Our Duty to the Children
|“Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;” And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keel my commandments.
Exodus 20:5, 6
The attention of reformers and educators, and of all who have the good of the world at heart, is turning more and more to the children. It is a difficult task to re-form the character when it is confirmed and hardened with years. It is like trying to straighten an old tree, or to mould clay that has been hardened in the fire; but the same effort wisely directed to a child may do much to form a character that is noble and lovely; we are then bending a pliant twig, or molding plastic clay. The period of childhood, of growth and formation, gives us our best opportunity to exert an influence which will be effective. When we realize how great the results of our influence maybe for happiness or misery through all of life, and not in this world only but to eternity, we feel the sacredness of our duty to the children, and the importance of learning to do it wisely. To think that my association with a child, my words or my example, may influence his whole life in this world and forever! It is a wonderful trust that the Lord has reposed in us in committing such great things to our care.
And where does our duty to the children begin? with helping them as young men and women to choose their course in life? But their ability to choose depends largely upon the instruction and training which they have previously received. And our responsibility begins before the age when children need the instruction of a teacher, from the time that they first become conscious of their surroundings. Mothers are learning that. the hours with their children when first impressions are received, and the first tender developments of affection and intelligence appear, are full of precious opportunities. It is even known that influences affect the child before his birth; yes, that the responsibility of parents goes back of this to the attitude towards good and evil which they have assumed in their own lives. Let us begin at the beginning and inquire how heredity bears upon our duty to the children.
By heredity we do not mean an arbitrary title to virtue or to sin, supposed to have descended to us from Adam. We mean nothing arbitrary nor exceptional, but simply the same kind of transmission of qualities and of traits of character from parent to child which we recognize as a law of all generation. The seeds of plants and trees bring forth after their kind. When we plant wheat we know that wheat will grow, and corn from corn, and not thorns and thistles. Not only are the general characteristics of a species perpetuated in successive generations, but special qualities. So we plant in our gardens the seeds of choice varieties of vegetables and fruits, expecting that the peculiar flavor and quality of the parent plants will reappear in their descendants. We also know that if we continue the conditions which have given rise to certain peculiar qualities, those qualities will be developed to greater perfection. The same law holds in the animal kingdom. The gentle animals and the fierce bring forth according to their kind; and special excellences of parents are perpetuated and increased in their descendants.
According to the same law of heredity in the human family, each race of men perpetuates its own peculiarities. Closer likenesses are noticeable among those of nearer kin. Children inherit from their parents and grandparents peculiarities of feature and of manner, liability to disease of special forms, or aptitude for one kind of work or another. (AC 2300) This likeness of children to parents extends to things deeper than physical form and manner, to mental traits and to the inmost tendencies of character. The general principle of heredity is stated thus by Swedenborg
“Everything which parents have contracted by frequent use and habit … until it has become familiar to them, so as to appear as if it were natural, is derived into their children and ,becomes hereditary. If parents have lived in the enjoyment of the love of good, and have perceived in this life their delight and blessedness … their offspring receive thence an inclination to a like good. In like manner they who receive hereditarily the enjoyment of the love of evil.” (AC 3469) “As to hereditary evil the case is this, that every one who commits actual sin induces a nature on himself thence, and the evil thence is implanted in the children and becomes’ hereditary, and that thus from each ancestor, from his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and other forefathers in order, it is multiplied and grows in his posterity and remains with each and is increased with each by actual sins. Nor is it dissipated so as not to be hurtful, except with those who are regenerated by the Lord.” (AC 313)
How real a factor heredity is in the problem of human development and regeneration may be seen from the fact that men in their state of early innocence were born into love for the Lord and to one another, and into the faculty for knowing, appropriate to those loves, as animals are born into the affections and perceptions appropriate to their life. Then as men grew from childhood to adult years, they needed only freely and intelligently to confirm the good that was natural to them. But hereditary evil has changed the inner structure of the mind and turned it away from heaven, so that children are born in absolute ignorance, and rationality must `be developed by slow degrees and by external means. A factor which has produced such effects is not one to be ignored nor lightly treated. (Lesser Diary 4635, AC 1902, 3318) The seriousness of the question of heredity is still further seen when we learn that while some things of inheritance are comparatively external and may in time be cast off, other things are more interior and enduring. In general, the inheritance from the mother is more external in kind and may gradually be removed; that from the father is more interior and is never absolutely removed, even though we become angels of heaven; but it may be so thoroughly overcome and put to one side that it gives no more pain or annoyance. (AC 1414, 1444,1573,4546, DP 79)
Instruction like this invites us to very serious reflection. At first when we are told that this accumulated evil of generations is our inheritance, we are appalled; and when we learn that a part of the evil inheritance can never be absolutely removed, the case seems hopeless, especially when we see the conditions of evil in which so many children are born. It is well that we should be enough appalled to realize that there is no safety and no possibility of heaven for any one except through the mercy of the Lord. Trusting in His mercy, which is forever and over all His children, we may calmly study the principles of heredity and note their bearing upon our duty to the children. They compel us to feel kindly towards the children and their faults; they show us that the way of heaven is open to every child, but that the Lord’s providence needs our co-operation; they teach us that the first help we owe the children is to resist for their sakes the evil in ourselves.
