CHAPTER IV THE ART OF PARENTAL GIVING-Woodmam
Parents must be made to see that the really irrepressible conflicts are not begun when children are fourteen, sixteen and eighteen but rather four, six, eight; in other words, are ascribable to causes long anterior to the occasions which disclose their unavoidableness. Thus parents may find themselves in collision with maturing children over the utterly sordid and gleamless character of their lives, or, what is not less grave in its consequences, their "visionary and impractical ways, so different from our well-tried modus vivendi." It is quite safe to predict the rise of conflict of one character or another when parents are unmindful of the higher responsibilities of their vocation, the responsibility of making clear to children the reality of moral and spiritual values.
The supreme parental responsibility is to give or to help children to achieve for themselves those standards by which alone men truly live, to give to children the impulse that shall reveal not what they may live by but what they ought to live for. The one potent way to avoid future conflict is so to make for, not point to, a goal that children shall not become mere money-grubbers or perpetuators of ancient prejudices or maintainers of false values or lawless upholders of the law.
Parents would do well to have in mind that the most just and terrible of reproaches are often left unspoken. I am thinking of a youth who had inherited a very large fortune. Happening to point out to him to what uses his means might be put, this youth replied: "My parents never ceased to tell me what not to do, but they never told me what it is that I ought to do. There are no oughts in my life which I have gotten from my father. I have learned what I ought not to do and I suppose that I know that." This was the young heir's revolt and, if his word be true, wholly just revolt against the spirit of those parents who seem to imagine it to be enough if they teach their children such fundamentals as the perils of violating statutory law, the inexpediency of coming into conflict with those ordinances which it is the part of convention never to violate.
In one word, it is not enough to forbid and interdict. Obedience to don'ts, however multitudinous, is not even the beginning of morality though it lead to a certain degree of personal security. Forbidding one's children to steal may keep them out of jail, but that is hardly the highest end of life. More must be given them, such affirmations of faith and life as make for high ideals, for true standards, for real values. I have heard parents, lamenting over a child's misconduct, offer the following in self-exculpation: "I never did or said anything that was wrong in the presence of my children," it being forgotten that children may be present unseen, that they may overhear the unuttered. But, one is tempted to ask, Did you by any chance or of design say or do aught in the presence of your child that was affirmatively and persuasively right?
I can never forget a scene I witnessed many years ago. Shortly after the passing of his father, a son entered the death chamber, shook his fist in the face of his dead father and exclaimed with tearless and yet heartbreaking grief: "You are responsible for the ruin of my life." Later I learned that the father was a mere accumulator of money who had believed every paternal duty to have been fulfilled because he gave and planned to bequeath possessions to his children. Multitudes of parents there are who during their lifetime should be made conscious of the lives they are suffering to go to wreck, theirs the major responsibility. Happily for some parents, most children who survey the ruin of their lives fail to fix the responsibility where it properly belongs,—in parental neglect of the obligation to bring to children moral stimulus and spiritual guidance.
But the important thing for parents is not to guard their speech lest children overhear them but to guard their souls that children be free to see all. If Emerson was right with respect to a man's character uttering itself in every word he speaks, this is truest of all within the microcosm of the home, wherein children are relentlessly attentive to parental speech and silence alike, pitiless assessors of omission as well as commission. What parents are, not what they would have themselves imagined to be by children, shines through every word and act, however scrupulous be parental vigilance over speech and conduct. It may be very important for parents to be watchful of their tongues as they are rather frequently urged to be. But it is rather more imperative to be watchful over their lives. We are tempted to forget that parental duties are positive as well as negative, that it is not enough for parents not to hurt a child, not to do injury to his moral and spiritual well-being. For of all beings parents must, paraphrasing the word of the German poet, be aggressively and resistlessly good, pervasively beneficent, throughout their contact with a child.
It is a problem whether it be more necessary to counsel children to honor parents or to bid parents be deserving as far as they may be of the honor of children. Years ago a great teacher of the nation pleaded as men commonly plead for reverence and honor on the part of children toward parents. But in truth we have no right to plead for reverence filial unless to that plea there be added solemn entreaty to the elders to make it possible for the young to do them reverence and honor. When we, the elders of this day, bemoan the want of unity between our children and ourselves, let us not be so sure of our children's unworthiness but rather ask ourselves whether we are worthy of that which our parents enjoyed at our hands, the reverence and honor which must needs underlie unity in the home.
