Chapter 2 Docility and Authority in the Home and the School

Chapter 2
Docility and Authority in the Home and the School

Part II.––How Authority Behaves

Mistakes made on Principle.––Mr. Augustus Hare has, apparently, what somebody calls a bad memory, i.e. one which keeps a faithful record of every slight and offence that had been done to him since the day he was born! For this reason The Story of My Life1 is not quite pleasant reading, though it is full of interesting details. But all is fish that comes to our net. We have seldom had a more instructive record of childhood, even if we must allow that the instruction comes to us on the lines of what not to do. The fine character and beautiful nature of Mrs. Augustus Hare have been known to the world since the Memorials of a Quiet Life were published by this very son; and when we find how this lady misinterpreted the part of mother to her adopted and dearly beloved son, we know that we are not reading of the mistakes of an unworthy or even of a commonplace woman. Mrs. Hare always acted upon principle, and when she erred, the principle was in fault. She confounded the two principles of authority and autocracy. She believed that there was some occult virtue in arbitrary action on the part of a parent, and that a child must be the better in proportion as he does as he is bidden––the more outrageous the bidding the better the training. Here is an example of what a loving mother may force herself to do:––"Hitherto, I had never been allowed anything but roast mutton and rice pudding for dinner. Now all was changed. The most delicious puddings were talked of––dilated on––until I became, not greedy, but exceedingly curious about them. At length le grand moment arrived. They were put on the table just before me, and then, just as I was going to eat some of them, they were snatched away, and I was told to get up and carry them off to some poor person in the village. I remember that, though I did not really in the least care about the dainties, I cared excessively about Lea's wrath at the fate of her nice puddings, of which, after all, I was most innocent." Here is another arbitrary ruling:––"Even the pleasures of this home-Sunday, however, were marred in the summer, when my mother gave in to a suggestion of Aunt Esther that I should be locked in the vestry of the church between the services. Miserable, indeed, were the three hours which––provided with a sandwich for dinner––I had weekly to spend there; and, though I did not expect to see ghosts, the utter isolation of Hurstmonceaux church, far away from all haunts of men, gave my imprisonment an unusual eeriness. Sometimes I used to clamber over the tomb of the Lords Dacre, which rises like a screen against one side of the vestry, and be sticken with vague terrors by the two grim white figures lying upon it in the silent desolation, in which the scamper of a rat across the floor seemed to make a noise like a whirlwind. . . . It was a sort of comfort to me, in the real church-time, to repeat vigorously all the worst curses in the Psalms, those in which David showed his most appalling degree of malice, and apply them to Aunt Esther & Co. As all the Psalms were extolled as beatific, and the Church of England used them constantly for edification, their sentiments were all right, I supposed."

And yet how wise this good mother is when she trusts to her own instinct and insight rather than to a fallacious principle:––"I find in giving any order to a child, it is always better not to look to see if he obeys, but to take it for granted that it will be done. If one appears to doubt the obedience, there is given for the child to hesitate, 'Shall I do it or no?' If you seem not to question the possibility of non-compliance, he feels a trust committed to him to keep and fulfils it. It is best never to repeat a command, never to answer the oft-asked question 'Why?"'

Authority distinguished from Autocracy.––Mrs. Hare, like many another ruler, would appear to have erred, not from indolence, and certainly not harshness, but because she failed to define to herself the nature of the authority she was bound to exercise. Autocracy is defined as independent or self-derived power. Authority, on the other hand, may qualify as not being self-derived and not independent. The centurion in the Gospels says: "I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, 'Go,' and he goeth; another, 'Come,' and he cometh; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he doeth it."

Here we have the powers and the limitations of authority. The centurion is set under authority, or, as we say, authorised, and, for that reason, he is able to say to one, 'go,' to another, 'come,' and to a third, 'do this,' in the calm certainty that all will be done as he says, because he holds his position for this very purpose––to secure that such and such things shall be accomplished. He himself is a servant with definite tasks, though they are the tasks of authority. This, too, is the position that our Lord assumes; He says: "I came not to do mine own will, but the will of Him that sent me." That is His commission and the standing order of His life, and for this reason He spake as one having authority, knowing Himself to be commissioned and supported.

Behaviour of Autocracy.––Authority is not uneasy; captious, harsh and indulgent by turns. This is the action of autocracy, which is self-sustained as it is self-derived, and is impatient and resentful, on the watch for transgressions, and swift to take offence. Autocracy has ever a drastic penal code, whether in the kingdom, the school, or the family. It has, too, many commandments. 'Thou shalt' and 'thou shalt not,' are chevaux de frise about the would-be awful majesty of the autocrat. The tendency to assume self-derived power is common to us all, even the meekest of us, and calls for special watchfulness; the more so, because it shows itself fully as often in remitting duties and in granting indulgences as in inflicting punishments. It is flattering when a child comes up in the winning, coaxing way the monkeys know how to assume, and says, 'Please let me stay at home this morning, only this once!' The next stage is, 'I don't want to go out,' and the next, 'I won't!' and the home or school ruler, who has no principle behind his own will, soon learns that a child can be autocratic too––autocratic and belligerent to an alarming extent.