If tendencies to evil come to children through no wrong of theirs, how tenderly we must feel towards them and their faults; especially towards those’ who are born in conditions which seem to make their burden heavy. We may hate the evil thoroughly, and use every means to correct it; but we can feel only pity for the children, and the tenderest desire to free them from the evil tendencies before they deliberately choose them and make them their own.
And if we look tenderly upon all children, most of all must parents regard tenderly their own children when they recognize the children’s faults as theirs. A child shows a disorderly appetite, a hasty temper, a natural deceitfulness, a complaining or critical spirit, and the parent recognizes it as a fault which his child has inherited from him; he perhaps feels that by his own indulgence of the wrong he has made the burden heavier for his child. Must he not have the deepest pity and the tenderest desire to help the child? He knows the wrong from experience, and the sorrows to which it leads. He recognizes it at its first appearance in the child, and is even prepared for it before it appears. With kindest sympathy he checks it promptly and patiently, and, as the child grows older, he lets him feel the encouragement of companionship in the conflict. One advantage which parents have above all others in helping their children is, that if they will they can understand them better, both their virtues and their faults, and can help them with a more tender sympathy and patience.
There is hope for every child. We should look upon even the most unpromising children as angels in possibility. For common sense teaches, and the doctrines of the New Church emphatically teach by general principles and by explicit statements, that every child whom the Lord allows to be born and to grow up in the world may, if he fights his battle bravely, find a home in heaven. (AC 828, DP 322, 329)
The Lord in judging takes all conditions and circumstances into account. He that knew not and committed things worthy of stripes is less guilty than he that knew and committed the same sins. “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” (Luke 12: 47, 48) And among the conditions which the Lord takes into account are those of heredity and birth, which He only knows. The LORD shall count, when he writeth up the people, that this man was born there.” (Psalm 87: 6)
Moreover, sin is not inherited, nor goodness, but only tendencies to one or the other. As tendencies, they are not a part of character, and, however bad they may be, they do not make one guilty. Evil dispositions do not become actual and a part of our real selves until we knowingly choose them and encourage them, and, so far as we are free to do so, act from them. Then they become ours, and by continuing to act from them we confirm and strengthen them. If one thus chooses evil, he is guilty, not before. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son.” (Ezekiel 28: 20)
It is possible to overvalue a good natural disposition, and to exaggerate the disadvantage of one who has a conspicuously bad heredity. Just as evil of inheritance does not become of the character, and does not condemn, except so far as it is knowingly chosen and confirmed, so good of inheritance, even though it may appear outwardly lovely, does not make a heavenly character unless principles of truth are learned from the Lord, and the good is done religiously for His sake. We are taught that there is no depth to goodness that is merely of inheritance, which comes, as we say, by nature and not from principle, and there is no strength in it. It is compared to the goodness of animals, and when it is exposed to any real temptation it has no power of resistance, but is carried hither and thither into evil. (AC 4988, 5032, 6208) It is possible that natural good and pleasing ways may sometimes be a hindrance rather than a help in the formation of true, strong, heavenly character. One may move along easily and think himself good; hateful evils may never show themselves in his life and compel him to recognize their hideousness, and to condemn them and resist them, and to seek the Lord’s help against them. And so his character may never gain any real depth and strength. It may well be that such a life of easy natural goodness, which seems to us so lovely, has in the Lord’s sight less of strength and of real fitness for heaven than a life with far less natural goodness, which, by many temptations and even through many falls, has learned its own weakness and the hatefulness of evil, and with the Lord’s help has set itself resolutely against it. ” Many that are first shall be last,” the Lord says; “and the last shall be first.” (Matthew 29: 30)
