We must now follow the development of the child from infancy through boy- and girlhood, the period say from seven to seventeen years, reserving for a future study the transition period which leads to man- and womanhood. The familiar passage from the Gospel taken as our text presents simply and beautifully the Lord's example in childhood and youth, the consciousness of higher work before Him, and the preparation for it by faithful subjection to natural parents, and to the circumstances of humble life in this world. It will help us to see and to do our duty to the children at this stage of their development to know what the essential quality of this period of life is; what kind of goodness ought to be expected at this age, and what its special place is in the life-history of each one. If we express in one word the essential quality of this period of life, and the element which it should contribute to heavenly character, the word is obedience. By and by will come the time to choose our course of life, but first the Lord gives opportunity for our faculties to be developed and trained to obedience, so that when we reach the age of choice we shall have well-disciplined minds and bodies which can be trusted to carry our choice into effect. As in any trade or art, one first learns the use of his tools, and trains his hand to follow the models set by others, before he undertakes original work. One thing at a time. In childhood to develop the faculties and bring them into willing obedience; afterwards the responsibility of guiding them.
The physical powers must learn obedience; they must be developed and disciplined to quick and skilful action. The hands and feet must become strong and willing servants. The senses, too, must learn obedience, to see and hear accurately, and to report truly what they receive. All the members and faculties of the body must learn obedience, till their efforts, at first weak and blundering, grow strong and perfect. The mental powers at the same time need similar training. The thought must gain the ability to apply and concentrate itself, and, like the senses and the hands, to do accurately what it is set to do. The same lesson must reach to the highest plane of faculties, and the affections must learn obedience. Children must gain the power to turn from what is pleasant, if it is forbidden, and to yield their will to their parents and to others who are in place of parents. To do this and to do it bravely, to do it promptly and even cheerfully, is the crown of childhood's work. For skilful hands and brain are useless and perhaps worse than useless if the will is ungoverned. If the will has learned obedience, all the discipline of thought and hand is turned to good account.
We appreciate the value of the first innocence of childhood only when we know its use in after life, and so with this lesson of obedience. If it were a mere question of the child's present happiness and our own, we might often not have the patience to teach his desires to obey; we might often with mistaken kindness yield. But consider the injury, the loss to the child. He fails to gain the mastery over his will, which of all forms of obedience is the most essential. By and by he will outgrow our care and he will have, of his own accord, to give obedience to the Lord's commandments. How easy this will be if he has learned to yield his will promptly and cheerfully to his parents! How hard it will be if he has not learned obedience, but is led by his passions and appetites and his own pleasure! Childhood was the time to learn the lesson, and to learn it easily. It is hard to teach skill to the old hand which has been untrained in youth. It is hard to discipline the powers of thought late in life. It is harder still, far harder, to teach obedience to the will which has grown up to have its own way.
Yet obedience must be learned. God's laws are as unchanging as His love. We cannot disobey them, we cannot evade them, and escape unharmed. They have the fixity of the rock. If we run against it, it is not the rock that suffers, but we. We see the fixity of Divine laws in nature. We do not try to stop the sunrise or to delay the tides. There is no physical safety but in conforming to the laws of God in nature. Just so in the realm of spiritual life. We may defy the commandments, we speak of breaking them, but it is we that are broken and suffer till we learn to obey. How much of such suffering is saved if we learn obedience as children, first to our parents, and then to the Lord!
Our duty to the children in the years of boy- and girlhood is to help them to learn the lesson of obedience; to help them to develop and discipline their physical powers, and their powers of mind and heart. It is to help them to gain mastery over themselves, so that when presently, in the exercise of manly freedom, they make the Lord their Master, they can bring to His service faculties trained to obey and to be obeyed. They can look up to Him as did the centurion at Capernaum, saying, "Speak the word only... . For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it." (Matthew 8: 8,9) The Lord feels the same pleasure to-day in one who has learned this childhood's lesson of obedience as He found in the centurion when He marveled at his faith and granted his prayer for help.
When we understand obedience in its broad and true sense, as self-mastery and discipline, we see that it is not something to be taught by contention between us and the child. We are not to conquer him, but to help him to conquer himself. Nothing will aid us more in this great work than sympathy, unfeigned interest and sympathy in each step of his progress. We can share his pleasure in his developing physical powers, and can enjoy his successes in trials of physical strength, helping him to feel that it is himself rather than his rivals in the game that he is learning to conquer. We can also raise the child's thought from mere strength to quickness and skill. We can awaken his interest in these finer kinds of excellence, and can show him the pleasure of teaching his hands to obey accurately and to work with neatness, exactness, and grace. In encouraging a child to such excellence with his hands, we are also training the powers of thought and purpose which are behind the manual action to similar exactness and honesty. In this lies the real benefit of manual training as an element of education, and experience has shown its power as a means of awakening and strengthening essential elements of character. We must encourage and teach the child to use his hands and all his physical powers, and to use them accurately and well.
