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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 Faults of Children

by Hastings Gilford, F.R.C.S.
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 603-613


There is hardly a subject upon which people have not different opinions, and few such differences which may not be grouped on two opposite sides. To no subject does this more fully apply than to the faults of children, and to the best method of dealing with them. On the one hand some are of the opinion that they are born in iniquity and are so full of sin that there is no righteousness in them. On the other hand are those who regard children as veritable cherubs for purity, holiness and spotless innocence. Either of these two extremes begets its corresponding treatment. It is the object of the one school to purge out the inborn evil by means of punishments of more or less severity; while those of the other school, inasmuch as they can see no evil, very consistently do nothing to hinder its growth and development. Like all extremes neither of these can be entirely right, and harm results from both.

Who does not know the child who has been spoiled by mistaken indulgence? He is the pet of his parents and the terror of others. His cries greet you as you enter the house. He wants this, and he wants that, and he always gets what he asks for. He breaks in on the conversation with insufferable impudence and to the joy and pride of his mother. He feeds on cake and jam; and if temporarily forbidden to do that which he wishes he lies down on the hearthrug and cries. The friends of the family speak of him among themselves as a "spoiled child" and send him chocolates and toys without number.

But why are such children spoken of specifically as "spoiled"? Is not the child equally spoiled who is treated with hardness and severity? A woman told me a little while ago that she was much troubled about her baby, who was out of health. I ascertained that it was the first child, and thirteen months old. After a little hesitation she told me, with most distressing sobs and tears, that her husband beat it because it was fretful and would not do as it was bid. Yet the father was not a brute, he was only educating the child according to his light. I contend that it could be said of him with far more truth that he was spoiling the child, than of the parent who treats it with over indulgence. Such treatment tends to break a child's spirit and to teach it feelings and habits of fear and resentment. No dog trainer can hope to do any good with a dog that has been unmercifully beaten in its puppyhood. If such treatment spoils a dog will it not also spoil the more highly organised human child? If you hammer a nail into the wheels of a clock you will probably do some permanent injury, but you will certainly do so if you drive it into a watch.

Some, again, treat their children with alternate leniency and severity. These, as a rule, are ignorant people who have no judgment, and act in all the affairs of life on the whim of the moment. If you go into a house where children are brought up after this manner, you will find them on one day sucking sweets or running about with "sugar butties" in the uttermost disorder, and on another, sitting clean and neat and red-eyed round a table with a cane upon it. In answer to your looks of enquiry, you will be told by the mother that they have only been having a fight! The "fight" in this instance is very one-sided, for it means that some of the older children have been holding the younger ones down while mother has beaten them. The same process in some places is also called a "hiding." This word "hiding" refers either to the skin or hide of the child who is thus treated, or to straps of the hide of an animal.

But perhaps the worst, because it is the meanest of all ways of treating children, is that system which consists in a combination of both of these methods. I saw a striking instance of this not long ago. I was passing along when I noticed a knot of women gathered just at the corner of two streets, close to an office of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. One of the women was so standing that she could see down both streets. In her right hand she held some sweets, and with her left she concealed a cane behind her back. With the one she was coaxing her little five years old child to come up to the street to reach the sweets, while she turned now and again to leer and wink at the women on her left. The child was evidently suspicious, and had been timidly advancing, and I caught sight of her just as she came within reach of the sweets. She stretched out her hand to get them, when they were suddenly withdrawn and down came a blow with the cane on the outstretched knuckles. The sudden terror of the child, the cruel slyness of the mother, together with the approval of the women who were looking on, combined to make a picture shocking to every feeling of humanity. No one can doubt that such treatment would have a most debasing effect on the mind of a child. One such lesson as that would tend to destroy all that intense faith in the parent and in human nature, which is the essence of true childhood. A child who had never before been disillusioned, once treated in such a way, would as surely lose its true childhood as would a peach its bloom when handled roughly.

Doubtless you will say, "What has all this to do with the faults of children? Who is there with ordinary instincts of humanity that would treat a child like this? These instances are extremes." Besides, you will go on to say, "these are not the faults of children that you are dealing with, but the faults of parents." Exactly, I agree with you that these examples are extremes and are not often met with now. But the conduct of which they represent the extreme is of daily occurrence. We are all prone to treat children either too harshly or too leniently, and if we do not adopt either of the courses systematically, we all do so at times, and more or less capriciously. Now and then we come in contact with well-meaning people who attempt to treat their children with a weak mixture of kindness and severity cleverly combined by means of a little deceit. We freely recognise the evils that result from these methods when we see them in their extremes, but we do not so readily perceive them when they are diluted. It is difficult to bring home to people the fact that mildness, however weak, may be harmful to a child as well as severity, and that the only safe path is the one which lies between them. It is not easy to be always firm, patient, and sympathetic in our dealings with children, but never over-indulgent and never over-severe, and above all things is it difficult to treat them without some approach to deceit.

