Reverence thy son and thy daughter lest thy days seem too long in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. One of the elements making for conflict between parent and child is the desire of parents who ask for love, taking respect for granted, and the insistence of children, taking love for granted, that parental respect be yielded them. There are many causes that make mutual respect in any real sense difficult between parent and child, parents asking love for themselves as parents, children seeking respect for themselves as persons. After dealing for two decades or nearly that with a child in the terms of love, parents do not find it easy to treat a child with the reverence that is offered to one deemed a complete, rational, unchildlike person.
An eminent theologian once declared that it was easy enough to love one's neighbors but hard to like them. So might many parents in truth say that it is easy, yea, inevitable, to love their children but very difficult to yield them the reverence of which upon reflection they are found to be deserving. And it happens that parents can and do give their children all but the one thing which they insist upon having from parents, namely, a decent respect. Such respect is in truth impossible as long as parents always think of themselves as parents and of children as children. The temptation presses to urge parents sometimes to forget that they are parents, and to suggest to children sometimes to remember that they are children—in any event, semi-occasionally to recall that to parents children are ever and quite explicably children.
Parents cannot begin too soon to treat children with respect. One of the most disrespectful as well as stupid things that can be done in relation to a child is to treat it like a monkey trained for exhibition purposes in order to "entertain" some resident aunt or visiting uncle. The worst way to prepare a child for self-respect is to exhibit him to ostensibly admiring relatives as if he or she were a rare specimen in a zoölogical garden. Too many of us are Hagenbacks to our children, not so much for the sake of otherwise unoccupied relatives or especially doting grandparents as for the sake of flattering our own cheap and imbecile pride.
The relation of mutual respect cannot obtain between parent and child as long as the instinct of parental proprietorship is dominant, as long as there is a failure to recognize that a child's individuality must be reckoned with. But there must be the underlying assumption that a child's judgment may be entitled to respect, in other words, is not inherently contemptible. Once assumed that a child may cease to be a child and become a person able to think, decide, choose, act for itself, there is no insuperable difficulty in determining when a child's judgment is entitled to respect, provided of course by way of preliminary that parents are ready to put away the pet superstition of parental infallibility and impeccability. Nothing so calculated to win a child's reverence as parental admission of fallibility generally and of some error of thought and speech in particular!
One rarely hears or learns of a child who feels that parents fail to love it but one comes upon children not a few, normal beings rather than those afflicted with the persecution complex, who deeply lament the fact that parents do not treat them with the reverence owing from normal, wholesome beings to one another. It is this that more than anything else makes some children impatient of the very name, children, the term with its ceaseless implication of relative existence becoming odious to them. No one will maintain that it is easy to achieve relations of reciprocal reverence between parent and child, viewing the fact that family intimacies while tending to foster affection do not make for the strengthening of respect. For respect is most frequently evoked by the unknown and unfamiliar even as the familiar and the known, because it is known, touches the springs of affection. Parental reverence may not be unachievable, but it involves the acceptance of a child as a self-existent being, intellectually, morally, spiritually.
One of the results of the liberating processes of our age is the deeping consciousness of children that they have the unchallengeable right to live their own lives, under freedom to develop their own personalities. Revolting against the superimposition of parental personality, the more deadening because childhood is imitative, they have begun to hearken to Emerson's counsel to insist upon themselves. Too often they carry their fidelity to this monition to the illegitimate length of insistence upon idiosyncracy rather than of emphasis upon personality. To cherish and defend every fleeting opinion as sacred and unamendable dogma is not insistence upon self but wilful pride of opinion. And yet even such self-insistence is better than such self-surrender as dwarfs children and by so much belittles parents.
It may seem superfluous to second the claim of children to self-determination, but in truth parents have so long and so crushingly overwhelmed their once-defenceless children with the force majeure of their own personality that even a parent may welcome the long-deferred revolt making for self-determination. The child has rightfully resolved not to be a perfect replica,—usually a duplicate of manifold imperfections,—but to be itself with all its own imperfections on its head. This is the answer to the question whether children ought ever suffer their minds to be coerced. Intellectual compulsion and spiritual coercion are always inexcusable, though in the interest of that much-abused term, the higher morality, children may resort to the accommodation of conformity without sacrifice of the substance of individuality and its basic self-respect.
