Letter XII. December 8, 1818
My dear Greaves,
We have seen, that the animal instinct is always intent on instantaneous gratification, without ever adverting to the comfort or interest of others.
As long as no other faculty is awake, this instinct, and its exclusive dominion over the child, cannot properly be considered as faulty; there is not yet any consciousness in it: if it be selfish in appearance, it is not wilfully so; and the Creator himself seems to have ordained that it should be so strong, and, indeed, exclusively prevailing, while consciousness and other faculties could not yet contribute to secure even the first condition of animal life - self-preservation.
But if, after the first indication of an higher principle, this instinct be still allowed to act, unchecked and uncontrolled as before, then it will commence to be at war with conscience, and every step in which it is indulged, will carry the child farther in selfishness, at the expense of his better and more amiable nature.
I wish this to be clearly understood; and I shall perhaps better succeed in explaining the rules which I conceive to flow from it for the use of the mother, than in dwelling longer on the abstract position. In the first place, let the mother adhere steadfastly to the good old rule, to be regular in her attention to the infant; to pursue as much as possible the same course; never to neglect the wants of her child when they are real, and never to indulge them when they are imaginary, or because they are expressed with importunity. The earlier and the more constant her adherence to this practice, the greater and the more lasting will be the real benefit obtained for her child.
The expediency, and the advantages of such a plan will soon be perceived, if it is constantly practised. The first advantage will be on the part of the mother. She will be subject to fewer interruptions; she will be less tempted to give way to ill humour; though her patience may be tried, yet her temper will not be ruffied: she will, upon all occasions, derive real satisfaction from her intercourse with her child: and her duties will not more often remind her, than her enjoyments, that she is a mother. But the advantage will be still greater on the part of the child.
Every mother will be able to speak from experience either of the benefit which her children derived from such a treatment, or of the unfavourable consequences of a contrary proceeding. In the first instance, their wants will have been few, and easily satisfied; and there is not a more infallible criterion of perfect good health. But if, on the contrary, that rule has been neglected; if, from a wish to avoid any thing like severity, a mother has been tempted to give way to unlimited indulgence; it will but too soon appear, that her treatment, however wellmeant, has been injudicious. It will be a source of constant uneasiness to her, without giving satisfaction to her child; she will have sacrified her own rest, without securing the happiness of her child.
Let the mothers tell, who have been unfortunate enough to fall into this mistake, whether they have not had frequent occasion to repent of their ill-timed indulgence, unless they had the still greater misfortune of substituting in its place the other extreme - a habit of indolence and cold neglect. And let the children tell, who were brought up in early youth under an excess of indulgence, whether they have not been suffering under the consequences; whether hurrying on from excitement to excitement, they have ever felt that health and tranquillity, that evenness of spirits, which is the first requisite to rational enjoyment and to lasting happiness.
Let them tell, whether such a system is apt to give a relish for the innocent sports, for the never-to-be-forgotten feats of boyhood; whether it imparts energy to withstand the temptation, or to share in the noble enthusiasm of youth; whether it ensures firmness and success to the exertions of manhood.
We are not all born to be philosophers; but we aspire all to a sound state both of mind and body, and of this the leading feature is - (to desire little, and to be satisfied with even less.) (PSW 26, p. 75-77)