Obedience by M. MacEacharn

Before listening to our season three episode on obedience, you might want to listen to or read this article from the Parents' Review, the magazine edited by Charlotte Mason.  


by M. MacEacharn

Volume 14, no 3, March 1903, pages 201-206

Are the children of the present day obedient? Anyone who has much to do with children would emphatically answer “No,” and parents meekly accept this state of things as a phase of the Zeitgeist, and therefore inevitable. Yet there never was a time when parents so unselfishly tried to do the best that can be done for their children. What then is the cause? We cannot reasonably put the blame on children themselves. 

Times of transition are always difficult and necessarily create a certain amount of confusion in theory and practice. The ideas of the educated world are undergoing a change in matters of education. Parents are beginning to understand what the words “education” means; they realise that each child has an individual personality and innate capacities to be developed; that he has a complex moral nature; and that over-severity and the suppression of spontaneity may do injury to the child. This realization creates a state of vacillation. We are so accustomed to having our pre-conceived convictions upset by the result of child study that we hesitate interfering with the child as we hesitate putting our finger on the wing of a beautiful moth. We have discovered so often that the child has been right and we wrong, and we are so afraid of being unjust to the child’s nature that we almost shrink from asserting authority. 

The weakening of conviction results in a weakening of will power. The child is quick to detect hesitation, and because he knows exactly what he wants, the strength of his will frequently over-rides that of his parent, who is left wondering whether the object of the child’s desire was caprice or necessity; and whether it was right to give way. 

There are sentimentalists who argue that we have no right to demand obedience from the child, so that he may learn to command himself. There has even been a book written by an American lady advocating these ideas, but however much we fail in exacting obedience from children, few of us in possession of well-balanced minds would acknowledge the wisdom of them. It is hardly advisable to invert domestic life, for if the child does not obey parents, they must obey the child, as in an ordinary household they cannot easily act independently of one another. We must life in obedience to something. As reason develops, obedience grows less conscious and more abstract; but with the child, who is occupied with the world of things, not of ideas, the motive of obedience must have a concrete form, or be meaningless. He must learn to obey clear and definite words before he can obey abstract ideals. We may not have more innate wisdom than the child, but at least we have the wisdom of experience, and it is right that the child should profit by that which we have. 

Our frequent cause of disobedience is the undue nervousness of mothers, which often prevents children having the necessary outlet to energy and spirits. Many mothers see and imagine dangers everywhere and are so afraid of possible catastrophes, and hedge children in with so many precautions, preventions and prohibitions, that the temptation to disobey becomes overwhelmingly strong, or else, the children become as over-cautious and nervous as their mothers themselves. A large amount of physical freedom children must have if they are not  to become rebellious or spiritless. I do not believe one child in a hundred, under ten years of age, belonging to the upper classes, has sufficient freedom to run, jump, and climb, or to dabble in earth and water--to tumble and “mess” about, in other words. 

People not in continual contact with children cannot realize what an enormous amount of energy and spirit is wasted by disobedience. It causes so much unnecessary friction, which might be avoided if only children were brought up to look upon obedience as a necessity, and not as an optional matter. Whether children do this or not depends largely upon the training they receive during the first three years of life. Who does not know the home where life is a whirl of unrest and friction? Why do nurseries so often resemble bear-gardens, rather than gardens for the nurture of delicate human souls? SImply because there is no discipline. The life of a governess is made unnecessarily difficult nowadays by the amount of “breaking in” she has to do with each new pupil. 

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It is the necessity of obedience that so many children fail to grasp. “Why must I?” one hears continually from their lips. This attitude of criticism and scepticism is hardly desirable in a child. Trustfulness is one of childhood’s most beautiful characteristics. It is that calm and joyful attitude of trustfulness and confidence which is so beautiful in the minds of some of our greatest thinkers-- Emerson, for instance-- for all great minds retain some of the charm of childhood. 

A child may still retain an enquiring mind and yet have sufficient faith in parents, or those whom parents have chosen to guide their children, to believe that their authority is for his good, and not for the purpose of frustrating his plans and aims. One cannot help asking sometimes if children have even an elementary idea of the meaning of respect; and, where ideas of respect are underdeveloped so will those be of reverence. 

“This is the thing that I know and which, if you labour faithfully, you shall know also...that in Reverence is the chief joy and power of life:...Reverence for what is pure and bring in your own youth; for what is true and tried in the age of others; for all that is gracious among the living, great among the dead...and marvellous in the powers that cannot die.” 

These beautiful words of Ruskin’s have more meaning to on the older one grows. To a child, however, reverence can never be the chief joy and power of life, for the feeling of reverence “for all that is gracious among the living, great among the dead” is the outcome of many years of education in what is beautiful and true. The starting-point on the road to reverence is the feeling of respect, which develops as the habit of obedience is trained. 

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Many people bring up children on the theory that love is enough, and that persuasion through love can do all things. We all have seen the fatal consequences of severity overridden by tenderness, where severity would have been the wise course to pursue, the power of love is infinite, where severity would have been the wise course to pursue, the power of love is infinite, but the soul requires some disciplinary preparation, as the world did, before it is capable of being appealed to by that power. We have to guard against mawkishness {Leah’s note: being excessively sentimental} in training just as much as against over-severity. The love that encircles a child should not be of the idolising kind if we wish him to have a healthy attitude towards life. Even the word “love” can be heard too often by a child, for his frequent use of it in regard to such things as pears and bananas shows that it conveys but an elementary meaning to him. It is better for a child to be concerned with things and actions than to think much about his feelings for them. If he is talked to too much about feelings he becomes undesirably introspective. If discipline is maintained entirely by love, what will be the result if the personal influence of the disciplinarian is withdrawn, as all personal influence is liable to be? Obedience should be based on a sense of duty, not on the emotions. Boys, in particular, are very reticent in regard to matters of sentiment. It is not because in healthy boys feeling are unconscious, except when the sense of protection necessitates activity, as in the case of pet animals; a boy is probably more conscious of his love for his rabbit than of his love for his younger brother. Of what avail is to speak of brotherly love to a child whose brother has just smashed his favourite engine? The child has many battles to fight before he achieves the height of living by love. If we attempt to put ideals before the child which are those only of a highly-evolved mind, we shall produce that state which induces him to say, “It’s not good trying to be good.” 

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Life is difficult, and we should not increase the child’s difficulties by giving him too much freedom of choice in action. In home life, as in that of the State, discipline is a “preliminary condition for the free unfolding of our noblest capacities.”

 (Transcribed by Leah Martin from Archive.org and Ambleside Online

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