by John Abbott, 1833, Worcester, Mass.
Published by the American Tract Society


There are many faults in family government, which have been handed down from generation to generation, and have become almost universally diffused. They are so general, and we have been so long accustomed to them, that their glaring impropriety escapes our notice. The increasing interest now felt in the subject of education, by leading parents to read and to think, has taught many to avoid those errors which still very generally prevail. There are many parents who have not facilities for obtaining books upon this subject, and who have not been led to reflect very deeply upon their responsibilities.

Some of these errors are such, that an apology seems almost necessary for cautioning mothers against them, since common sense so plainly condemns them. But let it be remembered, how large a portion of the mothers of our land are, by their situation, deprived of those sources of information and excitements to thought, which God has conferred upon others.

1. Do not talk about children in their presence. We are very apt to think that children do not understand what we say to one another, because they are unable to join in the conversation themselves. But a child's comprehension of language is far in advance of his ability to use it. I have been much surprised at the result of experiments upon this subject. A little child creeping upon the floor, and who could not articulate a single word, was requested to carry a piece of paper across the room and put it in a chair. The child perfectly comprehended the direction, and crept across the room, and did as he was bidden. An experiment or two of this kind will satisfy anyone how far a child's mind is in advance of his power to express his ideas. And yet, when a child is three or four years old, parents will relate in their presence shrewd things which they have said and done; sometimes even their acts of disobedience will be mentioned with a smile. The following conversation once passed between a lady and a mother, whose child, three years of age, was standing by her side.
"How is little Charles doing?" said the lady.
"O," replied the mother, with a smile, "he is pretty well, but he is the greatest rogue you ever saw; I can do nothing with him."
"Why?" said the lady; "he does not look like a stubborn child."
"No," the mother replied, "he has not a bad disposition, but," she continued, smiling, "he is so fond of mischief that I can never make him mind me. He knows that he must not touch the andirons, but just before you came in he went and put one of his fingers on the brass, and looked me directly in the face. I told him he must take off his hand; and he put another finger on. I tried to look cross at him; but he, instead of stopping, rubbed his whole hand over the brass, and then ran away, laughing as heartily as he could. He did it, I suppose, on purpose to plague me, he is such a rogue."

We insert this rather undignified story, that the mothers who may read this chapter may know exactly what we mean by the caution we are urging. Now, to say nothing of that maternal unfaithfulness which would permit such acts of disobedience, how ruinous upon the mind of the child must be the effect of hearing his conduct thus spoken of and applauded! This perverse little fellow was more interested in the narration than either mother or visitor, and the impression produced upon his mind was stronger. The child was taught a lesson of disobedience—not soon to be forgotten.

There are many little artifices which a child will practice, which are decidedly to be discountenanced, but at which a parent can scarce refrain from smiling. These proofs of mental quickness and ingenuity are gratifying to parental feelings. They give promise of a mind susceptible of a high degree of cultivation, if properly guided and restrained. And there are playful and affectionate feats of childhood which are pleasing on every account. They show good feelings, as well as an active intellect. Parents will speak to one another of those innumerable little occurrences which are daily gratifying them. But if these things are mentioned in the presence of the child, and applauded, its little heart is puffed up with vanity! How slight a degree of flattery will often awaken emotions of the most disgusting self-conceit, even in individuals of mature minds! How few people are there who can bear praise! Vanity is almost a universal sin! None are so low, and none are so high, as to be freed from its power. And can a child bear, uninjured, that praise which has ruined so many men? Here lies one cause of the self-conceit so often visible in the nursery. We flatter our children without being conscious that they are so greedily drinking in the flattery!

A mother will often talk as unguardedly in the presence of her child, who is three or four years of age, as she did in the presence of her infant of so many months. The necessity of caution upon this subject will be obvious to every parent upon a moment's reflection. Let nothing be said in the hearing of a child that would tend to excite its vanity! Guard against the possibility of his supposing that he does and says remarkable things, and is superior to other children.