How can one deal with the faults of children without also taking into consideration the faults of parents? You cannot dissociate the one from the other. It is so often said that the child is father to the man that one is apt to forget that the man is also father to the child. Certainly many of the faults of the child originate in its parents. It is therefore very fitting that in dealing with my subject the faults of the parents should come first. Indeed, I go much further than this, and say that all the failings of children, that are not due to disease, originate with the parents; and that in the consideration of the faults of children we may not only begin but end our subject without directly referring to children at all. In this sense I agree with those who declare that children have no faults, and that a dissertation upon them might be written as briefly as the celebrated treatise "On the Snakes in Iceland." Were it possible for a child to be brought up from babyhood to manhood without coming in contact with his fellow-creatures, he would be as free both from virtues and vices as the fowls of the air or the beasts of the field.

It is true that if more than one child could be left to grow up under such circumstances, each would show certain undesirable qualities different from those of the other, but these would be the outcome of heredity, and would partake rather of the nature of instincts than of faults. We do not call it a fault in a tiger cruelly to tear up his living prey, and neither should we consider it a fault in a wild man if he showed a like indifference to suffering. But there is a stage in the life of every man when he is no more responsible for his actions than the wild man or the tiger. This stage is during the period of childhood, when he is under the care of his parents. The child starts with no experience of the dangers which beset him, and it is the duty of the parents to teach him how to recognise and overcome them. During this time he shows certain hereditary qualities which affect his actions to a greater or less extent. But inasmuch as they are hereditary and come to him from his parents, he is no more answerable for them than he is for the shape of his nose or the colour of his hair. In whatever way we consider the subject we arrive at the same conclusion. No one has yet succeeded in showing that any structure or function or character can arise de novo. It must develop along lines which have been laid down since the beginning of creation.

No healthy child ever, in itself, originated qualities which were not part of its nature. Children who have suddenly developed such unnatural impulses have, in every case, been diseased. Disease shows its effects not only physically, but also mentally and morally. Thus a quiet, good-tempered child under the influence of illness may become irritable and whiny. The unselfish child may become selfish, and vice-versa. Some children when well are affectionate and desirous of being fondled, while others show their dislike to it, but during illness the dispositions of these children may be reversed. The effect of disease may also be to accentuate certain good or evil qualities, which are in themselves natural. The dull child becomes more dull, and the lively child excitable or even delirious. When disease affects children in a marked form we recognise that many of the qualities that the child then exhibits are due to the disease. We note the spots on the skin, the langour, the weakness or fever, and deal patiently with the faults which then show themselves; but children are sometimes feverish and irritable, or even impatient and deceitful, as the result of tiredness, or temporary ill-health. Their failings then are too often dealt with as if due to wilful fractiousness, and treated with punishment or severe looks or reproofs. It would be as just to flog a child because its skin was pimply, or because it had a wart or a chilblain.

Let us now sweep on one side all consideration of the faults of children due to such causes as heredity or ill-health and devote our attention to those faults which arise either from lack of education or from bad education by parents. In reality we may at once eliminate lack of education as a factor in this subject, for there is no standing still in childhood. There is always growth in one direction or another. A sapling that is planted in the shade in a poor soil will be badly developed, but it will still grow so long as there is life in it. You may stunt the growth of a child's body and render it sickly and weakly by depriving it of suitable or sufficient food, and you may also stunt the growth of its mind by feeding it on talk or books, or on surroundings which are dull and dreary in tone. But growth will take place despite all your efforts, and while there is growth there is education.

But when a child's education is said to be neglected by the parents, it means that the child is left to the influence of others. The child is then like a seed which has been dropped by a parent tree regardless of consequences. The sapling that results from it may be vigorous and healthy, and may be so helped by its surroundings as to grow up into a flourishing tree, or the reverse may take place and the whole future of the plant be spoiled. But whichever of these happens, it is certain that the influence of the parent must always be an important factor in the future prosperity of the offspring. The parent tree may swing its head in lordly indifference to the little treeling which grows by its side, but to the little one the great parent which towers above him will be all in all. If the great father tree is so situated as to protect him from the bleak winds while permitting him to bask in the sunshine, he will grow up into a mighty giant of the forest, rivalling his parent in dignity and grandeur. But if the parent tree cast upon him the shadow of his gloom and expose him to the cold winds of the north, the little sapling will become stunted in growth and deformed.