And when I venture to hint at the concession of outward conformity without of course doing violence to the scruples of conscience, the concession that will bid children to tread the pathway of conformity in externals, I call to mind and to witness a quarter-century's experience in the ministry. In the course of it, it has fallen to my lot to be consulted by numerous children. In only one case has a child said to me, I regret my obedience to my parents' will. But times without number have children said to me, How I rejoice, though sometimes it seemed hard, that I followed the counsel of my mother, that I yielded to my father's will. But one may not bid parents reverence their children and respect their sense of freedom without intimating to children, howsoever reluctantly, that even parents have some inalienable rights, and that children ought to accord some freedom to parents, even though these be likely to abuse it. Parents, too, must be regarded as free agents. Filial usurpation of parental freedom is not wholly unprecedented in these days of reappraisal of most values.
Parents and children alike will be helped to reverence one another as free agents when they learn that infringement upon the freedom of another is for the most part such an obtrusion of self into the life of another as grows out of the contentlessness of one's own life. No man or woman whose life is full and worth-while has enough of spare time and strength to find it possible to meddle in busy-bodying fashion with the life of others. Nagging, no matter by whom, is just domestic busy-bodying, growing out of the failure to respect the personality of another and out of the vacuity of one's own life. Nagging, however ceaseless, is not correction. Conflict must not be confounded with scolding any more than love and petting are the same thing. Scolding, nagging, ceaseless fault-finding, these are not conflicts nor even the symptoms thereof. These are usually nothing more than signs of inner conflict and unrest finding petty and unavailing, because external, outlets. No home irrespective of circumstance can be free from conflict in which there is a failure to understand that every member of the household is a self-regarding and inviolate personality and that the physical contacts of the family life are no excuse for the ceaseless invasion of personality.
I have not said economically, though it is not always easy for parents to remember that economic dependence in no wise involves intellectual, moral, spiritual dependence. The difficulty, as has already been pointed out, is greatly enhanced by reason of the fact that parents and children are too apt to label and classify and pigeon-hole one another, parents assumed to be visionless maintainers and conservators of the status quo and children regarded as vandal disturbers of the best possible of worlds.
To confound voluntary reverence with the obligations of gratitude is indeed the woefullest of blunders. I have sometimes thought that the parental-filial relationship is not infrequently strained because it rests upon bounty or indebtedness, acknowledged or unacknowledged. There is a strain which ofttimes proves too hard to be borne between benefactor and beneficiary. This strain may be eased if parents will but avoid thinking of themselves as benefactors and children will but remember that the fact of adolescence or post-adolescence does not cancel all the relationships and conditions of earlier life. I cannot conceive of deeper unwisdom than to rest one's case with children in the matter of unyielded obedience or ungranted reverence or aught else upon the basis of gratitude. It is as futile as it is vicious to dream of exacting gratitude, seeing that gratitude is not a debt to be paid, least of all a toll to be levied. Is there really much to choose between the parent plaintively appealing for filial gratitude and the termagant wife insistently clamoring for love.
If parents bent upon having gratitude and appreciation would but remember that during the years in which parents do most for their children the latter are blissfully unconscious, it would help them over the rough places of seeming inappreciation and ingratitude. The first ten years of a child's life are those of most constant and tender service on the part of parents, the period of deepest anxieties and uttermost sacrifices. And yet the fact of infancy and early childhood precludes the possibility of remembrance, understanding, appreciation. The conscious relation of parent and child does not really begin much before the tenth year.
A wise teacher of the Northwest once said: "Children are either too young or too old to be physically punished." Something of the same kind might be said with respect to appeals for gratitude. Either these are unnecessary or else they are unavailing. In any event, the relation between parent and child must never be brought down to the level of one of bestowal and acceptance of bounty and the obligations thereby entailed. The highest magnanimity is needed on the part of parents, so deep and uncancellable is the debt of children,—by parents to be obliterated from memory, by children to be translated into the things of life.