Lessons from Emma by Jane Austen: Kids Are Kids and Parents Are Parents

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As I wrote recently, a present I’ve been giving myself is to listen again to the novels of Jane Austen.

While I recommend Mansfield Park for teens, young adults, and their parents, I want to recommend Emma to parents of children of all ages, especially parents of precocious children.

Emma begins with this passage:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father; and had, in consequence of her sister’s marriage, been mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses; and her place had been supplied by an excellent woman as governess, who had fallen little short of a mother in affection.

Sixteen years had Miss Taylor been in Mr. Woodhouse’s family, less as a governess than a friend, very fond of both daughters, but particularly of Emma. Between them it was more the intimacy of sisters. Even before Miss Taylor had ceased to hold the nominal office of governess, the mildness of her temper had hardly allowed her to impose any restraint; and the shadow of authority being now long passed away, they had been living together as friend and friend very mutually attached, and Emma doing just what she liked; highly esteeming Miss Taylor’s judgment, but directed chiefly by her own.

The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.

In Emma Austen reveals the folly of

  • indulgence,
  • lack of restraint, and
  • children having “rather too much [their] own way.”

The result of Emma’s father’s lack of parenting and the indulgence of her governess is that handsome, clever, and rich Emma becomes a 21-year-old woman who is wise in her own eyes. Readers of Proverbs know how dangerous that is:

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes,
But a wise man is he who listens to counsel.
Proverbs 12:15

Emma’s arrogance causes her to meddle in the lives of several people in her hometown of Highbury. Neighbor, friend, and brother-in-law, Mr. George Knightley, is the only person who loves Emma enough to help her see her folly. On one occasion, he tries to convince Emma’s former governess, Mrs. Weston, that Emma is acting foolishly, but Mrs. Weston’s response is:

With all dear Emma’s little faults, she is an excellent creature. Where shall we see a better daughter, or a kinder sister, or a truer friend? No, no; she has qualities which may be trusted; she will never lead any one really wrong; she will make no lasting blunder; where Emma errs once, she is in the right a hundred times.”

With excellent insight into human nature and with a hilarious sense of humor, Austen shows Emma making one blunder after another, especially in her efforts at matchmaking.

Finally, Emma understands how foolish she has been and realizes:

With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange every body’s destiny. She was proved to have been universally mistaken; and she had not quite done nothing—for she had done mischief.

Emma is a fun and very witty novel, but in it wise parents can learn a great deal about the foolishness of letting children have their own way. It is easy for parents to be in awe of their children, especially their precocious ones. That awe must never fool us into thinking our children are wiser than they really are. The results can be disastrous.

God’s Word teaches us that “foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child” (Proverbs 22:15). All children need parents who recognize that foolishness. All children need parents who are willing to be parents. 

Wise parents realize that a parent is a parent and a child is a child.

When I was a child, I used to speak like a child,
think like a child, reason like a child;
when I became a man, I did away with childish things.
1 Corinthians 13:11

It’s the parent’s job to train their young ones to gradually grow from those who speak, think, and reason like children into men and women who have done away with childish things.

Correct your son, and he will give you comfort;
He will also delight your soul.
Proverbs 29:17






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