Child-rearing advice reflects its culture; 19th-century secular advice shifted as American society changed. Religious advice … not so much. As Francis Wayland had in 1831, in 1853 J. W. Guernsey emphasizes obedience, in “Parental Duties.” The focus here is control: the parent’s control of the child; the child’s control of herself. Guernsey, in fact, lists control ahead of providing for the child’s needs, in order of importance. Parental control is key. A parent needs to oversee every aspect of the child’s life, lest the child be warped by a bad influence. And the parent needs to start early: a child old enough to act can be taught to be obedient; a parent who starts such training at 17 months has left it too long. (“Snapping” a baby’s fingers may be a colloquialism for slapping her fingers.)

But children also need to control themselves. Guernsey uses recent events as a warning: “the late Dr. Webster” was John White Webster, the lecturer in the Harvard Medical College who was executed on 30 August 1850 for the murder of Dr. George Parkman. His plea to have his death sentence commuted blamed parental indulgence for why he committed murder: “Dr. P. was extremely severe and sharp, the most provoking of men, and I am irritable and passionate—a quick-headed and brief violence of temper has been a besetting sin of my life. I was an only child, much indulged, and I have never acquired the control over my passions which I ought to have acquired early, and the consequence is all this.” [“The Boston Tragedy: Webster’s Confession of the Murder of Dr. Parkman.” Saturday Evening Post 30 (13 July 1850); p. 3]

Children especially need to learn to control their appetites, whether for fancy clothing (oh, those teenaged girls!) or even for food. Chewing cubebs and other spices allows girls to “pamper the appetite”; a young man who indulges his sweet-tooth becomes an alcoholic. The idea that addiction to sweets could lead to more serious addictions wasn’t uncommon.

Control and submission are key in Lavinia Pilsbury’s earlier advice on child-rearing as well—to the extent that all around the child should maintain a serene countenance no matter what. But Pilsbury also stresses tenderness, something very much lacking in Guernsey’s stern sermon.


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“Parental Duties,” by Rev. J. W. Guernsey (from The Mother’s Assistant and Young Lady’s Friend, July 1853; pp. 7-13)

When the childless Manoah was told that his arms should embrace a son, his only inquiry of the messenger-angel was, “How shall we order the child? And how shall we do unto him?”

These two questions involve the whole duty of parents to their children. First, control. How shall we order the child? Second, provision for its wants. How shall we do unto him? All parents acknowledge these duties in the abstract, and feel that they are inseparable from the parental relation. But, while they thus agree, there is great difference of opinion concerning their extent. One is satisfied with providing for the mere animal wants of the child, and exercising the slightest possible control, making parental care and authority merely nominal. Such a course may arise from thoughtlessness, or indifference, or from an idea that a fuller provision for the wants of a child, and a more rigid oversight of its conduct, will diminish its self-reliance, and impair the manly independence of its spirit. Other parents never seem to think they have done enough, while anything remains that can be done for their children. Some are ready to gratify every wish of the child, but leave its conduct uncontrolled. Some carefully watch the conduct of their children, while they are heedless of their wants. Between these wide extremes may be found every shade and phase of parental character and conduct.

Children are learners very early, and parents are responsible for the instruction they receive.

The dew-drop on the infant plant

Has warped the giant oak forever.

Far up among the Green Mountains of Vermont a little rivulet has its birth-place. For some distance its waters run on in a single channel, following the summit of the ridge. Just in the centre of the stream some little object divides it, and part flows to the right hand, and part to the left. Those divided waters never meet again, till they meet in the wide ocean; one stream flowing into the

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Atlantic, by the White River and Connecticut; the other by the Winooiski, Lake Champlain, and the St. Lawrence. At the point of separation a child could change the direction of either stream, and make it flow in an opposite course, by a moment’s labor; but in a little time they diverge so far, and the barrier between them is so formidable, that the efforts of a world would hardly suffice to bring them together.

Like the infant oak, warped by a dew-drop to a form that the giant tree shall retain as long as it exists,—like that mountain-rivulet, whose whole course is determined by a slight object,—is the heart of the child. The looks, the words, the very tones, the motions, the habits of all around it, influence its character. Chameleon-like, it borrows the hue of everything it meets; but, unlike the chameleon, it does not put off one hue for another, but each new tint blends with those which have preceded it, either to deepen or neutralize them. The character of the child is an aggregate of the power of all these influences, each modified in its effects by all the others.

