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

Francis Wayland


The Law of Children

I shall consider in this chapter the duties and the rights of children, and their duration.

The Duties of Children.

I. Obedience. By this I mean, that the relation between parent and child obliges the latter to conform to the will of the former because it is his will, aside from the consideration that what is required seems to the child best of wisest. The only limitation to this rule is the limitation of conscience. A parent has no right to require a child to do what it believes to be wrong; and a child is under no obligation, in such a case, to obey the commands of a parent. The child must obey God, and meekly suffer the consequences. It has even in this case no right to resist.

The reasons of this rule are manifest.

1. The design of the whole domestic constitution would be frustrated without it. This design, from what has been already remarked is, to enable the child to avail itself both of the wisdom, and knowledge, and experience, of the parent; and also of that affection which prompts the parent to employ all these for the well being of the child. But of these advantages the child can never avail himself, unless he yield obedience to the parent’s authority, until he have acquired that age and experience which are necessary to enable him to direct and to govern himself.

2. That this is the duty of children is made apparent by the precepts of the Holy Scriptures:

Exodus 20:12. “Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” This, as St. Paul remarks, Eph. 6:2-3, is the only commandment in the decalogue, to which a special promise is annexed.

In the book of Proverbs no duty is more frequently inculcated than this; and of no one are the consequences of obedience and disobedience more fully set forth.

A few examples may serve as a specimen:

Proverbs 1:8-9. “My son, keep the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother. They shall be an ornament of grace (that is, a graceful ornament) unto thy head, and chains about thy neck.”

Proverbs 6:20. “Keep thy father’s commandment, and forsake not the law of thy mother.”

Proverbs 13:1. “A wise son heareth his father’s instructions, but a scorner heareth not rebuke.”

The same duty is frequently inculcated in the New Testament:

Ephesians 6:1. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” The meaning of the phrase, “in the Lord,” I suppose to be, in accordance with the will of the Lord.

Colossians 3:20. “Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing unto the Lord.” The phrase, “well pleasing unto the Lord,” is here of the same meaning as “in the Lord,” above.

The displeasure of God against those who violate this command, is also frequently denounced in the Scriptures:

Deuteronomy 27:16. “Cursed be he that setteth light by his father or his mother; and all the people shall say Amen.”

Proverbs 16:5. “A Fool despiseth his father’s instructions.”

Proverbs 30:17. “The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pluck it out, and the young eagles shall eat it.” That is, he shall perish by a violent death; he shall come to a miserable end.

From such passages as these, and I have selected only a very few from a great number that might have been quoted, we learn, 1. That the Holy Scriptures plainly inculcate obedience to parents as a command of God. He who is guilty of disobedience, therefore, violates not merely the command of man, but that also of God. And it is, therefore, our duty always to urge it, and to exact it, mainly on this ground.

2. That they consider obedience to parents as no indication of meanness and servility; but, on the contrary, as the most honorable and delightful exhibition of character that can be manifested by the young. It is a graceful ornament, which confers additional beauty upon that which was otherwise lovely.

3. That the violation of this commandment exposes the transgressor to special and peculiar judgments. And, even without the light of revelation, I think that the observation of every one must convince him, that the curse of God rests heavily upon filial disobedience, and that his peculiar blessing follows filial obedience. And, indeed, what can be a surer indication of future profligacy and ruin, than that turbulent impatience of restraint, which leads a youth to follow the headlong impulses of passion, in preference to the counsels of age and experience, even when conveyed in the language of tender and disinterested affection?

II. Another duty of children to parents, is reverence. This is implied in the commandment, “honor thy father and thy mother.” By reverence, I mean that conduct and those sentiments which are due from an inferior to a superior. The parent is the superior, and the child the inferior, by virtue of the relation which God himself has established. Whatever may be the rank or the attainments of the child, and how much soever they may be superior to those of the parent, these can never abrogate the previous relation which God has established. The child is bound to show deference to the parent, whenever it is possible, to evince that he considers him his superior; and to perform for him services which he would perform for no other person. And let it always be remembered, that in this, there is nothing degrading, but everything honorable. No more ennobling and dignified trait of character can be exhibited, than that of universal and profound filial respect. The same principle, carried out, would teach us universal and tender respect for old age, at all times, and under all circumstances.

III. Another duty of children is filial affection, or the peculiar affection due from a child to a parent, because he is a parent. A parent may be entitled to our love, because he is a man, or because he is such a man, that is, possessing such excellences of character; but, besides all this, and aside from it all, he is entitled to our affection on account of the relation in which he stands to us. This imposes upon us the duty not only of hiding his foibles, of covering his defects, of shielding him from misfortune, and of seeking his happiness by what means soever Providence has placed in our power, but also of performing all this, and all the other duties of which we have spoken, from love to him, because he is our parent; — a love which shall render such services not a burden, but a pleasure, under what circumstances soever it may be our duty to render them.

IV. It is the duty of the child, whenever it is by the providence of God rendered necessary, to support his parent in old age. That man would deserve the reputation of a monster, who would not cheerfully deny himself, in order to be able to minister to the comforts of the declining years of his parent.

The Rights of Children.

1. Children have a right to maintenance, and, as has been remarked before, a maintenance corresponding to the circumstances and condition of the parent.

