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Home Power

( Originally Published 1884 )

"So build we up the being that we are,
Thus deeply drinking in the soul of things,
We shall be wise perforce."—Wordsworth.

Home makes the Man.—Domestic and Social Life.—The Child.—Surroundings of Children.—Influence of the Mother.—Power of Example.—Civilization dependent on Good Women.—Boyhood of St. Augustine.—Influence of Early Impressions.

HOME is the first and most important school of character. It is there that every human being receives his best moral training, or his worst; for it is there that he imbibes those principles of conduct which endure through manhood, and cease only with life.

It is a common saying that " Manners make the man;" and there is a second, that "Mind makes the man;" but truer than either is a third, that "Home makes the man." For the home training includes not only manners and mind, but character. It is mainly in the home that the heart is opened, the habits are formed, the intellect is awakened, and character moulded for good or for evil.

From that source, be it pure or impure, issue the principles and maxims that govern society. Law itself is but the reflex of homes. The tiniest bits of opinion sown in the minds of children in private life afterwards issue forth to the world, and become its public opinion; for nations are gathered out of nurseries, and they who hold the leading-strings of children may even exercise a greater power than those who wield the reins of government.

It is in the order of nature that domestic life should be preparatory to social, and that the mind and character should first be formed in the home. There the individuals who afterwards form society are dealt with in detail, and fashioned one by one. From the family they enter life, and advance from boyhood to citizenship. Thus the home may be regarded as the most influential school of civilization. For, after all, civilization mainly resolves itself into a question of individual training; and according as the respective members of society are well or ill trained in youth, so will the community which they constitute be more or less humanized and civilized.

The training of any man, even the wisest, can not fail to be powerfully influenced by the moral surroundings of his early years. He comes into the world help-less, and absolutely dependent upon those about him for nurture and culture. From the very first breath that he draws, his education begins. When a mother once asked a clergyman when she should begin the education of her child, then four years old, he replied: " Madam, if you have not begun already, you have lost those four years. From the first smile that gleams upon an infant's cheek, your opportunity begins."

But even in this case the education had already be-gun; for the child learns by simple imitation, without effort, almost through the pores of the skin. " A fig-tree looking on a fig-tree becometh fruitful," says the Arabian proverb. And so it is with children; their first great instructor is example.

However apparently trivial the influences which con-tribute to form the character of the child, they endure through life. The child's character is the nucleus of the man's; all after-education is but superposition; the form of the crystal remains the same. Thus the saying of the poet holds true in a large degree, " The child is father of the man;" or, as Milton puts it, " The child-hood shows the man, as morning shows the day." Those impulses to conduct which last the longest and are rooted the deepest, always have their origin near our birth. It is then that the germs of virtues or vices, of feelings or sentiments, are first implanted which determine the character for life.

The child is, as it were, laid at the gate of a new world, and opens his eyes upon things all of which are full of novelty and wonderment. At first it is enough for him to gaze; but by-and-by he begins to see, to observe, to compare, to learn, to store up impressions and ideas; and under wise guidance the progress which he makes is really wonderful. Lord Brougham has observed that between the ages of eighteen and thirty months, a child learns more of the material world, of his own powers, of the nature of other bodies, and even of his own mind and other minds, than he acquires in all the rest of his life. The knowledge which a child accumulates, and the ideas generated in his mind, during this period are so important, that if we could imagine them to be afterwards obliterated, all the learning of a senior wrangler at Cambridge, or a fìrst-classman at Oxford, would be as nothing to it, and would literally not enable its object to prolong his existence for a week.

It is in childhood that the mind is most open to impressions; and ready to be kindled by the first spark that falls into it. Ideas are then caught quickly and live lastingly. Thus Scott is said to have received his first bent towards ballad literature from his mother's and grandmother's recitations in his hearing long be-fore he himself had learned to read. Childhood is like a mirror which reflects in after-life the images first presented to it. The first thing continues forever with the child. The first joy, the first sorrow, the first success, the first failure, the first achievement, the first misadventure, paint the foreground of his life.