Over all this scene of action and counter-action the parent presides. It is his duty to bring in everything in his power which will affect the child favorably; and exclude, with the most vigilant care, everything unfavorable to its welfare. The first direct lesson a child should learn is submission. Utterly ignorant of everything at first, and from its ignorance exposed to constant danger, it must be watched with a sleepless eye, and constantly restrained by the hand of authority. The child must submit to restraint through life,—must yield his own opinions, and bow his will to others. At school he will be under constant restraint; society will hold him amenable to a thousand unwritten laws, and the civil code will bind him by its fearful penalties. The earlier the habit of submission to proper authority is formed, the more easily and perfectly will it be done, and the better will it be for all parties. The commencement of government is often delayed so long, that habits of insubordination become so fixed as to make it hardly possible to subdue them; and the parent shrinks from the task more and more, until it is never attempted in good earnest.

Said a mother to me, “My son is now seventeen months old, and I never have governed him yet, and dread to begin.” Poor, misguided mother! She had neglected her work too long. It had grown more difficult every day, and her own resolution had grown

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weaker by delay; she had not begun the work, and probably never will.

Meeting, one day, in a family, a little boy about three years old, a very pattern of docility, I asked the father how he had trained the child to make him so obedient. He said, “We began with him at the first. When we brought him to the table he would pull the things off, as children often do. We snapped his fingers. Our friends told us we ought not to do so, that the child was not old enough to know better; but we told them that, if he was old enough to pull things from the table, he was old enough to let them alone.” This incident unfolds the true principle of early training. As soon as a child is old enough to act voluntarily, it should be taught to obey its proper guardians. If this be judiciously and faithfully done, the habit of obedience will become so firmly fixed that it will remain permanent through life. The consequences of neglecting this early training are most deplorable. The child soon becomes stubborn and self-willed. His habits of insubordination

“Grow with his growth, and strengthen with his strength.”

And, unless they are subdued by a mighty and long-continued effort, they cling to him as long as he lives.

We doubt not, an examination would show that all those whom society has been obliged to cast out of her bosom, because she could not endure their presence,—the inmates of our prisons, penitentiarieis, houses of correction, and the victims of the gallows,—were prepared for their career of crime, and end of infamy, by the neglect of proper restraints in their early years. The case of the late Dr. Webster is a painful illustration of this principle. In his confession he says, that in childhood he was allowed to have his own way without control. Consequently he grew up headstrong, passionate, impatient and restive under restraing; easily exasperated, and, when angry, reckless. The consequences are too well known to require repetition. Every parent who permits a child to grow up without proper control exposes it to a like career of sin, and end of shame.

Children should be required to obey promptly. No lingering to complete their plays, no stopping to object, or repine, or parley, should be allowed. They should be taught to obey with alacrity at the precise time required. Delay in obedience is the younger

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brother of disobedience. Obedience should be exact. By this I mean, the terms of the command should be fully met; not a partial compliance, that leaves the child good reason to feel it has had its own way after all, but such a complete fulfilment of the command as shall make it feel that the will of the parent is its rule of action,—its controlling law, which allows no deviation or evasion. But, while implicit obedience is exacted, the utmost care should be taken that every requirement is proper and just; for the parental authority is not unlimited. There is a higher law to which both parents and children are responsible,—the law of God. Should the parental requirement conflict with this, children are not bound to obey it; nay, more than this, to do so would be sin. The proper course for the child, in such circumsances, is to obey God, and suffer the consequences.

The language of the Bible on this subject is, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right;”—that is, obey your parents just as far as you can without disobeying God. The moral power of parental authority depends on the manner in which it is exercised. This should be made in such a way as to show the child that the parent has its happiness always in view,—that every requirement is prompted by love. It is not desirable that parents should always give children reasons for their commands; but this may be done frequently, with the happiest results, if done judiciously. We hardly need to say parents should be habitually self-controlled, in order to control their children successfully.

Whenever it is necessary to inflict punishment, let it be done in the calmest and most deliberate manner, accompanied with such remarks concerning the nature and consequences of the offence, and with such an arrangement of the circumstances, as shall most fully fix the moral impression of the act upon the mind of the child. Some parents are in the habit of striking their children, hastily and passionately, for almost every offence, without any words of reproof; or, which is worse, with some petulant or angry exclamation. No words can sufficiently reprehend this practice. Corporal punishment is the last resort to secure obedience; when used, it should be made sufficiently severe to subdue the child, but so accompanied with moral means that the subjugation may be moral as well as physical.

It is not well for parents to notice, openly, every slight impropriety in the conduct of children; a continual mention of faults will

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weary and disgust; but their eyes should be open to them all, and an untiring effort should be made to correct them, in the most effectual manner.