Behaviour of Authority.––Authority is neither harsh nor indulgent. She is gentle and easy to be entreated in all matters immaterial, just because she is immovable in matters of real importance; for these, there is always a fixed principle. It does not, for example, rest with parents and teachers to dally with questions affecting either the health or the duty of their children. They have no authority to allow to children in indulgences––in too many sweetmeats, for example––or in habits which are prejudicial to health; nor to let them off from any plain duty of obedience, courtesy, reverence, or work. Authority is alert; she knows all that is going on and is aware of tendencies. She fulfils the apostolic precept––"He that ruleth (let him do it), with diligence." But she is strong enough to fulfil that other precept also, "He that showeth mercy (let him do it), with cheerfulness"; timely clemency, timely yielding, is a great secret of strong government It sometimes happens that children, and not their parents, have right on their side: a claim may be made or an injunction resisted, and the children are in opposition to parent or teacher. It is well for the latter to get the habit of swiftly and imperceptibly reviewing the situation; possibly, the children may be in the right, and the parent may gather up his wits in time to yield the point graciously and send the little rebels away in a glow of love and loyalty.

Qualities proper to a Ruler.––Nobody understood this better than Queen Elizabeth, who contrived to make a curious division of her personality and be, at the same time, a model ruler and, as a woman, full of the weaknesses of her sex. It has been well said that she knew when to yield and how to yield. Her adroitness in getting over many a dangerous crisis has been much praised by historians; but, possibly, this saving grace was not adroitness so much as the tact born of qualities proper to all who are set in authority––the meekness of one who has been given an appointed work, the readiness to take counsel with herself and with others, the perception that she herself was not the be-all and the end-all of her functions as a queen, but that she existed for her people, and the quick and tender open-minded sympathy which enabled her to see their side of every question as well as her own––indeed, in preference to her own. These are the qualities proper to every ruler of a household, a school, or a kingdom. With these, parents will be able to order and control a fiery young brood full of energy and vitality, as Elizabeth was, to manage the kingdom when the minds of men were in a ferment of new thought, and life was intoxicating in the delightfulness of the possibilities it offered.

Mechanical and Reasonable Obedience.––It is a little difficult to draw the line between mechanical and reasonable obedience. 'I teach my children obedience by the time they are one year old,' the writer heard a very successful mother remark; and, indeed, that is the age at which to begin to give children the ease and comfort of the habit of obeying lawful authority. We know Mr. Huxley's story of the retired private who was carrying home his Sunday's dinner from the bakehouse. A sergeant passed by who recognised the man's soldierly gait and was bent on a practical joke. 'Attention!' he cried, and the man stood at attention while his mutton and potatoes rolled in the gutter. Now, this kind of obedience is a mere question of nerves and muscles, a habit of the brain tissue with which the moral consciousness has nothing to do. It is a little the fashion to undervalue any but reasonable obedience, as if we were creatures altogether of mind and spirit, or creatures whose bodies answer as readily to the ruling of the spirit as does the ship to the helm. But, alas for our weakness! this description fits us only in proportion as our bodies have been trained to the of unthinking mechanical obedience. We know the child who is fully willing to do the right thing so far as mind is concerned, but with whom bodily vis inertiae is strong enough to resist a very torrent of good intentions and good resolutions; and if we wish children to be able, when they grow up, to keep under their bodies and bring them into subjection we must do this for them in their earlier years.

Response of Docility to Authority, a Natural Function.––So far as the daily routine of small obediences goes, we help them thus to fulfil a natural function––the response of docility to authority. It may be said that a child who has acquired the habit of involuntary obedience has proportionately lost power as a free moral agent; but, as the acts of obedience in question are very commonly connected some physical effort, as, 'Make haste back,' 'Sit straight,' 'Button your boots quickly,'––they belong to the same educational province as gymnastic exercises, the object of which is the masterly use of the body as a machine capable of many operations.

Now, to work a machine such as a typewriter or a bicycle, one must, before all things, have practice; one must have got into the way of working it involuntarily, without giving any thought to the matter: and to give a child this power over himself––first in response to the will of another, later, in response to his own, is to make a man of him.

The Habit of Prompt Obedience.––It is an old story that the failures in life are not the people who lack good intentions; they are those whose physical nature has not acquired the habit of prompt and involuntary obedience. The man who can make himself do what he wills has the world before him, and it rests with parents to give their children this self-compelling power as a mere matter of habit. But is it not better and higher, it may be asked, to train children to act always in response to the divine mandate as it makes itself heard through the voice of conscience? The answer is, that in doing this we must not leave the other undone. There are few earnest parents who do not bring the power of conscience to bear on their children, and there are emergencies enough in the lives of young and old when we have to make a spiritual decision upon spiritual grounds––when it rests with us to choose the good and refuse the evil, consciously and voluntarily, because it is God's will that we should.

