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Character Building - How To Cultivate Morals And Manners

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THERE is an intimate relation between manners and morals which is often not clearly understood. What we call morals today really have their root in the manners of an earlier period, and when the manner acquired the force of an obligatory custom, it took on a moral tone and finally became morals. The study and development of the moral life is one of the most fascinating of all studies.

In this country there has been in the past an instinctive feeling that fine and noble manners in some way indicated a suspicious character, and in many of the earlier performances on the stage the innocent youth was always warned against persons with "fine manners." It was felt somehow that neatness and delicacy of deportment must mean that there was something false concealed under both.

This was because the country was new, and the forests had to be felled, people had to live in a pioneering fashion, and without many of the comforts of life and most of the conveniences. This led naturally to freer ways and less care and delicacy and reserve, because, in the nature of things, reserve was impossible. This is still true in certain remote parts of the country, and persons who insist on the cleanliness and carefulness incident to good breeding are looked upon as "swells" or "snobs," or the like. There was never any sound ground for all this, except that when persons insist on forms when the nature of the case shows that forms are not possible, it is a form of pretense and foolishness which should not be tolerated. One is reminded of the woman whose leg was broken in an accident, who hesitated about telling the surgeon who came what was the matter, and finally blurted out that it was with her "limb."

Now this sort of thing, of course, has nothing to do with either a decent reserve or with good manners. But many people still fail to talk about things plainly, because they think it indelicate, when in reality they make the thing worse by their obscure hints and hesitation. When a thing ought to be said, it is never wrong to state it plainly and clearly if there is a right motive behind it. Only confusion can result if the thing is bungled. But, on the other hand, there is nothing so satisfactory as dealing with troublesome matters carefully and with a suitable recognition of the proprieties of the ease. Indeed, much of the advance of civilization has come to us because people did think about the rights of other people in going about their own affairs.

Good manners really arise in a respect for the rights and oftener the feelings of other people. That is the way we begin to cultivate them. But the first thing is to find out, and keep in mind, that other people do have feelings, and that those feelings are as valuable to them as our own are to us. Once we get this fact mastered, the rest comes easily enough. You must have noticed how tender we are about people whom we love and respect; how anxious we are that they shall not be needlessly wounded, and how we try to shield them from the carelessness and stupidity of others. That is proper. But the rule extends to many beside our friends. The world is full of people and they all have rights. They all have feelings, and the man or woman who recklessly insults or wounds those feelings is not a gentleman or a lady. The feelings of human beings are costly, and they are built up in a very laborious way, and to wound them is a serious matter for all concerned, because people will often forget and forgive a blow, who never forget a bitter inward wound inflicted through bitter speech, or an act of contempt.

Then, again, manners have a deep root in self-respect. Right-thinking people will regard the rights and feelings of others, not because they give pain, but also because they suffer pain if they do. Any upright person shrinks from causing pain, except in the interest of truth or some great cause. This is because we think our mission in life something higher than trampling through the world, causing pain wherever we go. Many a per-son is hated, secretly, of course, in a community, because he is known to be unmindful of people's sensibilities. But such a person is hated also because he has no self-respect. A man who wishes to be respected in the community in which he lives must begin by respecting himself. That is, he must make such a standard for himself which will make him restrain his speech, govern his temper, observe the niceties of behavior, be patient under misunderstanding, and often permit the ignorant to go unchecked in something wrong, till they themselves find out how wrong they have been. It is hard to do this, especially with some forms of ignorance and selfishness, yet the good mannered man will do it.

There is a story told of a very eminent authority in a certain science, a college professor, who was once in an evening assembly when some question arose in connection with the science in which he was famous. A young man present, who did not know this, flatly contradicted almost everything he said, and proceeded to show his own ignorance and stupidity by talking loudly and emphatically about the matter. in question. Everybody in the room was indignant but the great man. He listened carefully to the ignorant young dunce who was making a show of himself, and then gently tried to disentangle his mind, show him the facts, and bring him around to true knowledge. He failed to accomplish this feat, but when the youth had left, everybody was amazed because they had seen one of the finest exhibitions of social greatness they had ever witnessed. That was a gentle-man's way of dealing with a foolish young man. A man less great would have quarreled with him and made a scene.

