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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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The Influence and Teaching of the Educated Mother

by Mrs. Alfred Booth
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 81-90


Paper read at Bristol Conference of Women Workers. Reprinted by kind permission of Bristol Ladies' Association for the Care of Girls.]

In dealing with an abstract subject one hardly knows how to approach it in the most practical and profitable manner. If in this short paper I fail to do this, it will be owing to my want of originality, and not the fault of a most interesting and instructive subject.

The family, the oldest human institution, is as important a factor to-day as in the beginnings of life on this planet. I am in fact inclined to think it is even more important than in any past age, because we are able to look at it in a reasonable manner. The family to-day, like every other institution of divine or human origin, is on its trial. Shall the family stand, or shall it, like so many churches and governments, alter its constitution and be a less sacred thing in the future than it has been in the past?

While recognising that there is no reason why, with proper reverence, we should not discuss the family and its foundations, let me say at once, it is entirely on the ground of its divine origin and inalienable rights I approach my particular subject of the Educated Mother, her Teaching and Influence.

What, then, is education? Who is the educated mother? What ought her teaching and influence to be?

What is education? We are apt to think we know very well what education is, and when asked this question, give an answer which we hope will satisfy ourselves and others. When, however, we begin to think seriously on the subject, we are surprised to find how dim and hazy our opinions are, and we cannot be satisfied until we try to classify them and arrive at some definite conclusions. Speaking of education, therefore, in reference to women as mothers, I should venture to say its first and prime object ought to be to make women think, and that all education which does not tend to make thinking easy and natural fails of its object and is not education.

The original meaning of the word educate is "to draw forth;" education should therefore aim at drawing forth all the different powers of human beings. True education should train the intellect, establish principles, and regulate the heart. In answering the question, what is education?--especially in reference to girls--I would strike this threefold cord, believing that if the intellect is trained to habits of thought by the development of its faculties, the conscience to the perception of the reasonableness of principles founded on intelligible moral laws, and the heart to a wise regulation of its spontaneous action, we may hope for results which will be most likely to prepare women for the particular duties and responsibilities which motherhood brings.

The whole question of the education of women is still in its infancy. I am speaking now in a broad sense, and wish to include all women, and not the favoured class only, who can easily obtain all advantages. In former days there were, of course, many examples of highly educated women, whose names rise at once to our minds; but the idea that education, in an all-round sense, is the birthright of women as well as men was not a recognised fact.

The Puritan Fathers of the American Independence established schools for boys at once on the foundation of the New England colonies in 1620, but there is no mention of schools for girls until 1771.

If women could boil potatoes, spin, and bear healthy children, it was considered, even in the land where education is now--crude though it may be--more widely spread than in any other country, that their education was complete. An extract from the records of some New England towns will emphasise this:

"In 1778 the town of Northampton in New England voted not to be at any expense for schooling girls. Upon an appeal to the Courts, the town was indicted and fined for its neglect. Within the memory of a resident of Hatfield, an influential citizen, whose children were girls, appealed in town meeting for the privilege of sending them to the public school, which he helped by his taxes to support. An indignant fellow-townsman sprang to his feet and exclaimed, 'Hatfield school-girls, never!' In New England in 1790 it was proposed that three or four schools for girls might be established, which were to be furnished with dames to 'learn' them, as they expressed it, good manners, and proper decency of behaviour. These were to be essentials, but in addition they were to be taught spelling and reading sufficient to read the Bible, and, if the parents desired it, needlework and knitting. The session of the schools was to be from April to October, but a later petition being presented to the town, it graciously voted that some further arrangement be made for instruction of girls, and that during the summer months, when the boys are diminished in numbers, the masters shall receive the girls, after the boys are dismissed, for instruction in reading and grammar."

What a contrast the widespread educational ideas in reference to women in the United States of America and here present today! We are emancipated from the blindness, ignorance and prejudice of the past, but it would be strange indeed if the best minds of the day should not still find much to reconsider and develop before we can arrive at the wisest and best methods for the education of women.

Who, then, is the educated mother? The educated mother is pre-eminently a woman who thinks, and the results of her regulated thought will be seen in the daily administration of her home.

Happily, the educated mother can be found now in all classes of society, and her presence need not be confined to homes of wealth and ease.

Every mother should have some knowledge of physiology, of hygiene, or the science of life, of the exact technical sciences, of sewing and cookery, and some distinct notions of domestic economy. It is humiliating to notice how frequently young women, who are enjoying the privilege of maternity for the first time, calmly announce their ignorance of infant life, its necessities and demands. Their only resource is the resignation of their children during the period of infancy to the care of nurses and nursery-maids, who, without the education of their mistresses, are still better trained in the nursery management of the young than the mother herself. How many nurseries are there throughout England which the mother does not enter without giving warning of her approach, and where the nurse reigns supreme?

Not that I would wish to introduce the American and French system of turning the whole house into a nursery, allowing the children to roam at will through the different rooms, but I would urge that the educated mother's proper place is alike nurseries and entertaining-rooms, and, if she wishes to feel herself equally at home above as below stairs in the precincts of her own home, she must step across its magic threshold with some knowledge of the laws of human life, and should have studied physiology with a view of her own destiny as a possible wife and mother, and, in any case, a member of a human community, where to women, married and unmarried, is confided the early training of boys and girls.

