Judith Sargent Murray Society
JSM's dates: 1751-1820
On the Domestic Education of Children
On the Domestic Education of Children, Massachusetts Magazine
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Using the pen name "Constantia," Judith Sargent Murray published this essay in the Massachusetts Magazine in May 1790. The Massachusetts Magazine was a highly respected periodical of its time. Its circulation included the entire American Eastern seaboard and also reached across the Atlantic to England. In this essay, Judith proposes a different way to discipline children. She did not believe in corporal punishment, preferring instead to teach children by example and with strong, loving, parental bonds. This was how she raised Anna, an orphaned niece of her first husband's whom they adopted in 1780. This was also how she raised her own daughter, Julia Maria, and eleven nieces, nephews, and one child of family friends who had the good fortune to live with or be overseen by their "Aunt Murray" when they were sent to Boston to attend school. Paragraphs are mine.

On the Domestic Education of Children
I hate severity to trembling youth,
Mildness should designate every useful truth;
My soul detests the rude unmanly part,
Which swells with bursting sighs the little heart.
What can an infant do to merit blows?
See, from his eyes a briny torrent flows.
Behold the pretty mourner! pale his cheek,
His tears are fruitless, and he dare not speak.
Lowly he bends beneath yon tyrant's rod;
Unfeeling pedagogue--who like some god
Fabled of old, of bloody savage mind,
To scourge, and not to mend the human race, design'd.
It would be well if every gentle method to form the young untutored mind, was essayed, previous to a harsher mode of procedure. Do blows ever produce a salutary effect upon a gentle or a generous disposition? It can hardly be presumed that they do; and if not upon the bosom, the feelings of which urbanity hath arranged, is it not more than probable that they tend to make an obstinate being still more perverse? Yet the reins of government I would not consign to children; the young idea I would direct; nor would I permit the dawn of life to pass uncultured by; nevertheless, to barbarous hands I would not yield the tender plant. Behold the pallid countenance of the little culprit; the tender sorrow, the imploring tear, the beseeching eye, the knee bent for forgiveness—and can the offences of a child be other than venial? But it is in vain—the inhuman preceptor continues obdurate—he retains his purpose, and the wretched sufferer receives those blows which only the malefactor can merit! Is there not some reason to suppose, that by a repetition of ignominious punishments, we shall eradicate from the young mind all sense of shame, thus throwing down a very essential barrier, and finally opening the floodgates of vice.

But what shall we substitute instead of those violent and coercive measures? I proceed to give an example. Martesia is blessed with a numerous off spring of both sexes—some of her young folks have discovered dispositions not a little refractory—caprice hath shown its head, and a number of little petulances early displayed themselves; yet, that weapon known by the name of a rod was never so much as heard of among them, nor do they know the meaning of a blow. How then doth Martesia manage, for it is certain that her salutary efforts have well-nigh eradicated from her little circle every perverse humour.

Her family is a well regulated Commonwealth, the moving spring of which is emulation, a laudable kind of emulation, which never partakes of envy, save when virtue acknowledgeth the hue of vice. She hath in her gift various posts of honour; these she distributes according to the merit of the pretender; they are conferred upon those who have made improvement, and the whole company join to invest the distinguished candidate with his new dignity. Martesia makes it a rule never to appear ruffled before her children, and she is particularly careful to keep every irregular passion from their observation.

That she is tenderly concerned for them, and takes a very deep interest in their happiness, is a truth which she daily inculcates. She wishes also to implant in their young minds the most elevated opinion of her understanding; and she conceives that they cannot be too early impressed with an idea of her possessing superior abilities. The advantages which she will derive from this plan are obvious; her authority will be the more readily acknowledged, and her decisions will obtain the requisite weight. By reiterated petitions she is seldom persecuted, for as the little claiments are sensible of her attachment, and cannot call her judgment in question, they are not accustomed to repeat their requests.

Yet, notwithstanding they are taught to believe Martesia ever under the government of reason, should a persevering spirit be found clamourously urgent, the pursuit, however, cannot be long continued, since but one answer will be given; which answer, though mild, is always peremptory and conclusive. To render prevalent in the minds of her children, sentiments of humanity and benevolence, is with Martesia an essential object. A dignified condescension to inferiors she also inculcates; and she early advances, to bring them acquainted with that part of the economy of the Deity which hath made our obligations to each other reciprocal: Thus solicitous to enforce the idea of their dependence, even upon the meanest domestick, she exacts from her servants no extraordinary marks of humility toward them, for her view is to choke, if possible, the first buddings of unbecoming pride.

Doth she discover the smallest disposition to cruelty, or are her children deficient in divine sensibility, she is anxiously studious to exterminate the unhappy propensity, and to awaken, or to create, the finer feelings of the soul. To this end she hath ever at hand a number of well chosen tales, calculated to promote the interests virtue, to excite commiseration, and suited to their tender years. Mean time she is sparing of reproaches, and would, if possible, avoid imparting to them a consciousness of the discovery which she hath made. Her rewards are always exactly and impartially proportioned—the degree of merit she critically examines—and as this is her invariable rule, a murmur in the little society can never arise, and they are constantly convinced of the propriety of her decisions. The highest honour by which they can be distinguished, is the investiture of a commission to convey to some worthy, but destitute family, a dinner, a garment, or a piece of money; and this office being always judged according to the magnitude of any particular action, it often happens that the most insensible are found in this department. Thus they are accustomed to acts of benevolence—they learn to feel, and become humane by habit.

The greatest felicity which our little family can experience, is in the presence of Martesia. They are free from restraint—pursue, unmolested, their amusements—and of their innocent mirth she not seldom partakes. It is in the pleasure which they derive from her smiles, her approbation, and her society, that she founds the basis of her punishments.—When coercive measures are judged indispensable, if the fault is trivial, it remains a profound secret to all but Martesia and the little aggressor. But on the maternal countenance hangs a cloud—cold and distant looks take place of benign complacency; nor doth returning tenderness manifest tokens of reconciliation, until full atonement is made for the error.

If the offence is of a more heinous die, it is immediately published throughout the house; from Martesia the culprit receiveth not the smallest attention; not a look, nor a word; while he or she is regarded by every one with studies indifference. Should the transgression be considered as capital, the criminal is forthwith excluded the parental presence—not even a domestick conceives him worthy of notice—and it is with difficulty that he obtain the assistance of which he stands in need. At length his little heart is almost broke—he petitions for favour, he sueth for forgiveness. No mediator presents, for Martesia reserves to herself the merit of obliging.

Well, the concessions of the pretty offender are sufficiently humble—it is judged that his sufferings are adequate to his fault—Martesia is appeased, and the offence is cancelled. And it is to be observed, that when once the penitent is admitted into favour, his crime is entirely obliterated—it can no more be held up to view. Martesia, however, seldom hath occasion to exercise the last mentioned severity. Perverseness she hath at length well nigh subdued—and among her little flock a refractory spirit is now hardly known. To behold her in the midst of the sweetly smiling circle is truly charming.

When, for the completion of their education, she is obliged to part with her boys, with a firmness becoming her character she will submit; and should their preceptor pursue her plan, they will undoubtedly be rendered useful members of society; while her girls, continuing under such auspices, cannot be other than worthy and amiable women.



2008 © Bonnie Hurd Smith

Independent scholar and author Bonnie Hurd Smith is the president and CEO of History Smiths, a marketing company that works with businesses to incorporate history -- their own and their community's -- into their branding, marketing, and community outreach to attract customers, boost customer loyalty, and secure a high status reputation in the communities they serve.