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   Chapter 6 ON TEMPER.

Practical Education, Volume I By Maria Edgeworth Characters: 29774

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


We have already, in speaking of the early care of infants, suggested that the temper should be attended to from the moment of their birth. A negligent, a careless, a passionate servant, must necessarily injure the temper of a child. The first language of an infant is intelligible only to its nurse; she can distinguish between the cry of pain and the note of ill humour, or the roar of passion. The cry of pain should be listened to with the utmost care, and every possible means should be used to relieve the child's sufferings; but when it is obvious that he cries from ill humour, a nurse should not sooth him with looks of affection, these she should reserve for the moment when the storm is over. We do not mean that infants should be suffered to cry for a length of time without being regarded; this would give them habits of ill humour: we only wish that the nurse would, as soon as possible, teach the child that what he wants can be obtained without his putting himself in a passion. Great care should be taken to prevent occasions for ill humour; if a nurse neglects her charge, or if she be herself passionate, the child will suffer so much pain, and so many disappointments, that it must be in a continual state of fretfulness. An active, cheerful, good humoured, intelligent nurse, will make a child good humoured by a regular, affectionate attendance; by endeavouring to prevent all unnecessary sufferings, and by quickly comprehending its language of signs. The best humoured woman in the world, if she is stupid, is not fit to have the care of a child; the child will not be able to make her understand any thing less than vociferation. By way of amusing the infant, she will fatigue it with her caresses; without ever discovering the real cause of his wo, she will sing one universal lullaby upon all occasions to pacify her charge.

It requires some ingenuity to discover the cause and cure of those long and loud fits of crying, which frequently arise from imaginary apprehensions. A little boy of two years old, used to cry violently when he awoke in the middle of the night, and saw a candle in the room. It was observed that the shadow of the person who was moving about in the room frightened him, and as soon as the cause of his crying was found out, it was easy to pacify him; his fear of shadows was effectually cured, by playfully showing him, at different times, that shadows had no power to hurt him.

H--, about nine months old, when she first began to observe the hardness of bodies, let her hand fall upon a cat which had crept unperceived upon the table; she was surprised and terrified by the unexpected sensation of softness; she could not touch the cat, or any thing that felt like soft fur, without showing agitation, till she was near four years old, though every gentle means were used to conquer her antipathy; the antipathy was, however, cured at last, by her having a wooden cat covered with fur for a plaything.

A boy, between four and five years old, H--, used to cry bitterly when he was left alone in a room, in which there were some old family pictures. It was found that he was much afraid of these pictures: a maid, who took care of him, had terrified him with the notion that they would come to him, or that they were looking at him, and would be angry with him if he was not good. To cure the child of this fear of pictures, a small sized portrait, which was not amongst the number of those that had frightened him, was produced in broad day light. A piece of cake was put upon this picture, which the boy was desired to take; he took it, touched the picture, and was shown the canvas at the back of it, which, as it happened to be torn, he could easily identify with the painting: the picture was then given to him for a plaything; he made use of it as a table, and became very fond of it as soon as he was convinced that it was not alive, and that it could do him no sort of injury.

By patiently endeavouring to discover the causes of terror in children, we may probably prevent their tempers from acquiring many bad habits. It is scarcely possible for any one, who has not constantly lived with a child, and who has not known the whole rise and progress of his little character, to trace the causes of these strange apprehensions; for this reason, a parent has advantages in the education of his child, which no tutor or schoolmaster can have.

A little boy was observed to show signs of fear and dislike at hearing the sound of a drum: to a stranger, such fear must have seemed unaccountable, but those who lived with the child, knew from what it arose. He had been terrified by the sight of a merry-andrew in a mask, who had played upon a drum; this was the first time that he had ever heard the sound of a drum; the sound was associated with fear, and continued to raise apprehensions in the child's mind after he had forgotten the original cause of that apprehension.

We are well aware that we have laid ourselves open to ridicule, by the apparently trifling anecdotes which have just been mentioned; but if we can save one child from an hour's unnecessary misery, or one parent from an hour's anxiety, we shall bear the laugh, we hope, with good humour.