Without our suggestion and help the children do not know how much their senses may be awakened and developed. Some children who have been thought to be entirely deaf have, by careful training, been taught to hear. This is of course in cases where the difficulty is not wholly in the organs of hearing, but in the ability to use them. It is a delight to all children to learn to use their eyes and ears; and in this development what a help we have in nature, which is so good a friend to the children in many ways. We can go with them into the country and teach them to look and listen, teach them to watch the plants and insects and the birds, to learn to recognize their faces and their voices and to know what they are doing at different seasons of the year. Children miss a rare delight who do not know the pleasure of searching for nature's secrets, always finding something curious and new. In this they need a companion who knows a little more than they, and yet who is always learning with them with the enthusiasm of a child; one who can rejoice with them in the finding of a crystal, who can show them how the violet hides its summer blossoms, what the bumble-bee is doing in the clover, for himself and for the plant; who can show them how one butterfly has learned to imitate his neighbor for his greater safety, and how the humming-bird trims her nest. We must be the guides and the companions of the children in this delightful lesson of learning to use their senses; for we all are children together on the threshold of a world of wonders. Such nature-study assists development in many ways. It leads to much wholesome exercise in the air and sunshine. It tempts to long walks and to rough climbs. Its benefit is felt through all the physical plane of life. We have seen its use in developing the senses and training them in accurate observation. It also gives opportunity for close and careful thought in following the changes of a flower or insect, in studying the relation of plant and insect to each other; in comparing one kind with another, noting their likenesses and differences; in trying to learn the reason for what we see. There is no better discipline for the mental faculties, to give the power of application and concentration and the ability to make accurate decisions. We must lead the children's interest in these thoughtful ways, and must show them the pleasure of close and accurate exercise of thought and memory.
The mental discipline which begins so naturally in the' woods and fields can be carried further in the school-room. The amount that is learned is far less important than the way in which it is learned. It should be learned in a way to call out and develop the mental powers and deeper elements of character. To accurate observation and careful thought children may add the ability for true expression, learning the use of words and of that wonderful and sadly neglected instrument, the voice. Mathematics or history or language may give the same pleasure as games and exercises of physical strength and quickness. There is the same pleasant sense that the faculties are learning to obey. During this period of childhood the memory is especially strong and active, and with the awakened powers of observation the memory may gain a store of knowledge which will be of after-use. Both from the book of nature and from the book of the Lord's Holy Word it gathers precious treasures and holds them faithfully.
But obedience must, as we have seen, reach higher; it must extend to the affections. This is the hardest lesson and the most important. It needs our closest sympathy and constant help. We, have spoken of a child's intercourse with nature as a means of training the senses and the powers of thought. It also appeals to the affections. Under wise guidance it awakens in the children a kindly sympathy with living things, a friendliness for the insects and the flowers, a fellow-feeling for the animals. It is wholesome to have the affections drawn outward and away from one's self. A child is also very sensitive to the influence of what is beautiful and grand in nature. He feels his smallness and the power of Him who made the mountains and the sea and calls the stars by name, and yet who remembers each bird and flower. Very little help is needed to turn the affections of one who loves nature to the Lord.
We have spoken also of children's sports and games as means of developing and disciplining their powers. In these relations of children among themselves there is constant appeal to the affections, and our help is constantly needed to bring home to these activities of the will the lesson of self-control and obedience We must help the children to gain mastery, not only over the foot and hand, not only over the power of thought, but over the affections. The will must learn to obey, to yield promptly to what is right. We must help the children to see the beauty of a spirit which can yield and let others have their way. We see the contest going on in a child's heart, and we watch it with more interest than any test of physical or intellectual skill. We give the encouragement of our sympathy by a touch or a look, and when he conquers and the selfish will yields, we let him know that we admire the victory.
The children's sympathy with suffering and need is easily aroused, and when children's sympathy is touched no generosity is so self-forgetful as theirs. We can encourage this sympathy and the spirit of self-sacrifice, at the same time that we teach it a wise moderation. Again, it is not a long step from the children's desire to be doing and their natural enjoyment in imitating the work of older people, it is not a long step to the enjoyment of doing something useful. Here we have a constant opportunity to bring the lesson of obedience to the affections of the children ; for usefulness requires self-sacrifice, the yielding of their natural will, to duty. We can show that we value their help, even when there is little valuable in it but the motive. We can assign them some regular work and encourage them to do it faithfully. As they become able to do small things faithfully, as their affections learn obedience, they are prepared to be trusted with great things.
What patience it requires to teach the lesson of obedience! What firmness and what kindness are needed! What intimate knowledge of the children's interests! What real sympathy with their failures and successes! What exercise on our part of that self-control which we are helping them to gain! But much may be done, and easily done, if we begin from the very beginning to help the child to yield, from the first time that we lay the baby down and tell him that he must go to sleep, alone. He quickly learns that resistance and coaxing are useless, and is content. It is a great point gained. There will be other times with a growing child when the parents' refusal of his wishes seems hard and arbitrary. He rebels against it, but he is inwardly ashamed, for he knows that his parents have his good at heart. He rebels but they are firm, for they know that obedience must be learned, and they are thinking of the time when the child is grown, and it becomes a question not of obedience to their will but to the Lord's commandments. They are firm, and when he is a little older the child thanks them for it with all his heart. They have not conquered him ; they have helped him to conquer himself, to gain mastery over all his faculties of body, mind, and heart. They have prepared him to go safely into the world, and to obey the laws of God.