What Ought He to Have Done- Mark Twain's Opinion

By Mark Twain
What Ought He to Have Done- Mark Twain's Opinion (1885).

Editor Christian Union:

I have just finished reading the admirably told tale entitled "What Ought He to Have Done?" in your No. 24, and I wish to take a chance at that question myself before I cool off. What a happy literary gift that mother has! -- and yet, with all her brains, she manifestly thinks there is a difficult conundrum concealed in that question of hers. It makes a body's blood boil to read her story!

I am a fortunate person, who has been for thirteen years accustomed, daily and hourly, to the charming companionship of thoroughly well-behaved, well-trained, well-governed children. Never mind about taking my word; ask Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Charles Dudley Warner, or any other near neighbor of mine, if this is not the exact and unexaggerated truth. Very well, then, I am quite competent to answer that question of "What ought he to have done?" and I will proceed to do it by stating what he would have done, and what would have followed, if "John Senior" had been me, and his wife had been my wife, and the cub our mutual property. To wit:

When John Junior "entered the library, marched audaciously up to the desk, snatched an open letter from under his father's busy fingers, threw it upon the floor," and struck the ill-mannered attitude described in the succeeding paragraph, his mother would have been a good deal surprised, and also grieved: surprised that her patient training of her child to never insult any one -- even a parent -- should so suddenly and strangely have fallen to ruin; and grieved that she must witness the shameful thing.

At this point John Senior -- meaning me -- would not have said, either "judicially" or otherwise, "Junior is a naughty boy." No; he would have known more than this John Senior knew -- for he would have known enough to keep still. He wouldn't have aggravated a case which was already bad enough, by making any such stupid remark -- stupid, unhelpful, undignified. He would have known and felt that there was one present who was quite able to deal with the case, in any stage it might assume, without any assistance from him. Yes, and there is another thing which he would have known, and does at this present writing know: that in an emergency of the sort which we are considering, he is always likely to be as thorough-going and ludicrous an ass as this John Senior proved himself to be in the little tale.

No -- he would have kept still. Then the mother would have led the little boy to a private place, and taken him on her lap, and reasoned with him, and loved him out of his wrong mood, and shown him that he had mistreated one of the best and most loving friends he had in the world; and in no very long time the child would be convinced, and be sorry, and would run with eager sincerity and ask the father's pardon. And that would be the end of the matter.

But, granting that it did not turn out in just this way, but that the child grew stubborn, and stood out against reasoning and affection. In that case, a whipping would be promised. That would have a prompt effect upon the child's state of mind; for it would know, with its mature two years' experience, that no promise of any kind was ever made to a child in our house and not rigidly kept. So this child would quiet down at this point, become repentant, loving, reasonable; in a word, its own charming self again; and would go and apologize to the father, receive his caresses, and bound away to its play, light-hearted and happy again, although well aware that at the proper time it was going to get that whipping, sure.

The "proper time" referred to is any time after both mother and child have got the sting of the original difficulty clear out of their minds and hearts, and are prepared to give and take a whipping on purely business principles -- disciplinary principles -- and with hearts wholly free from temper. For whippings are not given in our house for revenge; they are not given for spite, nor ever in anger; they are given partly for punishment, but mainly by way of impressive reminder, and protector against a repetition of the offense. The interval between the promise of a whipping and its infliction is usually an hour or two. By that time both parties are calm, and the one is judicial, the other receptive. The child never goes from the scene of punishment until it has been loved back into happy-heartedness and a joyful spirit. The spanking is never a cruel one, but it is always an honest one. It hurts. If it hurts the child, imagine how it must hurt the mother. Her spirit is serene, tranquil. She has not the support which is afforded by anger. Every blow she strikes the child bruises her own heart. The mother of my children adores them -- there is no milder term for it; and they worship her; they even worship anything which the touch of her hand has made sacred. They know her for the best and truest friend they have ever had, or ever shall have; they know her for one who never did them a wrong, and cannot do them a wrong; who never told them a lie, nor the shadow of one; who never deceived them by even an ambiguous gesture; who never gave them an unreasonable command, nor ever contented herself with anything short of a perfect obedience; who has always treated them as politely and considerately as she would the best and oldest in the land, and has always required of them gentle speech and courteous conduct toward all, of whatsoever degree, with whom they chanced to come in contact; they know her for one whose promise, whether of reward or punishment, is gold, and always worth its face, to the uttermost farthing. In a word, they know her, and I know her, for the best and dearest mother that lives -- and by a long, long way the wisest.

You perceive that I have never got down to where the mother in the tale really asks her question. For the reason that I cannot realize the situation. The spectacle of that treacherously-reared boy, and that wordy, namby-pamby father, and that weak, namby-pamby mother, is enough to make one ashamed of his species. And if I could cry, I would cry for the fate of that poor little boy -- a fate which has cruelly placed him in the hands and at the mercy of a pair of grown up children, to have his disposition ruined, to come up ungoverned, and be a nuisance to himself and everybody about him, in the process, instead of being the solacer of care, the disseminator of happiness, the glory and honor and joy of the house, the welcomest face in all the world to them that gave him being -- as he ought to be, was sent to be, and would be, but for the hard fortune that flung him into the clutches of these paltering incapables.

In all my life I have never made a single reference to my wife in print before, as far as I can remember, except once in the dedication of a book; and, so, after these fifteen years of silence, perhaps I may unseal my lips this one time without impropriety or indelicacy. I will institute one other novelty: I will send this manuscript to the press without her knowledge, and without asking her to edit it. This will save it from getting edited into the stove.

Mark Twain

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