Sep 28, 2018

Hints on Child Training by Henry Trumbull

Originally Published 1891
Review by Anna Mussmann

It is incredibly helpful to read parenting advice from other eras. Often it’s wise advice. Alternatively, sometimes it’s quaint or silly, and this is good too. We need to remember that today’s parenting standards might be tomorrow’s chuckle and stop getting stressed out if we aren’t doing all the things The Book of the Year told us to do.

This particular volume is from the nineteenth century and was interesting in three ways: 1. The thesis is a good one. 2. The author’s comments about “parents today” demonstrate that the weaknesses of modern parenting aren’t as new as we might think. 3. Some of the author’s concerns and emphases correspond with ideas from Charlotte Mason’s writing.

Trumbull says that we all recognize the need to provide our children with knowledge, but we must also recognize the need to train their habits. The word “training” is likely to trigger a certain reaction among some readers. During my childhood, popular Christian authors and speakers used the word to emphasize training children in obedience. However, the sense in which Trumbull uses the word  is not quite the same.

He says that teaching causes someone to know, and training causes them to do. “Teaching brings to the child that which he did not have before. Training enables a child to make use of that which is already his possession.” The two go together. We can teach a kid about the theoretical importance of good nutrition but should also shape his eating habits. Telling a kid what is good and right isn’t enough--it is our duty to actually make him do it while he is under our care. Yet this should be done gently and kindly. Our goal is to win him over and create love of what is good, not simply to enforce our own will.

I appreciate the discussion. I see many modern parents act as if their job lies primarily in issuing plaintive verbal statements, kind of like liability disclaimers, without actually getting up and changing the behavior of their kids. We moderns tend to think that we can’t do much to change children’s preferences, demeanors, or desires. Perhaps this is because we confuse “personality” with “habits.”

In contrast, Trumbull urges parents to shape their children’s mental, moral, physical, spiritual, social, and dietary habits. I’m inclined to think he may swing a little far. He is rather fond of saying that “many a child has been ruined for life” by this or that error of inattentive parents, as if a child were a blank slate upon which parents shouldn’t misspell any words. Yet we must remember he wrote in an era in which “mom-guilt” wasn’t the term de jour--he clearly felt the need to prod parents to see their role as important.

He wrote in an era in which control over one’s demeanor was highly prized (remember how Ma Ingalls never raised her voice and showed emotion only in rather subtle ways?). That influences his expectations of parents. He even demands that the bedtime ritual should be all peace and sweetness (in fact, that we should behave as we want our children to remember us when we are dead). I can’t say I’ve always been an angel of gentle light at bedtime myself, but again, this is a salutary reality check: we moderns swing the other way and seem determined to believe that all moms nag and shout and we might as well make jokes about it.

For readers willing to translate Trumbull’s thesis into modern parlance and apply it to parenting today, this is a thought-provoking read. I wish he provided more practical illustrations of how he expects parents to achieve the goals he suggests. However, I also gleamed a number of helpful ideas on shaping family life in accordance with the beliefs and values I hope to teach my children.

Let me leave you with a quotation from the book. The author recounts being asked for his theory of child-training. He said, “I have no theory in that matter. I had lots of theories before I had any children; but now I do, with fear and trembling, in every case just that which seems to be the better thing for the hour, whether it agrees with any of my old theories or not.”


After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their three young children. Anna's work can also be found in The Federalist.


  1. I have found that most parenting books I've read are light on the illustrations and heavy on the theory. I stopped reading them because of that; I often agree with the theory but have no idea how that looks practically.

    1. True! Perhaps there's a difference between books that present truly useful principles--ones that lend themselves to actions--vs. platitudes or goals. A book that says, "Human beings should help those around them, and children are humans, so they should be expected to help around the house" is a principle that thoughtful parent can try out. "Children should feel loved" is a good goal, but doesn't in itself tell us what to do!

  2. Clay Clarkson has written a couple good modern takes on Trumbull, albeit from a Calvinist perspective (there's still a lot of good meat there!), complete with practical examples. These are The Lifegiving Parent and Wholehearted Discipline.

    Katie Klinge


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