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   Chapter 7 ON OBEDIENCE.

Practical Education, Volume I By Maria Edgeworth Characters: 30509

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Obedience has been often called the virtue of childhood. How far it is entitled to the name of virtue, we need not at present stop to examine. Obedience is expected from children long before they can reason upon the justice of our commands; consequently it must be taught as a habit. By associating pleasure with those things which we first desire children to do, we should make them necessarily like to obey; on the contrary, if we begin by ordering them to do what is difficult and disagreeable to them, they must dislike obedience. The poet seems to understand this subject when he says,

"Or bid her wear your necklace rowed with pearl,

You'll find your Fanny an obedient girl."[45]

The taste for a necklace rowed with pearl, is not the first taste, even in girls, that we should wish to cultivate; but the poet's principle is good, notwithstanding. Bid your child do things that are agreeable to him, and you may be sure of his obedience. Bid a hungry boy eat apple pye; order a shivering urchin to warm himself at a good fire; desire him to go to bed when you see him yawn with fatigue, and by such seasonable commands you will soon form associations of pleasure in his mind, with the voice and tone of authority. This tone should never be threatening, or alarming; it should be gentle, but decided. Whenever it becomes necessary that a child should do what he feels disagreeable, it is better to make him submit at once to necessity, than to create any doubt and struggle in his mind, by leaving him a possibility of resistance. Suppose a little boy wishes to sit up later than the hour at which you think proper that he should go to bed; it is most prudent to take him to bed at the appointed time, without saying one word to him, either in the way of entreaty or command. If you entreat, you give the child an idea that he has it in his power to refuse you: if you command, and he does not instantly obey, you hazard your authority, and you teach him that he can successfully set his will in opposition to yours. The boy wishes to sit up; he sees no reason, in the moral fitness of things, why he should go to bed at one hour more than at another; all he perceives is, that such is your will. What does he gain by obeying you? Nothing: he loses the pleasure of sitting up half an hour longer. How can you then expect that he should, in consequence of these reasonings, give up his obvious immediate interest, and march off to bed heroically at the word of command? Let him not be put to the trial; when he has for some time been regularly taken to bed at a fixed hour, he will acquire the habit of thinking that he must go at that hour: association will make him expect it; and if his experience has been uniform, he will, without knowing why, think it necessary that he should do as he has been used to do. When the habit of obedience to customary necessity is thus formed, we may, without much risk, engraft upon it obedience to the voice of authority. For instance, when the boy hears the clock strike, the usual signal for his departure, you may, if you see that he is habitually ready to obey this signal, associate your commands with that to which he has already learned to pay attention. "Go; it is time that you should go to bed now," will only seem to the child a confirmation of the sentence already pronounced by the clock: by degrees, your commands, after they have been regularly repeated, when the child feels no hope of evading them, will, even in new circumstances, have from association the power of compelling obedience.

Whenever we desire a child to do any thing, we should be perfectly certain, not only that it is a thing which he is capable of doing, but also, that it is something we can, in case it comes to that ultimate argument, force him to do. You cannot oblige a child to stand up, if he has a mind to sit down; or to walk, if he does not choose to exert his muscles for that purpose: but you can absolutely prevent him from touching whatever you desire him not to meddle with, by your superior strength. It is best, then, to begin with prohibitions; with such prohibitions as you can, and will, steadily persevere to enforce: if you are not exact in requiring obedience, you will never obtain it either by persuasion or authority. As it will require a considerable portion of time and unremitting attention, to enforce the punctual observance of a variety of prohibitions, it will, for your own sake, be most prudent to issue as few edicts as possible, and to be sparing in the use of the imperative mood. It will, if you calculate the trouble you must take day after day to watch your pupil, cost you less to begin by arranging every circumstance in your power, so as to prevent the necessity of trusting to laws what ought to be guarded against by precaution. Do you, for instance, wish to prevent your son from breaking a beautiful china jar in your drawing room; instead of forbidding him to touch it, put it out of his reach.-Would you prevent your son from talking to servants; let your house, in the first place, be so arranged, that he shall never be obliged to pass through any rooms where he is likely to meet with servants; let all his wants be gratified without their interference; let him be able to get at his hat without asking the footman to reach it for him, from its inaccessible height.[46] The simple expedient of hanging the hat in a place where the boy can reach it, will save you the trouble of continually repeating, "Don't ask William, child, to reach your hat; can't you come and ask me?" Yes, the boy can come and ask you; but if you are busy, you will not like to go in quest of the hat; your reluctance will possibly appear in your countenance, and the child, who understands the language of looks better than that of words, will clearly comprehend, that you are displeased with him at the very instant that he is fulfilling the letter of the law.

