Peace with the Children
“0h that child wears on me so, — he is making me sick, and I know I shall break down altogether!”
This was the exclamation of a tired young mother, — young, fortunately, for she learned her lesson in time to take care of several children and not have them “wear upon her.” This exclamation of desperation had been wrung out of her many times before she had the good luck to say it once when a friend was with her and heard it, — a friend who ” knew better.” This friend who was a mother herself, — indeed, who had been a mother for so long that I am not sure but that at this time of which I write she was also a grandmother, — waited until the especial cause of irritation was over and then quietly said:
“Did you ever think that perhaps you wear upon the child even more than he wears upon you?”
“What!” the young mother answered, “I wear on the child! Why look how he behaves, — fretting from morning until night, never obeying until after I insist over and over again and actually force him to obey; never being happy with anything more than five minutes at one time. It is like having your brain constantly battered from morning until night to, take care of him. Of course he is my child, and I do love him, but I do not get much chance to enjoy my love for him with the life he leads me.”
And then the unhappy mother stopped, perhaps for want of breath, but she gave her good friend an opportunity to answer:
“Didn’t you tell me that when you were ill and had to engage a nurse for him, he surprised you with his placid happiness?”
“Yes, indeed I did. He not only surprised me, — he made me indignant that I, his mother, who brought him into the world and loved him so much should be made miserable by him, and this nurse to whom I gave wages for taking care of him should get so much comfort out of him and he should be so happy with her.”
“But did you never think of a reason for that?”
“A reason? What reason could there be?”
“My friend, you do not know anything about the realm of causes, do you? and how you are irritating yourself and wearing upon your nerves by fretting and fretting in the region of effects?”
It was so ordered — or — as some would say — it so happened that this kind old friend spoke at just the psychological moment. She felt the young mother listening, and she went on to show her by practical details how she wore upon her little son. In the first place, the child had a difficult heredity, — he inherited a temper and a tremendous self-will. Things had gone on so steadily from bad to worse between him and his mother that he, with the remarkable perception which some children have, had learned just the things that annoyed her, and took every opportunity to do them. Then she got angry and the boy got angry and they batted at one another. She had the advantage because she was older, more muscular, and she was his mother. She felt that she had the right to impose her self-will upon him but that he had no right to impose his self-will upon her, because she was his mother.
It was easy to see how the child’s brain was getting injured — easy to see that his irritability and fretfulness had become so monstrous that they dominated him and were wearing upon him and stunting his mental and moral development, and it was easy to see that his mother was causing it, — easy for every one but the mother herself to see it. She was so engaged with being worn upon that she had no attention to give to the child she was harming, but now that her friend had her attention, she made her quietly, by a series of questions, trace the life of her child from the time he was born, — when the self-willed little baby cried and cried himself into a state of furious temper because his mother did not take him up at once, and the mother became worn and annoyed and humored him for the sake of keeping him quiet, if only for a time.
The mother saw clearly that she had never been quiet herself, had never been patient herself, and had never conquered her own self-will; she saw that she expected the boy to obey because she said so, and that in the process of bringing up her child she was really indulging her own self-will. She saw that not only the child was not wearing upon her, but she was wearing upon herself and upon the child too.
It was an unusual and remarkable awakening, and the process of “reversing her engine” so to speak actually broke the mother down so that she was ill in bed for some days. But her kind friend knew the cause of her illness, and the wholesomeness of it, and she nursed her, soul and body, until the mother was ready to begin again — ready with a healthy sense of the watchfulness she must have over herself in order to keep sensitive enough to feel the first touch of her old enemies and shun their suggestions so positively and so cleanly that they could not take possession of her and the real mother-love and wisdom could take their place.
What I describe in a few words was a long, long process, but because this young woman was truly penitent, she persisted in her effort and she could be truly guided from the perception given her within.
This was a remarkable ease both in its errors and in its reform, and serves as an illustration under a microscope of very many similar cases.
In so far as I can see, it is never just to say that children wear on their parents. It is always just to say, where there are difficulties in their relations, that parents wear on their children. The children come into the world with no knowledge at all of the various forms of selfishness that is going to attack them from within. When a baby wants his own way and cries because he cannot get it, how does he know that there is anything wrong in that? Bless their little hearts! they have come into the world to start on a journey all new to them, — full of stones to trip on and pitfalls to tumble into, and all these stones and pitfalls are — in one form or another — caused by nothing whatever but self-will. The varieties of self-will are endless, but if we know the elements of self-will and keep clear of them, we are safe from its various derivatives.
Now here is a child beginning his life’s journey who does not know the elements, and yet as much is expected of him as if he did. The trouble is that the mother and the father — either or both — have not conquered themselves, therefore how can they teach their children to conquer? How can you guide a man safely along a difficult journey if you have never been on the same journey and do not know the way yourself?
The children are not our children, — they are embryo men and women whom we are permitted to guide along the beginnings of their lives until they have a fair enough start to be ready to go alone. If from the first we realize that we are helping them to obey the very same laws which we ourselves are working to obey every day of our lives,– if when the children are old enough to understand we take them into our confidence, and make them see that we do not ask them to obey us for any personal reasons, but in teaching them to obey us, we are helping them to get to where we, — the children and ourselves, — can work day after day to obey the same laws together, — then their little individualities can develop normally with no sense of oppression on either side.
