Character doesn’t “happen;” it must be built and the parent’s task is that of builder
MABEL CREWS RINGLANDMay11929
As the Twig is Bent
Women and Their Work
Character doesn’t “happen;” it must be built and the parent’s task is that of builder
MABEL CREWS RINGLAND
IT GOES without saying that every parent who is worth his salt wants his children to develop a sound character and grow up with at least some ideals and some sort of a moral code. But how to achieve this end is not so easily formulated. Does it follow that because we are fairly honest, respectable citizens, our children will inherit a well-balanced moral sense, just as they do the color of their hair and eyes and other physical characteristics? In other words, does character just happen?
One of the most cheering things that science has done for parents of late has been to prove pretty conclusively that our children do not come into the world handicapped from the start by all our faults and foibles of disposition and temperament. If Johnny has a violent temper like his father, it is due not to inheritance, but to living with his father and seeing said temper in action. If Mary is irritable and nervous like her mother, the chances are that she got that way from constant contact with a nervous, high strung parent rather than that she entered the world a “nervous” infant. Of course, there are fundamental differences in children, but it is now generally agreed that personality and character are shaped more largely by the child’s environment than by any other factor; which means that a youngster’s home can either make or mar him.
Exhortation Is Empty
CHOULD parents, then, start out with high ideals of unselfishness, self-control and honor for their offspring and daily expose Johnny and Mary to much moralizing on these abstract qualities? We know that Johnny is apt to give short shrift to our zealous urgings, resent our pious domination and kick over the traces at the earliest opportunity, while Mary may be frankly bored and inwardly, if not openly, rebellious. If exhorting could make saints of our children most of them would have sprouted wings long ago, I feel sure; but the fundamentals of character-building strike deeper than that. They begin in the unconscious influences of earliest childhood, in the attitudes and emotions built up when the young personality is too immature to reason things out, but is as sensitive as a sheet of blotting-paper. It is not by dominating, suppressing or directing the child’s character that we can best develop it, but by providing the most wholesome conditions for natural growth so that it may be free to expand in the way best suited to its individual needs.
The first of these is an atmosphere of serenity and regularity in the home, so that the child’s physical needs of mealtime, bedtime, playtime, dressing and toilet evolve through a consistent routine into wholesome everyday habits. Thus his earliest character development begins in the cradle, and when he learns that he cannot bully his small world with a wail, he is achieving a certain degree of stability that is invaluable, even for such a tiny, insignificant bundle of fluff. As his personality emerges, if by judicious encouragement he is given opportunity to test out his newly acquired powers, he acquires a degree of trust in life and self-confidence which spur him on to greater effort. In learning to walk, to play alone, to dress and feed himself and do many other things which strengthen his self-reliance and independence, he is building up his morale, and the best help we can give is to let him alone as much as possible and interfere only when necessary. It is often hard to realize that he is growing up mentally as well as physically, which, in the words of Professor Gesell, means: “Attaining sufficient stamina to meet the demands of life squarely on one’s own resources.”
When the youngster is old enough to begin to distinguish between right and wrong, the parents’ attitude is as important as their example. If the atmosphere is one of self-interest, cynicism, disrespect for law and morality in general,, the child’s sense of moral values is bound to be distorted. It is useless, too, to expect selfcontrol, truthfulness and kindred virtues in youngsters if they do not see these qualities exhibited in daily contacts. One mother confided in me that she thought the best way to develop her child’s character was to discipline her own.
Fair, consistent and reasonable treatment of a child in all matters of discipline helps to interpret the laws of the universe to him, while inconsistency, friction in the home, or difference between the father’s and mother’s policies, confuse and bewilder the innocent victim. He is apt to classify as wrong the acts that bring punishment, and as right the things that he gets away with. How much kinder to help him to get his bearings, not through severe punishment, but through a firm yet understanding and sympathetic parental policy and an example in the home that is above reproach.
It is hard for us to realize sometimes that youngsters are not blessed with moral sense when they begin life. Nature has endowed them with certain appetites and emotions, and their sole desire, for a few years at least, is to satisfy these fundamental urges in the most direct way. When this procedure seems to us crude and primitive, or when it conflicts with our established conventions or moral codes, we are apt to call the child naughty or perverse, or even wicked. It takes years to graft on all the artificial restraints and inhibitions of our modern mode of living; to teach Johnny, for example, that there are certain things a gentleman doesn’t do, and the process is apt to be as painful as it is slow.
But it seems to me we have a saner, safer approach that makes it slightly less difficult. The old idea of developing a child’s character by the rough-and-ready method of exposing him to temptations which he must in some way learn to resist, has given place to what we might call the “Lead-us-not-into-temptation” policy of the Great Teacher. If it is made easier and pleasanter for a child to do right than wrong when he is learning the rules of the game, he will establish the habit of doing right, with satisfaction. Parents who tempt youngsters before their moral sense is really developed, by leaving money about carelessly and giving the child no regular allowance or means of earning, who force them into lies and other forms of deceit by cross-questioning them, or by fear of punishment, are giving them the wrong sort of training in habit formation. Children can be made liars and thieves and even criminals by this very method.
A boy of eight who had been taught at home that even a child is responsible for his own acts and that a gentleman always owns up when he does wrong, had the misfortune to shoot his hockey puck through the glass in a store door. Instead of escaping with all speed as his chums advocated, he went into the store and confessed his guilt.
