Education by Assault and Battery
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EDUCATION BY ASSAULT AND BATTERY.
IT IS ONLY lately that we learned that the best way of governing our wives is not “with a stick not thicker than our thumbs,” we have not yet learned that similar methods are not the best for children. If, however, “government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed,” as our Declaration of Independence alleges, there must be a juster and therefore a better way. That we have not discovered it is because children are usually governed mainly for the good of the elders and not for their own good. “There is no instance in history,” says Buckle, “where a class possessing power has not used it for its own benefit.”
This theory of education evolved the iniquitous maxim that “Children should be seen and not heard.” Children have as good a right to be heard as we have. It is natural that they should make a noise, and much more necessary than that we should make music. If we do not want to hear them, we could go elsewhere. But it is easier to tell them to “stop” until this becomes a habit
“Mary,” said a mother, “go see whet Johnny is doing, and tell him to stop.” If he is doing right, he is entitled to go on doing it; if he is doing wrong he is equally entitled to suffer the consequences, or at least to know what the consequences are, not to have his little experiment nipped in the bud with “Stop.” Of course, if his activities result in an attack upon others, then we have the right to stop him; the right to preserve equal freedom, the only right of the governor.
But we are not entitled to check him at our whim nor to assume that everything he does is wrong because his nature is depraved or because he does not do what we would do.
The theory that we the children not of God but of the devil, is the real origin of the saying, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
In the school where I was “got” up the real ruler was an ebony one. If any one left undone what he ought to have done, the ruler rapped his knuckles to teach him that the ways of transgressors are harder than his knuckles.
Startling as it may seem, we have no right to punish children at all. They may be doing wrong. If they do the wrong to us, we are entitled to resist it and prevent it, if we wish to do so. Our natural instincts are against such violence.
“I never can punish my children,” said a lady to the author, “until I get good and angry myself.” Most women delegate this “duty” to the papa, who does it under protest of his feelings. We have no more right to punish children than to punish grown persons.
The natural inclination of a child is towards the right; when we show him what is wise, he tries to do it. Like a twig bent by force its constant tendency is to uprightness and experience supplements this tendency.
The order of nature is a school—a method of teaching. It is not possible to learn except by experience, and only to a limited extent can we learn by the experience of others. When by force of arms we prohibit some child’s action, we are taking that child away from school.
We have a right to advise our children, and when we remember what kind of advice we got from our parents we’ll be a little careful about how we do it. But we must not impose either our stronger wills or our stronger muscles upon our children. We must allow them to grow up in the free air and sunlight. The first condition of free development is freedom. To the extent that freedom is denied, healthy growth is retarded. It is for this reason that women are usually less developed physically, mentally and morally than men. Says Sam Walter Foss:
“The way to make a perfect man
The only way I know.
Is to put him in the Sunshine,
With the one commandment, ‘Grow’.”
Life is one protracted experiment, and a child’s first experiments are to find out whether we are wise and true so that we may be trusted. If we prove trustworthy, we are then in a position to teach, to give the child a share in our experience. But as we are governed ourselves by about 21,200 laws, exclusive of local ordinances, therefore it is not strange that we think a good many are necessary for a child. We must choose between being the friends or constituting ourselves the masters of our children. If we are their friends they will take our advice and profit by our pains. If we are the masters, we may take their liberty and profit by their labors—
If we are masters we make the child afraid of us and tempt it to tell lies, to escape, not the consequences of its acts but our vengeance for crossing our will. We deprive it of the possibility of learning that the natural consequences inevitably follow every act.
Most colleges have relegated the governing power to the students, some schools have given it back to the boys—it may be that a few nurseries will yet leave it to the children. But are we not to save children from the consequences of their folly? We have only the same right with them that we have with grown people. If we see a man going out without his overcoat, we may not put it on by force even though the consequence of his imprudence might be pneumonia, but if we see him blindly walk in front of the express train we pull him violently out of the danger, trusting to his sense to justify us in the assault. So we may guard our children from irremediable harm.
But by force we can no more make the child good than we can by force make the man prudent or moral. For thousands of years the censors, like Comstock, Gerry, Berg and Company have been guarding, not their own morals (about which they are never uneasy), but somebody else’s morals from contagion. Yet to-day, after all our efforts for the suppression of vice, the best that can be said is that there is more suppressed vice than ever.
Source: Bolton Hall, “Education by Assault and Battery,” The Arena, 39 no. 223 (June, 1908): 766-767.