And this leads naturally to the subject of manners in speech. A very wise woman once told a young friend of mine that a true woman will never talk about the secrets of her chamber. She also said that a wise woman will never permit another woman to talk to her about her family intimacies. That was good advice. Reticence in speech is not a highly developed trait in many communities, but it is the first requisite of decent society. Our homes, our wives, our husbands are our own. It is never good taste, and it is always bad manners, to make them subjects of conversation except in the most open and casual matters.

It is surprising how conscious restraint of speech improves social intercourse. Teach your children that prattle about private affairs is a mark of a boorish bringing up. Never permit them to tattle to you. Do not encourage tittle-tattles of any kind. What seems so very simple has in it the seeds, oftentimes, of very great trouble for everybody concerned. Great reserve of speech is the keynote of strength of character in many ways. And when all is said and done, manners rest upon some distinct notions of character.

From manners to morals is a natural and easy step. The habit of doing the graceful thing because it is pleasant and proper soon leads to the instinct for doing the right thing, be-cause the right thing usually is the graceful thing. There is no greater error than that upright moral behavior must as a matter of course be rude and rebuking to everybody else. You may be upright, but that does not make you the moral policeman of everybody around you. Just as the good-mannered man teaches most by example, so the right-behaving individual teaches much more by his behavior than by any words he may utter. There are times when words may be uttered. But the act speaks much louder than any word.

In cultivating both manners and morals for Raising Children, parents should keep this eternally before them, namely, that mere repetition of rules or precepts, valuable as these are, get us nowhere necessarily. They may do so, but it does not necessarily follow. You get a much better moral perception through an illustration than by means of a dogmatic assertion. A child will learn much more by working out a moral question than by having it thumped into him. Of course, some things have to be learned and met by pure, unquestioning obedience, because they cannot be explained at the time, or the child is too immature to understand the reason even if given. But in the main questions of casuistry, or moral behavior, and the like, are best worked out by studying them in other relations. The comparisons of history and historical characters, the study of the moral basis of government or great public works, or man's relation to animals, or deeds of daring and courage and power among men, teach the essential moral ideal much better than a mass of precepts. We must not let this fact get by us, and we must never fail to keep in the foreground of our own view that however remote the moral element in any human problem seems to be, it is there simply because it is a human problem.

Thus you ask yourself why men have built great steamships, or great canals, or made great studies in chemistry, or electricity, or the like, and you may say, for the love of knowledge, and that would be a sufficient reason ; but that is because the love of knowledge is a quality of a cultivated human intellect; but delve deeper, and you will find that the final motive is human betterment of some sort, a duty to the race, and desire for a happier or more habitable earth, or the ambition to foster great enter-prises, or any one of a thousand things which have to do with the improvement of the race. That is the sound moral under-pinning of all effort of any kind.

The moral world is so vast, and touches at so many points, many of which are often invisible to us, that we may well take to heart every act and thought because of its worth in moral values, because we might amass all the knowledge or wealth of the world, and without the basis called moral character we would be poor indeed. That mystery which we call a "good name" is priceless above all possessions. It runs through every phase of human activity. It sprouts in the cradle, it follows to the kindergarten, the school, the college, the business house, the office, the club, on our travels, in our studies, and in fact everywhere. The world made by God is the expression of His own moral character, because it was framed to be the beneficent home of mankind. When it is not such, it is because it has been morally debased, and hence man suffers. Look about you and you will see that not an ache or an ill afflicts the human race, but at the bottom it springs from a wrong. It is our high mission as members of the human family to help root out that wrong, and plant again the right which was rooted out when the wrong took its place ; that is what moral training does. The method is that of line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little, but all in the framework of the working model of an upright life.