Young children, who have not a great number of ideas, perhaps for that reason associate those which they acquire with tenacity; they cannot reason concerning general causes; they expect that any event, which has once or twice followed another, will always follow in the same order; they do not distinguish between proximate and remote causes, between coincidences and the regular connection of cause and effect: hence children are subject to feel hopes and fears from things which to us appear matters of indifference. Suppose, for instance, that a child is very eager to go out to walk, that his mother puts on her gloves and her cloak; these being the usual signals that she is going out, he instantly expects, if he has been accustomed to accompany her, that he shall have the pleasure of walking out; but if she goes out, and forgets him, he is not only disappointed at that moment, but the disappointment, or, at least, some indistinct apprehension, recurs to him when he is in a similar situation: the putting on of his mother's cloak and gloves, are then circumstances of vast importance to him, and create anxiety, perhaps tears, whilst to every other spectator they are matters of total indifference. Every one, who has had any experience in the education of such children as are apt to form strong associations, must be aware, that many of those fits of crying, which appear to arise solely from ill-humour, are occasioned by association. When these are suffered to become habitual, they are extremely difficult to conquer; it is, therefore, best to conquer them as soon as possible. If a child has, by any accident, been disposed to cry at particular times in the day, without any obvious cause, we should at those hours engage his attention, occupy him, change the room he is in, or by any new circumstance break his habits. It will require some penetration to distinguish between involuntary tears, and tears of caprice; but even when children are really cross, it is not, whilst they are very young, prudent to let them wear out their ill-humour, as some people do, in total neglect. Children, when they are left to weep in solitude, often continue in wo for a considerable length of time, until they quite forget the original cause of complaint, and they continue their convulsive sobs, and whining note of distress, purely from inability to stop themselves.

Thus habits of ill-humour are contracted; it is better, by a little well-timed excitation, to turn the course of a child's thoughts, and to make him forget his trivial miseries. "The tear forgot as soon as shed," is far better than the peevish whine, or sullen lowering brow, which proclaim the unconquered spirit of discontent.

Perhaps, from the anxiety which we have expressed to prevent the petty misfortunes, and unnecessary tears of children, it may be supposed that we are disposed to humour them; far from it-We know too well that a humoured child is one of the most unhappy beings in the world; a burden to himself, and to his friends; capricious, tyrannical, passionate, peevish, sullen, and selfish.

An only child runs a dreadful chance of being spoiled. He is born a person of consequence; he soon discovers his innate merit; every eye is turned upon him the moment he enters the room; his looks, his dress, his appetite, are all matters of daily concern to a whole family; his wishes are divined; his wants are prevented; his witty sayings are repeated in his presence; his smiles are courted; his caresses excite jealousy, and he soon learns how to avail himself of his central situation. His father and mother make him alternately their idol, and their plaything; they do not think of educating, they only think of admiring him; they imagine that he is unlike all other children in the universe, and that his genius and his temper are independent of all cultivation. But when this little paragon of perfection has two or three brothers and sisters, the scene changes; the man of consequence dwindles into an insignificant little boy. We shall hereafter explain more fully the danger of accustoming children to a large share of our sympathy; we hope that the economy of kindness and caresses which we have recommended,[39] will be found to increase domestic affection, and to be essentially serviceable to the temper. In a future chapter, "On Vanity, Pride, and Ambition," some remarks will be found on the use and abuse of the stimuli of praise, emulation, and ambition. The precautions which we have already mentioned with respect to servants, and the methods that have been suggested for inducing habitual and rational obedience, will also, we hope, be considered as serviceable to the temper, as well as to the understanding. Perpetual and contradictory commands and prohibitions, not only make children disobedient, but fretful, peevish, and passionate.

Idleness, amongst children, as amongst men, is the root of all evil, and leads to no evil more certainly than to ill temper. It is said,[40] that the late king of Spain was always so cross during Passion week, when he was obliged to abstain from his favourite amusement of hunting, that none of his courtiers liked to approach his majesty. There is a great similarity between the condition of a prince flattered by his courtiers, and a child humoured by his family; and we may observe, that both the child and prince are most intolerable to their dependants and friends, when any of their daily amusements are interrupted. It is not that the amusements are in themselves delightful, but the pains and penalties of idleness are insupportable. We have endeavoured to provide a variety of occupations, as well as of amusements, for our young pupils,[41] that they may never know the misery of the Spanish monarch. When children are occupied, they are independent of other people, they are not obliged to watch for casual entertainment from those who happen to be unemployed, or who chance to be in a humour to play with them; they have some agreeable object continually in view, and they feel satisfied with themselves. They will not torment every body in the house with incessant requests. "May I have this? Will you give me that? May I go out to see such a thing? When will it be dinner time? When will it be tea time? When will it be time for me to go to supper?" are the impatient questions of a child who is fretful from having nothing to do. Idle children are eternal petitioners, and the refusals they meet with, perpetually irritate their temper. With respect to requests in general, we should either grant immediately what a child desires, or we should give a decided refusal. The state of suspense is not easily borne; the propriety or impropriety of the request should decide us either to grant, or to refuse it; and we should not set the example of caprice, or teach our pupils the arts of courtiers, who watch the humour of tyrants. If we happen to be busy, and a child comes with an eager request about some trifle, it is easy so far to command our temper as to answer, "I am busy, don't talk to me now," instead of driving the petitioner away with harsh looks, and a peremptory refusal, which make as great an impression as harsh words. If we are reasonable, the child will soon learn to apply to us at proper times. By the same steady, gentle conduct, we may teach him to manage his love of talking with discretion, and may prevent those ineffectual exhortations to silence, which irritate the temper of the vivacious pupil. Expostulations, and angry exclamations, will not so effectually command from our pupils temperance of tongue, as their own conviction that they are more likely to gain attention from their friends, if they choose properly their seasons for conversation.