The educated mother should have some plain ideas of life as it really is. Reality, not ideality, should be the watchword with which she starts her life-work. No right-minded woman can begin the double life with its intense interests and absorbing duties without the blest vision of an ideal home rising before her; but I would urge her to change the word ideal into real, and lo! she will find the real home is the ideal, for it is only through the actual we can attain to the spiritual.

The influence and teaching of the educated mother must begin in the nursery. Most of, if not all, the habits and tendencies in our children which trouble us and them when they are grown up can be modified and counteracted in the nursery. There is a favourite expression often used, "It is my nature and I cannot change it." This is a fatal mistake; nature is here used to denote inherited qualities, and these can be altered by environment and education.

It is the mother's duty to recognise that while her children may show fresh traits of unexpected excellence or difficulty they will also be sure to show characteristics which she recognises are theirs by inheritance, and it will be the first aim of her nursery instructions to direct, counteract and balance these inherited tendencies, while she watches keenly for fresh departures in their moral as well as physical development.

Guyau, a young French physiological and philosophic writer, too soon lost to this world, whose admirable little book on "Education and Heredity," published in the Contemporary Science Series, it would be well for all mothers to read, says: "Most parents bring up their children for their own sakes and not for their children's sake, some for the pleasure of the child as estimated by the child" (there is a profound truth underlying this); "true education is disinterested; it brings up the child for its own sake, it also brings it up for its country's sake, and the human race as a whole." Again he says: "All education should be directed to this end, to convince the child that he is capable of good and incapable of evil, in order to render him actually so." These words may remind us that in our own childhood the sentiment uppermost in the minds of our educators was the reverse of this: "Convince the child that he is utterly depraved if you wish him to long after goodness," was too often the expression of their inward thought. Do not let us be afraid of the modern way of instilling love of goodness into the life-blood of the child. Remember the greatest Teacher must have been of this opinion when He said, "Their angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in Heaven"; "Whosoever offendeth one of these little ones, it were better for him that a mill-stone were hung about his neck and he were cast into the depths of the sea"; "Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven."

Happy the mother who can herself superintend the home life of her infant children, but if not able to do this, let her take great pains in the choice of nurse and companions.

If there be one thing more than another which is of intense interest to the educated mother it is the manners of her children. Sons and daughters alike are sources of anxiety in this respect, for if manners make the man, good manners in a woman are more to be desired. What do we mean by manners? The word comes from manus, "a hand," and may technically be said to refer to the way in which a thing is handled, and is therefore the way of performing or handling anything. We say everything depends upon how a thing is handled; almost anything can be done if it is handled rightly. What an idea of power does this not give in regard to manners, and what an important part the cultivation of manners plays in education, at home, at school, and in the world. There is a prevalent idea in England, not to be found, so far as I know, in other countries, that courteous manners may be an indication of insincerity. There is a certain class of minds upon which the best manners have this effect; they at once ask the question, "Is he or she sincere?"

When first coming in contact with this view of good manners, one is startled, and for a time carried captive by its special pleading for truth. It is asserted where no special interest in a person is felt, it is a violation of truth to greet such person, or in fact any stranger, with a smile of friendliness, or a genial, sympathetic appearance. But we must not forget, when attracted by this cold, truthful view of manners, to perceive there is a deeper principle lying below the fundamental one of Truth, and that is Love. The effect of a cold, blunt manner is to produce a chilling effect on those who are acted upon, whereas the loving or genial manner creates in the recipient a feeling of pleasure akin to Love, and must be really the more truthful of the two, for God is Love, and has made the foundations of His Universe to rest on Love and Truth. Kant advocates this greeting of others as though we loved them, and argues its advantages are great, because it calls forth love on both sides. The difference in the children in one family in regard to manners is often marked. We say, "This child has naturally good manners, and that has no manners."

Practically is it not almost always the good-tempered, happy-dispositioned child who shows early in life the right mode of handling people and things, and is it not the more honest, straightforward child who gives us most trouble in the handling of people and things? The educated mother must therefore make Love the ground of her instructions and example, and while she fixes the courteous child's mode of action on this attribute of God Himself, she will be especially careful to train the uncourteous child in this simple idea of Love and its eternal union with Truth. What "God has joined together let no man put asunder." One of the most spontaneously well-mannered of English High-School head-mistresses said to me not long ago: "If a child, particularly a boy, be not taught to be courteous from one to ten years of age, he will never be truly courteous. The habit may be acquired later, but will never be spontaneous." The educated mother must influence quietly in this matter by her own manners, and the way in which she exemplifies the principles of love and truth. Hard and unnecessary judgments of others in the presence of children are an offence to good taste and manners, and very injurious, as tending to encourage the uselessly critical spirit.

