Parents as Inspirers
The Things of the Spirit
Parents, Revealers of God to their Children––It is probable that parents as a class feel more than ever before the responsibility of their prophetic office. It is as revealers of God to their children that parents touch their highest limitations; perhaps it is only as they succeed in this part of their work that they fulfil the Divine intention in giving them children to bring up––in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
How to Fortify them against Doubt––How to fortify the children against the doubts of which the air is full, is an anxious question. Three courses are open: to teach as we of an older generation have been taught, and to let them bide their time and their chance; to attempt to deal with the doubts and difficulties which have turned up, or are likely to turn up; or, to give children such hold upon vital truth, and at the same time such an outlook upon current thought, that they shall be landed on the safe side of the controversies of their day, open to truth, in however new a light presented, and safeguarded against mortal error.
Three Ways: the First Unfair––The first course is unfair to the young: when the attack comes, they find themselves at a disadvantage; they have nothing to reply; their pride is in arms; they jump to the conclusion that there is no defence possible of that which they have received as truth; had there been, would they not have been instructed to make it? They resent being made out in the wrong, being on the weaker side––so it seems to them,––being behind their times; and they go over without a struggle to the side of the most aggressive thinkers of their day.
'Evidences' are not Proof––Let us suppose that, on the other hand, they have been fortified with 'Christian evidences,' defended by bulwarks of sound dogmatic teaching. Religion without definite dogmatic teaching degenerates into sentiment, but dogma, as dogma, offers no defence against the assaults of unbelief. As for 'evidences,' the rôle of the Christian apologist is open to the imputation conveyed in the keen proverb, qui s'excuse, s'accuse ['he who excuses himself, accuses himself; a guilty conscience needs no accuser']; the truth by which we live must needs be self-evidenced, admitting of neither proof nor disproof. Children should be taught Bible history with every elucidation which modern research makes possible. But they should not be taught to think of the inscriptions on Assyrian monuments, for example, as proofs of the truth of the Bible records, but rather as illustrations of those records; though they are, and cannot but be, subsidiary proofs.
The Outlook upon Current Thought––Let us look at the third course: and first, as regards the outlook upon current thought. Contemporary opinion is the fetish of the young mind. Young people are eager to know what to think on all the serious questions of religion and life. They ask what is the opinion of this and that leading thinker of their day. They by no means confine themselves to such leaders of thought as their parents have elected to follow; on the contrary, the 'other side' of every question is the attractive side for them, and they do not choose to be behind the foremost in the race of thought.
Free-will In Thought––Now, that their young people should thus take to the water need not come upon parents as a surprise. The whole training from babyhood upward should be in view of this plunge. When the time comes, there is nothing to be done; openly it may be, secretly if the home rule is rigid, the young folk think their own thoughts, that is, they follow the leader they have elected; for they are truly modest and humble at heart, and do not yet venture to think for themselves; only they have transferred their allegiance. Nor is this transfer of allegiance to be resented by parents; we all claim this kind of 'suffrage' in our turn when we feel ourselves included in larger interests than those of the family.
Preparation––But there is much to be done beforehand, though nothing when the time comes. The notion that any contemporary authority is infallible may be steadily undermined from infancy onwards, though at some sacrifice or ease and glory to the parents. 'I don't know' must take the place of the vague wise-sounding answer, the random shot which children's pertinacious questionings too often provoke. And 'I don't know' should be followed by the effort to know, the research necessary to find out. Even then, the possibility of error in a 'printed book' must occasionally be faced. The results of this kind of training in the way of mental balance and repose are invaluable.
Reservation as regards Science––Another safeguard is in the attitude of reservation, shall we say? which it may be well to preserve towards 'science.' It is well that the enthusiasm of children should be kindled, that they should see how glorious it is to devote a lifetime to patient research, how great to find out a single secret of Nature, a key to many riddles. The heroes of science should be their heroes; the great names, especially of those who are amongst us, should be household words. But here, again, nice discrimination should be exercised; two points should be kept well to the front––the absolute silence of the oracle on all ultimate questions of origin and life, and the fact that, all along the line, scientific truth comes in like the tide, with steady advance, but with ebb and flow of every wavelet of truth; so much so, that, at the present moment, the teaching of the last twenty years is discredited in at least a dozen departments of science. Indeed, it would seem to be the part of wisdom to wait half a century before fitting the discovery of today into the general scheme of things. And this, not because the latest discovery is not absolutely true, but because we are not yet able so to adjust it––according to the 'science of the proportion of things'––that it shall be relatively true.
Knowledge is Progressive––But all this is surely beyond children? By no means; every walk should quicken their enthusiasm for the things of Nature, and their reverence for the priests of that temple; but occasion should be taken to mark the progressive advances of science, and the fact that the teaching of to-day may be the error of tomorrow, because new light may lead to new conclusions even from the facts already known. 'Until quite lately, geologists thought . . . they now think . . . but they may find reason to think otherwise in the Future.' To perceive that knowledge is progressive, and that the next 'find' may always alter the bearings of what went before; that we are waiting, and may have very long to wait, for the last word––; that science also is 'revelation,' though we are not yet able fully to interpret what we know; and that 'science' herself contains the promise of great impetus to the spiritual life––to perceive these things is to be able to rejoice in all truth and to wait for final certainty.