To prevent, we cannot too often repeat it, is better than to punish, without humouring children; that is to say, without yielding to their caprices, or to their will, when they express their wishes with impatience, we may prevent many of those little inconveniences which tease and provoke the temper; any continual irritation exhausts our patience; acute pain can be endured with more fortitude.

We have sometimes seen children become fretful from the constant teasing effect of some slight inconveniences in their dress; we have pitied poor little boys, who were continually exhorted to produce their handkerchiefs, and who could scarcely ever get these handkerchiefs out of the tight pockets into which they had been stuffed; into such pockets the hand can never enter, or withdraw itself, without as much difficulty as Trenck had in getting rid of his handcuffs. The torture of tight shoes, of back-boards, collars, and stocks, we hope is nearly abandoned; surely all these are unnecessary trials of fortitude; they exhaust that patience which might be exercised upon things of consequence. Count Rumford tells us, that he observed a striking melioration in the temper of all the mendicants in the establishment at Munich, when they were relieved from the constant torments of rags and vermin.

Some people imagine, that early sufferings, that a number of small inconveniences, habitual severity of reproof, and frequent contradiction and disappointment, inure children to pain, and consequently improve their temper. Early sufferings, which are necessary and inevitable, may improve children in fortitude; but the contradictions and disappointments, which arise immediately from the will of others, have not the same effect. Children, where their own interests are concerned, soon distinguish between these two classes of evils; they submit patiently when they know that it would be in vain t

o struggle; they murmur and rebel, if they dare, whenever they feel the hand of power press upon them capriciously. We should not invent trials of temper for our pupils; if they can bear with good humour the common course of events, we should be satisfied.

"I tumbled down, and I bored it very well," said a little boy of three years old, with a look of great satisfaction. If this little boy had been thrown down on purpose by his parents as a trial of temper, it probably would not have been borne so well. As to inconveniences, in general it is rather a sign of indolence, than a proof of good temper in children, to submit to them quietly; if they can be remedied by exertion, why should they be passively endured? If they cannot be remedied, undoubtedly it is then better to abstract the attention from them as much as possible, because this is the only method of lessening the pain. Children should be assisted in making this distinction, by our applauding their exertions when they struggle against unnecessary evil, by our commending their patience whenever they endure inevitable pain without complaints.

Illness, for instance, is an inevitable evil. To prevent children from becoming peevish, when they are ill, we should give our pity and sympathy with an increased appearance of affection, whenever they bear their illness with patience. No artifice is necessary; we need not affect any increase of pity; patience and good humour in the sufferer, naturally excite the affection and esteem of the spectators. The self-complacency, which the young patient must feel from a sense of his own fortitude, and the perception that he commands the willing hearts of all who attend him, are really alleviations of his bodily sufferings; the only alleviations which, in some cases, can possibly be afforded.

