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An essay by Helen Hunt Jackson

The Inhumanities of Parents--Rudeness

Title:     The Inhumanities of Parents--Rudeness
Author: Helen Hunt Jackson [More Titles by Jackson]

"Inhumanity--Cruelty. Cruelty--The disposition to give unnecessary pain."--Webster's Dict.

I had intended to put third on the list of inhumanities of parents "needless requisitions;" but my last summer's observations changed my estimate, and convinced me that children suffer more pain from the rudeness with which they are treated than from being forced to do needless things which they dislike. Indeed, a positively and graciously courteous manner toward children is a thing so rarely seen in average daily life, the rudenesses which they receive are so innumerable, that it is hard to tell where to begin in setting forth the evil. Children themselves often bring their sharp and unexpected logic to bear on some incident illustrating the difference in this matter of behavior between what is required from them and what is shown to them: as did a little boy I knew, whose father said crossly to him one morning, as he came into the breakfast-room, "Will you ever learn to shut that door after you?" and a few seconds later, as the child was rather sulkily sitting down in his chair, "And do you mean to bid anybody 'good-morning,' or not?" "I don't think you gave _me_ a very nice 'good-morning,' anyhow," replied satirical justice, aged seven. Then, of course, he was reproved for speaking disrespectfully; and so in the space of three minutes the beautiful opening of the new day, for both parents and children, was jarred and robbed of its fresh harmony by the father's thoughtless rudeness.

Was the breakfast-room door much more likely to be shut the next morning? No. The lesson was pushed aside by the pain, the motive to resolve was dulled by the antagonism. If that father had called his son, and, putting his arm round him, (oh! the blessed and magic virtue of putting your arm round a child's neck!) had said, "Good-morning, my little man;" and then, in a confidential whisper in his ear, "What shall we do to make this forgetful little boy remember not to leave that door open, through which the cold wind blows in on all of us?"--can any words measure the difference between the first treatment and the second? between the success of the one and the failure of the other?

Scores of times in a day, a child is told, in a short, authoritative way, to do or not to do such little things as we ask at the hands of older people, as favors, graciously, and with deference to their choice. "Would you be so very kind as to close that window?" "May I trouble you for that cricket?" "If you would be as comfortable in this chair as in that, I would like to change places with you." "Oh, excuse me, but your head is between me and the light: could you see as well if you moved a little?" "Would it hinder you too long to stop at the store for me? I would be very much obliged to you, if you would." "Pray, do not let me crowd you," &c.; In most people's speech to children, we find, as synonyms for these polite phrases: "Shut that window down, this minute." "Bring me that cricket." "I want that chair; get up. You can sit in this." "Don't you see that you are right in my light? Move along." "I want you to leave off playing, and go right down to the store for me." "Don't crowd so. Can't you see that there is not room enough for two people here?" and so on. As I write, I feel an instinctive consciousness that these sentences will come like home-thrusts to some surprised people. I hope so. That is what I want. I am sure that in more than half the cases where family life is marred in peace, and almost stripped of beauty, by just these little rudenesses, the parents are utterly unconscious of them. The truth is, it has become like an established custom, this different and less courteous way of speaking to children on small occasions and minor matters. People who are generally civil and of fair kindliness do it habitually, not only to their own children, but to all children. We see it in the cars, in the stages, in stores, in Sunday schools, everywhere.

On the other hand, let a child ask for any thing without saying "please," receive any thing without saying "thank you," sit still in the most comfortable seat without offering to give it up, or press its own preference for a particular book, chair, or apple, to the inconveniencing of an elder, and what an outcry we have: "Such rudeness!" "Such an ill-mannered child!" "His parents must have neglected him strangely." Not at all: they have been steadily telling him a great many times every day not to do these precise things which you dislike. But they themselves have been all the while doing those very things to him; and there is no proverb which strikes a truer balance between two things than the old one which weighs example over against precept.