But though a parent may restrain her own tongue, it is more difficult to restrain the tongues of others. Many visitors make it a constant habit to flatter the children, wherever they go. Regardless of the ruinous effects upon their tender and susceptible minds, they think only of pleasing the parents. Beautiful children are thus peculiarly exposed. How common is it for a child of handsome countenance to be spoiled! This is so frequently the case, that many persons have supposed that "spoiled beauty" are words never to be separated. I once knew a little boy of unusually bright and animated countenance. Every one who entered the house, noticed the child, and spoke of his beauty. One day a gentleman called upon business, and being engaged in conversation, did not pay that attention to the child to which he was accustomed, and which he now began to expect as his due. The 'vain little fellow' made many efforts to attract notice, but not succeeding, he at last placed himself fully in front of the gentleman, and asked, "Why don't you see how beautiful I am?" The feeling, it is true, is not often so openly expressed, but nothing is more common than for it to be excited in precisely this way.

It is surely a duty to approve children when they do right, and to disapprove when they do wrong. But great caution should be used to preserve a child from hearing anything which will destroy that most lovely trait of character—a humble spirit. It is, on this account, often a misfortune to a child to be unusually handsome or intelligent. It is so difficult to preserve it from the contaminations of flattery, that what might have been a great benefit, becomes a serious injury.

2. Do not make exhibitions of your children's attainments. And here we must refer again to the danger of exciting vanity. There is no passion more universal, or with greater difficulty subdued. An eminent clergyman was once leaving his pulpit, when one of his parishioners addressed him, highly commending the sermon he had just uttered. "Be careful, my friend," said the clergyman, "I carry a tinder-box in my bosom!" And if the bosom of an aged man of piety and of prayer may be thus easily inflamed, must there not be great danger in showing off a child to visitors, who will most certainly flatter its performance? You have taught your daughter some interesting hymns. She is modest and unassuming, and repeats them with much propriety. A friend calls, and you request the child to repeat her hymns. She does it. Thus far there is, perhaps, no injury done. But as soon as she has finished, your friend begins to flatter. Soon another and another friend calls, and the scene is continually repeated, till your daughter feels proud of her performance. She becomes indeed quite an actress. And the hymn which was intended to lead her youthful heart to God, does but fill that heart with sinful pride! Must it not be so? How can a child withstand such strong temptations?

Parents may show their children that they are gratified in witnessing their intellectual attainments. And this presents a motive sufficiently strong to stimulate them to action. But when they are exposed to the indiscriminate and injudicious flattery of whoever may call, it is not for a moment to be supposed that they will retain just views of themselves. It must however be allowed, that, with some children, the danger is much greater than with others. Some need much encouragement—while others need continual restraint. Who has not noticed the thousand arts which a vain child will practice, simply to attract attention? Who has not seen such a spoiled child take a book and read, occasionally casting a furtive glance from the page to the visitor, to see if the studious habit is observed? And can such a child be safely exhibited to strangers? It may, perhaps, at times, be an advantage to a modest child to repeat a hymn, or something of that nature, to a judicious friend.

If your pastor feels that interest in children which he ought to cherish, he will regard all the little ones of his congregation with parental affection. He ought not to be considered as a stranger in the family. Children may appear before him with confidence and affection, and if he has the spirit of his Master, he will cautiously guard against flattery, and endeavor to improve the occasion by leading the mind to serious thoughts. But the practice of making a show of children, of exhibiting their little attainments, is certainly reprehensible—and it is, we fear, not only common, but increasing. The following remarks upon this subject are from the pen of an individual who combines much shrewdness of observation, with extensive experience.

