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Suppose that a parent realizes that the ultimate purpose of education is to form good character. Suppose the parent understands that character is comprised of the child's inherited tendencies, still in their rough stages, but modified by the child's environment, and character can be debased or elevated by education. And this parent knows that his role is to spot the first signs of family traits. Positive traits are to be valued as the most excellent kind of family inheritance to be nourished and carefully tended. The parent also needs to encourage the child in activities he may not think he's interested in so that the child will be balanced. This is even more important if the child is eccentric. Eccentricity can be a pitfall of the original nature, which can be a powerful force. Even if the parent has accepted all of this as part of his parental role, there's still much more to be done.
We're all prone to what the French call 'defects of our qualities.' In the same way that bad weeds grow quickly, the defects of even an excellent character can choke out positive traits. For instance, a little girl may love with as much devotion and passion as a woman, but she's possessive and jealous of
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sharing anyone's affection, even when it's her mother. Perhaps a boy is ambitious. He likes to be the leader in the playroom and his leadership is healthy for his siblings except for his argumentative little brother who refuses to follow anyone's lead. The two of them are such odds that they can barely be in the same room together, and the older brother acts like a tyrant when anyone crosses him. A shy, affectionate little girl isn't above lying to protect her sister. A high-spirited little girl never lies, but sometimes she bullies others. And so on, without end. What is the parents' responsibility here? To make the most of the good quality by making the child feel like that quality is a virtue to guard--a family possession that's been inherited, and, at the same time, a gift from above. A bit of simple, reasonable teaching might help, but be careful of overdoing it with too much talking. 'Are you just about finished, mommy?' said one bright little five-year-old girl in the most polite way possible. She'd been listening a long time to her mother preaching at her, and she had her own things to do. A wise word here and there might be useful, but it's more effective to carefully hinder every quality's 'defect' before it ever gets started. Don't give the bad weeds any room to grow. Or, defects can sometimes be reclaimed and turned around to feed the quality they come from. For instance, the ambitious boy's love for power can be turned into a desire to win his restless brother by love. A loving girl's passion can be turned around to include everyone that her mother loves.
Heredity and the duties attached to it has another aspect. In the same way that a child with an admirable family tree may very well inherit the best of his ancestors, such as a well-proportioned body, clear intellect, or high moral sense, he also has some risks. As one person puts it, not all the women
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have been brave, nor have all the men been pure. We all know how the tendency to have certain diseases run in families. In the same way, temper, temperament, moral sense and physical nature can be carried down through the lineage with a taint. Some unfortunate children seem to have inherited all the negative traits and none of the good ones. What can parents do in a case like that? They can't reform him, that's beyond human skill and ability once a person has realized all that's within his nature. But they can transform him so that the person he was calculated to become never develops at all. Instead, another person comes to light who's blessed with only the virtues that originated from his defects. This brings up a useful law of Nature that underlies the whole subject of early child training, especially the case of a mother who finds that she needs to birth her child again into a life of beauty and harmony. The old words of Thomas a Kempis seem to me to be the fundamental law of education, and it's simply this: 'Habit is driven out by habit.' People have always known that constant use becomes second nature, but no one understood why, and how much it implicates, until recently.
Perhaps a child has a hateful habit that's so constant, it threatens to be his only quality and become his character if nothing is done. He's spiteful, sneaky, and sullen. No one is to blame for it; he was born that way. What can be done with such a chronic habit of nature? It can be treated as a bad habit and dealt with by developing the opposite good habit. Perhaps Henry is not just mischievous, he's a malicious little boy. Someone is always crying in the playroom because he's constantly pinching, biting and hitting, making
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some child miserable. Even his pets aren't safe. He's killed his canary by poking at it with a stick through the bars of his cage. Howls from his dog and screeches from his cat are evidence of more of his cruel tricks. He makes terrifying faces at his fearful little sister, and he sets traps with string for the gardener as he goes about his work with watering cans. There's no end to his mean-spirited pranks. They go beyond the usual mischievousness of untrained boyhood. His mother hears about his latest tricks and wonders what's to be done. An optimistic parent with blind faith in the changes of time says, 'Oh, he'll grow out of it.' Many experienced mothers will say, 'There's no cure for him. You can't change what he is. He'll be a nuisance to society all his life.' Yet this same child could be cured in a month if the mother would determine to stick to the task wholeheartedly with a will and all her effort. If he isn't cured by then, at least the cure will have begun, and that's half the battle.
