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An essay by Helen Hunt Jackson

The Republic Of The Family

Title:     The Republic Of The Family
Author: Helen Hunt Jackson [More Titles by Jackson]

"He is lover and friend and son, all in one," said a friend, the other day, telling me of a dear boy who, out of his first earnings, had just sent to his mother a beautiful gift, costing much more than he could really afford for such a purpose.

That mother is the wisest, sweetest, most triumphant mother I have ever known. I am restrained by feelings of deepest reverence for her from speaking, as I might speak, of the rare and tender methods by which her motherhood has worked, patiently and alone, for nearly twenty years, and made of her two sons "lovers and friends." I have always felt that she owed it to the world to impart to other mothers all that she could of her divine secret; to write out, even in detail, all the processes by which her boys have grown to be so strong, upright, loving, and manly.

But one of her first principles has so direct a bearing on the subject that I wish to speak of here that I venture to attempt an explanation of it. She has told me that she never once, even in their childish days, took the ground that she had right to require any thing from them simply _because_ she was their mother. This is a position very startling to the average parent. It is exactly counter to traditions.

"Why must I?" or "Why cannot I?" says the child. "Because I say so, and I am your father," has been the stern, authoritative reply ever since we can any of us remember; and, I presume, ever since the Christian era, since that good Apostle Paul saw enough in the Ephesian families where he visited to lead him to write to them from Rome, "Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath."

It seems to me that there are few questions of practical moment in every-day living on which a foregone and erroneous conclusion has been adopted so generally and so undoubtingly. How it first came about it is hard to see. Or, rather, it is easy to see, when one reflects; and the very clearness of the surface explanation of it only makes its injustice more odious. It came about because the parent was strong and the child weak. Helplessness in the hands of power,--that is the whole story. Suppose for an instant (and, absurd as the supposition is practically, it is not logically absurd), that the child at six were strong enough to whip his father; let him have the intellect of an infant, the mistakes and the faults of an infant,--which the father would feel himself bound and _would be_ bound to correct,--but the body of a man; and then see in how different fashion the father would set himself to work to insure good behavior. I never see the heavy, impatient hand of a grown man or woman laid with its brute force, even for the smallest purpose, on a little child, without longing for a sudden miracle to give the baby an equal strength to resist.

When we realize what it is for us to dare, for our own pleasure, even with solemnest purpose of the holiest of pleasures, parenthood, to bring into existence a soul, which must take for our sake its chance of joy or sorrow, how monstrous it seems to assume that the fact that we have done this thing gives us arbitrary right to control that soul; to set our will, as will, in place of its will; to be law unto its life; to try to make of it what it suits our fancy or our convenience to have it; to claim that it is under obligation to us!

The truth is, all the obligation, in the outset, is the other way. We owe all to them. All that we can do to give them happiness, to spare them pain; all that we can do to make them wise and good and safe,--all is too little! All and more than all can never repay them for the sweetness, the blessedness, the development that it has been to us to call children ours. If we can also so win their love by our loving, so deserve their respect by our honorableness, so earn their gratitude by our helpfulness, that they come to be our "lovers and friends," then, ah! then we have had enough of heaven here to make us willing to postpone the more for which we hope beyond!

But all this comes not of authority, not by command; all this is perilled always, always impaired, and often lost, by authoritative, arbitrary ruling, substitution of law and penalty for influence.

It will be objected by parents who disagree with this theory that only authority can prevent license; that without command there will not be control. No one has a right to condemn methods he has not tried. I know, for I have seen, I know, for I have myself tested, that command and authority are short-lived; that they do not insure the results they aim at; that real and permanent control of a child's behavior, even in little things, is gained only by influence, by a slow, sure educating, enlightening, and strengthening of a child's will. I know, for I have seen, that it is possible in this way to make a child only ten years old quite as intelligent and trustworthy a free agent as his mother; to make him so sensible, so gentle, so considerate that to say "must" or "must not" to him would be as unnecessary and absurd as to say it to her.

But, if it be wiser and better to surround even little children with this atmosphere of freedom, how much more essential is it for those who remain under the parental roof long after they have ceased to be children! Just here seems to me to be the fatal rock upon which many households make utter shipwreck of their peace. Fathers and mothers who have ruled by authority (let it be as loving as you please, it will still remain an arbitrary rule) in the beginning, never seem to know when their children are children no longer, but have become men and women. In any average family, the position of an unmarried daughter after she is twenty years old becomes less and less what it should be. In case of sons, the question is rarely a practical one; in those exceptional instances where invalidism or some other disability keeps a man helpless for years under his father's roof, his very helplessness is at once his vindication and his shield, and also prevents his feeling manly revolt against the position of unnatural childhood. But in the case of daughters it is very different. Who does not number in his circle of acquaintance many unmarried women, between the ages of thirty and forty, perhaps even older, who have practically little more freedom in the ordering of their own lives than they had when they were eleven? The mother or the father continues just as much the autocratic centre of the family now as of the nursery, thirty years before. Taking into account the chance--no, the certainty--of great differences between parents and children in matters of temperament and taste, it is easy to see that great suffering must result from this; suffering, too, which involves real loss and hindrance to growth. It is really a monstrous wrong; but it seems to be rarely observed by the world, and never suspected by those who are most responsible for it. It is perhaps a question whether the real tyrannies in this life are those that are accredited as such. There are certainly more than even tyrants know!

Every father and mother has it within easy reach to become the intimate friend of the child. Closest, holiest, sweetest of all friendships is this one, which has the closest, holiest tie of blood to underlie the bond of soul. We see it in rare cases, proving itself divine by rising above even the passion of love between man and woman, and carrying men and women unwedded to their graves for sake of love of mother or father. When we realize what such friendship is, it seems incredible that parents can forego it, or can risk losing any shade of its perfectness, for the sake of any indulgence of the habit of command or of gratifying of selfish preference.

In the ideal household of father and mother and adult children, the one great aim of the parents ought to be to supply, as far as possible to each child, that freedom and independence which they have missed the opportunity of securing in homes of their own. The loss of this one thing alone is a bitterer drop in the loneliness of many an unmarried woman than parents, especially fathers, are apt even to dream,--food and clothes and lodgings are so exalted in unthinking estimates. To be without them would be distressingly inconvenient, no doubt; but one can have luxurious provision of both and remain very wretched. Even the body itself cannot thrive if it has no more than these three pottage messes! Freedom to come, go, speak, work, play,--in short, to be one's self,--is to the body more than meat and gold, and to the soul the whole of life.

Just so far as any parent interferes with this freedom of adult children, even in the little things of a single day or a single hour, just so far it is tyranny, and the children are wronged. But just so far as parents help, strengthen, and bestow this freedom on their children, just so far it is justice and kindness, and their relation is cemented into a supreme and unalterable friendship, whose blessedness and whose comfort no words can measure.

[The end]
Helen Hunt Jackson's essay: Republic Of The Family