The undemocratic character of the home reveals itself in a way that is familiar enough,—the way of parental possession. Nothing could be more difficult for parents to abandon than the sense of ownership, tenderly conceived and graciously fostered. And yet, hard as the lesson may be, it must be learned by parents that the spirit of proprietorship cannot coexist with the democratic temper in the home.
I sometimes regret that children are not born full-grown, that they do not subsequently develop or devolve into babies, so that the earliest aspect of a child, diminutive, helpless, should not, as it does, evoke the sense of absolute and exclusive ownership. If children would only at six months or a year begin to argue, vigorously to combat their parents' views, the ordinary transition from bland acquiescence to over-facile dissent would be somewhat less harsh and startling. The thing, which perhaps does most to intensify the shock and pain incidental to divergence of opinion, is that the first eight or ten years of childhood give no intimation or little more than intimation of the possibility of conflict in later years. The unresisting acquiescence of children in never-ending bestowal of parental bounty offers no hint of the possibility of future strife. The legal plea of surprise might almost be offered up by parents, who find, as one of them has expressed it, that, when children are young, they "stay put," can be found whenever sought. Later they neither stay nor are put, but move tangentially and, it would seem by preference, into orbits of their own,—and not always heavenly orbits.
Some parents never wean themselves nor even seek to do so from the sense of proprietorship, which is sure to be rudely disturbed unless parents are wise to yield it up. No grown, reasoning, self-respecting person wishes to be or to be dealt with as a being in fief to another. Ofttimes it proves exceedingly hard for fond parents to relinquish the sense of ownership, for the latter is deeply satisfying and even flattering to the owner. In very truth, parents must come to understand that children are not born to them as possessions. The parental part does not confer ownership rights. Children should not be regarded and cherished as a life-long possession nor even for a time. They are entrusted by the processes of birth and the decree of fate to parents, to be cared for during the days of dependence, to be nurtured and developed till maturity, the latter to mark the ending of the period of conscious parental responsibility.
As long as children have not reached adolescence and the consciousness thereof, they may endure nor even note the mood of parental possession. But once complete self-consciousness dawns, the sense of ownership becomes intolerable to any child that is more than a domestic automaton, and, if persisted in, makes any wholesomeness of relation between parent and child unthinkable. Many years ago, a sage friend tendered me some unforgettable counsel. I had, perhaps unwisely, commiserated with him upon the fact that his lovely children, sons and daughters alike, were leaving the parental roof and beginning their lives anew in different and remote parts of the land. His answer rang prompt and decisive: "Children were not given to us to keep. They are placed with us for a time in trusteeship and now that they are old enough to leave us and to stand upon their own feet, it is well for them to make their own homes and become the builders of their own lives." This sage and his like-minded wife had achieved the art of dispossessing themselves of their children, or rather they had never suffered themselves to tread the pathway of possession.
To a rational adult the sense of possession by another is irksome, save in the case of youthful lovers whose irrationality may for a time take the form of pleasure in the fact of possession by another. But when sanity enters into the joy of the love-relation, then the sense of ecstasy in being possessed vanishes and with its passing comes a renewal of self-possession which alone is complete sanity. Self-possession brooks no invasion or possession of personality by another. The matter of possession becomes gravely disturbing because the parental tendency in the direction of proprietorship becomes keenest at a time when children are least disposed to be possessed in any way. As children near adulthood, they desire to be autonomous persons rather than things or possessions. Then the conflict comes, and, though not consciously, is fought for and against possession.
Briefly, adolescence brings with it an insistence upon the end of the relative and the beginning of absolute, that is unrelated, existence. Somehow and for the most part unhappily, the child's insistence upon absolute self-possession and self-existence comes at a time,—it may be evocative rather than synchronous—when parents most desire or feel the need to be parents. This craving for a maximum of parenthood, not in the interest of filial possession, is evoked by the normal, adolescent child, as it begins to find its main interests and absorptions outside of the home, with the consequent loosening of what seemed to be irrefragably close and intimate ties. And the parental sense of proprietary supervision is not lessened by the circumstance that the child now faces those problems the rightful solution of which means so much to its future.