A lady, who was fond of having her house well arranged, discovered, to the amazement of her acquaintance, the art of making all her servants keep every thing in its place. Even in the kitchen, from the most minute article to the most unwieldy, every thing was invariably to be found in its allotted station; the servants were thought miracles of obedience; but, in fact, they obeyed because it was the easiest thing they could possibly do. Order was made more convenient to them than disorder, and, with their utmost ingenuity to save themselves trouble, they could not invent places for every thing more appropriate than those which had been assigned by their mistress's legislative economy. In the same manner we may secure the orderly obedience of children, without exhausting their patience or our own. Rousseau advises, that children should be governed solely by the necessity of circumstances; but there are one and twenty excellent objections to this system; the first being, that it is impossible: of this Rousseau must have been sensible in the trials which he made as a preceptor. When he had the management of a refractory child, he found himself obliged to invent and arrange a whole drama, by artificial experience, to convince his little pupil, that he had better not walk out in the streets of Paris alone; and that, therefore, he should wait until his pupil could conveniently accompany him. Rousseau had prepared the neighbours on each side of the street to make proper speeches as his pupil passed by their doors, which alarmed and piqued the boy effectually. At length the child was met at a proper time, by a friend who had been appointed to watch him; and thus he was brought home submissive. This scene, as Rousseau observes, was admirably well performed;[47] but what occasion could there be for so much contrivance and deceit? If his pupil had not been uncommonly deficient in penetration, he would soon have discovered his preceptor in some of his artifices; then adieu both to obedience and confidence. A false idea of the pleasures of liberty misled Rousseau. Children have not our abstract ideas of the pleasures of liberty; they do not, until they have suffered from ill judged restraints, feel any strong desire to exercise what we call free will; liberty is, with them, the liberty of doing certain specific things which they have found to be agreeable; liberty is not the general idea of pleasure, in doing whatever they WILL to do. Rousseau desires, that we should not let our pupil know, that in doing our will he is obedient to us. But why? Why should we not let a child know the truth? If we attempt to conceal it, we shall only get into endless absurdities and difficulties. Lord Kames tells us, that he was acquainted with a couple, who, in the education of their family, pursued as much as possible Rousseau's plan. One evening, as the father was playing at chess with a friend, one of his children, a boy of about four years old, took a piece from the board, and ran away to play with it. The father, whose principles would not permit him to assert his right to his own chessman, began to bargain for his property with his son. "Harry," said he, "let us have back the man, and there's an apple for you." The apple was soon devoured, and the child returned to the chess board, and kidnapped another chessman. What this man's ransom might be, we are not yet informed; but Lord Kames tells us, that the father was obliged to suspend his game at chess until his son was led away to his supper. Does it seem just, that parents should become slaves to the liberties of their children? If one set of beings or another should sacrifice a portion of happiness, surely those who are the most useful, and the most capable of increasing the knowledge and the pleasures of life, have some claim to a preference; and when the power is entirely in their own hands, it is most probable that they will defend their own interests. We shall not, like many who have spoken of Rousseau, steal from him after having abused him. His remarks upon the absurd and tyrannical restraints which are continually imposed upon children by the folly of nurses and servants, or by the imprudent anxiety of parents and preceptors, are excellent. Whenever Rousseau is in the right, his eloquence is irresistible.

