Teaching Truthfulness, Honesty, Self-Control
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Mrs. Gilman is a well-known writer and lecturer on ethics, economics, and sociology, and has specially identified herself with the labor question and the advance of women.
NEW truth is seen by new brains. As the organ we think with grows from age to age, we are able to think farther and deeper; but, if the growing brain is especially injured in any one dapertment in early youth, it will not grow as fast in that one line. As a general rule—a rule with rare exceptions—we do thus injure the baby brain in the line of ethical thought and action. In other sciences we teach what we know, when we teach at all, and practice fairly; but, in teaching a child ethics, we do not give even what we have of knowledge, and our practice with him and the practice we demand from him are not at all in accordance with our true views.
One glaring instance is the habit of lying to children. A woman who would not lie to a grown friend will lie freely to her own child. A man who would not be unjust to his brother or a stranger will be unjust to his little son. The common courtesy given any adult is not given to the child. That delicate consideration for another's feelings, which is part of our common practice among friends, is lacking in our dealings with children. From the treatment they receive, children cannot learn any rational and consistent scheme of ethics. Their healthy little brains make early inference from the conduct of their elders, and incite behavior on the same plan; but they speedily find that these are poor rules, for they do not work both ways. The conduct we seek to enforce from them does not accord with our conduct, nor form any consistent whole by itself. It is not based on any simple group of principles which a child can understand, but rests very largely on the personal equation and the minor variations of circumstance.
Take lying again as an instance. 1. We lie to the child. He discovers it. No evil is apparently resultant. 2. He accuses us of it, and we punish him for impertinence. 3. He lies to us, and meets severe penalties. 4. We accuse him of it, rightly or wrongly, and are not punished for impertinence. 5. He observes us lie to the visitor in the way of politeness with no evil result. 6.. He lies to the visitor less skillfully, and is again made to suffer. 7.He lies to his more ignorant juniors, and nothing happens. 8. Meanwhile, if he receives any definite ethical instruction on the subject, he is probably told that God hates a liar, that to lie is a sin.
The elastic human brain can and does accommodate itself to this confusion, and grows up to repeat complacently the whole performance without any consciousness of inconsistency; but progress in ethics is hardly to be looked for under such conditions. It is pathetic to see this waste of power in each generation. We are born with the gentler and kinder impulses bred by long social interrelation. We have ever broader and subtler brains; but our good impulses are checked, twisted, tangled, weighed down with many artificial restrictions, and our restless questionings and suggestions are snubbed or neglected.. A child is temptingly open to instruction in ethics. His primitive mental attitude recognizes the importance of the main principles as strongly as the early savage did. His simple and guarded life makes it easy for us to supply profuse and continuous illustrations of the working of these principles and his strong, keen feelings enable us to impress with lasting power the relative rightness and wrongness of different lines of action.
Yet this beautiful opportunity is not only neglected, but the fresh mind and its eager powers are blurred, confused, discouraged, by our senseless treatment. Our lack of knowledge does not excuse it. Our lingering religious restriction does not excuse it. We know something of ethics, and practice some-thing, but treat the child as if he were a lower instead of a higher being. Surely, we can reduce our ethical knowledge into some simple and teachable shape, and take the same pains to teach this noblest, this most indispensable of sciences that we take to teach music or dancing. Physics is the science of molecular relation—how things work in relation to other things. Ethics is the science of social relation how people work in relation to other people.. To the individual there is no ethics but of self-development and reproduction. The lonely animal's behavior goes no farther. But gregarious animals have to relate their behavior to one another—a more complex problem; and in our intricate co-relation there is so wide a field of inter-relative behavior that its working principles and laws form a science.
However complex our ultimate acts, they are open to classification, and resolve themselves into certain general principles which long since were recognized and named. Liberty, justice, love—we all know these and others, and can promptly square a given act by some familiar principle. The sense of justice develops very early, and may be used as a basis for a large range of conduct. "To play fair" can be early taught. "That isn't fair!" is one of a child's earliest perceptions. "When I want to go somewhere, you say I'm too little; and, when I cry, you say I'm too big! It isn't fair!" protests the child..
In training a child in the perception and practice of justice, we should always remember that the standard must suit the child's mind, not ours. What to our longer, wider sweep of vision seems quite just, to him may seem bitterly unjust ; and, if we punish a child in a way that seems to him unjust, he is unjustly punished. So the instructor in ethics must have an extended knowledge of the child's point of view—that of children in general and of the child being instructed in particular, and the illustrations measured accordingly. It ought to be unnecessary to remark that no more passion should be used in teaching ethics than in teaching arithmetic. The child will make mistakes, of course. We know that beforehand, and can largely provide for them. It is for us to arrange his successive problems so that they are not too rapid or too difficult, and to be no more impatient or displeased at a natural slip in this line of development than in any other.
Unhappily, it is just here that we almost always err. The child's slowly accumulating perceptions and increasing accuracy of _expression are not only confused by our erroneous teaching, but greatly shocked and jarred by our manner, our evident excitement in cases of conduct which we call "matters of right and wrong." All conduct is right or wrong. A difference in praise or blame belongs to relative excellence of intention or of performance ; but the formation of a delicate and accurate conscience is sadly interfered with by our violent feelings. It is this which renders ethical action so sensitive and morbid. Where in other lines we act calmly, according to our knowledge, or, if we err, calmly rectify the error, in ethics we are nervous, vacillating, unduly elated or depressed, because our early teachings in this field were so overweighted with intense feeling.
Self-control is one of the first essentials in the practice of ethics—which is to say, in living. Self-control can be taught a child by gently graduated exercises, so that he shall come calmly into his first kingdom, and exercise this normal human power without self-consciousness. We do nothing actively to develop this power. We simply punish the lack of it when that lack happens to be disagreeable to us. A child who has "tantrums," for instance—those helpless, prostrate passions of screaming and kicking—is treated variously during the attack; but nothing is done during the placid interval to cultivate the desired power of control. Self-control is involved in all conscious acts. There-fore, it should not be hard to so arrange and relate those acts as to steadily develop the habit.
Games in varying degree require further exertion of self-control, and games are the child's daily lessons. The natural ethical sense of humanity is strongly and early shown in our games. It is a joy to us to learn "the rules" and play according to them, or to a maturer student to grasp the principles and work them out; and our quick condemnation of the poor player or the careless player, and our rage at him who "does not play fair," show how naturally we incline to right conduct. Life is a large game, with so many rules that it is very hard to learn by them; but its principles can be taught to the youngest. When we rightly understand those principles, we can leave off many arbitrary rules, and greatly simplify the game. The recognition of the rights of others is justice, and comes easily to the child. The generosity which goes beyond justice is also natural to the child in some degree, and open to easy culture. It should, however, always rest on its natural precursor, justice; and the child be led on to generosity gradually, and by the visible example of the higher pleasure involved.
To divide the fruit evenly is the first step. To show that you enjoy giving up your share, that you take pleasure in his pleasure, and then, when this act is imitated, to show such delight and gratitude as shall make the baby mind feel your satisfaction—that is a slow but simple process. We usually neglect the foundation of justice, and then find it hard to teach loving-kindness to the young mind. Demands on the child's personal surrender and generosity should be made very gradually, and always with a clearly visible cause. Where any dawning faculty is overstrained in youth, it is hard and slow to re-establish the growth.