Children should learn some Laws of Thought––In another way we may endeavour to secure for the children that stability of mind which comes of self-knowledge. It is well that they should know, so early that they will seem to themselves always to have known, some of the laws of thought which govern their own minds. Let them know that, once an idea takes possession of them, it will pursue, so to speak, its own course, will establish its own place in the very substance of the brain, will draw its own train of ideas after it. One of the most fertile sources of youthful infidelity is the fact that thoughtful boys and girls are infinitely surprised when they come to notice the course of their own thoughts. They read a book or listen to talk with a tendency to what is to them 'free-thought.' And then, the 'fearful joy' of finding that their own thoughts begin with the thought they have heard, and go on and on to new and startling conclusions on the same lines! The mental stir of all this gives a delightful sense of power, and a sense of inevitableness and certainty too; for they do not intend or try to think this or that. It comes of itself; their reason, they believe, is acting independently of them, and how can they help assuming that what comes to them of itself with an air of absolute certainty, must of necessity be right?
To look at Thoughts as they come––But what if from childhood they had been warned, 'Take care of your thoughts, and the rest will take care of itself; let a thought in, and it will stay; will come again tomorrow and the next day, will make a place for itself in your brain, and will bring many other thoughts like itself. Your business is to look at the thoughts as they come, to keep out the wrong thoughts, and let in the right. See that ye enter not into temptation.' This sort of teaching is not so hard to understand as the rules for the English nominative, and is of infinitely more profit in the conduct of life. It is a great safeguard to know that your 'reason' is capable of proving any theory you allow yourself to entertain.
The Appeal of the Children––We have touched here only on the negative side of the parent's work as prophet, inspirer. There are perhaps few parents to whom the innocence of the babe in its mother's arms does not appeal with pathetic force. 'Open me the gates of righteousness, that I may go in unto them,' is the voice of the little unworldly child; and a wish, anyway, that he may be kept unspotted from the world, is breathed in every kiss of his mother, in the light of his father's eyes. But how ready we are to conclude that children cannot be expected to understand spiritual things. Our own grasp of the things of the Spirit is all too lax, and how can we expect that the child's feeble intelligence can apprehend the highest mysteries of our being? But here we are altogether wrong. It is with the advance of years that a materialistic temper settles upon us. But the children live in the light of the morning-land. The spirit-world has no mysteries for them; that parable and travesty of the spirit-world, the fairy-world, where all things are possible, is it not their favourite dwelling-place? And fairy-tales are so dear to children because their spirits fret against the hard and narrow limitations of time and place and substance; they cannot breathe freely in a material world. Think what the vision of God should be to the little child already peering wistfully through the bars of his prison-house. Not a far-off God, a cold abstraction, but a warm, breathing, spiritual Presence about his path and about his bed––a Presence in which he recognises protection and tenderness in darkness and danger, towards which he rushes as the timid child to hide his face in his mother's skirts.
'My Hiding-place.'––A friend tells me the following story of her girlhood. It so happened that extra lessons detained her at school until dark every day during the winter. She was extremely timid, but, with the unconscious reserve of youth, never thought of mentioning her fear of 'something.' Her way home lay by a river-side, a solitary path under trees––big trees, with masses of shadow. The black shadows, in which 'something' might lie hid––the swsh-sh, swsh-sh of the river, which might be whisperings or the rustle of garments filled her night by night with unabated terror. She fled along that river-side path with beating heart; but, quick as flying steps and beating heart, these words beat in her brain, over, and over, and over, the whole length of the way, evening by evening, winter after winter: 'Thou art my hiding-place; Thou shalt preserve me from trouble; Thou shalt compass me about with songs of deliverance.' Years after, when the woman might be supposed to have outgrown girlish terrors, she found herself again walking alone in the early darkness of a winter's evening under trees by the swsh-sh of another river. The old terror returned, and with it the old words came to her, and kept time the whole length of the way with her hasty steps. Such a place to hide him in should be the thought of God to every child.
The Mind of the Child is 'Good Ground.'––Their keen sensitiveness to spiritual influences is not due to ignorance on the part of the children. It is we, not they, who are in error. The whole tendency of modern biological thought is to confirm the teaching of the Bible: the ideas which quicken come from above; the mind of the little child is an open field, surely 'good ground,' where, morning by morning, the sower goes forth to sow, and the seed is the Word. All our teaching of children should be given reverently, with the humble sense that we are invited in this matter to co-operate with the Holy Spirit; but it should be given dutifully and diligently, with the awful sense that our co-operation would appear to be made a condition of the Divine action; that the Saviour of the world pleads with us to 'suffer the little children to come unto Me,' as if we had the power to hinder, as we know that we have.
Children suffer from a deep-seated discontent––This thought of the Saviour of the world implies another conception which we sometimes leave out of sight in dealing with children. Young faces are not always sunny and lovely; even the brightest children in the happiest circumstances have their clouded hours. We rightly put the cloud down to some little disorder, or to the weather, but these are the secondary causes which reveal a deep-seated discontent. Children have a sense of sin, acute in proportion to their sensitiveness. We are in danger of trusting too much to a rose-water treatment; we do not take children seriously enough; brought face to face with a child, we find he is a very real person, but in our educational theories we take him as 'something between a wax doll and an angel.' He sins; he is guilty of greediness, falsehood, malice, cruelty, a hundred faults that would be hateful in a grown-up person; we say he will know better by-and-by. He will never know better; he is keenly aware of his own odiousness. How many of us would say about our childhood, if we told the whole truth, 'Oh, I was an odious little thing!' and that not because we recollect our faults, but because we recollect our childish estimate of ourselves. Many a bright and merry child is odious in his own eyes; and the 'peace, peace, where there is no peace,' of fond parents and friends is little comfort. It is well that we 'ask for the old paths, where is the good way'; it is not well that, in the name of the old paths, we lead our children into blind alleys; nor that we let them follow the new into bewildering mazes.