All this while, too, the training of the character is in progress of the temper, the will, and the habits on which so much of the happiness of human beings in after-life depends. Although man is endowed with a certain self-acting, self helping power of contributing to his own development, independent of surrounding circumstances, and of reacting upon the life around him, the bias given to his moral character in early life is of immense importance. Place even the highest-minded philosopher in the midst of daily discomfort, immorality, and vileness, and he will insensibly gravitate towards brutality. How much more susceptible is the impressionable and helpless child amidst such surroundings! It is not possible to rear a kindly nature, sensitive to evil, pure. in mind and heart, amidst coarseness, discomfort, and impurity.

Thus homes, which are the nurseries of children who grow up into men and women, will be good or bad according to the power that governs them. Where the spirit of love and duty pervades the home where head and heart bear rule wisely there where the daily life is honest and virtuous--where the government is sensible, kind, and loving, then may we expect from such a home an issue of healthy, useful, and happy beings, capable, as they gain the requisite strength, of following the foot-steps of their parents, of walking uprightly, governing themselves wisely, and contributing to the welfare of those about them.

On the other hand, if' surrounded by ignorance, coarseness, and selfishness, they will unconsciously assume the same character, and grow up to adult years rude, uncultivated, and all the more dangerous to society if placed amidst the manifold temptations of what is called civilized life. " Give your child to be educated by a slave," said an ancient Greek, " and, instead of one slave, you will then have two."

The child can not help imitating what he sees. Every-thing is to him a model of manner, of gesture, of speech, of habit, of character. " For the child," says Richter, " the most important era of life is that of child-hood, when he begins to color and mould himself by companionship with others. Every new educator effects less than his predecessor; until at last, if we regard all life as an educational institution, a circumnavigator of the world is less influenced by all the nations he has seen than by his nurse. Models are, therefore, of every importance in moulding the nature of the child; and if we would have fine characters, we must necessarily present before them fine models. Now, the model most. constantly before every child's eye is the mother.

One good mother, said George Herbert, is worth a hundred school-masters. In the home she is " loadstone to all hearts, and loadstar to all eyes." Imitation of her is constant imitation, which Bacon likens to a " globe of precepts." But example is far more than precept. It is instruction in action. It is teaching without words, often exemplifying more than tongue can teach. In the face of bad example, the best of precepts are of but little avail. The example is followed, not the precepts. Indeed, precept at variance with practice is worse than useless, inasmuch as it only serves to teach the most cowardly of vices hypocrisy. Even children are judges of consistency, and the lessons of the parent who says one thing and does the opposite, are quickly seen through. The teaching of the friar was not worth much who preached the virtue of honesty with a stolen goose in his sleeve.

By imitation of acts, the character becomes slowly and imperceptibly, but at length decidedly formed. The several acts may seem in themselves trivial; but so are the continuous acts of daily life. Like snow-flakes they fall unperceived; each flake added to the pile produces no sensible change, and yet the accumulation of snow-flakes makes the avalanche. So do repeated acts, one following another, at length become consolidated in habit, determine the action of the human being for good or for evil, and, in a word, form the character.

It is because the mother, far more than the father, influences the action and conduct of the child, that her good example is of so much greater importance in the home. It is easy to understand how this should be so. The home is the woman's domain her kingdom, where she exercises entire control. Her power over the little subjects she rules there is absolute. They look up to her for everything. She is the example and model constantly before their eyes, whom they unconsciously observe and imitate.

Cowley, speaking of the influence of early example, and ideas early implanted in the mind, compares them to letters cut in the bark of a young tree, which grow and widen with age. The impressions then made, howsoever slight they may seem, are never effaced. The ideas then implanted in the mind are like seeds dropped into the ground, which lie there and germinate for a time, afterwards springing up in acts and thoughts and habits. Thus the mother lives again in her children. They unconsciously mould themselves after her manner, her speech, her conduct, and her method of life. Her habits become theirs; and her character is visibly repeated in them.

This maternal love is the visible providence of our race. Its influence is constant and universal. It begins with the education of the human being at the outstart of life, and is prolonged by virtue of the powerful influence which every good mother exercises over her children through life. When launched into the world, each to take part in its labors, anxieties, and trials, they still turn to their mother for consolation, if not for counsel, in their time of trouble and difficulty. The pure and good thoughts she has implanted in their minds when children continue to grow up into good acts long after she is dead; and when there is nothing but a memory of her left, her children rise up and call her blessed.