To determine what degree of obedience it is just to require from children, we must always consider what degree of reason they possess: whenever we can use reason, we should never use force; it is only whilst children are too young to comprehend reason,[48] that we should expect from them implicit submission. The means which have been pointed out for teaching the habit of obedience, must not be depended upon for teaching any thing more than the mere habit. When children begin to reason, they do not act merely from habit; they will not be obedient at this age, unless their understanding is convinced that it is for their advantage to be so. Wherever we can explain the reasons for any of our requests, we should attempt it; but whenever these cannot be fully explained, it is better not to give a partial explanation; it will be best to say steadily, "You cannot understand this now, you will, perhaps, understand it some time hence." Whenever we tell children, that we forbid them to do such and such things for any particular reason, we must take care that the reason assigned is adequate, and that it will in all cases hold good. For instance, if we forbid a boy to eat unripe fruit, because it will make him ill, and if afterwards the boy eat some unripe gooseberries without feeling ill in consequence of his disobedience, he will doubt the truth of the person who prohibited unripe fruit; he will rather trust his own partial experience than any assertions. The idea of hurting his health, is a general idea, which he does not yet comprehend. It is more prudent to keep him out of the way of unripe gooseberries, than to hazard at once his obedience and his integrity. We need not expatiate further; the instance we have given, may be readily applied to all cases in which children have it in their power to disobey with immediate impunity, and, what is still more dangerous, with the certainty of obtaining immediate pleasure. The gratification of their senses, and the desire of bodily exercise, ought never to be unnecessarily restrained. Our pupils should distinctly perceive, that we wish to make them happy, and every instance, in which they discover that obedience has really made them happier, will be more in our favour, than all the lectures we could preach. From the past, they will judge of the future. Children, who have for many years experienced, that their parents have exacted obedience only to such commands as proved to be ultimately wise and beneficial, will surely be disposed from habit, from gratitude, and yet more from prudence, to consult their parents in all the material actions of their lives.

We may observe, that the spirit of contradiction, which sometimes breaks out in young people the moment they are able to act for themselves, arises frequently from slight causes in their early education. Children, who have experienced, that submission to the will of others has constantly made them unhappy, will necessarily, by reasoning inversely, imagine, that felicity consists in following their own free will.

The French poet Boileau was made very unhappy by neglect and restraint during his education: when he grew up, he would never agree with those who talked to him of the pleasures of childhood.[49] "Peut on," disoit ce po?te amoureux de l'indépendence, "ne pas regarder comme un grand malheur, le chagrin continuel et particulier à cet age, de ne jamais faire sa volonté?" It was in vain, continues his biographer, to boast to him of the advantages of this happy constraint, which saves youth from so many follies. "What signifies our knowing the value of our chains when we have shaken them off, if we feel nothing but their weight whilst we wear them?" the galled poet used to reply. Nor did Boileau enjoy his freedom, though he thought with such horror of his slavery. He declared, that if he had it in his choice, either to be born again upon the hard conditions of again going through his childhood, or not to exist, he would rather not exist: but he was not happy during any period of his existence; he quarrelled with all the seasons of life; "all seemed to him equally disagreeable; youth, manhood, and old age, are each subject, he observed, to impetuous passions, to care, and to infirmities." Hence we may conclude, that the severity of his education had not succeeded in teaching him to submit philosophically to necessity, or yet in giving him much enjoyment from that liberty which he so much coveted. Thus it too often happens, that an imaginary value is set upon the exercise of the free will by those who, during their childhood, have suffered under injudicious restrictions. Sometimes the love of free will is so uncontrollably excited, even during childhood, that it breaks out, unfortunately both for the pupils and the preceptors, in the formidable shape of obstinacy.