I know a little child who used to say, quite fretfully sometimes, “Why do you tell me to choose for myself? You know I shall have to choose the right way.” I remember this little girl’s going upstairs and crying all the way, ” She told me to choose for myself, — of course I shall have to do what she asked me to.”
The child knew perfectly well which was the right way, and she was glad when she had done it.
Children have so much character when you give them enough margin and give it in the right way. This same little girl once when she had a very, very hard task before her, went to it screaming in protestation as loudly as she could scream, but never once offered to turn back or stopped to say she could not do it. She went in a perfectly straight and direct line to the work that was before her. It was an action that many an older person would have been grateful to carry out, and grateful for the strength gained in the process.
We have much to learn from our children, but first we must learn the absolute necessity of conquering ourselves before we can be fit to guide the children.
A child is very sensitive to the states of those about him. If I have not said a cross word but am cross, a little child will know it at once and will not only reflect my bad temper but will do various little naughty things to rouse my temper and make it worse, and then will turn and complain of me for being cross. The child does not know what he is doing; he is used by his own inherited embryo bad temper to rouse mine. I am the only one of the two to blame. We must, to really serve the children, not only conquer our appearance of wrong, — we must conquer the cause of the wrong within us.
So many children learn to be hypocrites without thinking anything about it. I have a grown friend who is ill, and she has confessed that when she was a little girl the older people in the family used to ask her to run errands and she always consented and seemed so glad to be of service that the people all about loved and admired her, but she said that she was hating it all the time, and underneath this pleasant, willing manner she was “‘boiling with ugliness.” When she grew older her nerves got over-tired, and she could not inhibit so that all the repressed ugliness of her childhood came to the surface and she, as well as other people, had to suffer from it. I have known more than one child like this. It is a happy thing when a good friend sees behind the mask and can help the child to see the horror of such hypocrisy. No wonder, however, that the children fall into this pit. They do the errands and all the good things for the sake of appearance, in order to be liked and admired. Are not the greater part of the grown-up people in this world living more for the sake of how they appear than for what they are? How can we expect anything better of the children?
Often we hear: “If we want a nation to grow in the best of civilization, we must begin with the children,” but how fully do we grown folks realize that if we want to be of any real use to the children, we must begin with ourselves? That is the most important fact in all of life, — to look to ourselves for the fault first. We can — when we have begun ourselves — teach the children that; and whatever we teach children from our own inner conviction, a conviction gained by our practical obedience to law, — they always learn.
“Mama! Mama!” cried out a little girl, “Willie hurt my feelings.” “Well,” answered Willie, sullenly, “she shouldn’t .have her feelings sticking out all over her.” And “mama” took her little daughter aside and with easy persuasion showed her in child language the great mistake of having her “feelings sticking out all over her.” In another room she took Willie all by himself and taught him the manliness and chivalry of being gentle with his sister. This lesson had to be taught and learned many times over, but each time it became more a part of the children who learned it, and finally the better way of each one looking to himself to find the wrong began to become a habit. And, you see, it was this way: — “Mama” used to have her “feelings sticking out all over her” and “papa” used often carelessly to wound them. “Mama” had her eyes opened one day to the selfishness of those same hurt feelings, so, that the next time “papa” was irritable, the hurt feelings were dropped and nothing in “mama” reacted unpleasantly to “papa’s” irritability. What happened then was that “papa’s” irritability reacted with full force upon himself and he saw it in all its hideousness. And the bad habits changed, and “mama” and “papa,” having taken the journey, were ready to show the way to their little friends. Their little son and daughter became no less, but rather more, a son and daughter because first they were their parents’ little friends.
How often children will answer, when we begin to show them this true obedience, “Yes, but so-and-so did this and that.” And how often do we have to repeat, “But you have nothing to do with what so-and-so did until you are quiet and loving yourself. If so-and-so had done something ten times worse, you have nothing to do with him until you feel as kind and as loving to him as toward some one else, who. has only been good to you.”
A child will try to dodge by complaining of the injustice of this, and then you can acknowledge to him heartily that so-and-so was wrong but that so-and-so could not rightly complain of any one until he had put away his own wrong. “That is the truth, of course, but that is really none of your business now. Your business is to acknowledge your own bad feeling and to refuse to act or speak or think from it. Then see how so-and-so will appear to you.”
Many, many grown people are suffering and chafing under the pangs of injustice, and if they could learn to cut themselves off from the cause of their anger or hurt feelings so entirely that they could work with undiverted attention on getting their own slates clean first, what wonders they could do for the children!
The babies’ brains begin to be battered sometimes before they are a week old — and the parents begin to wear on their children in one form or another almost at once, and so the wearing process goes on and on, and the children suffer for it and are stunted by it. But what can we do when so few parents would believe that all the trouble is in themselves? Perhaps more will come to believe it, and to work on the basis of this truth, as time goes on. Let us hope, and believe, so!