However, that it is bad policy to be rude to children is the least of the things to be said against it. Over this they will triumph, sooner or later. The average healthy child has a native bias towards gracious good behavior and kindly affections. He will win and be won in the long run, and, the chances are, have better manners than his father. But the pain that we give these blessed little ones when we wound their tenderness,--for that there is no atoning. Over that they can never triumph, either now or hereafter. Why do we dare to be so sure that they are not grieved by ungracious words and tones? that they can get used to being continually treated as if they were "in the way"? Who has not heard this said? I have, until I have longed for an Elijah and for fire, that the grown-up cumberers of the ground, who are the ones really in the way, might be burned up, to make room for the children. I believe that, if it were possible to count up in any one month, and show in the aggregate, all of this class of miseries borne by children, the world would cry out astonished. I know a little girl, ten years old, of nervous temperament, whose whole physical condition is disordered, and seriously, by her mother's habitual atmosphere of rude fault-finding. She is a sickly, fretful, unhappy, almost unbearable child. If she lives to grow up, she will be a sickly, fretful, unhappy, unlovely woman. But her mother is just as much responsible for the whole as if she had deranged her system by feeding her on poisonous drugs. Yet she is a most conscientious, devoted, and anxious mother, and, in spite of this manner, a loving one. She does not know that there is any better way than hers. She does not see that her child is mortified and harmed when she says to her, in the presence of strangers, "How do you suppose you _look_ with your mouth open like that?" "Do you want me to show you how you are sitting?"--and then a grotesque imitation of her stooping shoulders. "_Will_ you sit still for one minute?" "_Do_ take your hands off my dress." "Was there ever such an awkward child?" When the child replies fretfully and disagreeably, she does not see that it is only an exact reflection of her own voice and manners. She does not understand any of the things that would make for her own peace, as well as for the child's. Matters grow worse, instead of better, as the child grows older and has more will; and the chances are that the poor little soul will be worried into her grave.

Probably most parents, even very kindly ones, would be a little startled at the assertion that a child ought never to be reproved in the presence of others. This is so constant an occurrence that nobody thinks of noticing it; nobody thinks of considering whether it be right and best, or not. But it is a great rudeness to a child. I am entirely sure that it ought never to be done. Mortification is a condition as unwholesome as it is uncomfortable. When the wound is inflicted by the hand of a parent, it is all the more certain to rankle and do harm. Let a child see that his mother is so anxious that he should have the approbation and good-will of her friends that she will not call their attention to his faults; and that, while she never, under any circumstances, allows herself to forget to tell him afterward, alone, if he has behaved improperly, she will spare him the additional pain and mortification of public reproof; and, while that child will lay these secret reproofs to heart, he will still be happy.

I know a mother who had the insight to see this, and the patience to make it a rule; for it takes far more patience, far more time, than the common method.

She said sometimes to her little boy, after visitors had left the parlor, "Now, dear, I am going to be your little girl, and you are to be my papa. And we will play that a gentleman has just come in to see you, and I will show you exactly how you have been behaving while this lady has been calling to see me. And you can see if you do not feel very sorry to have your little girl behave so."

Here is a dramatic representation at once which that boy does not need to see repeated many times before he is forever cured of interrupting, of pulling his mother's gown, of drumming on the piano, &c.;,--of the thousand and one things which able-bodied children can do to make social visiting where they are a martyrdom and a penance.

Once I saw this same little boy behave so boisterously and rudely at the dinner-table, in the presence of guests, that I said to myself, "Surely, this time she will have to break her rule, and reprove him publicly." I saw several telegraphic signals of rebuke, entreaty, and warning flash from her gentle eyes to his; but nothing did any good. Nature was too much for him; he could not at that minute force himself to be quiet. Presently she said, in a perfectly easy and natural tone, "Oh, Charley, come here a minute; I want to tell you something." No one at the table supposed that it had any thing to do with his bad behavior. She did not intend that they should. As she whispered to him, I alone saw his cheek flush, and that he looked quickly and imploringly into her face; I alone saw that tears were almost in her eyes. But she shook her head, and he went back to his seat with a manful but very red little face. In a few moments he laid down his knife and fork, and said, "Mamma, will you please to excuse me?" "Certainly, my dear," said she. Nobody but I understood it, or observed that the little fellow had to run very fast to get out of the room without crying. Afterward she told me that she never sent a child away from the table in any other way. "But what would you do," said I, "if he were to refuse to ask to be excused?" Then the tears stood full in her eyes. "Do you think he could," she replied, "when he sees that I am only trying to save him from pain?" In the evening, Charley sat in my lap, and was very sober. At last he whispered to me, "I'll tell you an awful secret, if you won't tell. Did you think I had done my dinner this afternoon when I got excused? Well, I hadn't. Mamma made me, because I acted so. That's the way she always does. But I haven't had to have it done to me before for ever so long,--not since I was a little fellow" (he was eight now); "and I don't believe I ever shall again till I'm a man." Then he added, reflectively, "Mary brought me all the rest of my dinner upstairs; but I wouldn't touch it, only a little bit of the ice-cream. I don't think I deserved any at all; do you?"

