The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)

Francis Wayland

BOOK 2, PART 2, DIVISION 1, CLASS 2, CHAPTER 3

The Law of Parents

The adaptation of the physical and moral laws under which man is placed, to the promotion of human happiness, is beautifully illustrated in the relation which exists between the law of marriage and the law of parent and child. Were the physical or moral conditions of marriage different in any respect from those which exist, the evils which would ensue would be innumerable. And, on the contrary, by accurately observing these conditions, we shall see that they not only contain a provision for the well-being of successive generations, but also establish a tendency to indefinite social progress.

For instance, we see that mankind are incapable of sustaining the relation of parent until they have arrived at the age of maturity, attained to considerable knowledge and experience, and become capable of such labor as will enable them to support and protect their offspring. Were this otherwise, were children liable to become parents — parent and child growing up together in physical and intellectual imbecility — the progress of man in virtue and knowledge would be impossible, even if the whole race did not perish from want and disease.

Again, the parent is endowed with a love of his offspring, which renders it a pleasure to him to contribute to its welfare, and to give it, by every means in his power, the benefit of his own experience. And, on the contrary, there is in the child, if not a correspondent love of the parent, a disposition to submit to the parent’s wishes, and to yield (unless its instincts have been mismanaged) to his authority. Were either of these dispositions wanting, it is evident that the whole social system would be disarranged, and incalculable misery entailed upon our race.

Again, it is evident that civil society is constituted by the surrender of the individual’s personal desires and propensities to the good of the whole. It of course involves the necessity of self-restraint — that is, of habitual self-government. Now, in this point of view, the domestic society is designed to be, as has been frequently remarked, the nursery for the state.

Thus, the parent being of an age and having experience sufficient to control and direct the child, and being instinctively impelled to exert this control for the child’s benefit: and the child being instinctively disposed to yield to his authority, when judiciously exerted; the child grows up under a system in which he yields to the will of another, and thus he learns at home to submit to the laws of that society of which he is soon to become a member. And hence it is that the relaxation of parental authority has always been found one of the surest indications of the decline of social order, and the unfailing precursor of public turbulence and anarchy.

But still more, it is a common remark, that children are influenced by example more readily than by any other means. Now, by the marriage constitution, this principle of human nature is employed as an instrument of the greater possible good. We stated that the basis of the marriage covenant is affection, and that it supposes each party to prefer the happiness of the other to its own. While the domestic society is governed by this principle, it presents to the children a continual example of disinterestedness and self-denial, and of the happiness which results from the exercise of these virtues. And yet more, the affection of the parents prompts them to the exercise of the same virtues in behalf of their children; and, hence, the latter have before their eyes a constantly operating motive to the cultivation of these very dispositions. And, lastly, as the duty of the wife is submission, children are thus taught, by the example of one whom they respect and love, that submission is both graceful and dignified; and that it in no manner involves the idea of baseness or servility.

1. From these considerations, we learn the relation which exists, by nature, between parents and children. It is the relation of a superior to an inferior. The right of the parent is to command; the duty of the child is to obey. Authority belongs to the one, submission to the other. This relation is a part of our constitution, and the obligation which arises from it is, accordingly, a part of our duty. It is not a mere matter of convenience or of expediency, but it belongs to the relations under which we are created and to the violation of it, our Creator has affixed peculiar and afflicting penalties.

2. While this is the relation, yet the motive which should govern the obligation, on both sides, is affection. While the authority to command rests with the parent, and the duty of submission is imposed upon the child, yet the parent is not at liberty to exercise this authority from caprice, or from love of power, or for his own advantage, but from simple love to the child, and for the child’s advantage. The constitution under which we are placed, renders it necessary that the parent should exercise this power; but that parent abuses it, that is, he uses it for purposes for which it was not conferred, if he exercise it from any other motive than duty to God, and love to his offspring.

3. This relation being established by our Creator, and the obligations consequent upon it being binding upon both parties, the failure in one party does not annihilate the obligations of the other. If a child be disobedient, the parent is still under obligation to act towards it for its own good, and, not to exert his authority for any other purpose. If a parent be unreasonable, this does not release the child; he is still bound to honor, and obey, and reverence his parent.

The duty of parents is, then, generally, to educate, or to bring up their children in such a manner as they believe will be most for their future happiness, both temporal and eternal.

This comprehends several particulars:

I. Support or maintenance.

That it is the duty of the parents to keep alive the helpless being whom they have brought into existence, need not be proven. As to the expensiveness of this maintenance, I do not know that any thing very definite can be asserted. The general rule would seem to be, that the mode of life adopted by the parent, would be that which he is required to provide for the child. This, however, would be modified by some circumstances. If a parent of large wealth brought up his family in meanness and ignorance, so that they would be specially unfitted for the opulence which they were hereafter to enjoy, he would act unjustly. He is voluntarily placing them in circumstances of great temptation. So, on the other hand, if a parent, destitute of means to render his children independent of labor, brings them up, whether male or female, in idleness and expensiveness, he violates his duty as a parent; he is preparing them for a life, not of happiness, but of discontent, imbecility and misery. The latter, owing to the natural weakness of parental affection, is by far, the most common error, and is liable to become peculiarly prevalent in the social condition of this country.