The attention which is thought necessary in learning languages, often becomes extremely painful to the pupils, and the temper is often hurt by ineffectual attempts to improve the understanding. We have endeavoured to explain the methods of managing[42] the attention of children with the least possible degree of pain. Yesterday a little boy of three years old, W--, was learning his alphabet from his father; after he had looked at one letter for some time with great attention, he raised his eyes, and with a look of much good humour, said to his father, "It makes me tired to stand." His father seated him upon his knee, and told him that he did wisely in telling what tired him: the child, the moment he was seated, fixed his attentive eyes again upon his letters with fresh eagerness, and succeeded. Surely it was not humouring this boy to let him sit down when he was tired. If we teach a child that our assistance is to be purchased by fretful entreaties; if we show him, that we are afraid of a storm, he will make use of our apprehensions to accomplish his purposes. On the contrary, if he perceives that we can steadily resist his tears and ill humour, and especially if we show indifference upon the occasion, he will perceive that he had better dry his tears, suspend his rage, and try how far good humour will prevail. Children, who in every little difficulty are assisted by others, really believe that others are in fault whenever this assistance is not immediately offered. Look at a humoured child, for instance, trying to push a chair along the carpet; if a wrinkle in the carpet stops his progress, he either beats the chair, or instantly turns with an angry appealing look to his mother for assistance; and if she does not get up to help him, he will cry. Another boy, who has not been humoured, will neither beat the chair, nor angrily look round for help; but he will look immediately to see what it is that stops the chair, and when he sees the wrinkle in the carpet, he will either level or surmount the obstacle: during this whole operation, he will not feel in the least inclined to cry. Both these children might have had precisely the same original stock of patience; but by different management, the one would become passionate and peevish, the other both good humoured and persevering. The pleasure of success pays children, as well as men, for long toil and labour. Success is the proper reward of perseverance; but if we sometimes capriciously grant, and sometimes refuse, our help, our pupils cannot learn this important truth, and they imagine that success depends upon the will of others, and not upon their own efforts. A child, educated by a fairy, who sometimes came with magic aid to perform, and who was sometimes deaf to her call, would necessarily become ill humoured.

Several children, who were reading "Evenings at Home," observed that in the story of Juliet and the fairy Order, "it was wrong to make the fairy come whenever Juliet cried, and could not do her task, because that was the way, said the children, to make the little girl ill humoured."

We have formerly observed that children, who live much with companions of their own age, are under but little habitual restraint as to their tempers; they quarrel, fight, and shake hands; they have long and loud altercations, in which the strongest voice often gets the better. It does not improve the temper to be overborne by petulance and clamour: even mild, sensible children, will learn to be positive if they converse with violent dunces. In private families, where children mix in the society of persons of different ages, who encourage them to converse without reserve, they may meet with exact justice; they may see that their respective talents and good qualities are appreciated; they may acquire the habit of arguing without disputing; and they may learn that species of mutual forbearance in trifles, as well as in matters of consequence, which tends so much to domestic happiness. Dr. Franklin, in one of his letters to a young female friend, after answering some questions which she had asked him, apparently referring to an argument which had passed some time before, concludes with this comprehensive compliment: "So, you see, I think you had the best of the argument; and, as you give it up in complaisance to the company, I think you had also the best of the dispute." When young people perceive that they gain credit by keeping their temper in conversation, they will not be furious for victory, because moderation, during the time of battle, can alone entitle them to the honours of a triumph.

It is particularly necessary for girls to acquire command of temper in arguing, because much of the effect of their powers of reasoning, and of their wit, when they grow up, will depend upon the gentleness and good humour with which they conduct themselves. A woman, who should attempt to thunder like Demosthenes, would not find her eloquence increase her domestic happiness. We by no means wish that women should yield their better judgment to their fathers or husbands; but, without using any of that debasing cunning which Rousseau recommends, they may support the cause of reason with all the graces of female gentleness.

A man, in a furious passion, is terrible to his enemies; but a woman in a passion, is disgusting to her friends; she loses the respect due to her sex, and she has not masculine strength and courage to enforce any other species of respect. These circumstances should be considered by writers who advise that no difference should be made in the education of the two sexes. We cannot help thinking that their happiness is of more consequence than their speculative rights, and we wish to educate women so that they may be happy in the situations in which they are most likely to be placed. So much depends upon the temper of women, that it ought to be most carefully cultivated in early life; girls should be more inured to restraint than boys, because they are likely to meet with more restraint in society. Girls should learn the habit of bearing slight reproofs, without thinking them matters of great consequence; but then they should always be permitted to state their arguments, and they should perceive that justice is shown to them, and that they increase the affection and esteem of their friends by command of temper. Many passionate men are extremely good natured, and make amends for their extravagances by their candour, and their eagerness to please those whom they have injured during their fits of anger. It is said, that the servants of Dean Swift used to throw themselves in his way whenever he was in a passion, because they knew that his generosity would recompense them for standing the full fire of his anger. A woman, who permitted herself to treat her servants with ill humour, and who believed that she could pay them for ill usage, would make a very bad mistress of a family; her husband and her children would suffer from her ill temper, without being recompensed for their misery. We should not let girls imagine that they can balance ill humour by some good quality or accomplishment; because, in fact, there are none which can supply the want of temper in the female sex.