No human parent can withdraw his influence from his offspring; he may treat him with indifference or neglect, but his own life influences that of his child just as surely as if every hour of life were taken up in pottering interference. So surely will your little one get his education from you, that your very indifference will be a lesson to him which he will copy in his future life. Further, for a parent to neglect the education of his child is not the same as saying that the education of that child is neglected. If you do not take him in hand yourself others will, and when men and women and other children are not at hand, books will take their place. Children are educated by influence rather than by interference. Indeed, I go further and contend that children are often educated in spite of interference. The influence of general warmth and of the sunshine of love are far more powerful in the encouragement of natural and vigorous growth, both of mind and body, than the frequent prunings of reproof and punishment. The latter, it is true, may check development which is taking place in wrong directions, but how often does it happen that the misapplication of correction leads to positive harm. Far better is it for a child to grow up happy and with a genuine trust in and affection for its parents and towards all mankind, than to become stilted, affected, and altogether unchildlike. The unpruned child may show certain failings of roughness or uncouthness, but these will be due rather to exuberance of natural growth than to actual faults. But the overpruned child, besides being stiff and unnatural, will show the germs of such undesirable qualities as envy, priggishness, or even deceit. If your strong and healthy boy tells you a lie and you flog him, the actual punishment in itself does him no good, for he receives similar treatment from other boys and rather glories in it, especially if he can say that he has returned it with interest. What really affects him is the spirit in which the thrashing is given. He may not be much affected by the bodily pains, but he is deeply influenced by the grief of his parent and the anxiety for his welfare of which the beating is the expression. But if you beat a sensitive child for some trivial offence you cause the bodily pains to become the overpowering influence, and thus neutralize any other influence that you wish to bring to bear upon him. He will remember the beating and will dread its recurrence, but will soon forget the spirit which prompted its application. In fact the tendency of all corporal punishment is to substitute an artificial evil for a real evil. A boy who lies or steals has done wrong and you wish him to feel that he has done wrong and to repent. In order to bring this about it is a great error in judgment to lead his mind astray to some purely physical evil. Your object ought not to be to teach him to be truthful lest he should be punished, but to look upon the deceit itself as evil and to avoid it. The boy who has been trained to truthfulness and honesty, not because lying and stealing are evil but because punishment will follow, is already in his heart a liar and thief, and as soon as the opportunity arises he will put his want of principle into practice. Fortunately there is a great recuperative power in the mind and soul of a child, and it is not until he has been chastised again and again without mercy, that he ceases to respect truth. It is the open-faced, bright and happy child who is the truth teller, but alas for the unfortunate child with the broken spirit and the depressed and furtive expression of countenance. He has been so often flogged unjustly that he has lost the power of discrimination, and has that in him which will prompt him to speak a mean word or do a mean action if it involves no physical suffering to himself. His spirit has truly been crushed out of him by a father who spares not the rod. Corporal punishment may be necessary in some cases, but its use is tantamount to a confession of failure on the part of the parent. A tree will grow up straight, well balanced and healthy by careful husbandry. Good soil and copious sunlight, with occasional showers, will render coercion unnecessary. But the tree that has once become warped in its growth by neglect, must be rectified by stakes and cords as well as by gentle means.

I cannot understand how anyone can touch on such a subject as the faults of children without arriving at the conclusion that mercy and judgment are identical. Surely it must conduce to a kindly estimate of children's faults to recognise that those which are not due to inheritance or to disease are due to mismanagement. Such considerations drive one to the conclusion that the only logical, truthful, scientific way of dealing with children is by means of kindness. But when one speaks of kindness one does not mean that they should be pampered, coddled, and metaphorically wrapped in cotton wool so that they do not come in contact with the realities of life. Such treatment is not kindness, but the reverse.

There is a paradox of Benjamin Franklin's to the effect that self-denial is the highest pleasure, and one cannot do better than take this as the keynote for the treatment of the faults of children. The true atmosphere of childhood is one of happiness, and they flourish in it like the flowers in sunshine; and like the flowers their growth takes place along the lines of least resistance. But it sometimes happens that these lines run in the direction in which danger lies. Something comes before the child in the form of a pleasure, but which leads to evil. Fortunately nature herself bars the way as a rule, and experience is soon acquired which prevents repetition. Thus, the fire is warm and comforting, and it looks pretty, but it does not take long before the fact is very forcibly and sharply pointed out by nature that to play with fire is dangerous, and therefore wrong. This is a lesson in self-denial, for nature has taught the child that self-denial in this case is the greatest happiness. But sometimes nature does not act so promptly, and it is then our duty to act for her. It is in this that true active education consists. We must closely observe what nature herself does. and then follow her lead. No system of education that does not follow in nature's footsteps can be right, and no system that does can be entirely wrong. It may be imperfect, or badly carried out, but it must be truthful and scientific so far as it goes. There are various methods of carrying out this natural education. I need not now enter into details beyond saying that all punishment must be founded on the aphorism of Herbert Spencer, that the punishment must in all cases, as far as possible, come out of the offence, and that no occasion must be allowed to go by when the offence of punishment does not directly follow the wrong. If your child is playing at table and does not cease directly he is told, he will soon spill his glass of water. That will be his punishment, for he will get no more. If this does not happen, or if he continues fractious, he will be taken out of the room and made to stand in the hall for a time, because his behaviour disturbs you. If he is noisy there and still upsets you, he will go upstairs into his bedroom. This is a simple instance of the way in which nature's methods are carried out. I can only give this one instance, but it will suffice. All I wish is that it should illustrate the principle that all punishment must, as far as possible, come immediately out of the offence, and be the direct result of it. If this principle be carried out judiciously and mercifully, and without appearance of resentment, impatience or temper on your part, it must of necessity be effectual, because it is the method that nature herself has adopted, and the word of nature is truthful and infallible.

