I’m going to reprint a letter a mother sent to her 15-year-old son. I’ve redacted their names to guard their privacy.
Here’s why I’m curious: Should this letter have been sent? Do you think it will prove helpful or harmful?
Here it is:
“… I have much to say to you, I’m afraid not of a pleasant nature. You know, darling, how I hate to find fault with you, but I can’t help myself this time… Your report which I enclose is as you will see a very bad one. You work in such a fitful, inharmonious way, that you are bound to come out last – look at your place in the form! Your father and I are both more disappointed than we can say, that you are not able to go up for your preliminary exam: I daresay you have 1000 excuses for not doing so – but there the fact remains…
“Dearest __________ you make me very unhappy – I had built up such hopes about you and felt so proud of you – and now all is gone. My only consolation is that your conduct is good and you are an affectionate son – but your work is an insult to your intelligence. If you would only trace out a plan of action for yourself and carry it out and be determined to do so – I am sure you could accomplish anything you wished. It is that thoughtlessness of yours which is your greatest enemy…
“I will say no more now – but __________ you are old enough to see how serious this is to you – and how the next year or two and the use you make of them, will affect your whole life – stop and think it out for yourself and take a good pull before it is too late. You know dearest boy that I will always help you all I can.
“Your loving but distressed,
What’s your vote? A letter well sent, or a case of unnecessary emotional discouragement that could scar for life? Should parents work at encouraging their children at every turn, or at times give them the facts of life in a way that refuses a trophy for every effort?
Okay, it’s time I came clean. This isn’t a recent letter, but one taken from history. It was from London, June 12, 1890, to be exact. And I’ll give you the mother’s name. It was Jennie. Jennie Churchill. And her 15-year-old boy’s name was,
Yes, the reveal probably sways you that this letter had a positive and formative influence on the future world leader. And you would be right. Her call for Winston to be “determined” was apparently the key. Indeed, it would be the greatest single characterization of his leadership and lasting influence.
And he knew it. Take his adult address to the boys of Harrow, the very school he attended at age 15, on October 29, 1941. Memorably, he said:
“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
So when reflecting on Winston’s life, don’t forget his mother’s influence. And maybe whisper a prayer that there will continue to be moms taking up pen and paper – or text and email – to say precisely what their sons need to hear.
James Emery White
David Lough, “A Letter From Winston Churchill’s Disappointed Mother,” The Atlantic, October 2018, read online.
Winston Churchill, “Never Give In, Never, Never, Never, 1941,” National Churchill Museum, read online.