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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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The Influence of Elder Brothers.

By Major Seton Churchill.
Volume 1, 1890/91, pg. 497


During the late Egyptian war Lord Wolseley decided to break the enemy's line of communication between Cairo and Alexandria, at a place called Tel-el-Kebir. But the enemy had entrenched themselves strongly, and so a direct assault in open day would have resulted in a frightful loss to the attacking party. He decided, therefore, to strike a quick, sharp blow in the early hours of the morning. But a night-march to reach the spot was no easy task, and whoever led the army would have to do so by aid of the stars. As naval officers have much experience in navigating ships by this means, it was decided to appoint one of them to lead the troops. Unfortunately, in the action that took place this officer was mortally wounded. When Lord Wolseley was informed of it he went to his side, took his hand, and attempted to express regret at his sad fate. The young fellow looked up and said: "Oh, General, did I not lead them straight." The dying moments of that young officer were comforted by the thought that he had done his duty in leading straight those who were, in a way, committed to his charge. This illustration is capable of wide application, as has been shown by the frequency with which it has been used, but perhaps it could not be better utilised than in the application of it to the influence that elder brothers have in leading their younger brothers straight, or otherwise, in the battle of life. Perhaps parents and others who have to do with the training of large families do not sufficiently realise what an enormous influence for good or for evil elder brothers have on the future destinies of the younger members of the family. The ministry of elder brothers is a very sacred office, for on its exercise depend very great results. An old man, now holding a very high position in our national Church, once remarked to me, in speaking of his eldest brother, who has tor many years been dead, "I cannot tell you what I owe to him. Had it not been for him I might have been something very different." In this case the elder led the younger straight; but how often, alas, the results are the other way, and the elder has, through force of example, led the younger into the crooked paths of sin and temptation. Whether, however, the influence is for good or for evil, we must recognise training and education of every large family is the influence of the eldest son, who, often unconsciously, usurps an authority that the parents themselves do not possess. Influence is a very difficult thing to define accurately, but on the whole, Mr. R. D. Blackmore, in "Lorna Doone," does not hit it off badly when he says, "It means for the most part making people do one's will without knowing it." Parents know that they can command obedience from their children, and sometimes, as a last resource, they have to fall back on parental authority. But what they find difficult is to influence their little ones to do as they wish them to do without the exercise of authority. The exercise of influence is a very intricate subject, as it is dependent on so many conditions. Some people seem born to influence others, while some have very little power in getting their fellow-creatures to do as they wish, and as for some, they have but to attempt to exert an influence and they are almost certain to make those whom they seek to influence do exactly what they do not wish.

One of the conditions of being able to influence others is, that there must be a certain bond of union at the outset between the person who exercises the power and the person who is influenced. Extreme Conservatives would not be likely to influence extreme Radicals, as there is no bond of union. Each political party is, however, open to influence by those who have sympathy with them. Parents are so far removed from their children in age and education on that their influence on them is to a very great extent limited. This is, however, not the case with the eldest son; he is one of themselves among the children, but at the same time he possesses immense advantages as a rule over his younger brothers, in such things as as physical strength, superior knowledge, skill at games, &c. All these things, trifling as they may seem to the parents, and inferior as his merits may appear to older people, give him an immense superiority over those who are, from force of circumstances, inferior to him in every respect. The one-eyed man is a king among blind men, and the "big brother" acquires by right of birth a similar regal position. The little chap feels quite safe when the big brother is near at hand to fight his battles, or to guard him from injury, though the "big brother," in the eyes of his parents, may be little enough able to fight his own battles, let alone those of others.

In the training of children there is no use our setting ourselves up to oppose the laws of nature. It is far easier and wiser to recognise facts, and to endeavour to work in accordance with them. If nature has endowed elder brothers with an influence over the younger members of a family, the sooner we recognise the fact the better, for the sooner shall we be able to set to work to endeavour to enlist that influence on the side of law and order. The medium that may become a source of mischief in a household may, by judicious management, be made a means by which parents can act on their other children. A mother once told me that one of her servants, on entering the schoolroom, heard a little chap say to his big brother: "Tom, mother says that the world is round. Is that true?" Before the little fellow was prepared to accept such an extra-ordinary statement, so contrary to our superficial observation, which makes it look so flat, he wants to know whether or not his big brother is prepared to corroborate the statement.

The lesson, of course, that we should learn from such an illustration, is the importance of taking great pains to ascertain that the eldest son thoroughly understands what he is taught. It is not that we should neglect the training of the younger ones for the sake of the elder one; but that, by instructing the eldest thoroughly, the younger ones will have a better chance of being rightly taught.