Let the month during treatment be an enjoyable and happy month for the child. Let him live the whole time in the warmth of his mother's smile. Don't let him be alone long enough to think about or do mean-spirited pranks. Let him always feel like he's under a watchful, loving and approving eye. Keep him pleasantly occupied and always busy. The purpose of this is to break him of his old habit, and that will happen when a certain length of time has gone by without him repeating the habit. But a new habit needs to be established to take its place, since one habit drives out another one. Lay new thought patterns over the old ones. Provide him with opportunities to be kind. Every hour of every day, let him experience the joy of pleasing others. Get him started planning little schemes to please everyone else. Maybe he could make a toy, gather a dish of strawberries, make wall shadows to amuse the baby. Take him on errands to help poor neighbors, and let him give, carry and deliver something of
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his own. For an entire month, the child's whole heart will be overflowing with deeds and schemes and thoughts of kindness, and the clever mind that he previously used to think up mean-spirited pranks will become a valued treasure to his family when he uses it to do good. This all sounds like a great idea, but where is a mother supposed to find time in her busy schedule to give Henry a month of special treatment? She has other children and other duties. She can't just give herself up for a month, or even a week, for one child. But what if her little one was seriously sick, perhaps even at risk of death? Wouldn't she make the time somehow? She'd let all of her other duties go so that she could devote herself fully to her little boy, who would be her first priority.
This is a point that all parents don't recognize: serious mental and moral sicknesses require urgent, deliberate healing treatment. The parents need to devote themselves wholly to the child's cure temporarily, just like they would if their child was hospitalized. Neither punishment nor neglect, which are the two most popular treatments, ever cured a child of any moral fault. If parents recognized the powerful and immediate effect that treatment could have, they would never allow ugly weeds to sprout in their child's character. Remember that, no matter what ugly fault spoil the child's beauty, he's simply a garden that's been allowed to grow weeds. The more weeds there are, the more fertile the soil is. Even a child who has lots of weeds has every opportunity to develop a life of beauty and character. Get rid of the weeds and nurture and tend the flowers. It's not inaccurate to say that most of the failures in life or character that people make are directly caused by the casual, optimistic philosophy of their parents who believed that 'she's so young; she doesn't know any better. She'll grow out of it once she matures.' But, like a weed, a fault left to itself will only grow bigger and stronger.
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Someone may object to my advice for a short, determined round of treatment. They'll say that the good results won't last. After a week or two of neglect, everything that was gained will be lost. Henry will be just as likely as ever to grow up as cruel and fierce as a tiger, like a Steerforth [from David Copperfield] or Henleigh Grandcourt [from Daniel Deronda]. But, fortunately, scientific evidence is on our side.
One of the most interesting issues right now is the interaction between the thoughts of the mind, and the physical configuration of the brain. At this point, it appears that each is very much caused by the other. The kind of thoughts that are persistently thought actually have the power to shape the brain tissue, and the configuration of the brain depends on the kind of thoughts we think.
For the most part, thought is automatic. Without intending to or trying to, we tend to think in the way we've gotten used to thinking, in the same way that we walk or write without consciously arranging and directing our muscles. Mozart could compose an overture, laughing the whole time at the little jokes his wife made to keep him awake. Of course, he had thought out the whole piece in his head beforehand, and he just needed to write it all down. But he didn't consciously try to create these musical thoughts, they just came to him in their correct order. Coleridge thought up 'Kubla Khan' in his sleep, and wrote it all down when he woke up. When you consider the rest of his thoughts, maybe he would have been better off if he'd done most of his thinking while he was asleep!
