III.—OFFENDING THE CHILDREN
Offences.—The first and second of the Divine edicts appear to include our sins of commission and of omission against the children: we offend them, when we do by them that which we ought not to have done; we despise them, when we leave undone those things which, for their sakes, we ought to have done. An offence, we know, is literally a stumbling-block, that which trips up the walker and causes him to fall. Mothers know what it is to clear the floor of every obstacle when a baby takes his unsteady little runs from chair to chair, from one pair of loving arms to another. The table-leg, the child’s toy on the floor, which has caused a fall and a pitiful cry, is a thing to be deplored; why did not somebody put it out of the way, so that the baby should not stumble? But the little child is going out into the world with uncertain tottering steps in many directions. There are causes of stumbling not so easy to remove as an offending footstool; and woe to him who causes the child to fall!
Children are born Law-abiding.—‘Naughty baby!’ says the mother; and the child’s eyes droop, and a flush rises over neck and brow. It is very
wonderful; very ‘funny,’ some people think, and say, ‘Naughty baby!’ when the baby is sweetly good, to amuse themselves with the sight of the infant soul rising visibly before their eyes. But what does it mean, this display of feeling, conscience, in the child, before any human teaching can have reached him? No less than this, that he is born a law-abiding being, with a sense of may, and must not, of right and wrong. That is how the children are sent into the world with the warning, “Take heed that ye offend not one of these little ones.” And—this being so—who has not met big girls and boys, the children of right-minded parents, who yet do not know what must means, who are not moved by ought, whose hearts feel no stir at the solemn name of Duty, who know no higher rule of life than ‘I want,’ and ‘I don’t want,’ ‘I like,’ and ‘I don’t like’? Heaven help parents and children when it has come to that!
But how has it been brought about that the babe, with an acute sense of right and wrong even when it can understand little of human speech, should grow into the boy or girl already proving ‘the curse of lawless heart’? By slow degrees, here a little and there a little, as all that is good or bad in character comes to pass. ‘Naughty!’ says the mother, again, when a little hand is thrust into the sugar-bowl; and a pair of roguish eyes seeks hers furtively, to measure, as they do unerringly, how far the little pilferer may go. It is very amusing; the mother ‘cannot help laughing’; and the little trespass is allowed to pass: and, what the poor mother has not thought of, an offence, a cause of stumbling, has been cast into the path of her two-year-old child. He has learned already that that which is ‘naughty’ may yet be done
with impunity, and he goes on improving his knowledge. It is needless to continue; everybody knows the steps by which the mother’s ‘no’ comes to be disregarded, her refusal teased into consent. The child has learned to believe that he has nothing to overcome but his mother’s disinclination; if she choose to let him do this and that, there is no reason why she should not; he can make her choose to let him do the thing forbidden, and then he may do it. The next step in the argument is not too great for childish wits: if his mother does what she chooses, of course he will do what he chooses, if he can; and henceforward the child’s life becomes an endless struggle to get his own way; a struggle in which a parent is pretty sure to be worsted, having many things to think of, while the child sticks persistently to the thing which has his fancy for the moment.
They must perceive that their Governors are Law-compelled.—Where is the beginning of this tangle, spoiling the lives of parent and child alike? In this: that the mother began with no sufficient sense of duty; she thought herself free to allow and disallow, to say and unsay, at pleasure, as if the child were hers to do what she liked with. The child has never discovered a background of must behind his mother’s decisions; he does not know that she must not let him break his sister’s playthings, gorge himself with cake, spoil the pleasure of other people, because these things are not right. Let the child perceive that his parents are law-compelled as well as he, that they simply cannot allow him to do the things which have been forbidden, and he submits with the sweet meekness which belongs to his age. To give reasons to a child is usually out of place, and is a sacrifice of
parental dignity; but he is quick enough to read the ‘must’ and ‘ought’ which rule her, in his mother’s face and manner, and in the fact that she is not to be moved from a resolution on any question of right and wrong.
Parents may Offend their Children by Disregarding the Laws of Health.—This, of allowing him in what is wrong, is only one of many ways in which the loving mother may offend her child. Through ignorance, or wilfulness, which is worse, she may not only allow wrong in him, but do wrong by him. She may cast a stumbling-block in the way of his physical life by giving him unwholesome food, letting him sleep and live in ill-ventilated rooms, by disregarding any or every of the simple laws of health, ignorance of which is hardly to be excused in the face of the pains taken by scientific men to bring this necessary knowledge within the reach of every one.
And of the Intellectual Life.—Almost as bad is the way the child’s intellectual life may be wrecked at its outset by a round of dreary, dawdling lessons in which definite progress is the last thing made or expected, and which, so far from educating in any true sense, stultify his wits in a way he never gets over. Many a little girl, especially, leaves the home schoolroom with a distaste for all manner of learning, an aversion to mental effort, which lasts her her life-time, and that is why she grows up to read little but trashy novels, and to talk all day about her clothes.
And of the Moral Life.—And her affections—the movements of the outgoing tender child-heart—how are they treated? There are few mothers who do not take pains to cherish the family affections; but when the child comes to have dealings with outsiders,
do no worldly maxims and motives ever nip the buds of childish love? Far worse than this happens when the child’s love finds no natural outlets within her home: when she is the plain or the dull child of the family, and is left out in the cold, while the parents’ affection is lavished on the rest. Of course she does not love her brothers and sisters, who monopolise what should have been hers too. And how is she to love her parents? Nobody knows the real anguish which many a child in the nursery suffers from this cause, nor how many lives are embittered and spoiled through the suppression of these childish affections. “My childhood was made miserable,” a lady said to me a while ago, “by my mother’s doting fondness for my little brother; there was not a day when she did not make me wretched by coming into the nursery to fondle and play with him, and all the time she had not a word nor a look nor a smile for me, any more than if I had not been in the room. I have never got over it; she is very kind to me now, but I never feel quite natural with her. And how can we two, brother and sister, feel for each other as we should if we had grown up together in love in the nursery?”