Obedience in Children
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851
I was visiting a lady, not long ago, for whom I have a particular regard. She is intelligent, vivacious, and exhibits none of those little faults which spring from inordinate self-love, and which are always so destructive of pleasant social fellowship. But she has two marked defects of character — lack of order and firmness. These were seen particularly in the habits of her children. She has two little girls and a boy, children of fine dispositions, and who have a full share of their mother's spirits. As their government was not orderly, there was nothing orderly about them; and as my friend was not firm and consistent in her management — they were by no means obedient.
I was sitting in the parlor with Mrs. Carver, (that is my friend's name,) on the occasion referred to, when Johnny, a bright little fellow, who had seen some four or five summers, came rushing in quite rudely, and crying at the top of his voice,
"Mother! mother! I want some of the peaches! I saw Jane put in the closet just now."
"Why, Johnny! Is that the way for you to come into the parlor when I have company?" said Mrs. Carver, in a rebuking tone, while the color rose to her face. "I am ashamed of you. Go and say hello to Mrs. Elmwood."
But Johnny thrust both thumbs into his mouth, cast his eyes to the floor, and leaned back heavily against his mother.
"Come, child! Go and say hello to the lady, this minute. I won't have such silly actions in any little boy of mine. There, now! Go at once and say hello to Mrs. Elmwood."
The mother pushed the child towards me as she said this, while he held heavily back. I reached out my hand and took his, drawing him, as I did so, towards me, and saying in an encouraging voice,
"Oh, yes; Johnny will come and say hello to me, and kiss me, too."
I attempted to kiss him as I said this, but the little urchin shrank back, and drew his head down upon his bosom in such a way that I could not succeed in accomplishing my design.
"I declare!" exclaimed Mrs. Carver, in an impatient half-mortified voice, "if ever I saw such a set of disobedient children as mine are! They have no more breeding than if they were so many heathen. I try to teach them manners, but it's of no use."
Then speaking to the little boy, she added —
"Go out of the parlor this minute, you unmannerly creature, you, and don't show your face here again this afternoon!"
Johnny went slowly towards the door, where he stopped, and leaning against it, with one finger in his mouth, and his head still crouched upon his bosom, rolled his eyes upwards in order to see across the room, and said, sulkily —
"I want some peaches!"
"Well, you can't have any, for being such an unmannerly boy. Peaches are for well-behaved, good children."
Johnny lingered a few minutes, swinging himself around one side of the door-frame, and then disappeared.
"The fact is, my children mortify me to death, sometimes. I can't beat good manners into them," remarked Mrs. Carver. "I see children who can behave like little men and women; but it isn't the case with mine. And I don't think it's my fault, either. I try my best to teach them to be polite and act as they ought to do. But it's no use. It seems in them to be rude and uncouth. I can wash the pig — but it is a pig still. Oh, dear! I get discouraged sometimes."
"You, Johnny! Bring back those peaches!" was heard cried, at this moment, from the dining-room, by a servant, simultaneously with which came the rapid pattering of Johnny's feet, as he descended the stairs, laughing loudly and triumphantly, while,
"Didn't I get them? Ha! ha! Didn't I get them? ha ha!" echoed Johnny through the house.
"Now isn't that too much!" ejaculated my friend. "That Johnny is the most stubborn little rebel I ever saw. Nothing will prevent him from accomplishing his end. If he is of the same disposition when he gets to be a man — he'll get along poorly in the world, make no mistake."
"Didn't you tell him that he couldn't have any peaches?" I made free to ask, for my friend was some twenty years my junior, and permitted me to speak quite plainly to her.
"No, I don't think I did."
"Oh, yes, you said that he could not have any for being so unmannerly."
"So I did! Well, never mind. He's got them now, and I don't wish to set the house in a roar, which will be the case if I were to take them from him."
"But think, my dear Mrs. Carver," said I, "of the effect upon him of this act of disobedience."
