Obedience In The Child
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE objectionable phrase, "This is the age of obedient parents," has passed into a byword, one we do not like to hear today, perhaps because we recognize that there is too much truth in it. Certainly no nation ever before so gave its children everything they wished for, and gave up in such a degree its own wishes to those of the younger generation, as we Americans are doing. The child, not the parent, has in most of our homes, the center of the stage.
Obedience Essential.-It is an undoubted fact that in reacting from the state of blind, unquestioning obedience demanded by our ancestors of their children, we have gone too far in the other direction. Tyranny and oppression once existed in many families, and it is just as well that they should disappear; but certainly obedience to parents ought not to go with them. If there is anything worse in the world than an unreasonable and domineering parent, it is a disobedient and rebellious child. A home where the children rule must be a joyless pandemonium. But how are we to obtain obedience without paying too dearly for it?
Obedience should be considered as only a temporary thing, for the attitude of infallibility that parents assume must sooner or later be abandoned; it is merely the training of the children, not blind obedience in itself, that is the aim. The old idea that the child who "minds" promptly when spoken to is at heart the good child, and the one who hesitates is necessarily the bad one, is away behind the times. The so-called good child may merely be under-vitalized, anemic, and so indifferent to most things. He obeys because it is less trouble to do as he is told than to think for himself; and the child who disputes every command, and shows self-will and is disobedient, may be merely strong, vigorous, pushing in mental as well as physical ways, because he is growing in both. Later on it is often the latter child who is deliberately obedient, while the weaker one becomes morally lax. Mrs. Gilman has a clever essay in which she says that to train a child to unthinking, unquestioning obedience is to make him absolutely valueless as a citizen. He will never initiate, but will follow where others lead. He will be but a half-developed being, devoid of individuality and independence.
But before the child can reason for itself, it is necessary to exact a prompt obedience, not only because the parent knows best, but also for the sake of the training. A child who throws its food on the floor when told to eat it quietly, or who stiffens out in amazing rigor and screams until black in the face rather than be undressed, must learn that he must do as he is told, and if necessary, he must learn it with tears. The wise parent, how-ever, will not take these things too seriously. Blessed is that mother whose sense of humor does not desert her even in nursery crises! She will exact obedience as firmly and quietly as she can, and at the same time she will not feel that her child will surely grow up a monster of self-will. He must obey-that goes without saying; but little by little he will learn to do it gracefully rather than rebelliously, as he sees he must.
Firmness Requisite in the Mother.-Of course a perfect obedience forbids teasing the mother to change her mind. If once, only once, she yields a forbidden point, and the child, with its abnormal keenness, sees it, she is lost. From that time on her yea is no longer yea and her nay nay, but both are doubtful quantities, to be disputed. It is infinitely better not to give a command than to let the child evade it. When she says even a small thing must not be, she must stick to it. If it happens that the question turns on a second piece of cake, and she says "No more to-day," and then says later on, "Well, just this once, but next time do not ask," she is weakly giving up the whole situation, and barring the Angel of Peace forever from her home.
Justice Necessary to Discipline.-But it must be remembered that even a mother may make a mistake, and that she must acknowledge it at the time and alter her decision; something quite different from being teased into changing her mind. If she says that the child may not go to a certain picnic because it is a rainy day, and later on the sun comes out and makes going possible, then by all means she should explain to him that circumstances have altered and he may go after all. He will see the difference in her point of view at once. Should she unreason-ably stick to her point and having said he could not go, refuse to alter that verdict when the conditions have so changed, he will lose confidence in her judgment and fairness; and this is about the worst thing which could happen.
Parents also sometimes lay unjust commands on their children in ignorance, and sometimes, too, they are unreasonable; then the only course is frankly to acknowledge that they were wrong and say in so many words, "1 made a mistake in saying you must do this or that. I see now that it was not the thing after all; I will not insist on your doing it." This is to show the child that reason, not whim, rules in the family, and so even in this way he learns to obey, because be believes in his parents' wisdom.
But after a child grows older, should he be expected to yield a prompt obedience still?
Whether or not he does so, depends on his father and mother. If they have proved when he was small that they were just and wise in their commands, and if he has grown up in the atmosphere of obedience, undoubtedly he will continue to do as he is told; but parents should remember that with each year this unreasoning obedience becomes more difficult for him. He is learning at school and at play to use his own mind, to think and decide for himself, and this holds in the family circle as well as outside it. To meet this difficulty it is always best to give a child a good and truthful reason for any commands laid upon him, not before he obeys, but afterwards.
Suppose he comes home from school and is told not to go out doors again to play. It takes but a moment to tell why this must be-perhaps company is coming and he will be needed, or his throat is sore, or his mother must leave him in charge of the house for a time; children yield so graciously and unselfishly to such reasons that it pays on this account if for no higher reason, to explain them. There is a sort of impressive logic in a child's reasoning; since his mother or father have been right in a hundred cases in asking him to obey, it stands to reason they are right now; so he obeys even when he does not see clearly the same necessity that they see for certain acts.
Commands Should be Reasonable.-If only parents would always stop to think before giving any command, how simple obedience would be! It is because foolish, unnecessary things are demanded, or because children learn that there is left a loophole for disobedience, or because they have learned by bitter experience that certain commands are both exacting and unreasonable, that they disobey. Children of reasonable, thoughtful, conscientious parents do obey them. They trust their wisdom, they understand that a good reason exists behind the command, and so they are willing to do as they are asked. Then later on they may ask why, and be told; and so their trust is justified.
The way of demanding obedience counts for a great deal in securing it. To simply say "Do this," with the air and manner of a tyrant, is to create at once a disposition to do the opposite. "I'11 mind now because I must," the child declares inwardly, "but when I'm grown up I'll do as I please." It is by far the best way to put commands if possible in an attractive form. Instead of saying "You must fill the wood-box before you can go out," it is quite as easy to say "Won't you please get me a whole boxful of wood before you go? I need it to cook with for our supper, and I'm going to make something you like!" And the difference in the way the box is filled is worth the extra trouble, if there is any trouble, in putting it so. You may request a child to do almost anything, if you put it attractively, and he will do as you wish; but after a certain period you cannot demand that he shall do this or that without arousing antagonism in him. And yet sometimes, even when a child has been carefully taught to obey, and has apparently learned the lesson that his parents know best, there will arise a family crisis. Perhaps a question of health is involved, or of morals, or some other really serious thing, and the growing boy or girl is quite sure the parents are wrong, and will not be convinced by the most careful, patient reasoning and explanation; such things do happen. Then, after all is said, if the father and mother are certain of the wisdom of their course, the child, not the parents, must yield. Once in a long time it is best to let the child have his own way and teach him by suffering that he is wrong; but usually this is too costly, and it is better to say firmly, "You must abide by my decision; I am sure in this case I am right, and when you are older you will see that it was so," Then the child will show whether, after all, his training in obedience has been worth while. If he submits with an underlying belief in his parents in spite of his disappointment, the day is won; it has been worth everything to have reached this point, and the re-ward is already being won for gentle firmness in his training.