Self Control In The Child
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE end and aim of all real education is to teach the child to control himself. It seems strange that any grown man or woman needs to be told "Do this," and "Do not do that," and yet practically that is what must be done for those who have not learned to direct their own lives. A parent sees but half his responsibilities who thinks that training in obedience is all that is necessary to make a perfect man out of a boy, or a noble woman out of a girl; in the end the man or woman stands or falls as they have learned the greatest of all duties, that of self-control.
A Test of Character.-In infancy, of course, a mother and father must do the thinking for the child; he must eat and exercise and sleep as they direct; but once out of babyhood there must be a gradual shifting of this control to the child's own mind and conscience. Suppose a boy is left to guide himself for a week; he is told he may go to school or not as he pleases; he may go swimming no matter what the weather is, and eat what-ever his fancy directs, and go to bed when he chooses. That is a real test of character, for the boy who has been taught to control himself and to arrange his life not by what he prefers to do but by what he knows is right, will probably follow exactly, or at least nearly, the regular programme as he has learned it, and do his school and home work at their proper times, eat what he has been told is good for him and go to bed about his usual time; and, of course, the one who has been merely blindly obedient to his parents will rejoice in his freedom and become a lawless little being till he is again put under authority.
The use of the words "right" and "wrong" ought to be early taught any child. It is not because mother says he must go to bed that he has to go at eight, but because he needs the sleep, and will not grow up strong without it that he has to go; it is right that he should do so; this at once seems reasonable to a child. He sees that his father and mother do things they do not like because they recognize that the same higher law extends over them too, and that, once clearly seen, is a wonderful help to a child in doing the things he should. It is a lesson not to be taught all at once, but by gradual steps, and not so much by words as by example. If the child holds the key to the home life, and day by day watches his parents do the best thing they know, whether it is pleasant or not, he is on the way to control himself just as they control themselves, by the perfect law.
Inculcating Self-control.-With most children it is safe to begin very early to let them practise this self-control. The mother says, perhaps, "I see that you are getting very angry; I am sure you will be likely to say and do things you will be sorry for; don't you think you had better go to your room till you are quiet again?" Probably if the fit of anger has gone too far, the child will refuse and give way still further, but at the very be-ginning he may be willing to go. Then later on, when all is over, the mother can talk things over with him, praise him for his going away, tell him of the dreadful things that happen when a grown man gets more and more angry and does not control himself, and of the murders of which one so often reads as a result of such fits of passion. The boy is impressionable, and usually willing to learn the lesson. He will sometimes forget, of course, being merely human, but if this course is persisted in, he will sooner or later learn to control his temper by leaving the place where it is excited; some day perhaps he may be able to stay where he is and still control it, which is even a higher thing.
The same idea may be used in teaching children to control their appetites for sweets, or any forbidden pleasures. It is better to run away than to yield to temptation. There is a ridiculous little story of a girl who came into a room and saw a basket of fruit on the table, prepared for company; she walked all around the table, holding her small hands behind her back; then she remarked firmly, "Sold again, Satan!" and left the room. That illustrates- exactly what a well-taught child feels, that she has conquered if she resists a wrong inclination.
Here, as elsewhere, an ideal is a great help to a child. The stories of King Arthur and his knights and their search for the Holy Grail are suggestive of the strife for the best things against the worst. Before they are in their teens children will love to hear read the "Idylls of the King," and "Sir Launfal," and even Malory's "Morte d' Arthur, " and better now than when they are older, they will take the lessons to heart they learn there. There is an old story of King Louis the Fourteenth which also gives them a helpful idea: Once he was listening to a sermon in the royal chapel, and the preacher spoke of the struggle St. Paul tells, of the two men within the soul. At once the king, careless of the rest of the audience, cried out, "Oh, how well I know those two men!" Even the smallest child knows something of the strife of the two men, and will appreciate the point of the story and remember it.
The Child to be Trusted.-The plan of trusting a child is one of the best ways of developing this plan of having him control himself rather than be controlled by some one else. A mother can say, "Oh, it is unnecessary for me to tell you what to do; you know what is right, and of course you will do that." This throws the whole responsibility where it belongs, and at the same time it appeals to the child's better nature, and so a double purpose is served. It is an appeal to the highest in him, and one he will not lightly disregard.
Often parents shrink from laying in early years this burden of responsibility on a child. They argue that it is too much for them, and it is better for them to have their parents decide what they shall do, and so relieve them from the thought, sometimes indeed, the anxious thought, of what to do. But self-control is something it takes a whole life to learn, and it is not too soon to begin, even in early childhood, to teach it. Perhaps the home may be broken up and a boy thrown early out into the world; if he has been used only to guidance from without, he will struggle with all sorts of temptations and perplexities which will meet him, and too probably he will fall. How much better to let him know from the outset that he must depend largely upon himself, and that he is expected to be strong and manly, and to choose the right! That sort of stimulating teaching will keep him from evil, and make a man of him while yet he is but a boy in years. It is the weakling who succumbs to the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil-the one who has been overguided and controlled, who has never learned to know his foes and to meet them fearlessly. If from a child he has had to control himself, he is armed against his enemies.