Children - Selfishness And Sacrifice
( Originally Published 1916 )
WHEN we consider the thousands of people whose childhood has been neglected, the people whose abilities have not been cultivated, we are apt to think that we should all be happier if parents were more unselfish in the care of the young. We are apt to think that these neglected children needed but a little more sacrifice on the part of their parents.
But in the bringing up of children the important distinction is not between selfish parents and unselfish ones, but between wise parents and those that. are other-wise. We are all acquainted with the devoted and sincere mother whose own dress approaches dangerously near to the shabby in order that her children may be dressed a little better than she can afford to have them; who will deny herself necessities that her children may have additional comforts, or even luxuries. Certainly, such mothers are sufficiently unselfish. But are they wise mothers?
If the mother derives any satisfaction from making these sacrifices—and we know that there are women who instinctively seek opportunities to make them—we must not begrudge her these pleasures. But she must not delude herself with the belief that she. is doing these things for the benefit of her children. For what is the effect of this relationship upon those children? The most that can be expected is that the children will profit from the example of the sacrificing mother, and will grow up in a spirit that is prepared to make sacrifices for others. But usually it does not work out that way. The probabilities are that the children indulged in this manner will grow up to be the selfish wives and selfish husbands of the next generation. They will grow up expecting that their whims and conveniences will be indulged and petted, as a matter of course. We learn to make sacrifices, not by watching other people make them, but by means of practice in making them our-selves ; and the children can learn only in this same way.
In every family, indeed in every community, there is always need for sacrifice ; it is only by a constant give and take that we can get along together. Excepting only the younger children, whose healthy growth and development call for first consideration, there is no reason why the children should not share in the necessary sacrifices that a family has to make. This is especially true in regard to the material conveniences. To know the limitations of the family's resources, and to learn to live accordingly, will contribute more to the child's character than can be gained by the sacrifices of other members of the family.
But the material sacrifices are not the most important. If the mother wishes to be unselfish for the benefit of her children, let her learn to restrain her temper; let her learn to suspend judgment until she has heard all the facts, before condemning a child for acts committed. That is the kind of unselfishness that will produce results which are worth while. Let her sacrifice the time necessary to enable her to keep abreast of the times in which her children are going to live, that they may not outgrow her too soon.
A woman of good judgment, whose station in life happens to be that of washing clothes for other people, was telling of a wealthy patroness who had taken her daughter of eleven years to the country, had bought her dresses, had taken her out riding in the motor-car, and had shown other kindnesses. The listener was impressed. " How lovely!" she exclaimed. " Yes, it looks lovely now ; but it all means trouble later," re-plied the mother. " A summer like this can't help but make her selfish, and dissatisfied with things when she comes back, and I'll have my troubles with her. But I had to choose the lesser of two evils. It was either letting her get spoiled and pampered in the country while her mother is slaving in the city, or letting her get spoiled loafing in the city streets. I thought I could cure her of the faults she got out there quicker than of some of the faults she would get in the city, so I let her go."
The mother's instinct is to get for her child as much pleasure and satisfaction as possible. But this mother saw the thorn on the rose. The ordinary indulgent mother would have jumped blindly at this excellent chance for the daughter; so far as the daughter's programme for the summer is concerned, the result is the same here. But the ordinary mother would have been surprised and grieved at the child's ingratitude upon her return, when the child showed any signs of dissatisfaction; this mother was prepared to deal with the situation, for she knew what to expect.
This thoughtful balancing of costs and returns is not to be condemned as selfishness on the part of the mother. It is the selection of dwellings whose rooms or neighborhoods are not suitable for the children—where a choice is possible—it is the planning of the home's routine with sole regard to the convenience and interests of the adults that constitute culpable selfishness. It is the blind pursuit of adult interests without regard to the developing children that is the unpardonable sin in child training. Just as the indulgent parent harms the child and defeats the end of her own efforts, so the selfish parent, instead of getting increasing comfort as the years go on, finds troubles growing upon her.
Being selfish or being unselfish may be a matter of temperament, or one's " nature "—and that, we are often told, cannot be changed. But we recognize that habits can be acquired, by parents as well as by children, although perhaps with greater effort. In this matter as in others, we must judge a line of conduct not by the arbitrary rule of selfish or unselfish, but by considering as reasonably as we can what will be for the largest interest of the children.