You see, the adult, too, has his love of freedom; and while he can stand an indirect, impersonal preachment, which he may reject if he likes without apology, he will not stand the insistence of a personal appeal. I’ve let “Little Women” shame me into better conduct, when I was a girl, at times when no direct speech from a living soul would have brought me to anything but defiance—haven’t you? We have to apply our principles to the adult world about us, well as to the child-world, and teach, when we permit ourselves to teach at all, chiefly by example, by cheerful confession of fallibility, by open-mindedness. Above all things, we have to respect the freedom of these others, about whom we are so inconveniently anxious.
It is fair, though, that the spoken word should interpret what we do. It is fair enough to tell your sister-in-law what you think and ask her judgment upon it, if you can trust yourself not to rub your own judgment in too hard. If you are unmarried, and a teacher, you will have to concede to her preposterous marital conceit a humble and inquiring attitude, and console your flustered soul by setting it to the ingenious task of teaching by means of a graduated series of artful inquiries. Don’t, oh don’t! seek for an outspoken victory. Be content if some day you hear her proclaim your truth as her own discovery. It never was yours, anyway, any more than it is hers or than it is mine. Be glad that, while she claims it, she at least holds it close.
If you are a mother, you are in an easier case. You can do to your own children just what she ought to do to hers, and tell about it softly, as if sure of her sympathy. If you are very sincere in your desire for the welfare of her child, you may even ask her advice about yours, and so gain the right to offer a little in exchange—say one-tenth of what she gives.
All these warnings apply to unsought advice—a dangerous thing to offer under any circumstances. Except there is a real emergency, you had better avoid it. If your nephew or little neighbor is winning along through his troubles fairly well, best keep hands off. But if you absolutely must interfere, guard yourself as I suggest, and remember that, even then, you will assuredly get burned, if you play long with that dangerous fire of maternal pride!
When your advice is sought, you are in a different position. Then you have a right to speak out, though if you are wise and loving you will temper that right with charity. No one can be too gentle in dealing with a soul that honestly asks for help; but one can easily be too timid. Think, under these circumstances, of yourself not at all; but put yourself as much as possible in her place; be led by her questions; and answer fearlessly from the depths of the best truth you hold. Then leave it. You can do no more. What becomes of that truth, once you have lovingly spoken it, is no more of your concern.