Thus does the conflict arise. Children, though they know it not or know it only in part, face the great tests and challenges of life, rejoicing that these are to be their experiences, their problems, their tests. Parents view these self-same challenges and are deeply concerned lest these prove too much for children and leave them broken and blighted upon life's way. It is really fairer to say that what is viewed as the parental instinct of possession is really nothing more than the eagerness of parents somehow to bestow upon children the unearned fruits of experience. It is the primary and inalienable right of children to blunder, to falter upon the altar-steps, and blundering is a teacher wiser though costlier than parents. Reckoning and rueing the price they have paid for the lessons of experience, parents, whose good-will is greater than their wisdom, insist upon the right to transmit to children through teaching these lessons of experience. But they fail to realize that certain things are unteachable and intransmissible.
Confounding the classroom with the school of life, it is assumed that certain truths are orally teachable. Children, building better than they know, insist that the wisdom of experience cannot be orally communicated, that it is not to be acquired through parental bestowal or teaching or insistence, but solely through personal effort, and, though at first they know it not, through hardship and suffering. Wisdom cannot be imparted to children by parents under an anaesthesia that averts pain and suffering. Hard is it for parents to accept the truth pointed out by Coleridge that experience is only a lamp in a vessel's stern, which throws a light on the waters we have passed through, none on those which lie before us.
The conflict then is between children who insist upon the privilege of acquiring the wisdom of life through personal experience which includes blundering and suffering, and parents whose sense of possession strengthens their native resolution to bring to loved children all the benefits and gains of life's experiences without permitting children to pay the price which life exacts. And parents, in the unreasoning passion to ward off hurt and wound from the heads of children, forget that if the wisdom of experience were transmissible we should have moral stagnation and spiritual immobility in the midst of life.
But if parents may not expect to be able to transmit the body of their life-experience to children, neither should children assume that the multiplication table is an untested hypothesis because accepted by parents, or that elementary truths are wholly dubious because parental assent has been given thereto. If parents must learn that children cannot be expected to regard every thesis as valid solely because held by parents, children need hardly take it for granted, though it may of course be found to be true, that the parental viewpoint is uniformly erring and invalid.
If parents, who are tempted to yield to the instinct of proprietorship rather, as we have seen, than of domination, would but understand, as was lately suggested in a psychological analysis of Barrie's "Mary Rose," that there are women who mother the members of their circles so persistently that they impose a certain childishness on them, the mother's influence often producing incompetence and timidity! To such parents, however, as will not admit the fact of possession, it remains to be pointed out that parents do not live forever and are usually survived by their children. The "owned" child is not unlikely with the years to become and to remain a poor, miserable dependent intellectually and spiritually, once its parents are gone.
View another case, the marriage of the "owned" child, even when it does not accept any marriage that offers as a mode of release from parental bondage. I have had frequent occasion to note that the "owned" child, freed from parental suppression, is often revenged upon parental tyranny by an era of luxurious despotism, or, what is worse, renews the reign of ownership and dependence by becoming the "owned" wife or undisowned husband, a sorry, beggarly serf, whose lifelong dependence in the worst sense is largely the sequel to parental proprietorship or overlordship. The parental tyranny that is well-meant and gentle yields place in marriage to a tyranny that is most untender and may even be brutal, its victim, male or female, habituated by parental usage to the art of unrevolting submission, or, when not thus habituated, goaded to a vindictive and compensatory sense of mastery.
To urge parents to relinquish the sense of possession, to prepare them for the day when they shall find it inevitable to "give up," is to do them a real service. Let them prepare with something of fortitude for the day that comes to many parents, which is to establish and confirm the fact of parental dispensableness. The fortitude may have to be Spartan in character. It is our fate, and parents, who are practised in the art of long-suffering endurance, must learn to bear this last test of strength with undimmable courage and even to rejoice therein.