"I hardly know which would be worse: spoiling his temper — or permitting him to be disobedient sometimes. If I were to take the peaches from him now, he wouldn't get done crying for three hours! The fact is, I don't believe in being too strict with children, and seeing every little thing they do. I am satisfied that that would have a bad effect."
"We should always see direct acts of disobedience, and never pass them over."
"If I were to do that, I would be constantly punishing my children. They never mind, unless forced to do so."
Just then, Johnny came to the parlor-door, with a peach in his hand, and exclaimed, in an exulting voice,
"Aha! I have them! Aha!"
"You — !" and the mother started forward with a threatening look. Johnny scampered off, laughing as loud as he could.
"The saucy dog!" said Mrs. Carver, smiling. "How can I punish him? He is such an impudent rogue."
I did not like to say much to her, as I was a visitor. But I could not smile in return. To see such bad treatment of a child, made me feel serious. Johnny was a fine boy; bright, playful, and generous; but his mother's lack of order and consistent firmness were ruining him.
My friend talked much of her children, and I endeavored to throw in occasionally a word of good advice, but it didn't do much good. The error in the mode of governing her children was radical. She had not laid down certain primary principles as true, and certainly to be carried out. Impulse ruled her, more than reason. There were times when she did see in clear light, a better course than the one she was pursuing; and then she would act upon truer principles. But these were evanescent states. They quickly passed away and gave place to old habits of poor parenting.
Towards evening her husband came in. He is an excellent man, but deeply immersed in business. The cares of his household, he gives up entirely to his wife. He has no time to attend to the children, and does not attempt to govern them at all. How far I think him in error here, I need not say. He is accountable for his wife's bad management, almost as much as if it were his own. I do not see how any father can think more of his business than of his children, and be blameless; or how any father can, with a clear conscience, leave the sole care of rightly training up his little ones to a wife who is not qualified to give their young minds that bent which will fix them in true and orderly habits.
Mr. Carver came in towards evening, and, until tea was announced, I passed the time with him in very pleasant conversation. He found leisure to read a good deal, even of the lighter novels of the day; but had not time rightly to direct the habits of his children.
When the tea-bell rang, there was the sound of scampering feet from three different parts of the house, and loud cries of delight from as many children. When we entered the tea-room, Johnny and his two sisters were already seated at the table, and one of the girls had a piece of bread on her plate, and was helping herself to butter.
"Jane!" exclaimed Mrs. Carver, in a reproving tone.
Jane finished helping herself to the butter, and then sat back in her chair, without showing any consciousness of having acted wrong.
"Give me some cake!" cried Johnny, reaching his hand over the table, as we all sat down.
Mrs. Carver gave him a piece of cake, and then commenced pouring out the tea.
"I want my tea before Jane," said the spoiled little urchin, in a loud voice. "Shall not I have mine first?"
"Oh, yes. Anything, if you will only be quiet," returned the mother.
This I thought a fair beginning, and composed myself to look on and observe, expecting, certainly, that I should have a rare specimen of table etiquette among children. And I was not disappointed.
"Give me some of that preserved ginger!" responded Johnny.
"Come, child, be quiet!" said the father, but he did not seem to be much in earnest. At least, the child did not regard his words as of any consequence. He certainly did not obey them.
"I want some ginger!"
"Do, father, give that child some of the ginger — if it's only for peace's sake."
The ginger was accordingly supplied.
"There, now, you didn't give me my tea first!" cried Johnny, as his mother handed me a cup of tea; "and you said you would."
"Johnny! If you don't be quiet, I will send you away from the table," replied Mrs. Carver. "Now, don't let me hear another word from your mouth."
While his mother was saying this, Johnny was rising upon his feet, and, with his hands upon the table, leaning over, and about to reach for something that had attracted his eyes.
"Sit down, child!" The mother spoke with some decision, but more impatience.
Johnny slowly sank back in his chair, whimpering,
"You said you'd give me my tea first, and you didn't."