Of all the faults to which children are subject, there is none which is more difficult to cure, or more easy to prevent, than obstinacy. As it is early obser

ved by those who are engaged in education, it is sometimes supposed to be inherent in the temper; but, so far from being naturally obstinate, infants show those strong propensities to sympathy and imitation, which prepare them for an opposite character. The folly of the nurse, however, makes an intemperate use of these happy propensities. She perpetually torments the child to exert himself for her amusement; all his senses and all his muscles she commands. He must see, hear, talk, or be silent, move or be still, when she thinks proper; and often with the desire of amusing her charge, or of showing him off to the company, she disgusts him with voluntary exertion. Before young children have completely acquired the use of their limbs, they cannot perform feats of activity or of dexterity at a moment's warning. Their muscles do not instantaneously obey their will; the efforts they make are painful to themselves; the awkwardness of their attempts is painful to others; the delay of the body is often mistaken for the reluctance of the mind; and the impatient tutor pronounces the child to be obstinate, whilst all the time he may be doing his utmost to obey. Instead of growing angry with the helpless child, it would be surely more wise to assist his feeble and inexperienced efforts. If we press him to make unsuccessful attempts, we shall associate pain both with voluntary exertion and with obedience.

Little W-- (a boy of three years old) was one day asked by his father to jump. The boy stood stock still. Perhaps he did not know the meaning of the word jump. The father, instead of pressing him further, asked several other children who happened to be in the room to jump, and he jumped along with them: all this was done playfully. The little boy looked on silently for a short time, and seemed much pleased. "Papa jumps!" he exclaimed. His brother L-- lifted him up two or three times; and he then tried to jump, and succeeded: from sympathy he learned the command of the muscles which were necessary to his jumping, and to his obedience. If this boy had been importuned, or forced to exert himself, he might have been thus taught obstinacy, merely from the imprudent impatience of the spectators. The reluctance to stop when a child is once in motion, is often mistaken for obstinacy: when he is running, singing, laughing, or talking, if you suddenly command him to stop, he cannot instantly obey you. If we reflect upon our own minds, we may perceive that we cannot, without considerable effort, turn our thoughts suddenly from any subject on which we have been long intent. If we have been long in a carriage, the noise of the wheels sounds in our ear, and we seem to be yet going on after the carriage has stopped. We do not pretend to found any accurate reasoning upon analogy; but we may observe, the difficulty with which our minds are stopped or put in motion, resembles the vis-inerti? of the body.

W-- (three years old) had for some minutes vociferated two or three words of a song, until the noise could be no longer patiently endured; his father called to him, and desired that he would not make so much noise. W-- paused for a moment, but then went on singing the same words. His brother said, Hush! W-- paused for another second or two; but then went on with his roundelay. In his countenance there was not the slightest appearance of ill humour. One of his sisters put him upon a board which was lying on the floor, and which was a little unsteady; as he walked cautiously along this board, his attention was occupied, and he forgot his song.

This inability suddenly to desist from any occupation, may easily grow into obstinacy, because the pain of checking themselves will be great in children, and this pain will be associated with the commands of those who govern them; it is better to stop them by presenting new objects to their attention, than by the stimulus of a peremptory voice. Children should never be accused of obstinacy; the accusation cannot cure, but may superinduce the disease. If, unfortunately, they have been suffered to contract a disposition to this fault, it may be cured by a little patience and good temper. We have mentioned how example and sympathy may be advantageously used; praise and looks of affection, which naturally express our feeling when children do right, encourage the slightest efforts to obey; but we must carefully avoid showing any triumph in our victory over yielding stubbornness.

"Aye, I knew that you would do what we desired at last, you might as well have done it at first," is a common nursery-maid's speech, which is well calculated to pique the pride of a half-subdued penitent. When children are made ashamed of submission, they will become intrepid, probably unconquerable, rebels.

