Jeremiah, over at the new and improved Granite Studio, calls me out on the question of child-rearing in Mencius. Glad to be of service...
He is discussing the "household instructions" left by a scholar-official long about the seventh century or so. Unsurprisingly, it recommends strict methods of child-rearing. This passage jumped out at me:
…As soon as a baby can recognize facial expressions and understand approval and disapproval, training should be begun so that he will do what he is told to do and stop when so ordered. After a few years of this, punishment with the bamboo can be minimized, as parental strictness and dignity mingled with parental love will lead the boys and girls to a feeling of respect and caution and give rise to filial piety.
I have to admit that, as a father of a teenager, the "punishment with bamboo" sounds pretty good.... but I digress.
Jeremiah rightly notes the Xunzi-like pessimism behind such sentiments: people are generally bad and must be beat into goodness. He arrays this against Mencian optimism, in his words:
One final point, given the Confucian (or at least Mencian) emphasis on the innate goodness of human nature, it is interesting that Mr. Yan sees children as needing to be shaped and molded, especially early on, reminiscent more of Xunzi (and the parable of the warped wood) rather than Mencius
I would suggest a slight revision here. Yes, Mencius was certainly more optimistic about human nature, but he, too, believed that, in order to draw out our innately good nature, children (and adults!) have to be "shaped and molded." The key difference is how it is to be done. My sense is that a Mencian approach would rely less on Legalistic "clear laws and harsh punishments" and more on positive inducements and exemplary modeling. Take this passage, for example:
Human nature is inherently good, just like water flows inherently downhill. There's no such thing as a person who isn't good, just as there's no water that doesn't flow downhill.
Think about water: if you slap it, you can make it jump over your head; and if you push and shove, you can make it stay on a mountain. But what does this have to do with the nature of water? It's only responding to the forces around it. It's like that for people too: you can make them evil, but that says nothing about human nature. (11.2)
Parents must learn how to channel their children's nature toward their better angels. Interesting how he adduces the negative example: "you can make them evil." That is, the natural tendency is toward goodness but, if you don't watch out, they can respond to negative stimuli and turn out bad. As to positive inducements v. negative punishments (carrots v. sticks), this passage comes to mind:
...But once people have plenty of food and warm clothes, they lead idle lives. This is their Way. Then, unless they're taught, they're hardly different from the birds and animals. The sage-emperor worried about this. He made Hsieh minister of education so the people would be taught about the bonds of human community: affection between father and son, Duty between sovereign and subject, responsibility between husband and wife, proper station between young and old, sincerity between friend and friend.
Encourage them and reward them.
Help them and perfect them.
Support them and give them wings,
and reveal them to themselves.
Then you will bring Integrity alive in them. (5.4)
I believe this is the only time that the "five relationships" are mentioned explicitly in Mencius (they are not directly mentioned in The Analects, I believe). And, notice, they have to be taught. People must learn the proper conduct toward others; their natural tendency toward the good needs to be made socially concrete and actionable. Observe also that there is no mention of whipping them with bamboo poles. Rather, the emphasis is on encouragement and reward and support.
We often think of "Chinese" or "Confucian" parenting strategies as relying on strict rules and harsh punishments, like those mentioned in the text Jeremiah discusses. But these are not "Confucian," not in the Mencian (and I would say the Analectian - can I do that, make an adjective out of Analetcs...?) expression of that tradition. This is just another example of how Legalism infects the definition of Chinese-ness under the guise of Confucianism.