II. Education.

1. Physical education. A parent is under obligation to use all the means in his power to secure to his children a good physical constitution. It is his duty to prescribe such food, and in such quantity, as will best conduce to their health; to regulate their labor and exercise, so as fully to develop all the powers, and call into exercise all the functions, of their physical system; to accustom them to hardship, and render them patient of labor. Every one knows how greatly the happiness of a human being depends upon early physical discipline; and it is manifest that this discipline can be enforced by no one but a parent, or by one who stands in the place of a parent.

By the same rule, we see the wickedness of those parents who employ their children in such service, or oblige them to labor in such manner, as will expose them to sickness, infirmity, disease, and premature death. In many manufacturing countries, children are forced to labor before they are able to endure confinement and fatigue, or to labor vastly beyond their strength, so that the vigor of their constitution is destroyed even in infancy. The power of the parent over the child, was given for the child’s good and neither to gratify the parents selfishness, nor to minister to his love of gain. It is not improper to add that, the guilt and the shame of this abuse of the rights of children, are equally shared between the parent who thus sells the child’s health and life for gold, and the heartless agent who thus profits by his wickedness. Nor is this form of violation of parental obligation confined to any one class of society. The ambitious mother, who, for the sake of her own elevation, or the aggrandizement of her family, and without any respect to the happiness of her child, educates her daughter in all the trickery of fashionable fascination, dwarfing her mind, and sensualizing her aspirations, for the chance of negotiating for her a profitable match, regardless of the character or habits of him to whom she is to be united for life, falls under precisely the same condemnation.

2. Intellectual education. A child enters into the world utterly ignorant, and possessed of nothing else than a collection of impulses and capabilities. It can be happy and useful only as this ignorance is dispelled by education, and these impulses and capabilities are directed and enlarged by discipline and cultivation. To some knowledge and discipline the parent has, from the necessity of the case, attained; and, at least, so much as this he is bound to communicate to his children. In some respects, however, this duty can be discharged more effectively by others than by the parent; and it may, therefore, very properly, be thus devolved upon a teacher. The parental obligation requires that it be done either by a parent himself, or that he procure it to be done by another.

I have said that it can, in part, be discharged by the teacher. But, let it be remembered, it can be done only in part. The teacher is only the agent; the parent is the principal. The teacher does not remove from the parent any of the responsibility of his relation. Several duties devolve upon the one, which cannot be rightfully devolved upon the other.

For instance, —

    1. He is bound to inform himself of the peculiar habits, and reflect upon the probable future situation, of his child, and deliberately to consider what sort of education will most conduce to his future happiness and usefulness.

    2. He is bound to select such instructors as will best accomplish the results which he believes will be most beneficial.

    3. He is bound to devote such time and attention to the subject, as will enable him to ascertain whether the instructor of his child discharges his duty with faithfulness.

    4. To encourage his child, by manifesting such interest in his studies as shall give to diligence and assiduity all the assistance and benefit of parental authority and friendship.

    5. And, if a parent be under obligation to do this, he is, of course, under obligation to take time to do it, and so to construct the arrangements of his family and business, that it may be done. He has no right to say that he has no time for these duties. If God have required them of him, as is the fact, he has time exactly for them; and the truth is, he has not time for those other occupations which interfere with them. If he neglect them, he does it to the injury of his children, and, as he will ascertain when it shall be too late, to his own disappointment and misery.

Nor let it be supposed that this will ever be done without bringing with it its own reward. God has always connected together, indissolubly, our own personal benefit and the discharge of every duty. Thus, in the present case, a parent who assiduously follows his children throughout the various steps of their education, will find his own knowledge increased, and his own education carried forward, vastly beyond what he would at first have conceived. There are very few things which a child ought to learn, from the study of which an adult will not derive great advantage, especially if he go through the process of simplification and analysis, which are so necessary in order to communicate knowledge to the mind of the young. And yet more. It is only thus that the parent will be able to retain that intellectual superiority which it is so much for the interest of both parties that he should, for a long time, at least, possess. It is an unfortunate circumstance, for a child to suppose that he knows more than his parent; and, if his supposition be true, he will not be slow to entertain it. The longer the parent maintain his superiority in knowledge and wisdom, the better will it be for both parties. But this superiority cannot be retained, if, as soon as the parent enters upon active business, he desist from all effort after intellectual cultivation, and surrenders himself a slave to physical labor, while he devotes his child to mere intellectual cultivation, and thus renders intellectual intercourse between himself and his children almost impossible.