"Do, Jane," remarked Mr. Carver, "give the child his tea, or we shall have no peace with him!"
"Poor fellow! he's sleepy and fretful. The days are too long for him to keep up without a nap," said the mother apologetically, as she poured out a cup of milk and water, which was served to Johnny next.
"You didn't give it to me first!" was the child's response to this accommodating act, drawing himself back, and pouting out his lips.
"Well, never mind, Johnny. I forgot. Drink it, that's a good child, and then this lady will tell her little boy what a fine fellow you are. Sit up, now, like a man."
But Johnny kept his pouting look and position. Mrs. Carver proceeded to wait upon the rest of the table.
"You didn't put any sugar in my tea!" said Helen, the oldest, about seven years old, in a fretful tone. "You never make my tea sweet enough."
"Helen!" and her mother looked reprovingly at her.
"You don't ever do it, mother!" continued the child.
Mrs. Carver added another lump of sugar to Helen's cup.
"Give me another lump!" cried little Jane.
It was tossed into her cup of tea.
"I didn't want it in my tea!" Said Jane with a snarling look and tone.
"Where did you want it, please?"
"Why, I wanted it in my hand."
"Here, take this, then." A lump of sugar was given to Jane.
"I want a lump of sugar to eat, too!" now cried out Helen. "Give me one, mother!"
The request was granted. By this time, Johnny had began to recover a little from his sulky humor. He bent forward to the table, and, after putting his spoon in his tea, and before tasting it, cried out,
"You haven't sweetened my tea!"
"Yes, I did, Johnny. I put a large lump into it."
"No, you didn't!" He began to cry.
"I tell you I did, Johnny. Taste it."
"No, you didn't!"
"Well, there! Take that." Another lump of sugar was thrown across the table. "I hope you will be quiet now."
But that was a vain expectation. Johnny put the lump of sugar into his cup, and then, in a crying voice, said,
"You gave Helen and Jane a lump of sugar to eat."
"Oh these children! They really seem bewitched," exclaimed Mr. Carver, in despair. "Here's a piece for you to eat, also. Now, don't let me hear another word out of your mouth!"
In the hope of settling the impatient, exacting, fretful child for the rest of the meal, the father helped him to everything upon the table that he said he wanted, filling his plate with double the quantity that it was possible for him to eat. This was no sooner done, and the child forced to be satisfied, than Helen broke forth, with —
"I wish, mother you would make Jane push her chair away from mine. She always crowds right up against me at the table!"
"Jane, do push your chair farther off from Helen's. There is room enough." Mrs. Carver spoke fretfully.
"There, will that do!" said Jane, angrily, drawing her chair far away from that upon which Helen was seated, and going to the very corner of the table.
Then came demands from the two little girls for various things. They would eat neither bread, biscuit, nor vegetables — but must be helped first to the richest cake, and also to the sweetmeats. In this they were indulged, evidently for the sake of peace. In about five minutes, tolerable quiet was gained, but not sufficient for pleasant conversation. There were constant interruptions and annoyances, especially from Johnny, who was in a most obnoxious mood. Both Mr. and Mrs. Carver were worried and mortified by the conduct of their children.
"If you speak again, Helen, I will send you away from the table!" the mother at length said, in a calm, determined voice.
In less than a minute, Helen's voice drowned out every other one at the table.
"Helen!" said Mrs. Carver, looking steadily into the child's face, "do you remember what I said just now?"
Thus actually calling the attention of Helen to the fact that she was about to break her word.
Helen was silent again; but only long enough for her mother to half finish a remark which she had commenced making to me.
"Will you be silent, as I tell you!" stormed the mother.
There was a calm; soon, however, interrupted by a loud bawl from Johnny.
"What is the matter with you?" asked Mrs. Carver.
"Jane went and took a piece of my cake," cried the child, with open mouth, stuffed so full that the crumbs dropped out into his plate.