A just idea of the nature of dignity, opposed to what is commonly called spirit, should be given early to our female pupils. Many women, who are not disposed to violence of temper, affect a certain degree of petulance, and a certain stubbornness of opinion, merely because they imagine that to be gentle, is to be mean; and that to listen to reason, is to be deficient in spirit.

Enlarging the understanding of young women, will prevent them from the trifling vexations which irritate those who have none but trifling objects. We have observed that concerted trials of temper are not advantageous for very young children. Those trials which are sometimes prepared for pupils at a more advanced period of education, are not always more happy in their consequences. We make trifles appear important; and then we are surprised that they are thought so.

Lord Kames tells us that he was acquainted with a gentleman, who, though otherwise a man of good understanding, did not show his good sense in the education of his daughters temper. "He had," says Lord Kames, "three comely daughters, between twelve and sixteen, and to inure them to bear disappointments, he would propose to make a visit which he knew would delight them. The coach was bespoke, and the young ladies, completely armed for conquest, were ready to take their seats. But, behold! their father had changed his mind. This, indeed, was a disappointment; but as it appeared to proceed from whim, or caprice, it might sour their temper, instead of improving it."[43]

But why should a visit be made a matter of such mighty consequence to girls? Why should it be a disappointment to stay at home? And why should Lord Kames advise that disappointments should be made to appear the effects of chance? This method of making things appear to be what they are not, we cannot too often reprobate; it will not have better success in the education of the temper, than in the management of the understanding; it would ruin the one or the other, or both: even when promises are made with perfect good faith to young people, the state of suspense which they create, is not serviceable to the temper, and it is extremely difficult to promise proper rewards.[44] The celebrated Serena surely established her reputation for good temper, without any very severe trials. Our standard of female excellence, is evidently changed since the days of Griselda; but we are inclined to think, that even in these degenerate days, public amusements would not fill the female imagination, if they were not early represented as such charming things, such great rewards to girls, by their imprudent friends.

The temper depends much upon the understanding; and whenever we give our pupils, whether male or female, false ideas of pleasure, we prepare for them innumerable causes of discontent. "You ought to be above such things! You ought not to let yourself be vexed by such trifles!" are common expressions, which do not immediately change the irritated person's feelings. You must alter the habits of thinking; you must change the view of the object, before you can alter the feelings. Suppose a girl has, from the conversation of all her acquaintance, learned to imagine that there is some vast pleasure in going to a masquerade; it is in vain to tell her, in the moment that she is disappointed about her masquerade dress, that "it is a trifle, and she ought to be above trifles." She cannot be above them at a moment's warning: but if she had never been inspired with a violent desire to go to a masquerade, the disappointment would really appear trifling. We may calculate the probability of any person's mortification, by observing the vehemence of their hopes; thus we are led to observe, that the imagination influences the temper. Upon this subject we shall speak more fully when we treat of Imagination and Judgment.

To measure the degree of indulgence which may be safe for any given pupils, we must attend to the effect produced by pleasure upon their imagination and temper. If a small diminution of their usual enjoyments disturbs them, they have been rendered not too happy, but too susceptible. Happy people, who have resources in their own power, do not feel every slight variation in external circumstances. We may safely allow children to be as happy as they possibly can be without sacrificing the future to the present. Such prosperity will not enervate their minds.

We make this assertion with some confidence, because experience has in many instances confirmed our opinion. Amongst a large family of children, who have never been tormented with artificial trials of temper, and who have been made as happy as it was in the power of their parents to make them, there is not one ill tempered child. We have examples every day before us of different ages from three years old to fifteen.

Before parents adopt either Epicurean or Stoical doctrines in the education of the temper, it may be prudent to calculate the probabilities of the good and evil, which their pupils are likely to meet with in life. The Sybarite, whose night's rest was disturbed by a doubled rose leaf, deserves to be pitied almost as much as the young man who, when he was benighted in the snow, was reproached by his severe father for having collected a heap of snow to make himself a pillow. Unless we could for ever ensure the bed of roses to our pupils, we should do very imprudently to make it early necessary to their repose: unless the pillow of snow is likely to be their lot, we need not inure them to it from their infancy.

[39] V. Chapter on Sympathy and Sensibility.

[40] By Mr. Townsend, in his Travels into Spain.

[41] V. Chapter on Toys.

[42] V. Chapter on Attention.

[43] Lord Kames, p. 109.

[44] V. Chapter on Rewards and Punishments.

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