It is not, however, merely in intellectual matters that stress should be laid on the thorough training of the eldest son, as there is a subject of vastly more importance, and that is, the moral training. In the ordinary school curriculum, as a rule, all pass through the same mill, and attend the same governess, the same master, or the same school, &c., so that the younger ones soon get to learn if the "big brother" is wrong. The great charm of home life is the moral training, which often is so lacking at schools, and here it that the influence of the elder brother for good or for evil is so strongly felt. When the father or mother say that certain things are right or wrong, sooner or later the appeal will be made to the elder brother, by the younger, to know if this is so. The question may not be put in so many words, but the example of the elder brother too often gives the lie direct to the teaching of the wise father or the fond mother. How many questions never actually put are daily being answered, whether the answer is a correct one or not when the question is: "Is the world round?" But even at the tenderest age in life, it matters much what the answers given are, when the questions have relation to some of the great moral problems of life. When the eldest son corroborates the teaching of the father and mother, how very much easier the parents' task is than it would be when the influence of the elder brother is all the other way. In young children there is an innate love of imitation, an instinct which is fraught with terrible responsibility to the possessor. It is through that instinct that older ones find it so easy to convey lessons to the little ones, and were it not that children imitate each other very much, the schoolmaster's task would be a very difficult one. But though the instinct is doubtless given for the training of the young, it can be utilised for terrible evils, and it is here that the influence for good or for evil of the elder brother is so powerful. Whatever he does the others will want to do, whether it is right or wrong.

What increases the responsibility of the elder brother is the fact that he is sowing seeds in young hearts for good or for evil, that have such far-reaching results. It is said that in olden days a wily abbot was very anxious to secure a certain field, and as the owner was unwilling to part with it, he talked him over into letting him have it, in which to sow one crop. Having got it for a single crop, he sowed acorns, which produce oak trees, that last for centuries. That field was never restored to its owner. The seeds that elder brothers are able to sow in the hearts of their younger ones produce crops that last a lifetime. Later on in life the sower may regret that the seed sown was so bad, but regrets are then of no avail. His period of influence does not last for ever men, and the boys become young men, and pass beyond the reach of his influence. But the crops remain, and they bear testimony to the nature of the seed sown, whether for good or for evil. As many can say that, humanly speaking, they owe all that is good in them to the influence of an elder brother, who helped them when young to a knowledge of those principles which develop in us that which is noble, pure, and good, so are there many who have to look back on their early life with shame, as their elder brother did not lead them straight, but, by setting bad example, led them into the mire of moral pollution.

Younger brothers when they first come home from school often make a confidant of an elder brother, and thus things reach his ears that are never known to the parents. The power of sympathy that the elder may exhibit or withhold at this time often has great results. When young lads are initiated for the first time into all the mysteries of school life, they often see and hear much that is evil, which they know to be wrong, and against which at first their better nature rebels. They return home, and if they find sympathy from an elder brother in their efforts to resist evil, they return to school strengthened and encouraged, to throw in their lot on the side of right against wrong. If, however, as is sometimes the case, they find themselves laughed at by their elder brothers, they feel discouraged, and on returning to school they fail to exhibit that moral courage that a little sympathy might have developed in them.

It is said that when the Italians were fighting for their national liberty the sympathy that they received from the English, though not a single British soldier was landed in Italy, cheered up the patriots. The enthusiastic way in which we received their leader Garibaldi showed how thoroughly the English heart beat in unison with those who were nobly fighting for their country. As it is in national conflicts, so is it in the mural and spiritual conflicts through which we have to pass, and sympathy exhibited to us by those to whom we are accustomed to look up ever proves itself to be a tremendous power to encourage and cheer us. The individual may not be at hand to counsel or to speak, but the simple knowledge that we have one whom we respect, and to whom we naturally look up, who takes an interest in us, and who will be pleased to hear of our victories over evil, has in itself a very stimulating effect. I knew a case of a young man who had a friend who practically held the relationship of a brother to him. These two were separated by many miles, each waging war with evil, in two of our great English cities. The younger of the two, though he was very seldom able to see the other, told me that he derived the very greatest assistance from the knowledge that his friend took a sympathetic interest in him, and now and then wrote to encourage him in his conflict with sin.

The question remains to be considered whether parents could not do more than is now done to cultivate this relationship between the eldest son and the younger brothers. Of course, in some cases, the results might not be good, and the parents might be disappointed. But in many cases the natural relationship, which already exists, might be utilised for a good purpose. To the watchful eye of a loving mother or a judicious father, it must soon become evident if the firstborn has an influence of any kind over his younger brothers. Without creating any spirit of jealousy between the firstborn and the others, the parents might aim to inspire their eldest son with a sense of moral responsibility, pointing out ways and means by which he may influence those junior to himself. For instance, if one of the younger boys was found to have been guilty of cruelty to an animal, it would of course he the duty of the parents to point out to the culprit the offence, and possibly to punish him. But apart from this personal dealing with the boy, much more might be done by endeavouring to inspire the eldest son with a full sense of the extent of the offence, which it might not be easy to convey to the younger one, owing to his incapacity to apprehend the case. Having inspired him, to the best of their ability, with a sense of the magnitude of the evil, it should be suggested to him that he should exercise his influence over his younger brother, so as to avoid a repetition of the offence. This would tend to develop in the eldest son a sense of moral responsibility, and make him feel himself to be a more or less important factor in the training of his brothers. In almost every eldest brother there exists the material which, if wisely utilised may be a great acquisition of force on the side of law and order, and the cultivation of the better instincts of the younger members of the family impressionable when at a most impressionable age.



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