Primary Source

“How to Teach Children”: Childrearing and Confucian Doctrine [Excerpt]


This excerpt comes from a chapter of Okina mondô, or Dialog with an Old Man, by Nakae Tôju (1606–1648), a Neo-Confucian philosopher. The Dialog teaches practical ethics through a series of questions and answers between a young disciple, Taijû, and a wise old master, Tenkun. In the section entitled "How to Teach Children," Tenkun's advice reflects the fundamental Confucian view that men are born good, but are corrupted through exposure to society. This view dates back to the 4th century BCE, when Chinese philosopher Mencius equated infancy with purity, and wrote that the great man does not lose his 'child's heart' (tongxin in Chinese, dôshin in Japanese).

Thus, Confucian scholars have tended to blame parents and nurses for bad behavior in children. Followers of the Neo-Confucian school of Zhu Xi (1130-1200 CE), such as Nakae Tôju, viewed family relations as a microcosm of the harmonious order between Heaven and Earth, the ruler and his subjects. It was therefore important for the father of the household to monitor his children's upbringing, and not leave it in the hands of a foolish, uneducated mother, servant, or nursemaid.


Nakae, Tôju. "How to Teach Children" (Kyôshi hô). In Dialog with an Old Man (Okina mondô), 1641. Translation by L. Halliday Piel (2007).

Primary Source Text

"How to Teach Children"

(Kyôshi hô)

In the education of children, there is a difference between young children (yôshô) and adults (seijin). When children are very young, they learn from the beliefs and behavior of their parents, wet nurses, and so on.

In order to avoid stimulating bad ideas in a child so that he does not become a bad person, it is most important to take care to leave childish behavior such as playful mischief up to the child himself, and not to force your own opinions on him. No matter what happens, childish behavior is resolved with age and disappears on its own. Even they who understand a little about teaching children still do not know how to teach the heart, and by making a very young child exhibit adult behavior, they may make the child become bitter and depressed.

Seeing that this happens, some parents are reluctant to lecture their children, thinking it wrong, and as a result, they give their children too many favors, or let them have their own way in everything, indulging in pleasure. To do so is to allow them to learn to be vulgar, careless, and loose. That is a mistake in raising children. Leave childish things and playful mischief to the child in question, but warn them about the depravity in our hearts.

This way of teaching requires parents and nurses to be cautious about everyday jokes . . . . When parents line up and compare brothers, they joke that this one is my child and that one is not, and thus they instigate quarrels and jealousy between brothers.

Or else, when giving out food and clothing, adults say jokingly, "You may have it, you may not," which stimulates avarice.

Or else, when a child shows resistance to an adult and yells and cries, the parents try to stop his crying by taking his side no matter what, and by blaming the other party. This rewards an attitude of blaming other people, and stimulates a twisted attitude that leads to picking quarrels.

Or else, they readily deceive him, which stimulates in him the idea of opportunistic cheating.

Or else, they readily make up scary stories, which fosters a cowardly personality that is intimidated by threats and scare tactics.

In this way, without being aware of it, parents and nurses stimulate bad attitudes that will cause children to lose their innate virtue.

There are countless cases of this. Understand the reasons why and make it your number one concern not to let children learn avarice, excessive patience, a twisted mentality, and an aggressive, competitive attitude, or a tendency to cheat and degrade others. Even unintentional teasing should involve some kind of teaching, such as how to serve older family members with respect and to nurture the virtue of humility.

How to Cite This Source

"“How to Teach Children”: Childrearing and Confucian Doctrine [Excerpt]," in Children and Youth in History, Item #117, (accessed August 10, 2021). Annotated by L. Halliday Piel