It was otherwise when men were innocent, but in our day and generation it is permitted by the Lord that some awakening of our natural evil inheritance shall be for our good. It gives the opportunity to choose definitely between good and evil, to learn our own weakness and the Lord’s saving power. It never is useful to do evil : that confirms the evil in us; but if when we feel the tendency to it we resist it and turn to the Lord for help, we have gained in strength. We are even taught that those who go as little children to heaven, and grow up there in innocence, are at times allowed to feel something of what their natural disposition is, of what the Lord is saving them from, and the experience adds strength to their character, a deeper gratitude and trust, a more perfect safety and peace. (AC 2307, 2308) There is this same mercy over the permissions of evil inheritance and evil association which rest so heavily upon some children in this world. Where the conditions cannot be wholly changed we can cooperate with the Lord’s providence for the children by helping them to see the hatefulness of evil and to gain strength by resisting it. The evident evil tendencies of inheritance are the handles by which, with the Lord’s help, one may take hold of the work of repentance and regeneration. ” Master,” the disciples asked, “who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” ” Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents,” the Lord answered: “but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” (John 8: 2,3) Be the cause of one’s weak nature what it may, its very weakness may become its strength, by leading him to find the saving power of the Lord.
The providence of the Lord is with every human being, making possible to every one a home in heaven, and causing even the evil of inheritance to give unwilling help in regeneration. He labors always to restrain the effect of wrong within the narrowest possible bounds, and to multiply good to the widest possible. extent. So He teaches us when He speaks of visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Him, and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love Him and keep His commandments.
But because the Lord does His part, it does not follow that there is nothing for men to do. His providence always needs our co-operation. The very sentence which tells us of His care for future generations reminds us also of our own responsibility. “The iniquities of the fathers upon the children.” The son is not made guilty by his father’s sin; no one is condemned because of a bad heredity; and yet it still is true that careless and wicked parents make the way harder for their children. On the other hand, ought not a knowledge of the laws of heredity put it in the power of the well disposed to lessen the burden which is handed on from parent to child from generation to generation ? No doubt it ought. The words of the commandment distinctly imply it. But here we are on holy ground. One who would assume to predetermine and control the character of a child is surely touching with profane hands what belongs to the Lord alone. Human efforts in this direction must be rather negative than positive. They must be efforts to subdue self, and to put thoughts of self far away, that there may be no hindrance to the Lord in doing His blessed work. ” Except the LORD build the house…. except the LORD keep the city. . . . Lo, children area heritage of the LORD : and the fruit of the womb is his reward.” (Psalm 127)
Yet the thought of helping others should be a strong motive in resisting not only wrong acts, but wrong thoughts and feelings. Every resistance to evil lessens the power of evil in the world, for others as well as for ourselves. We resist evil for the sake of others when we put away some selfishness, that the Lord may work more fully through us and with us, and that the brightness of heaven may grow within us and shine around us. Especially must we think of this in our relations with the children. Parents -and the thought applies in a less degree to teachers and all who are with children-should faithfully resist every evil act and thought and feeling in their own hearts for the children’s sake, that they may bring to them a good and helpful influence and not a poisoned one; that they may not cut off from the children the blessed influence of the Lord, but in every way may suffer them to come to Him. Often one might grow careless or be led away by some sudden impulse, but the thought of the children who look to him for help reminds him to be faithful. “For their sakes I sanctify myself.” (John 17:19) It is our first duty to the children.