The building of character should begin in the cradle, for habits begin to be acquired there. The first sense of obedience, of duty, of truth, and of every good quality in man may be implanted at the mother's knee. The first manifestations of the opposite of these are "seen" there also, and therefore the work of correcting them should be begun there. The obvious inference from this is that one of the qualifications for mother-hood and fatherhood is the possession of good, all-round character; that parents should not only have built up and be continuing to build up their own character, but that they should know how to build up character in others.

They should know what are the foundations and the frame-work of character and what are its graces and beauties. Men and women who have built up a character for industry, for integrity, for high principle and sterling honesty of purpose are the only fit people to have children or to have them entrusted to their care.

The building of character is the end of all education. Sub-mission in early years to the example, precept, criticism and suggestions of those who are themselves well trained, develops character, moral, physical, and intellectual; and parents should remember that in starting to build their children's character aright, they are, in the very necessity of things, strengthening and building their own.


Character, as we have said, is a complex thing. Its elements are almost numerless, and defy classification. The things or the attributes or the qualities which enter into the composition of character are those which by the common consent of mankind make for the good of the individual and his fellow men, and therefore for the entire community. These things overlap or are often included, one with the other. Order, strength, energy, truth, discrimination, reasoning, judgment, discrimination, fore-sight, resolution, resourcefulness, perseverance, health, cleanliness, sympathy, kindness, hope, courage, love, right, duty, patriotism, respect, probity, purity, honesty, integrity, firmness, ambition, industry,. self-reliance, power of initiative, manliness, self-control, and in a word, all the attributes, physical, intellectual, and moral, which are the most desirable in man or woman are the elements of character.

These elements combine to form national character. The nation's strongest safeguard is in the individual character of its people. When individual character ceases to be esteemed and held in high honor, the nation's interest is in peril.

"Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates and men decay."

Stability of all institutions depends upon the stability of the individual members composing it, and this is true of schools and colleges, of business as well as governments. And this applies to physical as well as intellectual and moral character. If the men who manned our navy, from admiral to powder monkey, were not men of chosen and trained physical character, all our great wars might have ended differently ; and the world would never have witnessed the splendid progress of our fleet encircling the globe.


The most stable character is that which men and women build for themselves. The foundations properly laid in childhood and youth will make this all the easier. Truth telling may become a habit, even as some, by not cultivating it, form the opposite habit—the habit of lying; and so with justice, honesty, faithfulness, and their opposites. "As habit strengths with age, and character becomes formed," says Smiles, "any turning into a new path becomes more and more difficult. To uproot an old habit is sometimes a more painful thing and vastly more difficult than to wrench out a tooth. Try and reform a person habitually indolent or improvident, or a drunken person, and in a large majority of cases you will fail. For the habit in each ease has bound itself in and through the life until it has become an integral part of it, and cannot be uprooted. Hence the wisest of all habits is the habit of care in the formation of all good habits. Self-respect, self-help, application, industry, integrity, are of the nature of habits. Even happiness itself may become habitual. To bring up men and women with this habit, forming a genial nature, a good temper, and a happy frame of mind, is one of the most important ways in which to build character.

Man is the architect and builder of his own character, and the cornerstone of the character is Duty.

Feeble and weak-kneed reliance on others will not help in character building.. It needs effort, self-discipline, self-watchfulness, self-control, and self-culture. Indeed, self-culture is character building. We should discipline the mind by forcing it to think rightly, clearly, purely. We should watch for anything like the beginning of a bad habit. We should control our passions and desires, keeping them within proper limits, and we should cultivate "whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are honest, and whatsoever things are of good report"—virtue, health, courtesy, and politeness and all the other elements of good character.

"The strength of a chain is its weakest link," and if the character is not properly built, if one of the elements is allowed to become weak, the strength of the whole is impaired.

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