I shall never, so long as I live, forget a lesson of this sort which my own mother once gave me. I was not more than seven years old; but I had a great susceptibility to color and shape in clothes, and an insatiable admiration for all people who came finely dressed. One day, my mother said to me, "Now I will play 'house' with you." Who does not remember when to "play house" was their chief of plays? And to whose later thought has it not occurred that in this mimic little show lay bound up the whole of life? My mother was the liveliest of playmates, she took the worst doll, the broken tea-set, the shabby furniture, and the least convenient corner of the room for her establishment. Social life became a round of festivities when she kept house as my opposite neighbor. At last, after the washing-day, and the baking-day, and the day when she took dinner with me, and the day when we took our children and walked out together, came the day for me to take my oldest child and go across to make a call at her house. Chill discomfort struck me on the very threshold of my visit. Where was the genial, laughing, talking lady who had been my friend up to that moment? There she sat, stock-still, dumb, staring first at my bonnet, then at my shawl, then at my gown, then at my feet; up and down, down and up, she scanned me, barely replying in monosyllables to my attempts at conversation; finally getting up, and coming nearer, and examining my clothes, and my child's still more closely. A very few minutes of this were more than I could bear; and, almost crying, I said, "Why, mamma, what makes you do so?" Then the play was over; and she was once more the wise and tender mother, telling me playfully that it was precisely in such a way I had stared, the day before, at the clothes of two ladies who had come in to visit her. I never needed that lesson again. To this day, if I find myself departing from it for an instant, the old tingling shame burns in my cheeks.

To this day, also, the old tingling pain burns my cheeks as I recall certain rude and contemptuous words which were said to me when I was very young, and stamped on my memory forever. I was once called a "stupid child" in the presence of strangers. I had brought the wrong book from my father's study. Nothing could be said to me to-day which would give me a tenth part of the hopeless sense of degradation which came from those words. Another time, on the arrival of an unexpected guest to dinner, I was sent, in a great hurry, away from the table, to make room, with the remark that "it was not of the least consequence about the child; she could just as well have her dinner afterward." "The child" would have been only too happy to help on the hospitality of the sudden emergency, if the thing had been differently put; but the sting of having it put in that way I never forgot. Yet in both these instances the rudeness was so small, in comparison with what we habitually see, that it would be too trivial to mention, except for the bearing of the fact that the pain it gave has lasted till now.

When we consider seriously what ought to be the nature of a reproof from a parent to a child, and what is its end, the answer is simple enough. It should be nothing but the superior wisdom and strength, explaining to inexperience and feebleness wherein they have made a mistake, to the end that they may avoid such mistakes in future. If personal annoyance, impatience, antagonism enter in, the relation is marred and the end endangered. Most sacred and inalienable of all rights is the right of helplessness to protection from the strong, of ignorance to counsel from the wise. If we give our protection and counsel grudgingly, or in a churlish, unkind manner, even to the stranger that is in our gates, we are no Christians, and deserve to be stripped of what little wisdom and strength we have hoarded. But there are no words to say what we are or what we deserve if we do thus to the little children whom we have dared, for our own pleasure, to bring into the perils of this life, and whose whole future may be blighted by the mistakes of our careless hands.

[The end]
Helen Hunt Jackson's Essay: The Inhumanities of Parents--Rudeness