THE AWKWARD AGE
Indeed, this, of the growing boy or girl, is not only an awkward, but a critical stage of life. For the first time, the young people are greatly occupied with the notion of their own rights: their duties are nowhere. Not what they own, but what is due to them, it is, that oppresses their minds. “It’s a shame,” “It’s not fair,” “It’s too bad,” are muttered in secret, when no one ventures to murmur aloud,—and this, with aggravating unreasonableness, and a “one-sidedness” which grown-up people can hardly understand. But this tiresome behaviour does not arise from any moral twist in the young people; they really have more right than reason on their side: their claims might
often be yielded, if there were none but themselves to consider. What they want, is, to have their eyes opened that they may see the rights of others as clearly as their own; and their reason cultivated, that they may have power to weigh the one against the other. This aggressiveness is not mere naughtiness. They must be met on their own ground. Care must be taken not to offend their exaggerated sense of justice as to all that affects themselves. They must get the immunities they can fairly claim; and their parents must be at the trouble to convince them, with good humour, when they are clearly in the wrong.
In the meantime, the state of feeling must be dealt with which would lead a boy to say, “I shan’t,” if he dared. He must be reached through his affections; the very feelings which make him offensive when centred upon himself, are beautiful and virtuous when they flow in the channels of justice and benevolence towards others. And this is a change not only possible, but easy and pleasant for parents to bring about. The feelings are there already; the strong sense of justice; and the love, which has become exaggerated self-love only because the attention has been allowed to fix upon self and its claims to the exclusion of others. It rests with the parent to turn the attention from self to other people, and the affections will flow in that direction to which the attention is turned.
For instance, let the young people feel that the happiness of home is a trust which every member of it has in charge; that the child who sits down to table with a sullen face destroys for the time the happiness of his whole family, just as a hand’s-breadth held close to the eyes will shut out the whole light of the sun. What is it that makes the happiness of
every-day—great treats, great successes, great delights? No, but constant friendly looks and tones in those about us, their interest and help in our pursuits, their service and pity when we are in difficulty and trouble. No home can be happy if a single member of it allow himself in ugly tempers and bad behaviour. By degrees, great sensitiveness to the moral atmosphere of the home will be acquired; the happiness of a single day will come to be regarded as a costly vase which any clumsy touch may overthrow. Now, the attention is taken off self and its claims, and fixed upon brother and sister, father and mother, servants and neighbours; so slight a thing as a friendly look can add to the happiness of every one of these.
Affection flows naturally towards those to whom we can give happiness. A boy who feels himself of little account in his family will give all his heart to his dog; he is necessary to Puck’s happiness, at any rate; and, as for the dog,—“I think it is wrong to let children have dogs. It spoils them for mankind,” said the late Lord Lytton. Let the boy have his dog but let him know to how many others even a pleasant word from him gives happiness for the moment. Benevolence, the delight in giving happiness, is a stream which swells as it flows. The boy who finds he really can make a difference to his home is on the look-out for chances. A hint as to what father or sister would like is not thrown away. Considerate obliging behaviour is no hardship to him when he is not “bothered” into it, but produces it of his own free will. Like begets like. The kindliness he shows is returned to him, and, by him, returned again, full measure, pressed down, and running over. He looks, not on his own things, but on the things of others.
His love of justice shows in the demand for “fair play” for others now; he will not hear others spoken ill of in their absence, will not assign unworthy motives, or accuse another easily of unworthy conduct; he is just to the conduct, the character, the reputation of others. He puts himself involuntarily in the place of the other, and judges as he would be judged.
“Teach me to feel another’s woe,
To hide the faults I see;
That mercy I to others show,
That mercy show to me,”
is his unformed, unconscious prayer.
His benevolence, again, his kindness, will reach, not only to the distresses of others, but will show itself in forbearance towards tiresome tempers, in magnanimity in the forgiveness of injuries. His habits of kind and friendly behaviour will, by degrees, develop into principles of action; until at last his character is established, and he comes to be known as a just and virtuous man. Towards this great result the parents can do little more than keep the channels open, and direct the streams; they draw the attention of their son to the needs and claims of others, and point out to him from time to time the ways in which he holds the happiness of others in his hands. It is needless to say how a selfish or worldly maxim throws in—“Take care of yourself,” “Look after your own interests,” “Give tit for tat,”—may obstruct the channel or choke the spring. Does, then, the whole of moral training resolve itself into the culture of the affections? Even so; it is no new thing to us to learn that—
“As every rainbow hue is light,
So every grace is love.”