Good parenting is in decline. Children seem poorly behaved, and parents ill-tempered and tired. There are of course, plenty of exceptions to this generalisation, but the unfortunate fact still stands that many outsiders are not given a good impression of parenthood. Much of the poor behaviour exhibited by families in public places could be easily prevented with just a little consistent effort by the parents, if they but knew that children are capable of good behaviour.
The problem, it seems, is that as order has deteriorated and our social fabric has frayed, the old ideal that children ought to be seen but not heard has fallen by the wayside. The first known instance of this saying occurs in the work of the Augustinian clergyman John Mirk around 1450 in his collection of homilies Mirk’s Festial. Originally directed at ‘maydes’ (maids, or unmarried young women) it has since been found such astute advice that its ambit has been widened to include children generally. Another source of authority for the soundness of such a standard appears in Quintilian’s classic work on the instruction of boys in oratory, the Institutio Oratoria. He states ‘[b]ut let masters, also, desire to be heard themselves with attention and modesty; for the master ought not to speak to suit the taste of his pupils, but the pupils to suit that of the master.’
Quintilian also advises ‘A child is as early as possible , therefore, to be admonished that he must do nothing too eagerly, nothing dishonestly, nothing without self-control.’ While obviously we do not wish to bring up mute children, the sooner children can learn to adhere to adult standards of conduct, the better off they will be.
Below we see two very different depictions of fathers parenting large families. While Captain Von Trapp in the first video may go a little overboard with his regimen, the very high standard of order he maintains is a pleasant contrast to the all-too-real chaos of modern parenting presented in the second video.
Not only do many people in our broader culture dismiss the ideal of quiet children as an oppressive tyranny to the child, they are compelled to do so because of their fundamental conviction that such a standard is utterly unreachable without gagging and beating their children. Most parents today, particularly secular ones, seem to believe that children are beyond earthly control, and must simply be tolerated until they eventually decide to be civil on their own. As behaviour modification is seen as essentially hopeless, all conduct which stops short of flagrantly bad or outright dangerous is permitted by the parents and suffered by onlookers. Even people who value western tradition sometimes unthinkingly accept modern society’s lower standards.
When this helpless tolerance of childish behaviour eventually and predictably results in its escalation, the eventual censure is either made so gently that the child receives no impression that they ought to have stopped sooner, or, after happily going about their business undisturbed, the child suddenly finds themself being yelled at, which to them appears random and unpredictable. No one can moderate their behaviour to meet a standard that they cannot understand.
The solution of course, which many a grandparent could explain, is to give the children a far narrower ambit of operation than they are currently given. All unwanted behaviour beyond this narrow band must be consistently, firmly, but kindly admonished. Another pithy instruction from Quintilian to masters confirms this approach:
‘Let his austerity not be stern, nor his affability too easy, lest dislike arise from the one, or contempt from the other. Let him discourse frequently on what is honourable and good, for the oftener he admonishes, the more seldom he will have to chastise.’
Children need both love and guidance from their parents. They are relying on them to show them the way to behave in a world which they do not fully understand. If they do not receive clear guidelines, many children act up in order to provoke a response from their parents to reassure themselves that their parents are in control. Parents who do not act as competent authorities by setting limits will lose the respect of their children. This is well expressed in the Household Instructions from imperial China:
‘I have noticed about me that wherever there is love without training this result is never achieved. Children eat, drink, speak, and act as they please. Instead of needed prohibitions, they receive praise; instead of urgent reprimands, they receive smiles. Even when children are old enough to learn, such treatment is still regarded as the proper method. Only after the child has formed proud and arrogant habits do they try to control him. But one may whip the child to death, and he will still not be respectful, while the growing anger of the parents only increases his resentment. After he grows up, such a child at last becomes nothing but a scoundrel.’
While predictable discipline is necessary, corporal punishment is not recommended by Quintilian. He does not approve of corporal punishment, observing:
‘first, because it is a disgrace and a punishment for slaves, and in reality (as will be evident if you imagine the age changed) an affront; secondly, because, if a boy’s disposition be so abject as not to be amended by reproof, he will be hardened, like the worst of slaves, even to stripes; and lastly, because, if one who regularly exacts his tasks be with him, there will not be the least need of any such chastisement.’
