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The Whole Duty of a Child

Recently we memorized the poem in Pre-K, “The Whole Duty of a Child” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Promising to describe the whole duty of a child in a mere four lines is a hefty task, but one I think Stevenson mostly achieves.

“A Child should always say what’s true

And speak when they are spoken to

And behave mannerly at the table

At least as far as they are able”

The first line is straightforward: we should always stick with the truth without deviating into falsehood. A plethora of the world’s ills can be avoided merely by speaking the truth. In fact, this point of duty is so important it appears in the ten commandments.

The second line, “And speak when they are spoken too,” reminds us of the child’s duty to be an active participant in the world and not a passive observer of it. Stevenson does not bother to tell us what the child should say when they are spoken too. What matters is that the children respond to the world. At times a child should cry, “You’re wrong!”; other times require children meekly nod, “Yes, ma’am”. To not answer the fundamental questions, orders, and requests of the world is to abdicate a fundamental duty of being a child, indeed of being human.

This call to answer the world in all its greatness and messiness is underscored by Stevenson’s call for a child to “Behave mannerly at the table.” We live in a place with shared customs and ways of doing things. Such customs are not moral obligations, but they do provide us with an easy way to smooth out our interactions with one another. Minding our “pleases” and “thank-yous” is a quick way to acknowledge the dignity of those we speak to.

Through these customary manners, we become ladies and gentlemen who act with all available grace and courtesy.

Stevenson ends his poem with a note of grace. Children are still learning; they get pushed about by passions, nettled by their needs, and out of sorts for all kinds of reasons. We expect children to do as well as they can. When a child encounters something beyond their capability to handle; we never blame the child but instead offer help … at least as far as we are able.