Children - Exampel And Precept
( Originally Published 1916 )
THE separation of precept from the actual practices of the people who surround the child is seen in many ways. When Agnes loses her patience with her puppy or with her sewing, we rebuke her gently and tell her that it is not ladylike to scold or fret in such a manner. Agnes is duly impressed. But when we are trying to add up a column of figures on the grocer's bill and the child's senseless and interminable babble irritates us to—a certain point—we blurt out something that is neither polite in manner nor parliamentary in substance. And again Agnes is duly impressed. In time she will no doubt learn to control herself; but we must not wonder that our repeated admonitions fail to bring quicker results. The admonitions produce their effects ; but our outbursts produce their counter effects.
At a gathering of mothers, the ever recurring problem of children's lies was under discussion. One of those present told of a troublesome case. The more experienced suggested various remedies, such as discovering the type of lie, to see whether it was over-activity of the imagination, or fear, or slovenly thinking, or whatever else it might be that led the child along the path of untruthfulness. " Oh, his mother has tried everything; she has punished him and promised him rewards, but he keeps on lying," said the woman who had introduced the horrible example.
As the family of the child in question was not known to those present, the suggestions were soon exhausted ; but one of the mothers made the casual observation, " Of course, a great deal depends upon the home environment of the child. If the people at home lie—even about little things—the threats and promises will not break the child. One bad example will offset ten good precepts."
This was very illuminating. The first speaker said: "Now that I come to think of it, there is something in that. I was taking David's younger brother with me to the museum last week, and just before we got to the car he said, You do not have to pay my fare because mother never does; I can say I am only five. Now I do not suppose the child invented that himself."
This incident illusrates one class of cases in which we expect the child to do as we say, in spite of all that we do. The hundreds of " white lies " that grown-ups tell day after day, without even being aware that they are using inflated or figurative language, are accepted by the children as literally true, or as models of diplomacy.
When we consider how difficult it is for the young child to attain to habits and ideals of truthfulness, we must see the importance of giving him all the help possible through sympathetic understanding and through the removal of all unnecessary temptations—especially the temptation to imitate his elders in untruthfulness.
We wish our children to be friendly in their manner to all with whom they come in contact. We never tire of preaching friendliness to them. Nay, we go even farther; we set them excellent examples by our con-duct in the presence of guests, or when on a visit. But have the children ever heard us make derogatory remarks about these very people to whom we have taken so much pains to appear friendly? Have they heard us decry Mrs. Brown's extravagance or ridicule the Briggs' taste in house-furnishing? No adult is expected to be so saintly or so lacking in standards as to refrain from criticising others. But criticisms of persons should not be made in the presence of young children, and they should never be made in a flippant or sarcastic spirit.
Children will hear a great deal of casual comment or table talk without giving any outward sign of having noticed. But when they throw back a phrase we had heedlessly dropped, we are greatly shocked at their saying such things!
Arthur's mother complained that it was impossible for her to keep a servant for any length of time, be-cause Arthur was so ugly and impudent in his manner toward the help. The listening friend sympathized with her, for she knew how difficult it was to adjust the harmonies of a complex household without the added burden of unfriendly childrem But when she visited Arthur's mother shortly afterward, she was entertained (in the presence of Arthur himself) with a long and vigorous tirade against servants in general and her own Mary in particular. She could not help but feel that here at least was one of the factors in the mother's problem. It is hardly to be expected that a boy of ten will conduct himself courteously or even humanely towards people of whom his parents constantly speak contemptuously.
In making the resolve to be suitable models for the conduct of our children, it is not necessary to go to the extreme of adopting only such speech and manner as is fit for children. Even young children can learn that there are some things which it is proper enough for their elders to do, but not permissible in them-selves. Thus, parents may stay up into the mysterious hours of the night, but children sometimes " go to bed by day"; some food is suitable for grown-up folks, but taboo for children, and so on. Nevertheless, the development of many good habits and the establishment of high ideals will depend directly upon the examples furnished by the parents. In this fact lies the greatest educational advantage to adults in having children about, for if they realize this it will hold them up to their own best standards.