Honor, in a word, must lie in the daily living of parents ere they may await it at the hands of children. The father, who is nothing more than a cash register or coupon-scissors, is undeserving of honor from children, however many and goodly be his gifts to them. And the mother, whose life is given to the trivialities and inanities of every season's mandate, merits not her children's reverence despite all Biblical injunction. Children cannot be expected to do more than outward and perfunctory obeisance to fathers who care solely for the things of this world, success however achieved, money however gained and used, power whatever its roots and purposes, nor do honor to mothers whose passion is for the lesser and the least things of life.
I remember to have estranged a dear friend by urging in the pulpit that, unless parents strive as earnestly to merit honor as children should seek to yield it, they will not have it nor yet have been deserving of it. Let us for a moment get a nearer glimpse of how the matter works out from day to day. How can a mother whose life is spent in pursuit of the worthless expect reverence, though the time may come when she will yearn for it and rue her failure to have won it? The disease of incessant card-playing has laid low multitudes of wives and mothers, that card-gambling which has been described by former President Eliot as an extraordinarily unintelligent form of pleasurable excitement.
There was a time when, in the speech of the Apocryphal teacher of wisdom men strove for the prizes that were undefiled. But the prizes of the card table are not only defiled but defiling. They fill the lives of women not a few with mentally hurtful and morally enervating excitement. The substitution of the delirium of the gaming table for the durable satisfactions of life that come from worth-while intellectual pursuits is ever a disaster. What manner of children are to be reared by a generation of bridge-experts, of women half-crazed with the pleasures of the card-table, to whom no prize of life is as precious as the temptation of bridge-whist. I recently heard the recital of a bit of conversation between parent and child: "Mother, is card playing terribly important?" "Why do you ask?" "Well, I went to see my aunt and she was playing cards with three friends, and, when grandmother came into the room, no one rose to meet her. So I thought that the game must be awfully important and the prizes very fine or they would have arisen when grandma entered, wouldn't they?"
Even if there were no fear of later conflict, it would still be the duty of parents to give themselves to children, that is to have something to give, to make something of themselves that their gift be worth while. And for the giving of self there can be no substitute though one may reinforce oneself in many ways. Parents cannot give themselves to children vicariously. A young woman, mother of a little one which I had expected to find with her, calmly answered my inquiry touching the child, "A child's place is with its nurse." One begins to understand the tale of the little girl who declared that when she was grown she wished to be a nurse so that she might be with her children. There may be and are times when a child's place is with its nurse if the household be burdened with one, but to lay it down as a general rule that a child's place is always apart from its mother and by the side of its nurse is to disclose the manner of maternal neglect in the homes of many well-circumstanced folk. I have said before that Lincoln is to be congratulated rather than commiserated with upon the fact that he had little schooling and no nurses, seeing that in the place of schools, teachers, nurses, governesses, he had a mother and the immediacy of her unvicarious care.
Unless parental-filial contact be direct rather than intermediate, parents cannot help a child to be as well as to have and to do, to live as well as to earn a livelihood. Parents can give a child little or nothing until they learn that a child is more than a body or intellect, a body to be fed and clothed, a mind to be furnished and trained. When parents come to remember that a child is, not has, a soul to be developed, they will cease to stuff their children's bodies and cram their minds while starving their souls. How often, alas, do parents pamper their children in their lower nature while pauperizing their higher nature, because of their failure to see that not alone were they co-authors of a child-body but that they are to be the continuing re-makers of a child's mind and spirit.
Are there quite enough parents like the father of a friend into whose young hands at leave-taking from home his father placed a Bible and a copy of the poems of Burns with the parting word,—Love and cling to both, but if you must give up the Bible cling to Burns. But verily we can give nothing more to our children than clothes and food and money until we remember to make something of ourselves. It is not easy for the stream of domestic influence to rise higher than the parental level. Time and again I have heard a father exclaim: "I am going to leave my boy so well off that he won't have to shoulder the burdens which all but crushed me." Less often have I seen a father so rear his son that he revealed his inmost purpose to be the fostering of his son's nobleness. Are there as many parents who would have their children finely serviceable as highly successful?