"I always felt pain for poor little things set up before company to repeat verses, or bits of plays, at six or eight years old. I have sometimes not known which way to look, when a mother, (and, too often a father,) whom I could not but respect on account of her fondness for her child, has forced the feeble-voiced 'eighth wonder of the world' to stand with its little hand stretched out, shouting the soliloquy of Hamlet, or some such thing. I do not know anything much more distressing to the spectators than exhibitions of this sort. Upon these occasions no one knows what to say, or whither to direct his looks. If I had to declare, on my oath, which have been the most disagreeable moments of my life, I verily believe that, after due consideration, I would fix upon those in which parents whom I have respected, have made me endure exhibitions like these; for this is your choice—to be insincere, or to give offence. The plaudits which the child receives in such cases puff it up in its own thoughts, and send it out into the world stuffed with pride and insolence, which must and will be extracted from it by one means or another. Now parents have no right thus to indulge their own feelings at the risk of the happiness of their children."

Scenes similar to those above described will at once occur to the recollection of the reader. And the fact that such are the feelings of many strangers, in general, is of itself amply sufficient to discountenance the practice.

There are two extremes which it is necessary to avoid. The one is that of secluding children altogether from society; the other is, of wearying our friends by their presence and their ceaseless talk. If we consider our children as troubles, to be kept out of the way whenever we wish for social enjoyment; if the entrance of a few friends to pass the evening is the signal for their immediate departure to another room, how can we expect them to improve, or to become acquainted with the proprieties of life? They must listen to the conversation and observe the manners of their superiors, that their minds and their manners may be improved.

Not long since I heard a gentleman speaking of an unusually interesting family he had just visited. It was known that he was coming to pass the evening. As he entered the room he saw three little children sitting quietly and silently by the fire. The mother was sitting by the table with her sewing. The father was rising to receive him. The children remained for an hour or more, listening with interest to the conversation which passed between their parents and the gentleman. They made not the least interruption, but by their presence and cheerful looks contributed much to the enjoyment of the evening. At eight o'clock the mother said, "Children, it is eight." Without another word, they all rose and left the room. The mother soon followed, and after being absent a few moments, returned.

Now how much enjoyment is there in such a family as this! And how much improvement do the children derive from being accustomed to the society of their superiors! In this way they are taught humility, for they see how much less they know than others. They gain information, and their minds are strengthened by the conversation they hear. Their manners are improved, for children learn more by example than precept. If you would enjoy these pleasures, and confer upon your children these benefits, it is indispensable that they be habitually well governed. Nothing can be more hopeless than to expect that children will conduct themselves properly when company is present—if at other times they are uncontrolled!

Some parents, feeling the importance that their children should enjoy good society, and at the same time having them under no restraint, deprive themselves and their visitors of all enjoyment, and their children of all benefit! We do not like, even in imagination, to encounter the deafening clamor of such a scene. Some are crawling about on the visitor; some crying; some shouting. The mother is pulling at the gown of one, and scolding at another. The visitor, distracted with the noise, endeavors in vain to engage in conversation. The time, and attention, and patience of the parents are absorbed by their undisciplined family. The visitor, after enduring the uproar for half an hour, is happy in making his escape! Where can there be pleasure, and where can there be profit in such a scene as this?

There are many advantages in encouraging an inquisitive spirit in a child. It has entered upon a world where everything is new and astonishing. Of course it is hourly meeting with objects upon which it desires information. But as soon as a child finds that his parents encourage him in asking questions, he begins to think that it is a very pretty thing. He will be incessantly presenting his inquiries. His motive will cease to be a gratification of a reasonable and commendable curiosity, and he will desire merely to display his skill, or to talk for the sake of talking. It is very necessary to restrain children in this respect. Their motives are generally distinctly to be seen. And if the motive which prompts the question is improper, let the child receive marks of disapprobation, and not of approval.

"Mother, what is the coffee-pot for?" said a child of three years, at the breakfast table.
"It is to put the coffee in," said the mother.
"And why do you put the coffee in the coffee-pot?"
"Because it is more convenient to pour it out."
"And what," said the child, hesitating and looking around the table to find some new question; "And what—are the cups for?"
"They are to drink from."
"And why do you drink out of the cups?"