"Jane, give him back his cake!"
"I didn't take it, mother!"
"Yes, you did take it!" cried Johnny, louder than before.
"I only took a teenty-weeny little piece."
"Why did you touch it at all? Go away from the table!"
"Do you hear me? Go downstairs, this moment!"
Jane descended from her chair slowly, began to cry, and left the room bawling at the top of her voice. In a little while, her cry ceased, and in two minutes from the time she left — she was back again, uninvited, and in her place at the table. The only notice of this act of disobedience was —
"Don't let me see you touch anything in Johnny's plate again! You know that he won't bear it."
Thus the meal progressed, and finally came to a conclusion. To me it was a most unpleasant scene. I think I never saw children act so rudely in my life, or appear less under parental control.
I returned to the parlor with Mr. Carver, after tea was over, leaving the mother to contend with the children until she could induce them to go away from the table. Although they had been eating steadily on from the time the tea-bell rang, they seemed, when we had concluded our meal, as little disposed as ever to quit.
"I'm afraid my wife hasn't the best government in the world," remarked the husband to me, as we reached the parlor. "I am sure, children might be taught to behave more orderly. I tell her so, sometimes; but she says, very justly, perhaps, that if I had the care of them, I would not find the task as easy a one as I imagined."
I did not like to speak in very broad terms of disapproval of a young wife to her husband, and so I only replied in some generalities respecting the management of children. From this, the subject took a turn into a more pleasant theme, which continued for about ten minutes. Then we were forced to pause from hearing a storm among the children overhead. All three were crying as loud as they could scream, and Mrs. Carver was scolding them at the top of her voice! As a finale to the whole, Helen, Jane, and Johnny were severely spanked and sent to bed. This produced the desired effect — it put a quietus on them for that day.
"Well, I declare!" exclaimed Mrs. Carver, entering the parlor with a glowing face a few minutes afterwards, "if I don't have an impossible time of it! Every night I have to go over this same scene. The children get tired out, and fretful, and then nothing can please them. I try my best to have patience, but they worry me out. They distress me to death with their contentions. There seems not to exist a particle of love between them. Each looks upon the other as a rival. It may be all my fault, but certainly I don't see it, if it is. I think of them all the time, and do my best to make them happy."
"Perhaps you do not prescribe just rules — and compel an implicit obedience to them?" I ventured to suggest.
"I hardly think it right to govern children by fixed rules. There should be exercised towards them great forbearance, and they should often be excused for faults," was my friend's reply.
"As to rules," I returned, "they should be few and plain, and founded upon right principles. To these, absolute obedience should be exacted."
"Name a rule such as you approve," said Mrs. Carver.
This was putting me in rather a delicate position. But my young friends knew me well, and I could be free with them. So I replied,
"The first and most important law should be this: prompt and unmurmuring obedience to every parental command. When the father or mother gives a direction — the child should be required unhesitatingly to obey it. On no account should he be permitted to think that there is the least possibility of disobedience, without punishment."
"I hardly think there is such a rule in operation here," remarked Mr. Carver, smiling, and looking at his wife.
"No, that there certainly is not. And I would like very much to see the one who could carry it out! I must confess that it is not in my power. Were I to punish for every act of disobedience — I should be at it every minute in the day!"
"Perhaps," I suggested, "after a few times, they would think obedience far preferable to punishment."
"I don't know, but I doubt it. They couldn't live, if they hadn't a little of their own way. And, at any rate, I do not think it the best treatment towards children to beat them right down. I have seen such, in my time. Little, dejected-looking, spiritless creatures, afraid to speak above their breath."
"The happiest family I ever saw — was the most orderly," I replied. "A child no more thought of disobeying a direction of the father or mother — than of jumping from a window."
"No doubt the parents were very happy in having a quiet house. But what of the children?"
"They were cheerful, and full of life. Not one of them showed fear or unpleasant restraint while with their parents; but only respect and affection."
