The Pretense Of Parental Perfection
( Originally Published 1916 )
To err is human, as any healthy child can find out for himself rather early in life. But most parents seem to be involved in a conspiracy to maintain the doctrine that to err is childish. They will sometimes go to desperate lengths to uphold the pretense that adultsóor at least parentsócan do no wrong, that they are practically infallible.
Every adult who has to deal with younger people feels a certain authority and " discipline " to be absolutely necessary for maintaining right relations. And there is the feeling that authority would be weakened by the slightest intimation that the adult had committed an error. For many people it is quite impossible to acknowledge frankly that they have made a mistake. The result of this attitude, however, instead of strengthening authority, actually destroys the respect which we wish the young to have for the old.
Children do not, believe that anyone is infallible, in spite of all the pretense. There will of necessity be errors of judgment, there will be misunderstanding; but it is not necessary to add to these dishonesty. If you make a mistake in your dealings with the child, you will naturally give occasion for ill-feeling; but if you acknowledge your mistake as soon as you discover it, there will be a reconciliation. With the repetition of the evidence that you are human and sincere, the child will come to a realization that you are always acting for the best, even when you make mistakes. Then, though misunderstandings arise, there will still be respect and confidence.
Even with very young children, it is well to deal in a thoroughly frank and honest manner. I was much impressed by this attitude toward a little girl of about two and a half years, on the part of a neighbor. The child wanted to go out to play in the grass, but as it had rained in the morning, the mother forbade her leaving the porch. " No, my dear," she said, " you must not go in the grass, because it is wet." The child cried; the mother tried to soothe her, and presently all was quiet again. Some minutes later the mother had occasion to cross the lawn, and putting her hand on the grass found that it was sufficiently dry. She went back to the child and said, " Mother made a mistake. She thought the grass was still wet. But it is dry enough, and you may go out to play now."
Of course this child was too young to understand, but she no doubt had a vague feeling that she was being fairly dealt with. And it is an accumulation of such feelings that will finally form the child's habitual attitude toward the mother's judgments.
Only too frequently do parents vent the annoyance caused by business or domestic irritations upon the innocent head of the child who happens to come along with some indifferent request at the critical moment. It. is so easy to say " Don't bother me now," or " Run along, don't you see I am busy? " It was a large-minded mother that apologized to her son for scolding him unfairly after a scene with an impudent cook. He had come in with his friend after skating, at the inopportune time, to ask for jam and bread, and to deposit the wet skates on the hall carpet. The scolding would have destroyed the appetite of ordinary people ; in this case it only made Joe feel very sorry for himself. But later his mother said, " I am very sorry, Joe, for the way I treated you this afternoon. I was irritated and tired, but I did not mean to be rude." Then Joe was so sorry for his mother, he just went up and hugged her, and forgot to be sorry for himself.
The cases in which parents misuse their authority, judge children falsely, forget to keep their promises, or otherwise act unfairly are common enough. How common is it for parents to apologize to their children? Most people would think offhand that to apologize would be to weaken our position. But the very opposite is true.
As Edward Howard Griggs says,
"Suppose the parent acknowledges his fault and apologizes for it: when he turns to the further question of the child's impudence his hands are strengthened. He meets the child on the plane of moral equality in reference to right action, the only plane on which any moral question can be solved. The child straightens up; it is no longer five years old or three feet high, but a human spirit to whom you have saidóby your action, not in wordsó` My child, I see in you a spirit intrusted through some mystery of the universe for a little time to my care, and I recognize it as my earnest duty to give you whatever treatment will help you out into the sanest and sweetest life.'
"It is in the latter case that the real respect of the child is keptónot the notion of our supposed infallibility, sure to be shattered sooner or later, but the reverence that comes from seeing more and more clearly that, through all our mistakes, we have been striving, not for our ease and comfort, but for the child's welfare."
But if we resolve to deal with the child frankly and sincerely as a human being, we need not multiply mistakes for the purpose of making occasions to exercise the virtue of confession and apology. With the best of care we shall make mistakes enough. We shall need to use all our wits and all our wisdom to consider well every word and every deed that we may not have to apologize so often that the child will at last get the notion that, after all, parents are not much better than children. Apologize whenever you need to; but do not need to too often.