3. Moral education. The eternal destiny of the child is placed, in a most important sense, in the hands of its parents. The parent is under obligation to instruct, and cause his child to be instructed, in those religious sentiments which he believes to be according to the will of God. With his duty in this respect, until the child becomes able to decide for himself, no one has a right to interfere. If the parent be in error, the fault is not in teaching the child what he believes, but in believing what is false, without having used the means which God has given him to arrive at the truth. But, if such be the responsibility, and so exclusive the authority of the parent, it is manifest that he is under a double obligation to ascertain what is the will of God, and in what manner the future happiness of an immortal soul may be secured. As soon as he becomes a parent, his decisions on this subject involve the future happiness or misery, not only of his own soul, but also of that of another. Both considerations, therefore, impose upon him the obligation of coming to a serious and solemn decision upon his moral condition and prospects.

But, besides that of making himself acquainted with the doctrines of religion, the relation in which he stands imposes upon the parent several other duties.

It is his duty, —

    1. To teach his child its duties to God and to man, and produce in its mind a permanent conviction of its moral responsibility. This is to be done, not merely by direct, but also by indirect, precept; and by directing it to such trains of observation and reflection as shall create a correct moral estimate of actions and of their consequences. And specially should it be the constant effort of the parent to cultivate in his child a spirit of piety, or a right feeling towards God, the true source of every other virtue.

    2. Inasmuch as the present state of man is morally imperfect, and every individual is a sharer in that imperfection, it is the duty of the parent to eradicate, so far as is in his power, the wrong propensities of his children. He should watch, with ceaseless vigilance, for the first appearances of pride, obstinacy, malice, envy, vanity, cruelty, revenge, anger, lying, and their kindred vices; and, by steadfast and unwearied assiduity, strive to extirpate them before they have gained firmness by age, or vigor by indulgence. There cannot be a greater unkindness to a child, than to allow it to grow up with any of its evil habits uncorrected. Every one would consider a parent cruel, who allowed a child to grow up without having taken means to cure a limb which had been broken; but how much worse is an evil temper than a broken limb.

    3. Inasmuch as precept will be of no avail without a correspondent example, a parent is under obligation, not only to set no example by which the evil dispositions of his child will be cherished, but to set such an example as will be most likely to remove them. A passionate, selfish, envious man must expect that, in spite of all his precepts, his children will be passionate, envious, and selfish.

    4. Inasmuch as all our efforts will be fruitless without the blessing of God, that parent must be convicted of great neglect of duty, who does not habitually pray for that direction which he needs in the performance of these solemn obligations; as well as for that blessing upon his efforts, without which, though ever so well directed, they will be utterly in vain.

    5. Inasmuch as the moral character of the child is greatly influenced by its associations and companions, it is the duty of the parent to watch over these with vigilance, and to control them with entire independence. He is false to his trust, if, for the sake of gratifying the desires of his child, or of conciliating the favor of others, or avoiding the reputation of singularity or preciseness, he allow his child to form associations which he believes, or even fears, will be injurious to him. And, on the other hand, if such be the duty of the parent, he ought to be considered as fully at liberty to perform it, without remark, and, without offence. In such matters, he is the ultimate and the only responsible authority. He who reproaches another for the exercise of this authority, is guilty of slander. He who, from the fear of slander, shrinks from exercising it, is justly chargeable with a pusillanimity wholly unworthy of the relation which he sustains.

    6. As the parent sustains the same relation to all his children, it is manifest that his obligations to them all are the same. Hence, he is bound to exercise his authority with entire impartiality. The want of this must always end in jealousy, envy, and malice, and cannot fail to render the domestic society a scene of perpetual bickering and contention. A striking exemplification of all this is recorded in the history of Joseph and his brethren.

If this be so, it is evident that the violation of parental obligation is more common, among even indulgent parents, than would generally be supposed.

1. Parents who render themselves slaves to fashionable society and amusement, violate this obligation. The mother who is engaged in a perpetual round of visiting and company, and who, from the pressure of engagements to which she subjects herself, has no leisure to devote to the mental and moral culture of her children, violates her most solemn duties. She has no right to squander away, in frivolous self-gratification, the time which belongs to her offspring. She will reap the fruits of her folly, when, in a few years, her children, having grown up estranged from her affection, shall thwart her wishes, disappoint her hopes, and neglect, if they do not despise, the mother who bare them.

