The Education of the Child

Produced by Charles Keller


by Ellen Key


Edward Bok, Editor of the “Ladies’ Home Journal,” writes:

“Nothing finer on the wise education of the child has ever been brought
into print. To me this chapter is a perfect classic; it points the way
straight for every parent and it should find a place in every home in
America where there is a child.”


Goethe showed long ago in his Werther a clear understanding of
the significance of individualistic and psychological training, an
appreciation which will mark the century of the child. In this work he
shows how the future power of will lies hidden in the characteristics
of the child, and how along with every fault of the child an uncorrupted
germ capable of producing good is enclosed. “Always,” he says, “I repeat
the golden words of the teacher of mankind, ‘if ye do not become as
one of these,’ and now, good friend, those who are our equals, whom we
should look upon as our models, we treat as subjects; they should have
no will of their own; do we have none? Where is our prerogative? Does it
consist in the fact that we are older and more experienced? Good God
of Heaven! Thou seest old and young children, nothing else. And in whom
Thou hast more joy, Thy Son announced ages ago. But people believe in
Him and do not hear Him—that, too, is an old trouble, and they model
their children after themselves.” The same criticism might be applied to
our present educators, who constantly have on their tongues such words
as evolution, individuality, and natural tendencies, but do not heed
the new commandments in which they say they believe. They continue to
educate as if they believed still in the natural depravity of man, in
original sin, which may be bridled, tamed, suppressed, but not changed.
The new belief is really equivalent to Goethe’s thoughts given above,
i.e., that almost every fault is but a hard shell enclosing the germ of
virtue. Even men of modern times still follow in education the old rule
of medicine, that evil must be driven out by evil, instead of the new
method, the system of allowing nature quietly and slowly to help itself,
taking care only that the surrounding conditions help the work of
nature. This is education.

Neither harsh nor tender parents suspect the truth expressed by Carlyle
when he said that the marks of a noble and original temperament are
wild, strong emotions, that must be controlled by a discipline as hard
as steel. People either strive to root out passions altogether, or they
abstain from teaching the child to get them under control.

To suppress the real personality of the child, and to supplant it with
another personality continues to be a pedagogical crime common to
those who announce loudly that education should only develop the real
individual nature of the child.

They are still not convinced that egoism on the part of the child is
justified. Just as little are they convinced of the possibility that
evil can be changed into good.

Education must be based on the certainty that faults cannot be atoned
for, or blotted out, but must always have their consequences. At
the same time, there is the other certainty that through progressive
evolution, by slow adaptation to the conditions of environment they may
be transformed. Only when this stage is reached will education begin to
be a science and art. We will then give up all belief in the miraculous
effects of sudden interference; we shall act in the psychological sphere
in accordance with the principle of the indestructibility of matter. We
shall never believe that a characteristic of the soul can be destroyed.
There are but two possibilities. Either it can be brought into
subjection or it can be raised up to a higher plane.

Madame de Stael’s words show much insight when she says that only the
people who can play with children are able to educate them. For success
in training children the first condition is to become as a child
oneself, but this means no assumed childishness, no condescending
baby-talk that the child immediately sees through and deeply abhors.
What it does mean is to be as entirely and simply taken up with the
child as the child himself is absorbed by his life. It means to
treat the child as really one’s equal, that is, to show him the same
consideration, the same kind confidence one shows to an adult. It means
not to influence the child to be what we ourselves desire him to become
but to be influenced by the impression of what the child himself is; not
to treat the child with deception, or by the exercise of force, but with
the seriousness and sincerity proper to his own character. Somewhere
Rousseau says that all education has failed in that nature does not
fashion parents as educators nor children for the sake of education.
What would happen if we finally succeeded in following the directions of
nature, and recognised that the great secret of education lies hidden in
the maxim, “do not educate”?