Neither rewards nor punishments will then avail; the pupil perceives, that both the wit and the strength of his master are set in competition with his: at the expense of a certain degree of pain, he has the power to resist as long as he thinks proper; and there is scarcely any degree of pain that a tutor dares to inflict, which an obstinate hero is not able to endure. With the spirit of a martyr, he sustains reproaches and torture. If, at length, the master changes his tone, and tries to soften and win the child to his purpose, his rewards are considered as bribes: if the boy really thinks that he is in the right to rebel, he must yield his sense of honour to the force of temptation when he obeys. If he has formed no such idea of honour, he perhaps considers the reward as the price of his submission; and, upon a future occasion, he will know how to raise that price by prolonging his show of resistance. Where the child has formed a false idea of honour, his obstinacy is only mistaken resolution; we should address ourselves to his understanding, and endeavour to convince him of his errour. Where the understanding is convinced, and the habit of opposition still continues, we should carefully avoid calling his false associations into action; we should not ask him to do any thing for which he has acquired an habitual aversion; we should alter our manner of speaking to him, that neither the tones of our voice, the words, or the looks, which have been his customary signals for resistance, may recall the same feelings to his mind: placed in new circumstances, he may acquire new habits, and his old associates will in time be forgotten. Sufficient time must, however, be allowed; we may judge when it is prudent to try him on any old dangerous subjects, by many symptoms: by observing the degree of alacrity with which he obeys on indifferent occasions; by observing what degree of command he has acquired over himself in general; by observing in what manner he judges of the conduct and temper of other children in similar circumstances; by observing whether the consciousness of his former self continues in full force. Children often completely forget what they have been.

Where obstinacy arises from principle, if we may use the expression, it cannot be cured by the same means which are taken to cure that species of the disease which depends merely upon habit. The same courage and fortitude which in one case we reprobate, and try to conquer with all our might, in the other we admire and extol. This should be pointed out to children; and if they act from a love of glory, as soon as they perceive it, they will follow that course which will secure to them the prize.

Charles XII. whom the Turks, when incensed by his disobedience to the grand seignior, called Demirbash, or head of iron, showed early symptoms of this headstrong nature; yet in his childhood, if his preceptor[50] named but glory, any thing could be obtained from Charles. Charles had a great aversion to learning Latin; but when he was told that the kings of Poland and Denmark understood it, he began to study it in good earnest. We do not mean to infer, that emulation with the kings of Poland and Denmark, was the best possible motive which Charles the Twelfth's preceptor could have used, to make the young prince conquer his aversion to Latin; but we would point out, that where the love of glory is connected with obstinate temper, the passion is more than a match for the temper. Let us but enlighten this love of glory, and we produce magnanimity in the place of obstinacy. Examples, in conversation and in books, of great characters, who have not been ashamed to change their opinions, and to acknowledge that they have been mistaken, will probably make a great impression upon young people; they will from these learn to admire candour, and will be taught, that it is mean to persist in the wrong. Examples from books must, however, be also uniformly supported by examples in real life; preceptors and parents must practise the virtues which they preach. It is said, that the amiable Fenelon acquired the most permanent influence over his pupil, by the candour with which he always treated him. Fenelon did not think that he could lessen his dignity by confessing himself to be in the wrong.

Young people who have quick abilities, and who happen to live with those who are inferiour to them either in knowledge or incapacity, are apt to become positive and self-willed; they measure all the world by the individuals with whom they have measured themselves; and, as they have been convinced that they have been in the right in many cases, they take it for granted that their judgment must be always infallible. This disease may be easily cured; it is only necessary to place the patient amongst his superiors in intellect, his own experience will work his cure: he liked to follow his will, because his judgment had taught him that he might trust more securely to the tact of his own understanding, than to the decision of others. As soon as he discovers more sense in the arguments of his companions, he will listen to them, and if he finds their reason superior to his own, he will submit. A preceptor, who wishes to gain ascendency over a clever positive boy, must reason with all possible precision, and must always show that he is willing to be decided by the strongest arguments which can be produced. If he ever prophesies, he sets his judgment at stake; therefore he should not prophesy about matters of chance, but rather in affairs where he can calculate with certainty. If his prophecies are frequently accomplished, his pupil's confidence in him will rapidly increase; and if he desires that confidence to be permanent, he will not affect mystery, but he will honestly explain the circumstances by which he formed his opinions. Young people who are accustomed to hear and to give reasons for their opinions, will not be violent and positive in assertions; they will not think that the truth of any assertion can be manifested by repeating over the same words a thousand times; they will not ask how many people are of this or that opinion, but rather what arguments are produced on each side. There is very little danger that any people, whether young or old, should continue to be positive, who are in the habit of exercising their reasoning faculty.

