Heart Pondering

The ponderings of one Christ-following mom on raising preschoolers

Susanna Wesley on childrearing May 24, 2009

Filed under: Authority & obedience,Books,Correction — Susan @ Christian Mothering @ 10:49 pm

The following is an excerpt of a letter written by Susanna Wesley, late in her life, to her son John Wesley about her childrearing beliefs and methods (she was the mother of 19 children, 10 of whom lived past infancy, and also the 25th child of 25) ~ c.1740.

 “In order to form the minds of children, the first thing to be done is to conquer their will and bring them to an obedient temper. To inform the understanding is a work of time and must with children proceed by slow degrees as they are able to bear it: but the subjecting the will is a thing which must be done at once; and the sooner the better. For by neglecting timely correction, they will contract a stubbornness and obstinacy which is hardly ever after conquered; and never, without using such severity as would be as painful to me as to the child. In the esteem of the world they pass for kind and indulgent, whom I call cruel, parents, who permit their children to get habits which they know must be afterward broken. Nay, some are so stupidly fond as in sport to teach their children to do things which, in a while after, they have severely beaten them for doing.

Whenever a child is corrected, it must be conquered; and this will be no hard matter to do if it be not grown headstrong by too much indulgence. And when the will of a child is totally subdued and it is brought to revere and stand in awe of the parents, then a great many childish follies and inadvertencies may be passed by. Some should be overlooked and taken no notice of, and others mildly reproved; but no willful transgression ought ever to be forgiven children without chastisement, less or more, as the nature and circumstances of the offense require.

I insist upon conquering the will of children betimes, because this is the only strong and rational foundation of a religious education; without which both precept and example will be ineffectual. But when this is thoroughly done, then a child is capable of being governed by the reason and piety of its parents, till its own understanding comes to maturity and the principles of religion have taken root in the mind.

I cannot yet dismiss this subject. As self-will is the root of all sin and misery, so whatever cherishes this in children insures their after-wretchedness and irreligion; whatever checks and mortifies it promotes their future happiness and piety. This is still more evident if we further consider that Christianity is nothing else than the doing the will of God and not our own: that the one grand impediment to our temporal and eternal happiness being this self-will, no indulgences of it can be trivial, no denial unprofitable. Heaven or hell depends on this alone. So that the parent who studies to subdue it in his child works together with God in the renewing and saving a soul. The parent who indulges it does the devil’s work, makes religion impracticable, salvation unattainable; and does all that in him lies to damn his child, soul and body forever.”

In Parenting isn’t for Cowards, Dobson says of this passage: “Does that sound harsh by 20th century standards?  Perhaps.  I might use different words to guard againts parental oppression and overbearance.  Nevertheless, in my view, Mrs. Wesley’s basic understanding is correct…”

I agree with Dobson about verbage…  I think “conquering” a child’s will, for example, is less the goal than training it. But I do find much of interest and value in Susaan’s words.  This sentence is the one I find most intriguing: “…Christianity is nothing else than the doing the will of God and not our own: that the one grand impediment to our temporal and eternal happiness being this self-will, no indulgences of it can be trivial, no denial unprofitable.”

 

3 Responses to “Susanna Wesley on childrearing”

  1. Michelle Says:

    She certainly doesn’t mince words, that’s for sure! Appreciate your assessment, Susan. As the old adage goes, “Its tough to teach an old dog new tricks” I’m an example of that lack of training/correction in the formative years and can attest to the impact it has on an adult life.

    This does sound a bit harsh/legalistic to me though…

    “The parent who indulges it does the devil’s work, makes religion impracticable, salvation unattainable; and does all that in him lies to damn his child, soul and body forever.”

  2. Crystal Says:

    I think I would’ve like Susanna! :-) Sure, some of the terminology is a bit harsh sounding for today’s standards, but the truths in the center of it all is lasting and very appropriate for today. Just maybe if we thought as deeply and seriously about how God will keep us accountable for the training up of our children and how it affects their very souls, we would not be so “indulgent” as Susanna puts it. IMHO, I think God as Master Parent sees His training of us as seriously as Susanna saw hers. Very good reminder of our heavy responsibility!

  3. heartpondering Says:

    Thanks for both of your comments – both of which I agree with in their own way. Shelle, it does come across as harsh and in some places, unduly overbearing… But at the same time, the reasons I find it so compelling is a) how much her grown children (particularly John and Charles Wesley) adored and appreciated her; in fact – John particularly asked her to write up her parenting mindset because it found it so valuable and worthwhile, looking back; and b) she was clearly by every measure a truly exceptional woman whom God used greatly.

    Crystal, your sense that Susanna took her call very seriously – in a way that must have pleased God – strikes me as right too. She seemed to be strived to ever look to the eternal rather than immediate/visible elements in rearing her children which I think is right on…


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