Child Rearing Advice from Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee had a difficult childhood. His father, the famous “Light Horse” Harry Lee was a fine commander, but a wastrel. Light Horse Harry came from a good family, but he could not hold a job and went through money like water. Even though he served a term as Congressman and governor, he ended up in debtor’s prison. Light Horse Harry did, however, marry well. Robert was two when his father’s creditors took Light Horse Harry to jail. Ann Carter Lee kept the family together by imposing upon relations who could spare room. By the time Robert was 6, the family (sans Light Horse Harry) left the Lee ancestral home to stay with relations in Alexandria. Robert would never see his father, again. At least four times, relations took care in their wills to leave property to Ann or to another Lee, but not to Light Horse Harry.

Perhaps with that background, a mature Robert was a devoted father. He would tell stories to his children, when he was home. They were expected to tickle his feet while doing so, or the story would end. He would set up games for them on the lawn, such as a high jump. He encouraged them to jump in his bed in the mornings. Yet, he had had his parental troubles. His oldest son, Custis was almost evicted from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His other son, Rooney, was in perpetual trouble at Harvard until he received a commission into the U.S. Army.

Robert Lee was a prolific letter writer. We know much about his thoughts from his many letters to friends and family. Writing in 1857, as his children were entering adulthood, Robert Lee mentioned to his wife that he believed there should be “infant schools.” He believed children should be gathered together at a young age and taught by well-trained instructors in “politeness, gentleness, courtesy and regard for others.” The benefits of self-denial and self-control could be modeled for the young children, he explained. Elsewhere he recorded that he believed physical discipline and verbal abuse were counter-productive. Children, he said, should be “governed by love, not fear.  When love influences the parent, the child will be activated by the same spirit.”  Lee was generally a man of his time. But, in rearing children, he was ahead of his time.

See more about Light Horse Horse Harry lee and his effect on Robert E. Lee here.

Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1995), p. 145, 148-149; 171-172.

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