It is not saying too much to aver that the happiness or misery, the enlightenment or ignorance, the civilization or barbarism of the world, depends in a very high degree upon the exercise of woman's power within her special kingdom of home. Indeed, Emerson says, broadly and truly, that " a sufficient measure of civilization is the influence of good women." Posterity may be said to lie before us in the person of the child in the mother's lap. What that child will eventually become, mainly depends upon the training and example which he has received from his first and most influential educator.

Woman, above all other educators, educates humanly. Man is the brain, but woman is the heart of humanity: he its judgment, she its feeling; he its strength, she its grace, ornament, and solace. Even the understanding of the best woman seems to work mainly through her affections. And thus, though man may direct the intellect, woman cultivates the feelings, which mainly deter-mine the character. While he fills the memory, she occupies the heart. She makes us love what he can only make us believe, and it is chiefly through her that we are enabled to arrive at virtue.

The respective influences of the father and the mother on the training and development of character are remarkably illustrated in the life of St. Augustine. While Augustine's father, a poor freeman of Thagaste, proud of his son's abilities, endeavored to furnish his mind with the highest learning of the schools, and was extolled by his neighbors for the sacrifices he made with that object " beyond the ability of his means "—his mother, Monica, on the other hand, sought to lead her son's mind in the direction of the highest good, and with pious care counseled him, entreated him, advised him to chastity, and, amidst much anguish and tribulation, because of his wicked life, never ceased to pray for him until her prayers were heard and answered. Thus her love at last triumphed, and the patience and goodness of the mother were rewarded, not only by the conversion of her gifted son, but also of her husband. Later in life and after her husband's death, Monica, drawn by her affection, followed her son to Milan, to watch over him; and there she died, when he was in his thirty-third year. But it was in the earlier period of his life that her example and instruction made the deepest impression upon his mind, and determined his future character.

There are many similar instances of early impressions made upon a child's mind springing up into good acts late in life, after an intervening period of selfishness and vice. Parents may do all that they can to develop an upright and virtuous character in their children, and apparently in vain. It seems like bread cast upon the waters and lost. And yet sometimes it happens that long after the parents have gone to their rest it may be twenty years or more the good precept, the good example set before their sons and daughters in child-hood, at length springs up and bears fruit.

One of the most remarkable of such instances was that of the Rev. John Newton, of Olney, the friend of Cowper, the poet. It was long subsequent to the death of both his parents, and after leading a vicious life as a youth and as a seaman, that he became suddenly awakened to a sense of his depravity; and then it was that the lessons which his mother had given him when a child sprang up vividly in his memory. Her voice came to him as it were from the dead, and led him gently back to virtue and goodness.

Another instance is that of John Randolph, the American statesman, who once said: " I should have been an atheist if it had not been for one recollection and that was the memory of the time when my departed mother used to take my little hand in hers, and cause me on my knees to say, 'Our Father who art in heaven!' "

But such instances must, on the whole, be regarded as exceptional. As the character is biased in early life so it generally remains, gradually assuming its permanent form as manhood is reached. " Live as long as you may," said Southey, " the first twenty years are the longest half of your life," and they are by far the most pregnant in consequences. When the worn out slanderer and voluptuary, Dr. Wolcot, lay on his death-bed, one of his friends asked if he could do anything to gratify him. " Yes," said the dying man, eagerly, " give me back my youth." Give him but that and he would repent he would reform. But it was all too late. His life had become bound and inthralled by the chains of habit.

Gretry, the musical composer, thought so highly of the importance of woman as an educator of character, that he described a good woman as " Nature's chef-d'oeuvre." And he was right : for good mothers, far more than fathers, tend to the perpetual renovation of mankind, creating as they do the moral atmosphere of the home, which is the nutriment of man's moral being, as the physical atmosphere is of his corporeal frame. By good temper, suavity and kindness, directed by intelligence, woman surrounds the in-dwellers with a pervading atmosphere of cheerfulness, contentment, and peace, suitable for the growth of the purest as of the manliest natures.

The poorest dwelling presided over by a virtuous, thrifty, cheerful and cleanly woman, may thus be the abode of comfort, virtue and happiness; it may be the scene of every ennobling relation in family life; it may be endeared to a man by many delightful associations; furnishing a sanctuary for the heart, a refuge from the storms of life, a sweet resting place after labor, a consolation in misfortune, a pride in prosperity, and a joy at all times.

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