In this manner the child, during the whole time allotted for the breakfast, incessantly asked his questions. The mother as continually answered them. She had adopted the principle—that her child must always be encouraged in asking questions. And by blindly and thoughtlessly following out this principle, she was puffing up his heart with vanity, and making him a most unendurable talker! The common sense principle, to guide us upon this subject, is obvious. If the motive be good, and the occasion suitable, let the child be encouraged in his inquiries. If otherwise, let him be discouraged. A child is sitting at the breakfast table with his father and mother. The mother lifts the top of the coffee-pot, and the child observes the contents violently boiling. "Mother," says the little boy, "what makes the coffee bubble up so?"

Here the motive is good, and the occasion is proper. And one of the parents explains to the child the process which we call 'boiling'. The parents have reason to be gratified at the observation of the child, and the explanation communicates to him valuable knowledge. But perhaps a stranger is present, with whom the father is engaged in interesting conversation. Under these circumstances, the child asks the same question. It is, however, unseasonable. He ought to be silent when company is present! The mother accordingly replies, "My son, you should not interrupt your father. You must be perfectly silent, and listen to what he is saying."

She does not, however, forget the question, but embraces some opportunity of again alluding to it. She gives him an answer, and shows him that it is very impolite to interrupt the conversation of others, or to engross attention when company is present. Much pleasure is destroyed, and much improvement prevented, in permitting the conversation of friends to be interrupted by the loquacity of children!

Some parents, to avoid this inconvenience, immediately send their children from the room when visitors arrive. This is treating children with injustice, and the parents must reap the mortifying consequences in their uncultivated manners and uncultivated minds. Hence, in many gentlemen's families, you find awkward and clownish children. If children are banished from pleasing and intelligent society, they must necessarily grow up rude and ignorant. The course to be pursued, therefore, is plain. They should be often present when friends visit you. But they should be taught to conduct themselves properly—to sit in silence and listen. They should not speak unless spoken to. And above all, they should not be thrust forward upon the attention of visitors, to exhibit their attainments, and receive flattery as profusely as your friends may be pleased to deal it out!

3. Do not deceive children. Many are unaware of the evil consequences which result from this common practice. A physician once called to extract a tooth from a child. The little boy seeing the formidable instruments, and anticipating the pain, was exceedingly frightened, and refused to open his mouth. After much fruitless solicitation, the physician said, "Perhaps there is no need of pulling the tooth. Let me just rub it a little with my handkerchief, and it may be all that is necessary—it will not hurt you in the least.

The boy, trusting his word, opened his mouth. The physician, concealing his instrument in his handkerchief, seized hold of the tooth and wrenched it out. The parents highly applauded his artifice. But the man cheated the child. He abused his confidence; and he inflicted an injury upon his moral feelings not soon to be effaced. Will that physician get his handkerchief into the mouth of the child again? Will he believe what the physician may hereafter say? And when told that it is wicked to say that which is not true, will not the remembrance of the doctor's falsehood be fresh in his mind? And while conscious that his parents approved of the deception, will he not feel it to be right for him to deceive, that he may accomplish his desires? This practice is attended with the most ruinous consequences. It unavoidably teaches the child to despise his parents. After he has detected them in one falsehood, he will not believe them when they speak the truth! It destroys his tenderness of conscience; and it teaches arts of deception. And what are the advantages? Why, in one particular instance, the point is gained.

Let compulsion be resorted to when necessary—but deception never. If a child cannot place implicit confidence in his parent, most assuredly no confidence can be reposed in the child. Is it possible for a mother to practice arts of deception and falsehood, and at the same time her daughter be forming a character of frankness and of truth? Who can for a moment suppose it? We must be what we wish our children to be. They will form their characters from ours!