"They must have been of a very different breed from mine; that's all I have to say," returned Mrs. Carver. "I'll defy anyone to mold my children into such a shape. It can't be done!"
I smiled incredulously, and then asked —
"Have you ever thought of the outcome of obedience?"
"Oh, certainly. It makes a very comfortable time for the mother, and everybody else in the house."
"No, but the use to the child himself?" I said.
"The use to the child? Why, no, I can't say that I have."
"That is the most important question, depend upon it, Mrs. Carver."
"Suppose you give us your views upon the subject," said the husband.
"With pleasure," I returned, "although my own ideas have not been as well digested as I could wish. For what purpose are children born into the world?"
"To grow up into men and women, and be happy, if they can," replied Mrs. Carver.
"Think again. Cannot you imagine some higher end?" I said.
"To go to Heaven, and live there forever," was added.
"That is coming nearer to the point, my dear friend," was my answer; "much nearer. Earth is designed to be a school for Heaven. As parents, our duty is to do all in our power to further this great design; to develop this latent capacity. The state here is merely a preparatory one. That which begins at the time we leave our earthly existence — is our true state, which will endure forever! This premised, I will endeavor to show you the great use there is in exacting strict obedience from children. Think, then, how important is the parental relation, and what vital consequences depend upon it!"
My words, or rather the reflections they awakened, threw a deep shadow over the spirits of my friends. They both sat with their eyes upon the floor for some time, in silence. At length, with a sigh, Mr. Carver remarked,
"I am seriously afraid that we are not properly forming in the minds of our children, vessels for the reception of obedience either to civil or spiritual law."
"If Mrs. Elmwood's doctrine is true — I am sure we are not," was his wife's reply. "As to obedience, there is nothing of it in our children. I never saw any children so perverse and stubborn as they are. If they were engaged in the most interesting play, and I were to tell them to go on with it — I am sure they would stop. I have only to give a command — to inspire them with a spirit of disobedience."
"The picture is too true," the husband said, gloomily.
"You may depend upon it," I ventured to say, plainly, "that it is your own fault. If you had, from the first, required obedience, it would be remembered now, without a murmur. I never saw the child that I could not make obey my commands, if he knew I had the authority to require obedience. When a child once learns to regard all your words as spoken in earnest — he submits without a murmur."
"I am sure I speak in earnest," said Mrs. Carver.
"What I mean by 'in earnest,' is with the fixed resolution to be obeyed. A mere tone of voice is nothing. It is the way in which a child understands what you say. 'If you do that, I will skin you alive!' I heard a mother say to her child. She spoke earnestly enough. But the child didn't believe her, as was evidenced from the fact that he was engaged in doing the very thing she had forbidden him to do, not five minutes afterwards. If she had merely said to him — 'You must not do that, my son,' and he had known from previous experience that he could not disobey without certain punishment — it would have been enough."
"But my mind revolts at punishment. There seems to me to be something brutal in beating children all the time."
"So there is, Mrs. Carver," I returned. "I am no more an advocate for beating children, than you are. There are many ways to punish a child besides the rod. A child may be undressed and put to bed in a room by himself hours before night; or be kept from the table with the family; or punished by various privations of desired things."
"You saw how outrageously my children acted at the table tonight. How would you go about preventing a repetition of similar conduct?"
"By being rigidly obeyed in every just command."
"But that is too vague," returned Mrs. Carver. "Be more specific."
"I will try. Take that restless little Johnny of yours to begin with. Tomorrow morning, I would be sure to have all three of the children with me in my chamber, or in the nursery, when the breakfast-bell rang. Then I would make them all three walk out to the breakfast-room, quietly. You can easily do this, by taking Johnny's hand yourself, and causing Helen and Jane to walk behind you. Seat all the children yourself, with a serious face, and in a formal manner, and then take your own place. Your error is in permitting them to rush to the table before you get there. This little movement of yours will have its effect upon them, and cause them to look at you with a slight degree of expectation or wonder.