The educated mother must, however, be much more than a nursery machine and a technical instructress. Realising that the children of to-day will rapidly develop into individuals keen to learn and be taught, she will always be alive to the necessity of cultivating her own mind, and the work of self-education and improvement will go on for her while life lasts. It is absolutely necessary a mother should know how to care for the small bodies, but it is equally important she should understand and satisfy the unfolding intellects of her children. It is a painful spectacle, that of a mother who has allowed her children to outstrip her as thinking beings, and can no longer keep pace with them in their pursuits and interests. The educated mother knows this, and will keep well in touch with all the interests of life. Religion, politics, social and philanthropic problems are all of absorbing interest to her, and she recognises she can keep her children's confidence, some of whom probably are cleverer then herself, only by habits of thoughtful interest in all which concerns humanity.

Beyond this the educated mother will seek to prepare her sons and daughters for that trying period in their lives when, emerging from childhood, they stand on the threshold of woman and manhood, oppressed often by new, bewildering thoughts, and open to guidance in a peculiarly sensitive and receptive manner. For this critical period the mother has already prepared herself by her knowledge of laws human and divine, and she earnestly endeavours to be herself the guide of her developing children. Had I been writing this paper ten years ago I should have been very sure that to all her children alike the educated mother would speak early in life in reference to these sacred subjects. Age, and a wider experience of life, have, however, modified my views in this respect, and I feel it a matter on which one cannot dogmatise. If mothers can secure and keep the confidence of sons and daughters, they will be guided to instruct and warn aright. But of this I am absolutely sure--that their warnings must be based on knowledge, else they will not be received and believed in.

But there is a subject which may be mentioned in this connection where the influence of the mother should be great, and different, as it seems to me, from what it now is. I refer to modesty in dress as well as in manner. There are two things which strike the American sojourner in Europe. One is that table-manners in Germany are no criterion of mental refinement and education, and that even in France, where culinary skill is carried into the realm of art, the consumer is not always an artist in his way of eating. The other thing is, that in England immodesty in dress is no criterion of immodesty in thought or deed. In plain words, a truly Christian, philanthropic, absolutely pure-minded woman will in England wear low gowns, which would, in the United States--and I am bound to say in France also--stamp her as a fast woman. Now we all know perfectly well that the standard in this matter is not the same in this country. A lady may appear in the evening with a dress so low it cannot fail to be observed, and yet that same lady is engaged all the year round in self-denying, Christian and public work, and never intentionally offends in word or deed against the ethical will of Christ or the moral law of Moses.

"Les femmes Anglaises sont les prudes, mais les prudes immodestes," said a witty Frenchman. Will you translate and reflect on this axiom? [The English women are the prudes, but the prudes are immodest.]

Now what is the explanation of this curious anomaly? In England, where education and refinement are so widespread, the higher you rise in the social scale the more likely are you to find mothers quite unconscious of the influence they ought to exercise over their daughters in regard to this matter.

With some exceptions, I venture to say that, in aristocratic circles, low dressing is de rigueur.

There can, it seems to me, be no manner of doubt this fashion is one of the consequences of a monarchical system, and this fashion being prevalent at Court, no radical change will ever take place until the example is set by royalty.

A visit to the Stuart and Hanoverian Portrait Gallery in two successive seasons seemed to show me why the Queen does not take a different stand. She has all her life long been surrounded by portraits of ancestors dressed in quaint low bodices, exposing more of bosom to the gaze of posterity than is really modest, and as she was never, I suppose, educated to feel this a question of practical ethics, but merely one of conventional suitability, she has never altered Court dress to suit the higher moral tone of the England of to-day.

The Court of Queen Victoria will go down to posterity as one of the purest in history. What a benefit to Society it would be if the fashion of immodest dressing could receive the disapproval of a Sovereign whose influence and teaching extend over so great a part of the civilised world, whether we, who, without being "les prudes Anglaises," are still of opinion that beauty as well as morality should dictate the cut of a gown, can do anything to influence custom in this matter, is an important question; as educated mothers, however, our duty towards our daughters is so plain that he who runs may read.

In regard to love and marriage the influence of the educated mother may be boundless. The educated, refined household is hardly likely to fall into vulgarity of thought and speech in reference to these subjects, but the tone must be set by the mother early in life. A low level of speech about the sweet intimacies of childhood, the foolish anticipating of relationships which come to maturity later on in life should hardly be indulged in. Families which have neglected wise reticence when the children were young can always be recognised; for in them the tone, when sons and daughters are growing up and taking the initiative, is apt to be an offence to good taste and refinement. Following the mother's lead, the father will not fail to be in accord with her wishes, and the result will be natural belief on the children's part in love as the foundation of family life, and marriage as its natural consequence. A mother once said, in speaking of a young girl who had spent months in her family, "Not a word has she heard while with us of love and marriage." Surely a mistake this, for however anxious we may be to ignore these human subjects, we find they assert themselves, and it is far wiser to encourage reasonable talk between parents and children, than to drive our children to discuss life and its most sacred human interests with their young friends of both sexes.

In conclusion, the influence and teaching of the educated mother is all for righteousness; and the formation in her children of character, based on self-control and self-sacrifice, the daily object of her life.