A mother was once trying to persuade her little son to take some medicine. The medicine was very unpalatable, and she, to induce him to take it, declared it did not taste bad. He did not believe her. He knew, by sad experience, that her word was not to be trusted. A gentleman and friend who was present, took the spoon, and said, "James, this is medicine, and it tastes very badly. I would not like to take it, but I would, if necessary. You have courage enough to swallow something which does not taste good, have you not?"
"Yes," said James, looking a little less sulky. "But it is very bitter indeed."
"I know it," said the gentleman, "Perhaps you never tasted any thing much worse." The gentleman then tasted the medicine himself, and said, "It is really very unpleasant. But now let us see if you have not resolution enough to take it, bad as it is."
The boy hesitatingly took the spoon.
"It is, really, very bitter," said the gentleman; "but the best way is to summon all your resolution, and down with it at once, like a man."

James made, in reality, a great effort for a child, and swallowed the dose. And who will this child most respect—his deceitful mother, or the honest dealing stranger? And who will he hereafter most readily believe? It ought, however, to be remarked, that had the child been properly trained, he would at once, and without a murmur, have taken what his mother presented. It is certainly, however, a supposable case, that the child might, after all the arguments of the gentleman, still have refused to do his duty. What course should then be pursued? Resort to compulsion—but never to deceit. We cannot deceive our children without seriously injuring them, and destroying our own influence. Frank and open dealing is the only safe policy in family government, as well as on the wider theatre of life. The underhanded arts and cunning maneuvers of the deceiver are sure, in the end, to promote his own overthrow. Be sincere and honest—and you are safe. The only sure way of securing beneficial results, is by virtuous and honorable means.

4. Do not be continually finding fault. It is at times necessary to censure and to punish. But very much may be done by encouraging children when they do well. Be even more careful to express your approbation of good conduct, than your disapprobation of bad. Nothing can more discourage a child than a spirit of incessant fault-finding, on the part of its parent. And hardly anything can exert a more injurious influence upon the disposition both of the parent and the child. There are two great motives influencing human actions—hope and fear. Both of these are at times necessary. But who would not prefer to have her child influenced to good conduct by the desire of pleasing, rather than by the fear of offending. If a mother never expresses her gratification when her children do well, and is always censuring when she sees anything amiss, they are discouraged and unhappy. They feel that there is no use in trying to please. Their dispositions become hardened and soured by this ceaseless fretting. At last, finding that, whether they do good or bad, they are equally found fault with, they relinquish all efforts to please, and become heedless of reproaches.

But let a mother approve of her child's conduct whenever she can. Let her show that his good behavior makes her sincerely happy. Let her reward him for his efforts to please, by smiles and affection. In this way she will cherish in her child's heart some of the noblest and most desirable feelings of our nature. She will cultivate in him an amiable disposition and a cheerful spirit.

Your child has been, during the day, very pleasant and obedient. Just before putting him to sleep for the night, you take his hand and say, "My son, you have been a very good boy today. It makes me very happy to see you so kind and obedient." This approbation from his mother is, to him, a great reward. And when, with a more than ordinarily affectionate tone, you say, "good night, my dear son," he leaves the room with his little heart full of feeling. And when he closes his eyes for sleep, he is happy, and resolves that he will always try to do his duty.

The judicious exercise of approbation is of the first importance in promoting obedience, and in cultivating in the bosom of your child affectionate and cheerful feelings. Let your smiles animate your boy's heart, and cheer him on in duty. When he returns from school, with his clothes clean and his countenance happy, reward him with the manifestation of a mother's love. This will be the strongest incentive to neatness and care. A child often makes a very great effort to do something to merit a smile from its mother. And most bitter tears are frequently shed because parents do not sufficiently sympathize in these feelings.

The enjoyment of many a social circle, and the disposition of many an affectionate child, are spoiled by unceasing complainings. Some people get into such a habit of finding fault, that it becomes as natural to them as to breathe. Nothing pleases them. In every action, and in every event, they are searching for something to disapprove. Like venomous reptiles, they have the faculty of extracting poison from the choicest blessings. Children are, very much, creatures of sympathy. They form their characters from those around them. And we must cherish in our own bosoms those virtues we would foster in theirs. If we would give them calm and gentle and friendly feelings, we must first show them, by our own example, how valuable those feelings are.