"No doubt, by the time you have commenced putting sugar and cream in the cups, Johnny will be calling out for something, and perhaps the other children also. But keep cool. Allow nothing like impatience to arise. Think only of the good of your child, and how you shall best promote it. Ask, calmly, his father to help him to what he needs. This will be done. You hand him his cup of milk and water. It does not suit him, perhaps. He wants more sugar. You tell him that you have given him enough. Then he begins to cry. Ring the bell, and when a servant appears, say, 'Johnny, you must stop crying, and drink your tea — or you will be taken from the table.' Of course, he will not stop crying. Then be sure to have him taken away, no matter how loudly he screams; and do not, by any means, let him appear at the table during the meal.
"The effect of this upon the other children will be good. You will have little trouble with them at that meal. At dinner-time, come with a fixed resolution to act with Johnny in a precisely similar manner. See that all again come quietly and in an orderly manner to the table. Perhaps the little fellow will try his rebellion over again. If he does, as you value his welfare — send him away; and continue doing it until he gives up. After that, your task will be comparatively an easy one, if you will let him see and feel, that you always mean exactly what you say. Persevere with him, and with all the rest — and you will have as orderly and obedient children as are to be found anywhere. You have good elements to work with."
"I see the truth of what you say, and feel its force," Mrs. Carver returned.
"Then there is but one course before you — and that is to do your duty. You cannot shrink from that, without jeopardizing your own soul, and the souls of your children. Let the ground for the implantation of good seed in after-life, be formed in parental obedience. Make your children know that your word is law. Lay your commands upon them as little as possible, but when you do so — be obeyed at all risks."
This and much more I said to my friend and her husband, especially urging him to give more thought and attention to the moral well-being of his children. When I went away, I was satisfied that my words had made a good impression.
A few weeks afterwards, I spent another afternoon and evening with my young friends. My surprise and pleasure were great at noticing a most remarkable change, for so short a time, in the children. Especially was this apparent at the tea-table. Johnny was a little restless, and seemed, as I thought, disposed to take some advantage of my presence. But his mother's eye frequently rested upon his with a steady, meaningful look — and caused him to keep quiet. Towards the conclusion of the meal, he committed some impropriety, not necessary to mention — but of a kind that should always cause a child to be sent away. The bell was promptly rang, and the servant who answered it directed to take Johnny away and put him to bed. "And now remember, Johnny, if you scream while Ellen is putting you to bed, you will not be allowed to sit at the table with us tomorrow morning," said Mrs. Carver, firmly.
Johnny was taken from the table sobbing, but he did not scream aloud. His mother looked after him earnestly. It was a hard trial for her, I could see.
"You are getting along bravely," said I, in an undertone of encouragement.
"Much better than I expected. But it is a very hard trial."
Nothing more was said on the subject during the time that we remained at the table. Helen and Jane had shown a little disposition to be unruly, but the prompt punishment made on their brother's fault completely settled them.
After tea, Mrs. Carver gave me a history of her efforts to bring about a state of order and obedience. I found that the trial had been a severe one indeed. But, from a clear sense of duty, she had persevered, and her efforts had been crowned with far more success than she could have dreamed of.
"Are your children less happy than before?"
I asked. "Has a closer discipline broken down their spirits?"
"Oh! no — not by any means. They are far happier than before. They do not quarrel as much as they did, and are not half so fretful!"
"The result of order and judicious discipline," said I.
"No doubt of it. I could not have believed that a little firmness and decision on my part would have produced so great a change as has taken place. It strikes me with wonder. Not for the world, would I now relinquish strict discipline. It is indeed to my whole family a blessing."
I have frequently since visited my friends, socially and familiarly. She has not relaxed discipline. Her children are growing up polite, orderly, and obedient. The mother looks more cheerful, and the father now takes a lively interest in his children!