe that it will in some way or other, be productive of good.

A great part of the evil rumors which exist in society, are to be traced to a habit of gossiping, rather than to any settled purpose to slander. And if you should carry everything of this kind that you hear to your friends to whom it relates no doubt they would often be severely wounded, where there was no positive intention of attacking their character.

I would say, too, that in your interaction with each of your friends, you ought to maintain a scrupulous reserve, in respect to what may have been confidentially entrusted to you by others. Your duty requires that you should pay a sacred regard to the confidence which each reposes in you; and none of them can reasonably claim that you should betray another, for their gratification. If you have several intimate friends, who are not, at the same time, the intimate friends of each other you should bear in mind that, in disclosing to one a secret which has been committed to you by another you violate a fundamental principle of good friendship. For, however you may confide in the prudence and good faith of the person to whom you make the disclosure you obviously assume a right which does not belong to you that of giving notoriety to the private concerns of an individual beyond what you have reason to believe were her intentions and wishes.

And the case is not materially different in this respect, even where the friend who confides a secret to you, and the friend to whom you confide the same are intimate with each other. There might be many reasons which would render it desirable that it should not be known to a third person, however friendly, which might not exist in respect to yourself. And at any rate, your friend does not feel, and ought not to feel, when she entrusts a private concern to your keeping, in which, perhaps, she alone is interested that she thereby relinquishes the privilege of deciding whether or not it is to be communicated to others. You will, therefore, consider the secrets of each one of your friends as a separate and independent trust, which you are faithfully and sacredly to regard.

There is one duty of great delicacy, to which you may sometimes be called in your interaction with your friends. I mean that of reproof or admonition. Though I have advised you to set your standard high in selecting your intimate associates, and to choose those whom you believe to be the best models of character you should not be disappointed to find them sometimes in the wrong. Nor ought you to make every foible which you may notice in them, the subject of censure.

At the same time, it admits of no question that occasions may arise, which will not only warrant but imperatively demand, that you should take the attitude of a reprover; and on which to remain silent, would be a gross violation of the obligations of friendship. There was a mutual pledge virtually given when your friendship was formed, that you would sacredly endeavor to promote each other's best interests. And you surely do not redeem this pledge, if you allow gross errors to pass unreproved!

The great secret of discharging this duty successfully, is to choose a proper time and place, and to do it in the spirit of gentleness and affection. Whenever you take this attitude, instead of appearing to have thrown off the character of a friend, and assuming an air of cold severity you should let every expression and look testify, that you are, if possible, more under the influence of genuine friendship than ever. If you only succeed in making an impression that the reproof is the honest dictate of true kindness you will be in little danger of failing of your object. But if you leave the impression that your reproof proceeded from personal irritation, or from an unreasonable misconstruction of your conduct it would he strange indeed, if you should realize a happy result.

In general, I would say that you ought to make all your interaction with your friends as profitable as you can both to yourself and them. It is inevitable that the friendships which you form, should be to you a source of great good, or great evil.

If the time which you spend with your intimate associates is chiefly devoted, as it should be, to the improvement of the intellect and the heart you will never review it but with feelings of approbation. But if, on the other hand, it is given to levity and vanity, and if those whom you regard with most affection, are co-workers with you in murdering the hours which were given for better purposes then you have reason to expect that the friendships which you now form, instead of being the channel of blessings will serve to poison your moral sentiments, and to accumulate anguish for a dying hour!