All this throws much responsibility on the parents, for it makes them the interpreters of that which is good or evil in their children. Nature's methods may be perfect, but if they are carried out by imperfect instruments, failure will sometimes result. One great cause of failure lies in the very different interpretation which is placed upon different actions of children. That which is considered a fault by one parent is thought a virtue by another. Now my own view is that the more wisely lenient we are the better hold shall we have on our children. It stands to reason that if you find a multitude of faults in a child your means of correcting them will lose quality as it gains in quantity. If a child is often punished he will take less notice of corrections, but if he is punished seldom each punishment will have so much the more effect. Moreover, the teaching of nature and of all history is emphatically that within certain bounds the less you punish and the less severely, the less frequent are the faults. Hence it happened that when men and women were hanged for sheep-stealing and for forgery, these crimes abounded to a far greater extent than they do at the present day. Moreover, murder was so rife that it was almost as common as the lesser crimes. But as punishment was relaxed crime fell off, and the imprisonments which were at one time very lightly regarded by the criminal classes are now greatly dreaded. As it is with the adult humans, so is it with children. If you wish them to love, honour and obey you, let the punishment equal the offence, but never exceed it. And never, on any account, create artificial faults. There are faults enough in the world without inventing others. We ought always to remember that a fault implies an injury either to oneself or to others, and usually to both. If a child steal, he is depriving another of that which belongs to him; if he speak evil of anyone he is depriving him of his good repute. If he gives way to passion, he is damaging himself as well as hurting the susceptibility of others. If he swears, his words in themselves may be harmless, though they are generally regarded as vulgar; but the hatred which inspires the words is detrimental to himself and to those against whom it is directed. The expression usually applied to the use of swearing is that of "bad language"; but this term is very misleading, for it tends to divert the mind from the bad thought to the word, which is simply its expression. No language is in itself bad, save that which is ungrammatical, and who is there among us who does not in this sense make use of "bad language". The words in which swearing is expressed are not in themselves bad, for many of them are in constant employment without shocking us in the slightest degree. Moreover, no one would consider a parrot to be wicked though he swore like a trooper. Why, then, should we punish a boy who swears after the manner of a parrot, without giving a thought to the meaning of his words? Let us by all means let him see that we think his expression foolish and absurd, but do not let us, as some do, magnify the offence until it equals in our eyes either lying or stealing. Treat each act of swearing on its own intrinsic merits.

If a boy blazes out into some expression of evil resentment or revenge, consider the feeling which prompted the expression as the fault, whether the words are oaths or not. It does not mitigate the offence for the feelings of hatred to be conveyed in well-chosen words; nor does it aggravate it should the expression be accompanied by words which we consider vulgar or unclean. Poison is none the less deadly because it is given in jam, nor is it the more poisonous because it is conveyed in all its native repulsiveness. Indeed there is positive harm in concealing poison in jam, as it is far more likely to be taken by mistake than if it were undisguised. So is it with swearing. Children may swear in their hearts and yet use polite language with their lips. Other children may use oaths and indecent expressions while they are as unconscious of evil intention as the angels in heaven. Yet there are many who would pass over the former without notice, while the latter would be taken severe notice of as of a heinous sin. Now swearing is but one example of the way in which we overlook the real fault in order to swoop down on the sham fault. In how many other ways do we swallow the camel while we choke at the gnat? A child may wilfully deceive you in order to gain some supposed advantage, but if he do not go through the form of lying in words you think the fault a venial one and deal with it accordingly. But when a child tells you he has had no sweets when you have just seen him eat some, your anxiety for the future of that boy prompts you to chastise him with the utmost severity. So is it with stealing, temper, avarice, and other faults. In many cases we overlook the principle which underlies the actions of our little ones, while we punish the words. By so doing we not only commit a great injustice to the child, but deliberately train him to place more reliance on words than on deeds. In the treatment of children, it is essential to success that we make study of all their moods and tempers, that we deal with offences in their true proportions, and that we accept no method which does not appeal to our own deliberate sense of right. Let us take no thought for the opinion of any authority, however estimable, unless it appeals to that combined reason, instinct, and affection which we call parental love.