The great object is, to learn children to govern themselves. Mere physical restraint will never do this. It may make children circumspect in the presence of their parents, but it will not secure propriety of conduct when the parents are not present. When punishment must be inflicted, it is probably better, in all cases, that it be done in private, rather than in the presence of the family. A little girl was once caressing an infant brother, of which she seemed extremely fond. “O,” said she, “how I wish you would die!” Surprised at such a wish, under such circumstances, a stranger asked the reason. “O,” said the little girl, “he will have to be whipped so, if he lives!” Language is too poor to execrate sufficiently that parental discipline which leaves its impress of terrors so deeply burnt into the heart of a child.

There should be a perfect harmony between the parents in the management of their children. Neither should allow an act which the other disapproves. If differences of opinion exist, let them be discussed and settled in private; but never let the fact of their existence be known to the child. To them the parental power should always appear to be an indivisible unit.

The physical habits of children should be carefully watched. They are liable to form awkward habits of sitting, standing, and walking, which will render them disagreeable through life; unhealthy habits of eating, drinking, &c., that will make them invalids while they live, and bring them down to a premature grave. There is a strong and dangerous tendency among the young to pamper the appetite. With boys, it leads to smoking and chewing tobacco, drinking mead, beer, and other things, which lie, like so many decoy-lights, to tempt them on, till they plunge headlong into the vortex of intemperance. With girls, this propensity finds gratification in eating cloves, cubebs, cinnamon, and other things of the like nature; and, among both boys and girls, it finds gratification in the use of confectionary in some of its almost nameless forms; all of them useless, except as medicines, and many of them mixed with virulent poisons.

A few years since I had a school-mate, an active, intelligent, generous-hearted fellow, who was strongly addicted to the use of

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confectionary. At a time when we were paying nine shillings per week for our board, he acknowledged that his confectionary cost him more than his board. He ruined both his body and mind. His pampered appetite claimed more powerful stimulants. He listened to its calls, and became a sot.

Less than twelve years have passed since we were school-boys together. In that brief time he has squandered a fortune of three thousand dollars, broken the heart of a lovely girl whom, at the marriage altar, he promised to cherish; and now, at less than thirty years of age, he halts along, a poor, decrepid, irritable old man, the wreck of that vigorous, generous, intelligent companion. And all this physical, intellectual, and moral ruin arose from the vicious habit of pampering the appetite with confectionary.

We often find, even in families who boast of considerable refinement, an offensive rudeness in the table-habits of children. Few things are more disgusting to a well-bred person. This often arises from the practice of excluding them from the table till the older members of the family retire, and then serving them with the cold, unpalatable fragments which remain. If there be one place above all others where children should associate with the older members of the family, that place is the family table, especially if there be genteel strangers present; and there must be a sad defect in the training of those children whose parents are ashamed to present them at such times.

The habits of children, when addressed by older persons, require particular attention. Some are so embarrassed as never to look at a person who speaks to them; and their answers are so confused and stammering as hardly to be intelligible. We know a man who has attained considerable distinction in the literary and scientific world, who has never been able to overcome the habits of childhood so as to look a man in the face when conversing with him. On the other extreme is a pert forwardness, disgusting to every sensible person. Between these extremes is that quiet, modest self-possession, which throws around lovely childhood one of its richest attractions.

The attention of parents should be directed to the habits of their children among their playmates; to see that they are uniformly kind, courteous, and obliging. To dress children judiciously is a very important and a very difficult manner. To clothe the body so as to protect it fully, without obstructing any of its functions,—to

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cultivate correct taste without fostering sinful pride,—to give a child a respectable appearance without undue expense,—will require all the taste and judgment and firmness a parent can command. As childhood passes into youth, and youth approaches maturity, the necessity for parental oversight, discretion, and firmness, increases. There are three errors, in matters of dress, into which the young are inclined to run. The first, most common and most pernicious, is extravagance, especially in ornaments. And here we may as well say as not, we think everything put on for mere ornament, extravagance.

Young ladies are particularly inclined to this error; with many of them it is a perfect mania. If unrestrained, they would hang around themselves such a profusion of rings, pins, clasps, drops, chains, bracelets, buttons, bows, ribbons and laces, as to hide their real beauty, and make them but little more than walking show-cases for the jeweller, the milliner, and the mantua-maker, just as if anything hung on to it can beautify the human form and face divine. Sooner paint the rainbow, and re-gild the sun! The opposite of this is that negligence of personal appearance which marks the sloven. There is still another class, who choose gaudy, or odd patterns, and uncouth forms; evidently seeking a low and doubtful notoriety, and displaying much more vanity than taste.

All these tendencies require a careful correction. The formation of a delicate and correct taste in dress is of very great importance to the young, and intimately connected with their success in future life.

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