“I felt so ashamed and I said I was very sorry and that it was an accident,” he admitted later. “I thought everybody would say afterward: ‘There’s the bad boy who broke the window.’ But the lady was very nice to me and thanked me for coming in. She said: ‘You’re made of good stuff. If I were your mother I’d be proud of you!’ So I came out with my head in the air and I didn’t have to feel ashamed. I’ll earn the money to pay for that window, ’cause I broke it.” He had learned that it actually does pay to be honest and straightforward, for social approval is a real satisfaction to a child.
An interesting carry-over was seen when a similar experience happened to an older chum of his, whose first impulse was to run and hide. “I’ll go with you and you tell Mrs. C. you did it,” I heard the eight-year-old advising. “Somebody else might get the blame. It’s always better to own up to what you’ve done, ’cause then you’re not ashamed. You’ll have to pay for the damage, but that’s only fair when you did it. Come on, there’s nothing to be scared of when you’re telling the truth!”
Children Need Responsibility
ANOTHER idea which the child must
A be helped to grasp as early as possible is that of his place in the family circle. He needs to learn that he is only one of à group, not the most important member of it, and that teamwork is his best contribution. An only child especially should be guarded from over-solicitous parents or he will soon become self-centred and egotistical. Membership in a group involves a share in its responsibilities as well, and the family circle is no exception.
In these days when the hulk of our socalled character developing tasks have been removed from the home, it is not always easy to provide training in responsibility which many educators believe is the very foundation of character building. But there are always plenty of odd jobs to be done around every house which youngsters can look after. A reasonable amount of responsibility of some specific sort is good for any boy or girl, and it is doubtful if anyone ever developed strong character without it. Our very natural desire to save our youngsters much of the hardship of life may lead us to make life too soft for them. A mother I knew used to boast that she never asked her daughters to do anything for her that they didn’t want to do. She wished them to grow up with happy memories of their home life. The result was far from happy, for the girls became extremely selfcentred and totally spoiled, while the mother made herself a slave to their whims and eventually broke down in health. In another home I know, the children refuse to do the slightest service unless they are paid for it, bargaining in the most cold-blooded manner, as they have never been accustomed to assuming their share gladly.
If the idea of mutual co-operation is begun soon enough, children accept it as a matter of course. In the country a variety of occupations is more easily provided than in city communities. A successful farmer with several sons allowed each of them to choose the work he liked best and then expected him to be responsible for it. When you like a job, your interest will not flag even when it becomes a hard grind. One of the boys who chose the livestock as his particular care, was sent out on an old gray mare, at the age of thirteen, to buy calves from the neighbors. Of course, he made some mistakes, and then the father explained the situation and set him right, but putting him on his own initiative and trusting his judgment fostered a proprietary interest in the farm, which all the sons shared to a marked degree. Many boys and girls have learned their first lessons in responsibility through caring for pets of their own, but too often a pet is sadly neglected after the novelty wears off. If the young owner is not willing to make the necessary sacrifice of time and energy to take full charge of the pet, the pet had better go.
A popular and scholarly preacher when asked recently if he was not worried lest the younger generation run wild morally, replied that he had no such fears. “But I wonder sometimes,” was his thoughtful counter-question, “whether the younger generation is not going to tackle life with superficiality of spirit and weakness of fibre.” Making life as soft, as comfortable and as free from responsibility as we have been inclined to do of late, is not apt to give our young people the stamina and stability of character we covet for them.
The question of how much freedom to decide things tor himself should be given a child is a debatable one and few parents feel as cocksure about it as they used to. Doubtless we shall all agree that parental authority is at best only a temporary measure for the protection of the child while he is learning to make decisions for himself, but it is not so easy to decide just when the parent should lay down the law and when he should let the child make his own decision and abide by his choice. It stands to reason, though, that in order to decide between the right and the wrong course of action, a child needs practice in making choices of his own free will, and it is safer for him to begin to do this in minor matters and while we are on hand to guard him from serious mistakes.
There are countless items of slight importance which even the young child can decide for himself, and as his experience grows, so may his responsibility for decisions. If mistakes or disappointments occur, as they surely will, he will profit by them and avoid their repetition. A hoy who schools himself to consider both sides of a question and to think it through to a conclusion, is not apt to make snap judgments and foolish, impulsive choices. Later, during adolescence there will come the inevitable clash between the youngsters and oldsters, when the rising generation takes up ultra-modern ideas contrary to its elders, as it has always done. Our children will not decide as we want them to, and we may often be disappointed and hurt, if not acutely anxious. But if they have had some training in making decisions and have learned to practise self-control they are more apt to choose intelligently and less on the impulse of the moment than if everything had always been decided for them and their judgment kept immature.
With all the modern stress on intelligence and education, thoughtful parents are feeling that character and ideals should not be allowed to drop out of the picture. The quaint advice of the poet, “Be good, sweet child, and let who will be
clever,” is apt to be modernized into “Be clever, sweet child, and let who will be good.” We deplore the code of the street or the gang, but we cannot control it. The only precautions we can take are so to shape the child’s ideals during the few, brief early years when he is under our control, place before him desirable action patterns, then put him on his own resources as soon as we can and keep him there, setting the stage as skilfully as may be for his best natural character development.
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