2. They have a right to expect that the parent will exert his authority, not for his own advantage, nor from caprice, but for the good of the child, according to his best judgment. If the parent act otherwise, he violates his duty to his children and to God. This, however, in no manner liberates the child from his obligations to his parent. These remain in full force, the same as before. The wrong of one party is no excuse for wrong in the other. It is the child’s misfortune, but it can never be alleviated by domestic strife, and still less by filial disobedience and ingratitude.

Of the duration of these rights and obligations.

1. Of obedience. The child is bound to obey the parent so long as he remains in a state of pupilage, that is, so long as the parent is responsible for his conduct, and he is dependent upon his parent. This period, so far as society is concerned, as has been remarked, is fixed, in most countries, by statute. Sometimes, by the consent of both parties, it ceases before that period; at other times, it continues beyond it. With the termination of minority, let it occur when it will, the duty of obedience ceases. After this, however, the advice of the parent is entitled to more deference and respect than that of any other person; but, as the individual now acts upon his own responsibility, it is only advice, since it has ceased to be authoritative.

2. The conscience of a child becomes capable of deliberate decision long before its period of pupilage ceases. Whenever this decision is fairly and honestly expressed, the parent ought not to interfere with it. It is his duty to strive to convince his child, if he think it to be in error; but, if he cannot succeed in producing conviction, he must leave the child, like any other human being, to obey God in the manner it thinks will be most acceptable to Him.

3. The obligation of respect and affection for parents, never ceases, but rather increases with advancing age. As the child grows older, he becomes capable of more disinterested affection, and of the manifestation of more delicate respect; and, as the parent grows older, he feels more sensibly the need of attention; and his happiness is more decidedly dependent upon it. As we increase in years, it should, therefore, be our more assiduous endeavor to make a suitable return to our parents for their kindness bestowed upon us in infancy and youth, and to manifest, by unremitting attention, and delicate and heartfelt affection, our repentance for those acts of thoughtlessness and waywardness which formerly may have grieved them.

That a peculiar insensibility exists to the obligations of the parental and filial relation, is, I fear, too evident to need any extended illustration. The notion, that a family is a society, and that a society must be governed, and that the right and the duty of governing this society rest with the parent, seems to be rapidly vanishing from the minds of men. In the place of it, it seems to be the prevalent opinion, that children may grow up as they please; and that the exertion of parental restraint is an infringement upon the personal liberty of the child. But all this will not abrogate the law of God, nor will it avert the punishments which he has connected, indissolubly, with disobedience. The parent who neglects his duty to his children, is sowing thickly, for himself and for them, the seeds of his future misery. He who is suffering the evil dispositions of his children to grow up uncorrected, will find that he is cherishing a viper by which he himself will first be stung. That parent who is accustoming his children to habits of thoughtless caprice and reckless expenditure, and who stupidly smiles at the ebullitions of youthful passion, and the indulgence in fashionable vice, as indications of a manly spirit, needs no prophet to foretell, that, unless the dissoluteness of his family leave him early childless, his gray hairs will be brought down with sorrow to the grave.

I remarked, at the close of the last chapter, that the duty of instructors was analogous to that of parents, and that they stood to pupils in a relation essentially parental. It is proper here to add, that a pupil stands to his instructor in a relation essentially filial. His duty is obedience: first to his parent; and, secondly, to the professional agent to whom he has been committed by his parent. The equals, in this relation, are the parent and the instructor: to both of them is the pupil the inferior; and to both is he under the obligation of obedience, respect and reverence.

Now, such being the nature of the relation, it is the duty of the instructor to enforce obedience, and of the pupil to render it. It would be very easy to show, that, on the fulfillment of this duty on the part of the instructor, the interests of education, and the welfare of the young, vitally depend. Without discipline, there can be formed no valuable habit. Without it, when young persons are congregated together, far away from the restraints of domestic society, exposed to the allurements of ever-present temptation, and excited by the stimulus of youthful passion, every vicious habit must be cultivated. The young man may applaud, the negligent and pusillanimous instructor; but, when that man, no longer young, suffers the result of that neglect and pusillanimity, it is well if a better spirit have taught him to mention the name of that instructor without bitter execration.

      “In colleges and halls, in ancient days,
      There dwelt a sage called Discipline.
      His eye was meek and gentle, and a smile
      Played on his lips, and in his speech was heard
      Paternal sweetness, dignity, and love.
      The occupation dearest to his heart
      Was to encourage goodness. Learning grew,
      Beneath his care, a thriving, vigorous plant
      The mind was well informed, the passions held
      Subordinate, and diligence was choice.
      If e’er it chanced, as sometimes chance it must,
      That one, among so many, overleaped
      The limits of control, his gentle eye
      Grew stern, and darted a severe rebuke.
      His frown was full of terror, and his voice
      Shook the delinquent with such fits of awe,
      As left him not, till penitence had won
      Lost favor back again, and closed the breach.
      But Discipline at length,
      O’erlooked and unemployed, grew sick, and died.
      Then study languished, emulation slept,
      And virtue fled. The schools became a scene
      Of solemn farce, where ignorance in stilts,
      His cap well lined with logic not his own,
      With parrot tongue, performed the scholar’s part,
      Proceeding soon a graduated dunce.
      What was learned,
      If aught was learned in childhood, is forgot;
      And such expense as pinches parents blue,
      And mortifies the liberal hand of love,
      Is squandered in pursuit of idle sports
      And vicious pleasure.”