Not leaving the child in peace is the greatest evil of present-day
methods of training children. Education is determined to create a
beautiful world externally and internally in which the child can grow.
To let him move about freely in this world until he comes into contact
with the permanent boundaries of another’s right will be the end of
the education of the future. Only then will adults really obtain a deep
insight into the souls of children, now an almost inaccessible kingdom.
For it is a natural instinct of self-preservation which causes the child
to bar the educator from his innermost nature. There is the person who
asks rude questions; for example, what is the child thinking about? a
question which almost invariably is answered with a black or a white
lie. The child must protect himself from an educator who would master
his thoughts and inclinations, or rudely handle them, who without
consideration betrays or makes ridiculous his most sacred feelings, who
exposes faults or praises characteristics before strangers, or even uses
an open-hearted, confidential confession as an occasion for reproof at
another time.

The statement that no human being learns to understand another, or at
least to be patient with another, is true above all of the intimate
relation of child and parent in which, understanding, the deepest
characteristic of love, is almost always absent.

Parents do not see that during the whole life the need of peace is
never greater than in the years of childhood, an inner peace under all
external unrest. The child has to enter into relations with his own
infinite world, to conquer it, to make it the object of his dreams. But
what does he experience? Obstacles, interference, corrections, the whole
livelong day. The child is always required to leave something alone,
or to do something different, to find something different, or want
something different from what he does, or finds, or wants. He is
always shunted off in another direction from that towards which his
own character is leading him. All of this is caused by our tenderness,
vigilance, and zeal, in directing, advising, and helping the small
specimen of humanity to become a complete example in a model series.

I have heard a three-year-old child characterised as “trying” because
he wanted to go into the woods, whereas the nursemaid wished to drag him
into the city. Another child of six years was disciplined because she
had been naughty to a playmate and had called her a little pig,—a
natural appellation for one who was always dirty. These are typical
examples of how the sound instincts of the child are dulled. It was a
spontaneous utterance: of the childish heart when a small boy, after an
account of the heaven of good children, asked his mother whether she
did not believe that, after he had been good a whole week in heaven, he
might be allowed to go to hell on Saturday evening to play with the bad
little boys there.

The child felt in its innermost consciousness that he had a right to be
naughty, a fundamental right which is accorded to adults; and not only
to be naughty, but to be naughty in peace, to be left to the dangers and
joys of naughtiness.

To call forth from this “unvirtue” the complimentary virtue is to
overcome evil with good. Otherwise we overcome natural strength by weak
means and obtain artificial virtues which will not stand the tests which
life imposes.

It seems simple enough when we say that we must overcome evil with good,
but practically no process is more involved, or more tedious, than to
find actual means to accomplish this end. It is much easier to say what
one shall not do than what one must do to change self-will into
strength of character, slyness into prudence, the desire to please
into amiability, restlessness into personal initiative. It can only be
brought about by recognising that evil, in so far as it is not atavistic
or perverse, is as natural and indispensable as the good, and that it
becomes a permanent evil only through its one-sided supremacy.

The educator wants the child to be finished at once, and perfect. He
forces upon the child an unnatural degree of self-mastery, a devotion to
duty, a sense of honour, habits that adults get out of with astonishing
rapidity. Where the faults of children are concerned, at home and in
school, we strain at gnats, while children daily are obliged to swallow
the camels of grown people.

The art of natural education consists in ignoring the faults of children
nine times out of ten, in avoiding immediate interference, which is
usually a mistake, and devoting one’s whole vigilance to the control
of the environment in which the child is growing up, to watching the
education which is allowed to go on by itself. But educators who, day in
and day out, are consciously transforming the environment and themselves
are still a rare product. Most people live on the capital and interest
of an education, which perhaps once made them model children, but has
deprived them of the desire for educating themselves. Only by keeping
oneself in constant process of growth, under the constant influence of
the best things in one’s own age, does one become a companion half-way
good enough for one’s children.