That's not only possible, but very likely. For every one thing that we deliberately make ourselves think about, there are a thousand
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words and actions that come to us on their own. We don't actually think of them at all. But just as it takes a poet or musician to create poetry or music, the words and actions that come from us without our consciously trying to create them, are what define the true measure of what we are. Maybe this is why so much emphasis is put upon every 'idle word' that we speak--words spoken without intention or conscious will.
Little by little, we're getting around to Henry and his bad habits. Somehow or other, the gray tissue of our brain grows to accommodate the thoughts that we allow to have unlimited access to our mind. Science hasn't even speculated on how that happens yet. To illustrate, let's imagine that certain thoughts in the mind run back and forth along the nerves of the brain tissue until they've worn a path there. Busy traffic of the same kind of thoughts will continue to travel that way because the path is well-marked and broken in to make it easy for them. Imagine that a child has inherited a tendency to have a resentful temperament. He's begun to have resentful thoughts. They're easy for him to dwell on, and he finds it satisfying to nurse them, so he continues. Before long, more of these ugly thoughts travel into his mind easily and naturally. Resentfulness is starting to become a part of who he is, the defining characteristic that people know him by.
But one habit overcomes and replaces another one. A watchful mother sets up new paths in other areas. She makes sure that, while she's leading new thoughts in through a new route, the old, well-worn path of the old way of thinking is abandoned and unused. Brain tissue is in a constant state of rapid waste and rapid growth. New growth takes on the shape of the new thoughts, and the old thoughts are lost in the steady wasting of the old tissue. Before long, the child is literally reformed, not just morally and mentally, but physically, too. The fact that
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the gray tissue of the brain acts like an instrument of the mind shouldn't surprise us when we consider how the muscles and joints of a gymnast, the vocal organs of a singer, the fingertips of a watchmaker, or the tongue of a tea-taster develop to accommodate what they always do. It's especially true that the brain and all other organs develop to accommodate the earliest things they've had to do.
This is perfectly suited for the parent who wants to cure his child's moral fault. All he needs to do is to set up the course of new thoughts, and hinder the old thoughts, until the new thoughts become automatic and run on their own. Meanwhile, the paths where the old thoughts used to travel are disintegrating as the brain replaces tissue. And here is the parent's advantage. If the child returns to his old thought patterns, which he may do, if it's a tendency he inherited from birth, then he finds that there's no longer any place for them in his brain. It takes some time and effort to create new paths for them, and it's not difficult for his parents to hinder his efforts.
It's truer here than anywhere else that, 'unless the Lord builds a house, those who build it work in vain.' But that doesn't mean that our intelligent cooperation isn't our obligated duty. Training the will, educating the conscience, and, as much as it's within our power, developing the child's divine life, all happen at the same time while we're training the child to have the habits that will allow him to live a good life. Good habits and divine life will carry the child safely past his early years when his will isn't strong and his conscience isn't trained, until he's able to take the reins of his own life conduct and character-molding, under God's direction.
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It's comforting to believe that even our educational efforts leave a physical record in the child's brain tissue. But it also makes us aware of the danger of leaving bad habits alone in the hope that they'll be outgrown in time.
Some parents might think that all of this is too serious to think about. Even 'thinking on these things' is enough to take the joy and spontaneity out of the sweet relationship they have with their child. After all, isn't parental love and God's grace enough to bring up children? No one can be humbler about this subject than those who haven't had the honor of being parents. The insight and love that all parents are blessed with, especially mothers, is a divine gift that fills onlookers with awe, even in many poor village families. But we have enough instances of tender, affectionate parents who have reared fools to recognize that it takes more than love. There are specific paths, not always the old ways, but new ones, that are revealed step by step as we go. The mother who determines to understand her role and task doesn't find her labor increased. Her load is actually infinitely lightened. Life isn't made more burdensome by thinking of these things because, once we understand them and own them, we'll act on them without even thinking about it as surely and naturally as a teacup falls when you let go of it. With a little bit of painstaking effort in the beginning, it will all become easy.