From the Mouths of Babes

It seems that children could be the ones we should trust to give the best representation of a society’s morals. Though many travelers and observers may disregard them for their age, Martineau points to children as a source of unfiltered insight into the values of a particular culture.

In How to Observe Martineau states “the traveler must talk with old people, and see what is the character of the garrulity of age. He must talk with children, and mark the character of the aspirations of childhood. He will thus learn what is good in the eyes of those who have passed through the society he studies, and in the hopes of those who have yet to enter upon it” (2.2). She commands the observer of morals and manners to determine “What are the children’s minds full of?”, and further expounds on the differences presented in the values of children of different cultures, “as the minds of the young are formed, generally speaking, to an adaptation of the objects presented to them” (2.2).

Throughout the observations presented in Martineau’s Society in America, it is the observations of the children that strike the reader as often quite candid and poignant, especially in regarding issues of class or caste.

For example, in Martineau’s observations of the vanity of Bostonian “aristocracy,” or the “exclusives,” she states that “the children are such faithful reflectors of this spirit as to leave no doubt of its existence, even amidst the nicest operations of cant… The children use no such disguises [as adults do]. Out they come with what they learn at home. A school-girl told me what a delightful “set” she belonged to at her school: how comfortable they all were once, without any sets, till several grocers’ daughters began to come in, as their fathers grew rich; and it became necessary for the higher girls to consider what they should do, and to form themselves into sets.” (3.3.1) Unlike their parents, children put on no pretenses, only knowing the values they have been reared upon.

Martineau makes a related observation of the children in the southern, slave states in which they are taught a convoluted value system in which “the slavery of a part of society [is] essential to the freedom of the rest”, where boys “are brought up to consider physical courage the highest attribute of manhood” and “little girls…boast of having got a negro flogged for being impertinent” (2.5.1). Martineau does not shirk giving her opinion of the slave states, reflecting: “The vicious fundamental principle of morals in a slave country, that labor is disgraceful, taints the infant mind with a stain which is as fatal in the world of spirits as the Negro tinge is at present in the world of society…. It made my heart ache to hear the little children unconsciously uttering thoughts with which no true religion, no true philosophy can coexist” (2.5).

Children’s “growth of heart and mind depends incalculably upon the spirit of the society amidst which they are reared (How to Observe 2.3). Martineau’s observations provoke us to consider what is coming from the mouths of babes in our own culture and to question whether is reflects the morals which we wish to promote.



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