To bring up a child means carrying one’s soul in one’s hand, setting
one’s feet on a narrow path, it means never placing ourselves in danger
of meeting the cold look on the part of the child that tells us without
words that he finds us insufficient and unreliable. It means the
humble realisation of the truth that the ways of injuring the child are
infinite, while the ways of being useful to him are few. How seldom does
the educator remember that the child, even at four or five years of age,
is making experiments with adults, seeing through them, with marvellous
shrewdness making his own valuations and reacting sensitively to each
impression. The slightest mistrust, the smallest unkindness, the least
act of injustice or contemptuous ridicule, leave wounds that last for
life in the finely strung soul of the child. While on the other side
unexpected friendliness, kind advances, just indignation, make quite as
deep an impression on those senses which people term as soft as wax but
treat as if they were made of cowhide.

Relatively most excellent was the old education which consisted solely
in keeping oneself whole, pure, and honourable. For it did not at least
depreciate personality, although it did not form it. It would be well
if but a hundredth part of the pains now taken by parents were given to
interference with the life of the child and the rest of the ninety
and nine employed in leading, without interference, in acting as an
unforeseen, an invisible providence through which the child obtains
experience, from which he may draw his own conclusions. The present
practice is to impress one’s own discoveries, opinions, and principles
on the child by constantly directing his actions. The last thing to be
realised by the educator is that he really has before him an entirely
new soul, a real self whose first and chief right is to think over the
things with which he comes in contact. By a new soul he understands only
a new generation of an old humanity to be treated with a fresh dose of
the old remedy. We teach the new souls not to steal, not to lie, to save
their clothes, to learn their lessons, to economise their money, to obey
commands, not to contradict older people, say their prayers, to fight
occasionally in order to be strong. But who teaches the new souls to
choose for themselves the path they must tread? Who thinks that the
desire for this path of their own can be so profound that a hard or
even mild pressure towards uniformity can make the whole of childhood a

The child comes into life with the inheritance of the preceding members
of the race; and this inheritance is modified by adaptation to the
environment. But the child shows also individual variations from the
type of the species, and if his own character is not to disappear during
the process of adaptation, all self-determined development of energy
must be aided in every way and only indirectly influenced by the
teacher, who should understand how to combine and emphasise the results
of this development.

Interference on the part of the educator, whether by force or
persuasion, weakens this development if it does not destroy it

The habits of the household, and the child’s habits in it must be
absolutely fixed if they are to be of any value. Amiel truly says that
habits are principles which have become instincts, and have passed over
into flesh and blood. To change habits, he continues, means to attack
life in its very essence, for life is only a web of habits.

Why does everything remain essentially the same from generation to
generation? Why do highly civilised Christian people continue to plunder
one another and call it exchange, to murder one another en masse, and
call it nationalism, to oppress one another and call it statesmanship?

Because in every new generation the impulses supposed to have been
rooted out by discipline in the child, break forth again, when the
struggle for existence—of the individual in society, of the society in
the life of the state—begins. These passions are not transformed by the
prevalent education of the day, but only repressed. Practically this
is the reason why not a single savage passion has been overcome in
humanity. Perhaps man-eating may be mentioned as an exception. But what
is told of European ship companies or Siberian prisoners shows that
even this impulse, under conditions favourable to it, may be revived,
although in the majority of people a deep physical antipathy to
man-eating is innate. Conscious incest, despite similar deviations, must
also be physically contrary to the majority, and in a number of women,
modesty—the unity between body and soul in relation to love—is an
incontestable provision of nature. So too a minority would find
it physically impossible to murder or steal. With this list I have
exhausted everything which mankind, since its conscious history began,
has really so intimately acquired that the achievement is passed on
in its flesh and blood. Only this kind of conquest can really stand up
against temptation in every form.

A deep physiological truth is hidden in the use of language when one
speaks of unchained passions; the passions, under the prevailing system
of education, are really only beasts of prey imprisoned in cages.

While fine words are spoken about individual development, children are
treated as if their personality had no purpose of its own, as if they
were made only for the pleasure, pride, and comfort of their parents;
and as these aims are best advanced when children become like every one
else, people usually begin by attempting to make them respectable and
useful members of society.

But the only correct starting point, so far as a child’s education in
becoming a social human being is concerned, is to treat him as such,
while strengthening his natural disposition to become an individual
human being.

The new educator will, by regularly ordered experience, teach the child

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