The Effort of Decision.––But it has been well said by a celebrated preacher that the effort of decision is the greatest effort of life. We find it so ourselves; shall we take this line of action or the other, shall we choose this or the other quality of carpet, send our boy to this or the other school? We all know that such questions are difficult to settle, and the wear and tear of nervous tissue the decision costs is evidenced often enough by the nervous headache it leaves behind. For this reason it is, we may reverently believe, that we are so marvellously and mercifully made that most of our decisions arrive, so to speak, of themselves: that is, ninety-nine out of a hundred things we do, are done, well or ill, as mere matters of habit. With this wonderful provision in our tissues for recording repeated actions and reproducing them upon given stimuli––a means provided for easing the burden of life, and for helping us to realise the gay happiness which appears to be the divine intention for us so far as we become like little children––it is startling and shocking that there are many children of thoughtful parents whose lives are spent in day-long efforts of decision upon matters which it is their parents' business to settle for them. Maud is nervous, excitable, has an over-active brain, is too highly organised, grows pale, acquires nervous tricks. The doctor is consulted, and, not knowing much about the economy of the home, decides that it is a case of over-pressure. Maud must do no lessons for six months; change of air is advised, and milk diet. Somehow the prescription does not answer, the child's condition does not improve; but the parents are slow to perceive that it is not the soothing routine of lessons which is exhausting the little girl, but the fact that she goes through the labour of decision twenty times a day, and not only that, but the added fatigue of a contest to get her own way. Every point in the day's routine is discussed, nothing comes with the comforting ease of a matter of course; the child always prefers to do something else, and commonly does it. No wonder the poor little girl is worn out.

Authority avoids Cause of Offence.––On the other hand, children are before all things reasonable beings, and to some children of acute and powerful intelligence, an arbitrary and apparently unreasonable command is cruelly irritating. It is not advisable to answer children categorically when they want to know the why for every command, but wise parents steer a middle course. They are careful to form habits upon which the routine of life runs easily, and, when the exceptional event requires a new regulation, they may make casual mention of their reasons for having so and so done; or, if this is not convenient and the case is a trying one, they give the children the reason for all obedience––"for this is right." In a word, authority avoids, so far as may be, giving cause of offence.

Authority is Alert.––Another hint as to the fit use of authority may be gleaned from the methods employed in a well-governed state. The importance of prevention is fully recognised: police, army, navy, are largely preventive forces; and the home authority, too, does well to place its forces on the Alert Service. It is well to prepare for trying efforts: 'We shall have time to finish this chapter before the clock strikes seven'; or, 'we shall be able to get in one more round before bedtime.' Nobody knows better than the wise mother the importance of giving a child time to collect himself for a decisive moment. This time should be spent in finishing some delightful occupation; every minute of idleness at these critical junctures goes to the setting up of the vis inertiae, most difficult to overcome because the child's will power is in abeyance. A little forethought is necessary to arrange that occupations do come to an end at the right moment; that bedtime does not arrive in the middle of a chapter, or at the most exciting moment of a game. In such an event authority, which looks before and after, might see its way to allow five minutes' grace, but would not feel itself empowered to allow a child to dawdle about indefinitely before saying good-night.

Who gave thee this Authority?––We need not add that authority is just and faithful in all matters of promise-keeping; it is also considerate, and that is why a good mother is the best home-ruler; she is in touch with the children, knows their unspoken schemes and half-formed desires, and where she cannot yield, she diverts; she does not crush with a sledge-hammer, an instrument of rule with which a child is somehow never very sympathetic.

We all know how important this, of changing children's thoughts, diverting, is in the formation of habit. Let us not despise the day of small things nor grow weary in well-doing; if we have trained our children from their earliest years to prompt mechanical obedience, well and good; we reap our reward. If we have not, we must be content to lead by slow degrees, by ever-watchful efforts, by authority never in abeyance and never aggressive, to 'the joy of self-control,' the delight of proud chivalric obedience which will hail a command as an opportunity for service. It is a happy thing that the 'difficult' children who are the readiest to resist a direct command are often the quickest to respond to the stimulus of an idea. The presentation of quickening ideas is itself a delicate art, which I have, however, considered elsewhere.

I am not proposing a one-sided arrangement, all authority on the one part and all the docility on the other; for never was there a child who did not wield authority, if only over dolls or tin soldiers. And we of the ruling class, so far as the nursery and schoolroom go, are we not fatally docile in yielding obedience to anyone who will take the trouble to tell us we had better do this or that? We need not be jealous for the independence of children: that will take care of itself.

To conclude: authority is not only a gift, but a grace; and,

     "As every rainbow hue is light,
     So every grace is love."

Authority is that aspect of love which parents present to their children; parents know it is love, because to them it means continual self-denial, self-repression, self-sacrifice: children recognise it as love, because to them it means quiet rest and gaiety of heart. Perhaps the best aid to the maintenance of authority in the home is for those in authority to ask themselves daily that question which was presumptuously put to our Lord––"Who gave Thee this authority?"

1The Story of My Life, by Augustus Hare (George Allen).