Formation of Character

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856

Most people are averse to close thinking and personal investigation. They would rather rely on others, and follow the beaten track, than strike out new paths, and aim at greater progress and higher attainments. It is the part of indolence and imbecility, servilely to copy others, and to remain satisfied with walking in their steps, instead of soaring into higher regions, and taking wider views.

Much depends on early education in regard to the future intellectual efforts of children. If they are furnished with everything the young heart can desire if every gratifying object is placed around them, and there is nothing left for the exercise of their own powers their minds will be feeble, and never acquire the vigor necessary for extensive usefulness.

Parents often greatly mistake in providing too many playthings for their children. They appear to think that, by heaping around their little ones a multitude of toys, they shall add to their enjoyment and expand their minds. But the more a child has of these things the more restless he becomes. He throws aside one after another his playthings, and is almost equally dissatisfied with whatever is placed within his reach. He has too many objects; they are a burden to him, and render him fretful and uneasy.

Even the child derives his highest pleasure from doing something for himself. Give him a few articles, and let him add others by his own invention; let him try what he can do, and see that his efforts have accomplished something, and he will be delighted and stimulated to renewed exertion. The boy who has made but the crude imitation of a ship, a cart, or a house, will be more cheerful and happy than he would have been, by the most costly and brilliant toy. But, what is of far more importance, his mind has received a new impulse; it has acquired new vigor, and is better prepared for other efforts.

It is by a succession of these infantile attempts, by an almost infinitude of trials to imitate the sterner realities of adulthood, that the mind gathers strength, develops its powers, and rises to the highest attainments. The pyramids of Egypt, it has been said, were built by the successive strokes of the pick-axe and the chisel; and the mightiest intellect is formed by a gradual process from the imbecility of infancy. Its progress may not be observable for a time, like the coral rock built up from the bottom of the ocean; but it ultimately rises above the waves, and becomes an island, adorned with verdure and beauty. So the childish intellect, by its own action, rises above the common level, becomes an ornament to society, and a blessing to the world.

Could you have seen, in childhood, any one of the self-made men who have honored the country and the age in which they lived you would have found him left to his own resources. His self-formation commenced with the first buddings of reason and imagination. So it was with Franklin, Sherman, and others. Their humble origin shows that they were not surrounded with a profusion of splendid toys. Their minds were daily acquiring fresh impulse and increased energy from the very circumstances of destitution in which they were placed. What Webster, the great statesman and careful observer of human nature, says of older scholars, is equally applicable to children: "Costly apparatus and splendid cabinets have no magical power to make scholars. As a man is in all circumstances, under God, the master of his own fortune so he is the maker of his own mind. The Creator has so constituted the human intellect, that it can only grow by its own action, and thereby it will certainly and necessarily grow. Every man must, therefore, educate himself."

Let parents improve the clue here given, and apply it to the training of children. Assist them in their crude endeavors to do something for themselves. Furnish the means and they will soon learn to apply them in accomplishing their purposes.

They should early be taught that they have a character to form, on which depends their own happiness, the esteem of friends, and, above all, the approbation of their Maker and Redeemer. They can soon learn that there is no pleasure like that of doing right, of being kind, generous, and thankful for favors shown them. He who would have friends, must show himself friendly, and there are innumerable occasions recurring daily for the exercise of the best and noblest affections.

A child should love to please and oblige others, and should love to do good. This should be his element, the very air he breathes, the rejoicing of his heart. He is amiable and lovely, just in proportion as he exhibits good-will and kindness, and a regard for justice and rectitude. And he is an object of pity, to be pointed at by the finger of scorn, when these traits are lacking, or the opposite ones displayed.

His character is himself his dispositions, affections, and general conduct. It is that which he will carry with him in future life, and which will shape his destiny. He can easily be made to realize its importance, and how much it depends on himself. Parents must look after their children, when away from under the parental roof. Their eye must follow them to the village school, and they must see what influences are operating there for good or evil, and what are the restraints under which they are placed.

It is surprising how much mischief they will learn, in a short period, from wicked companions, and how much they may do to corrupt the minds and morals of others. They should be made to realize their individual responsibility, while mingling with their associates, and that they are accountable for their conduct in company, equally as when alone. Each individual is singled out and marked by the all-seeing One, and the sins of youth may cause regret and remorse at a future day.

The formation of character demands the study of the Scriptures, with a view to their precepts and examples. It requires the cultivation of the heart the moral affections as well as the intellect. It involves improvement in external deportment, in ease, propriety, and manly behavior, in consulting the feelings of others, and in often yielding our convenience to theirs. Courtesy is a great ornament, and next in importance to the first principles of knowledge.

Children should early be taught self-government. They must learn to govern their temper and passions, and not be left as the "horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding; whose mouth must be held in with a bit and bridle." It is shameful and ruinous to allow them to fly into a rage, and give way to violent passion, when unexpectedly disappointed in regard to an anticipated enjoyment. Whenever such ill temper is manifested, they must be called to an account, whatever other business is on hand, and must be taught its exceeding sinfulness and its destructive consequences to themselves.

Self-government is essential to all true peace and happiness; it is essential to the quiet of families and communities, and to all civil freedom. A free government cannot exist where the people have not learned to govern themselves. Anarchy and despotism will ensue, and the masses must be controlled by the strong arm of absolute power. A vigilant, an all-pervading police, or a standing army, must accomplish what the people might easily do for themselves.

Children must be made to control their temper. This may be a difficult task; it may require a long course of discipline; but the object is worth all the care and effort it may cost. Washington well understood its importance when he said, "I can more easily govern the American army than my passions!" But he had them in subjection, and the world admired his self-possession and unruffled temper in the most trying circumstances. Scarcely a greater blessing can be conferred upon a child, than the ability to govern himself in the fear of the Lord in every situation.

The young should be taught to rely on their own efforts in their studies. They must use the utmost endeavors to solve a difficult problem, or investigate an abstruse subject, before resorting to others for assistance. They must learn to clothe their thoughts in their own language. It may not be as learned and elegant as that of the most accomplished writers; but one idea expressed in their own way, is more improving and worth more than the copying of whole pages from other authors. By giving utterance to their own feelings and conceptions, they are preparing to become the future ministers of the gospel, the eloquent advocates at the bar and in the senate. They acquire the habit of thinking for themselves, and thus become qualified for taking a part in the great enterprises of the day, and pushing forward the movements which are to renovate the moral world.

Let it not be thought that this self-reliance is inconsistent with a proper sense of dependence on God. All our powers are given us by the Creator to be employed for His glory in accomplishing the purposes of holy living. They must be improved diligently by us, while realizing our entire dependence on God. "Without Me," says the Savior, "you can do nothing." He only, who quietly and with child-like simplicity submits himself to God, accomplishes the end of his existence, and enjoys lasting security and peace.