2. The father who plunges into business so deeply that he has no leisure for domestic duties and pleasures, and whose only intercourse with his children consists in a brief and occasional word of authority, or a surly lamentation over their intolerable expensiveness, is equally to be pitied and to be blamed. What right has he to devote to other pursuits the time which God has allotted to his children? Nor is it any excuse, to say that he cannot support his family in their present style of living, without this effort. I ask, By what right can his family demand to live in a manner which requires him to neglect his most solemn and important duties? Nor is it an excuse, to say that he wishes to leave them a competence. Is he under obligation to leave them that competence which he desires? Is it an advantage to them to be relieved from the necessity of labor? Besides, is money the only desirable bequest which a father can leave to his children? Surely, well cultivated intellects, hearts sensible to domestic affection, the love of parents and brethren and sisters, a taste for home pleasures, habits of order, regularity and industry, a hatred of vice and of vicious men, and a lively sensibility to the excellence of virtue, are as valuable a legacy as an inheritance of property, simple property, purchased by the loss of every habit which could render that property a blessing.

3. Nor can thoughtful men be always exculpated from the charge of this violation. The duties of a parent are established by God, and God requires us not to violate them. While the social worship of God is a duty, it ought not to interfere with parental duty. Parents who spend that time which belongs to their children, in offices of public social worship, have mistaken the nature of their special obligation. I do not pretend to say what time, or how much time, any individual shall spend in any religious service. This question does not belong to the present discussion. But I say that this time must be taken out of that which belongs to ourselves; and it might easily be abstracted from that devoted to visiting, company, or idleness; it should not be taken from that which belongs, by the ordinance of God, to our children.

It will be easily seen, that the fulfillment of these obligations, in the manner I have suggested, would work a very perceptible change in the whole fabric of society. It would check the eager desire of accumulation, repress the ardor of ambition, and allay the feverish thirst for selfish gratification. But it would render a family, in truth, a society. It would bring back parents and children to the relations to each other which God has established. It would restore to home a meaning, and to the pleasures of home a reality, which they are in danger of losing altogether. Forsaking the shadow of happiness, we should find the substance. Instead of a continual round of physical excitation, and the ceaseless pursuit of pleasures which, as everyone confesses, end in ennui and disappointment, we should secure

“A sacred and home-felt delight,
A sober certainty of waking bliss,”


of which, previously, we could have had no conception.

The Rights of Parents.

The right of the parent over his child is, of course, commensurate with his duties. If he be under obligation to educate his child in such manner as he supposes will most conduce to the child’s happiness and the welfare of society, he has, from necessity, the right to control the child in everything necessary to the fulfillment of this obligation. The only limits imposed are, that he exert this control no further than is necessary to the fulfillment of his obligation, and that he exert it with the intention for which it was conferred. While he discharges his parental duties within these limits, he is, by the law of God, exempt from interference both from the individual and from society.

Of the duration of this obligation and this right.

1. In infancy, the control of the parent over the child is absolute; that is, it is exercised without any respect whatever to the wishes of the child.

2. When the child has arrived at majority, and has assumed the responsibility of its own conduct, both the responsibility and the right of the parent cease altogether.

The time of majority is fixed in most civilized nations by statute. In Great Britain and in the United States, an individual becomes of age at his twenty-first year. The law, therefore, settles the rights and obligations of the parties, so far as civil society is concerned, but does not pretend to decide upon the moral relations of the parties.

3. As the rights and duties of the parent at one period are absolute, and at another cease altogether, it is reasonable to infer, that the control of the parent should be exercised on more and more liberal principles, that a wider and wider discretion should be allowed to the child, and that his feelings and predilections should be more and more consulted, as he grows older; so that, when he comes to act for himself, he may have become prepared for the responsibility which he assumes, by as extensive an experience as the nature of the case admits.

4. Hence, I think that a parent is bound to consult the wishes of his child, in proportion to his age, whenever this can be done innocently; and also, to vary his modes of enforcing authority, so as to adapt them to the motives of which the increasing intellect of the child is susceptible. While it is true that the treatment proper for a young man, would ruin a child, it is equally true that the treatment proper for a child, might very possibly ruin a young man. The right of control, however, still rests with the parent, and the duty of obedience still is imposed upon the child. The parent is merely bound to exercise it in a manner suited to the nature of the being over whom it is to be exerted.

The authority of instructors is a delegated authority, derived immediately from the parent. He, for the time being, stands to the pupil in loco parentis. Hence, the relation between him and the pupil is analogous to that between parent and child; that is, it is the relation of superiority and inferiority. The right of the instructor is to command; the obligation of the pupil is to obey. The right of the instructor is, however, to be exercised as I before stated, when speaking of the parent, for the pupil’s benefit. For the exercise of it, he is responsible to the parent, whose professional agent he is. He must use his own best skill and judgment, in governing and teaching his pupil. If he and the parent cannot agree, the connection must be dissolved. But, as he is a professional agent, he must use his own intellect and skill in the exercise of his own profession, and, in the use of it, he is to be interfered with by no one.