The Boke Named the Gouenour, by Sir Thomas Elyot confirms the wisdom of Quintilian’s approach for a Christian audience. ‘Nat withstanding, I wolde nat haue them inforced by violence to lerne, but accordynge to the counsaile of Quintilian, to be swetely allured therto with praises and suche praty gyftes as children delite in.’
The need for firm, consistent and gentle guidance of children from an early age has also been found by modern research to be the best method for raising well behaved children. The Handbook of Parenting: Theory and Research for Practice, edited by Masud Hoghughi and Nicholas Long in 2004 states:
‘Children brought up by a nurturing, responsive and yet behaviourally demanding parents are less likely to show behavioural disturbance than those brought up by parents who are emotionally cold and yet rigid in enforcing rules and harsh in their discipline.’
And, ‘[a]nother study found proactive parenting (supportive presence, clear instruction, and limit setting) measured in preschool to be predictive of fewer behavioural problems at two and four year follow-ups.’
The reason so many children seem bratty and unpleasant, and so many parents seem tired and irritable is that many parents are not setting narrow and consistent limits on their children’s behaviour from an early age. The children are not intrinsically badly behaved, but become difficult to manage in response to poor guidance. The increasing number of western people choosing to remain childless or to have few children is likely related to their perception that children must be a financial, emotional and physical drain. If more parents seemed in control of their children, and capable of living organised lives, perhaps more people would be positively inclined towards having larger families.
While there are many examples of poor parenting around us, we should not use this as an excuse to heap scorn on the families who are struggling. The only reason to notice the long history of imperfect decisions which went into producing the disorder we observe is to emphasise that parenting does not have to be this way. If more people believed children to be capable of very good behaviour, like that exhibited by the Von Trapp family above, they would quickly learn how to achieve something like it in their own children. Quintilian counsels ‘but if to reach it be not granted us, yet those who shall strive to gain the summit will make higher advances than those who, prematurely conceiving a despair of attaining the point at which they aim, shall at once sink down at the foot of the ascent.’
With just a little consistent effort most children could behave much better, and life would become easier for everyone around them. The necessity of demanding excellent behaviour from children at all times, not merely occasionally, cannot be overstated. Children accustomed to much latitude of conduct are likely to resent its curbiture as an unjust imposition if it is only intermittently enforced. Thus consistently good behaviour will be harder to achieve if children are spending large portions of their time in an environment where little self-control is demanded of them.
One of the modern approaches which cause difficultly in managing children is to give the child too much choice. They are not yet mature enough to make all the decisions which adults make. The relationship of parent to child is an hierarchical one. Contrary to the modern antipathy toward hierarchy, this is no bad thing. The authority which the parent wields is necessary for the protection of the child, and parents should not be ashamed to require the child to do as they are told when the child has no compelling reason for disobedience. Only once the child has demonstrated their maturity through a careful respect for parental authority are they to be allowed a portion of that authority for themselves. No choice of activities or amusements need be offered children during times when they must sit quietly. Children do not need to be convinced and bribed to follow their parent’s instructions, although they should be praised for good behaviour. Parenting is not a negotiation between equals, but the wise rule and just leadership of a subject. Of course, it is always beneficial to address a child with the same level of civility that one would accord to an adult under his authority, and to require such civility be returned. If our employers, political leaders and church leaders threw temper tantrums and whinged at us continually, we would quickly resent following their orders. If all the instructions a parent issues are followed, the parent should find they need not issue many instructions at all.
Children are most capable if someone has faith that they can learn and is willing to teach them. The evidence form the past is that when teachers and parents demand a higher standard children are capable of reaching it. By requiring children to follow instructions and behave well, even when they don’t feel like it, they are learning to delay gratification. The child might not get to do what they want now, but they will win the praise and esteem of their parents later. As seen in the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment, the ability to delay gratification in early childhood is associated with better social adjustment, academic success and better health in later life.
If good parental guidance is carefully and consistently provided from an early age, it should take very little time for the child to relax into the security of this predictable system, and be seen but not heard.