Monday, September 12, 2005

Harriet Beecher Stow on Raising Children

Over on "Be Strong in the Grace" I made the following comment:

I've seen a lot of Reformed types (used in the real sense, Presbyterians, particular Baptists, etc.) push a model of parenting that stresses punishment according to strict rules without display of anger. But that's not how I see God disciplining His people in Scripture. There, He's pretty lax for a while, lets His people take a mile when given an inch, until suddenly He blows up and gets really furious. But when the kids repent, He's all over them in hugs and kisses. I'm Biblical enough to believe this model of child-rearing rather than "every punishment exactly proportionate to the offense" type. And I think it works better . . . Harriet Beecher Stowe has a great speech on this in the person of an old grandma in her Oldtown Folks novel talking about the "by the rule" child-raising. I'll blog on it sometime soon.

As per my promise here it is (from pp. 1116-1121 of the Library of America edition of her works).

In the chapter, "Miss Asphyxia Goes in Pursuit," a young waif has been adopted by the old spinster Miss Mehitable Rossiter. This starts a discussion of child-rearing, and Aunt Lois, a spinster enthusiast for order, says:

"Well, old Parson Moore used to preach the best sermons on family government that I ever heard," said Aunt Lois. "He said you must begin in the very beginning and break a child's will -- short off -- nothing to be done without that. I remember he whipped little Titus, his first son, off and on, nearly a whole day, to make him pick up a pocket-handkerchief."

To which Lois's mother, the grandmother of the narrator, replies:

"FIDDLESTICKS! . . . Wish you could have tried yourself with that sort of doxy when you was little. Guess if I'd a broke your will, I should ha' had to break you for good an' all, for your will is about all there is of you! But I tell you, I had too much to do to spend a whole forenoon making you pick up a pocket-handkerchief. When you didn't mind, I hit you a good clip, and picked it up myself; and when you wouldn't go where I wanted you, I picked you up, neck and crop and put you there. That was my government. I let your will take care of itself . . .

"People don't need to talk to me," she said, "about Parson Moore's government. Tite Moore wasn't any great shakes after all the row they made about him. He was well enough while his father was round, but about the worst boy that ever I saw when his eye was off from him. Good or bad, my children was about the same behind my back that they were before my face, anyway."

Aunt Lois then talks up the neighbor Sally Morse's method:

"Everything went like clock-work with her babies; they were nursed just so often, and no more; they were put down to sleep at just such a time, and nobody was alllowed to rock 'em, or sing to 'em, or fuss with 'em. If they cried she just whipped them till they stopped; and when they began to toddle about, she never put things out of their reach, but just slapped their hands whenever they touched them, till they learnt to let things alone."

"Slapped their hands!" quoth my grandmother, "and let learnt them to let things alone! I'd like to ha' seen that tried on my children! Sally had a set of white, still children that were all just like dipped candles by natur', and she laid it all to her management; and look at 'em now they're grown up. They're decent respectable folks, but noways better than other folks' children. Lucinda Moore ain't a bit better than you are, Lois, if she was whipped and made to lie still when she was a baby, and you were taken up and rocked when you cried. All is, they had hard times when they were little, and cried themselves to sleep nights, and were hectored and worried when they ought to have been taking some comfort. Ain't the world hard enough, without fighting babies, I want to know? I hate to see a woman that don't want to rock her own baby, and is contriving ways all the time to shirk the care of it. Why if all the world was that way, there would be no sense in Scriptur'. 'As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you,' the Bible says, taking for granted that mothers were made to comfort children and give them good times when they were little . . ."

Miss Mehitable timidly suggested some government was necessary, to which

"O yes. Of course there must be government," said my grandmother. "I always made my children mind me; but I wouldn't pick quarrels with 'em, nor keep up long fights to break their will; if they didn't mind, I came down on 'em and had it over with at once, and then was done with 'em. They turned out pretty fair, too," said my grandmother complacently, giving an emphatic thump with her pudding stick.

Miss Mehitable then brought up John Locke's treatise on education.

"Well, one live child puts all your treatises to rout," said my grandmother. "There ain't any two children alike; and what works with one won't work with another. Folks have just got to open their eyes, and look and see what the Lord meant when he put the child together, if they can, and not stand in his way; and after all we must wait for sovereign grace to finish the work: if the Lord don't keep the house, the watchman waketh but in vain. Children are the heritage of the Lord, -- that's all you can make of it."

Horace the narrator then recalled:

My grandmother, like other warm-tempered, impulsive, dictatorial people, had formed her theories of life to suit her own style of practice. She was to be sure, autocratic in her own realm, and we youngsters knew that , at certain times when her blood was up, it was but a word and blow for us, and that the blow was quite likely to come first and the word afterward; but the temporary severities of kindly-natured, generous people never lessen the affection of children or servants, any more than the too hot rays of the benignant sun, or the too driving patter of the needful rain. When my grandmother detected us in a childish piece of mischief, and soundly cuffed our ears, or administered summary justice with immediate polts of her rheumatic crutch, we never felt the least rising of wrath or rebellion, but only made off as fast as possible, generally convinced that the good woman was in the right of it, and that we got no more than we deserved.

I remember one occasion when Bill [the narrator's mischievous cousin] had been engaged in making some dressed chickens dance . . . A howl of indignation from grandmother announced coming wrath, and Bill darted out of the back door, while I was summarily seized and chastised.

"Grandmother, grandmother! I didn't do it -- it was Bill."

"Well I can't catch Bill, you see," said my venerable monitor, continuing the infliction.

"But I didn't do it."

"Well, let it stand for something you did do, then," quoth my grandmother, by this time quite pacified: "you do bad things enough that ain't whipped for, any day."

The whole resulted in a large triangle of pumpkin pie, administered with the cordial warmth of returning friendship, and thus the matter was happily adjusted. Even the prodigal son Bill, when, returning piteously, and standing penitent under the milk-room window, he put in a submissive plea, "Please grandmother, I won't do so any more," was allowed a peaceable slice of the same comfortable portion and bid to go in piece.

After another such scrape, the narrator is allowed to sleep on his grandmother's lap, and hears his grandmother's response to Aunt Lois's complaint that boys ought to have a regular bed time:

"Law, he like to sit up and see the fire as well as any of us, Lois; and do let him have all the comfort he can as he goes along, poor boy! there ain't any too much in this world, anyway."

"Well for my part, I think there ought to be system in bringing up children," said Aunt Lois.

"Wait till you get 'em of your own, and then try it, Lois," said my grandmother, laughting with a rich, comfortable laugh which rocked my sleepy head up and down, as I drowsily opened my eyes with a delicious sense of warmth and security.

Say what you like about this theory but it does seem a lot closer to how the Lord God dealt with his children Israel that Parson Moore or Sally Morse's rule-book parenting. Warm-tempered, impulsive, dictatorial . . . autocratic in his own realm . . . having temporary severities, but kindly-natured and generous: to me, if it be not blasphemous to say so, this portrait seems a good picture of the character of the God who emerges from the pages of Scripture.

Harriet Beecher Stowe on God's justice here.
On theology and monarchy here.
"The Battle of the Infinites" here.
On the political conflicts that led to the disestablishment of the Congregational church here.