Acquiring Self-Mastery ~ Educating the Child


Painting by Arthur John Elsley

Educating the Child by Father Joseph Duhr, S.J.


This self-mastery requires the child to have an energetic and tenacious will, capable of resisting the impulses of his instincts. In other words, effort must be at the basis of education.

Pope Pius XII teaches us to “oppose the immoderate search for pleasure and moral indiscipline – which also seek to invade the ranks of young Catholics by making them forget that they bear within themselves a fallen nature, sorry inheritance of Original Sin – with education in self-mastery, sacrifice and renouncement, starting with the smallest things and working up to the most important ones; education in fidelity to the accomplishment of one’s own duties, in sincerity, in serenity and in purity, especially during those years where development ends in maturity”.

Despite its incontestable merits and its definitive discoveries, the new pedagogy – in its legitimate desire to favor the stimulation and blossoming of life – tends to neglect this austere and unpleasant side of formation. Nevertheless, it remains primordial, and Emmanuel Mounier has risen to its defense against certain recent theorists:

“It would be completely illusory”, he says, “to think that we can totally outlaw unpalatable effort and rid it from education. If certain utopian viewpoints have believed that this was possible (and if they have been given some credence), then we must partly blame those who, on the opposite end of the spectrum, have only wanted to see education as a process of constraint and interdiction – in other words, a form of dressage or animal training.

These constraints are necessary when dealing with wild and rebellious forces. However, it is not only by supporting and pruning that you form a man. The best way of ensuring that a tree develops into a solid and durable being is to expose it to invigorating light and to give it the space it needs so that it will grow to the greatest stature of which it is capable.

In this task, deciding the dose of discipline and spontaneity should vary from person to person: those who only understand force will need to be held tightly, whereas others whose generosity of spirit makes them capable of accomplishing great things and who are irritated and depressed by meticulous exercise, will only be suffocated by close surveillance.

However, as a rule, it is true to say: “seek first the man and his will shall be added unto you”. To live, then – so long as we are here below – is to accept to die. Each important decision is a renouncement, a curtailment. Every growth is a “becoming” which requires us to practice constant renunciation.

Far from helping him to acquire this liberating self-restraint, softness and permissiveness doom the child to becoming a slave to his instincts. Bishop Dupanloup’s warning addressed a number of years ago to easy-going parents remains fully relevant today:

“We get great amusement from our little ones…We flatter them and allow them to be flattered by others…, by fawning women who try to obtain their affection by means of a shallow and dangerous pampering, indulging their fantasies and seemingly getting great pleasure out of encouraging their most wicked young passions…

Suddenly, with horror, we realize that a distressing aridity and profound depravity have taken hold of their souls. In the end, these beautiful children become terrifying beings, and it is only too late that we realize that children spoiled by softness are the hardest, most ungrateful, despicable creatures in existence…”

Why all these vices? Simply because, at the age when carnal concupiscence is aroused, softness and idleness naturally become impurity. Impurity, irritating both the nerves and sensitivity of the heart, makes intolerable tyrants of them. Tyrants, for the simple reason that they are now nothing more than lamentable slaves of their passions. Woe to the rich who make their children’s lives soft and easy. “The more children are denied, the stronger they will be” (F. Charmot).

As we will develop in more detail later, this apprenticeship in effort must begin from the cradle. As the child grows up, we must inculcate regularity and exactitude in him. Without necessarily going so far as to establish a detailed daily timetable, parents will at least set the times at which the child must get up and go to bed, and firmly insist on these being followed.

While adapting to the abilities and strengths of each child, they must require attentive application to and careful completion of any work (school or otherwise) imposed. Toys and other objects, books and notebooks must be put away after use. Special attention should be given to insisting on order and cleanliness.

An untidy child will most likely remain negligent all throughout his life. Taste for exterior beauty, on the other hand, naturally arouses and maintains the desire for and love of moral beauty.

What foolishness on the part of the mother who, seeing that her little daughter was doing “sacrifices” advised her not to on the grounds that, “She’ll have enough to suffer later on”. The child must be encouraged to fight courageously against his selfishness, to be polite, kind and considerate towards others – his brothers and sisters, friends and schoolmates.

In this matter (as in all), we must lead by example. Parents should demonstrate what it means to courageously live an ordered life. “To guide your children”, Antoine Rédier writes, “you must inconvenience yourself…For it is not a question of reasoning, but of willing – a question of character.

Ordering your children’s lives will sometimes involve correcting the disorder in your own life. Mothers have so much to do today, with visits, shopping, the automobile – so many sources of dissipation – that it is very difficult for them to attend at the correct time to the thousand and one little things which clamor for their attention at home. So, they simply put them off, thinking that everything can be sorted out by kisses and protestations of love, or a slap – the only solution seems to be to either constantly give in or to get angry”.

It is only insofar as the child masters his greed, selfishness and laziness that he will be capable of resisting the attraction of evil which will besiege him later in life. Today, more than ever, it is a question of conquering or be conquered. The child will only be able to “live” if he first conquers the courage to be victorious.


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