It has been often observed that extremely good humoured, complaisant children, when they grow up, become ill tempered; and young men who are generally liked in society as pleasant companions, become surly, tyrannical masters in their own families, positive about mere trifles, and anxious to subjugate the wills of all who are any wise dependent upon them. This character has been nicely touched by de Boissy, in his comedy called "Dehors trompeurs."

We must observe, that whilst young people are in company, and under the immediate influence of the excitements of novelty, numbers and dissipation, it is scarcely possible to form a just estimate of the goodness of their temper. Young men who are the most ready to yield their inclinations to the humour of their companions, are not therefore to be considered as of really compliant dispositions; the idle or indolent, who have no resources in their own minds, and no independent occupations, are victims to the yawning demon of ennui the moment they are left in solitude. They consequently dread so heartily to be left alone, that they readily give up a portion of their liberty to purchase the pleasures and mental support which society affords. When they give up their wishes, and follow the lead of the company, they in fact give up but very little; their object is amusement; and this obtained, their time is sacrificed without regret. On the contrary, those who are engaged in literary or professional pursuits, set a great value upon their time, and feel considerable reluctance to part with it without some adequate compensation; they must consequently be less complaisant companions, and by the generality of superficial observers, would be thought, perhaps, less complying in their tempers, than the idle and dissipated. But when the idle man has past the common season for dissipation, and is settled in domestic life, his spirits flag from the want of his usual excitements; and, as he has no amusements in his own family, to purchase by the polite sacrifice of his opinion or his will, he is not inclined to complaisance. The pleasures of exercising his free will, becomes important in his eyes; he has few pleasures, and of those few he is tenacious. He has been accustomed to submit to others in society; he is proud to be master at home; he has few emotions, and the emotion caused by the exertion of command, becomes agreeable and necessary to him. Thus many of the same causes which make a young man a pleasant companion abroad, tend naturally to make him a tyrant at home. This perversity and positiveness of temper, ultimately arise from the want of occupation, and from deficient energy of mind. We may guard against these evils by education: when we see a playful, active child, we have little fear of his temper. "Oh, he will certainly be good tempered, he is the most obedient, complying creature in the world, he'll do any thing you ask him." But let us cultivate his understanding, and give him tastes which shall occupy and interest him agreeably through life, or else this sweet, complying temper will not last till he is thirty.

An ill cured obstinacy of temper, when it breaks out after young people have arrived at years of discretion, is terrible. Those who attempt to conquer obstinacy in children by bodily pain, or by severe punishments of any kind, often appear to succeed, and to have entirely eradicated, when they have merely suppressed, the disease for a time. As soon as the child that is intimidated by force or fear, is relieved from restraint, he will resume his former habits; he may change the mode of showing it, but the disposition will continue the same. It will appear in various parts of the conduct, as the limbs of the giant appeared unexpectedly at different periods, and in different parts of the Castle of Otranto.

[45] Elegy on an old Beauty. Parnell.

[46] Rousseau.

[47] Emilius, vol. i. page 23.

[48] Vol. i. page 59.

[49] Histoire des Membres de l'Académie, par M. d'Alembert. Tome troisieme, p. 24.

[50] Voltaire's Hist. Charles XII. page 13.

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