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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."

Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 250-257

We might easily take it for granted that the children of well-bred people, dwelling in the midst of courtesy, would need no instruction in behavior. It would be pleasant to do so, if some troublesome reminisces of rude little boys and girls of the upper ten thousand did not obtrude themselves. It is, of course, to be remembered also that children's manners directly reflect the mood of the moment, and are spontaneous, even if not otherwise meritorious. Policy, dissimulation, social observance and expediency do not as yet play as large a part as in the case of their elders. This may seem a serious charge on the elders, but it is hardly an unjust one when accurately considered. We do not live in savage isolation, we are members of one another; we are always "glad to see our friends" even when we are tired; we are not cross because we have a headache or a toothache, we think of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, we consider it wise to ignore some speeches, and to overlook some slights. These arts, innocent or otherwise, are not desirable in children, their duties are simpler, their virtues more direct. This is happy for themselves and for their teachers.

I suppose everyone would agree that they should be kind to each other, respectful to their elders, polite to all. But I remember visiting in a family where the children always began breakfast first; it was a busy house and the porridge course was supposed to be got over before the elders came downstairs. When the two middle-aged guests appeared, not one of the young party moved; some said "Good morning" with their mouths full, the rest proceeded with the meal. The mother remarked, "They have to get off to school early," but it seemed to me a bad habit was getting formed, and bad manners would be the result, as they were.

Also, I know a delightful little boy, who went on sprawling on the floor, playing marbles in the drawing room, while an old lady was bidding him good-bye. "Get up", whispered a young friend, who had not yet learned to abstain from interfering with others' children. "Up where?" he replied, as if he enjoyed his own wit.

I give intentionally quite venial offenses, but even these have their source in a want of respect for others. I think that children are not taught this virtue now-a-days; they are told to make bows, certainly, and helped to make themselves officious by doing the honours in an un-childlike manner. `Now, Bertie, you will amuse Mrs. So-and-so while I am out of the room" which would certainly end in Mrs. So-and-so amusing him: or "Harry will take Miss Blank to the park," which would mean Miss Blank taking Harry, who might or might not be amenable to her wishes on the way. If Bertie or Harry might answer more politely, if they would abstain from grumbling, and fussing and speaking rudely to their too-indulgent aunt, I think more ground would be gained. I have been struck by the ease with which ignorant little boys and girls (I mean no disrespect to them in ascribing to them at least a short experience of life), will contradict their older relatives--by the amused and superior air by which they will ignore a suggestion from a grandmother, or obey as if it were a joke or a farce to which they kindly lend themselves. It seems to me a mistake to permit such manners, they make children to appear to disadvantage, and outsiders like them less than they would otherwise do. But the loss to their own characters of the capacity for, and the practice of, reverence of is the chief objection. Reverence may be directly inculcated in some other form in vain, while it is thus undermined by daily habit.

We have to allow for the weak conceit inherent in many young minds. I heard the other day of an angelic little girl speaking rudely to a young woman because she was "only a servant"; her mother would hardly believe it, if told of the remark. I mention it as showing the vital necessity for definitely training in due respect for others, in the mind and therefore in the manners. Of course the aim must be to induce the feeling first, and then to correct anything in the manner which seems to indicate its lack. We are assuming that the elders are always worthy of respect, and that the dignity of years is sustained by that of personal character. The reverence of a young child may sometimes rebuke our levity, as Little Lord Fauntelroy's trust was a reproach to the grimness of the old Earl.

I find that abruptness in children's manners is often regarded by some people as an admirable proof of their honesty and their sincerity of character; it seems to me honestly rude and sincerely disagreeable, and to arise from a want of consideration for others. Courtesy and grace are so winning and charming, and geniality is so far removed from falseness that it is surely due to children to set securely in the garden of their hearts the plants which bear such pleasant flowers. And, surely, a little wholesome discipline, which would show them that however loved and cherished, they must not consider themselves the only persons of consequence, would help them to narrower views of their own requirements and wider views of other people's. Some of the best mannered children I ever knew had very decided, though very loving parents, who would not tolerate bad manners in babyhood. If the young children did not behave well at table they were promptly put out of the room, and they seldom offended a second time. Of course, little children have to be taught to handle spoons, and eating in a seemly way does not come by nature; but I am writing of essential, and not technical manners just now.

Children who are never allowed to subside, whose baby talk or older chatter is permitted to monopolize the conversation at meals, may be interesting and entertaining for awhile, but become rather tiring except to their near relations. Parents are sometimes blind to this fact; they think a favour is always conferred upon you if Johnnie and Jemima are always happy but showing off.

I recall a mother who was rather severe with her little girl, and never let her be troublesome or in anyone's way; the child was a favorite with everyone, and friends used to give her many more indulgences than if she had been spoiled. Of course there was an earlier period of too great severity and distance; two ladies whom I once knew, used to deplore their unfortunate experience. "When we were children we were kept in subjection and thought nothing of, and now that we are women, children are indulged and made much of, and we have to give in to them!" They were kindly maiden ladies, at least as well educated as their young nephew, who as a little boy made grimaces when they reproved him, and as a young man let them hand the kettle (a domestic of those times) while he lounged in an easy chair, and pretended to be afraid that they would scald him.

But how to evoke the "loyal nature" and "induce the noble mind", this is the problem, and it has to be solved in various ways with various characters. The surrounding of children by noble persons and admirable things is an acknowledged means of guiding them to the exercise of admiration and love. But they have to learn good manners to ordinary people and I am afraid they have been taught in some way or other (heretical as this may seem to doting parents) that they themselves are very ordinary children and that "giving themselves airs," is just a little foolish.

It is of course an exploded prejudice that easy chairs are for older persons, they are in modern houses the prey of the children of the family. I recall a little girl who, when on a visit with her mother, always took the specially comfortable chair of the old lady of the house, and curled herself up in it with a book. Whenever Mrs. Fitzgerald entered, the mother would remark sweetly to the child, "Emily, wouldn't you like to give that chair to Mrs. Fitzpatrick?" and the old lady in indignation would reply, "Pray don't disturb yourself!" The mothers do not seem to see that the jumping up of the children and their offer to resign the seat, while intended to give them a virtuous appearance of politeness is just a little worrying to the person deferred to in so ostentatious a manner. According to old-fashioned ideas, the requirements of good manners are more simply met when children more habitually select the more ordinary chairs. Also, in other people's houses, it would seem more desirable that they should not stand on chairs and sofas, but I find that I am singular in this opinion, and though a little check is sometimes administered, no actual discouragement is conveyed. I am reminded of the way in which people order their dogs. "Down Pompey!" upon which Pompey jumps up the more. "Lie down, good dog!" upon which he rampages across the sofa and all over the room.

Unobtrusiveness in children is a most attractive quality, and draws one to observe them with the greatest interest; it is consistent with any amount of life and energy, and does not mean dullness or stupidity, but due and wholesome subordination. Goethe represents Wilhelm Meister as at one time a spectator of various exercises performed by the children under the overseer, by whom his son Felix was being educated. Meister expressed his surprise at hearing no instrumental music. "This is by no means neglected here", said the other, "but practiced in a peculiar district, one of the most pleasant valleys among the mountains; and there again we have arranged it so that the different in instruments shall be taught in different places. The discord of beginners, in particular, are banished into certain solitudes, where they can drive no one to despair; for you will confess that in well-regulated civil society there is scarcely a more melancholy suffering to be undergone, than what is forced on us by the neighbourhood of an incipient player of the flute or violin. Our learners, out of a laudable desire to be troublesome to no one, go forth of their own accord for a longer or shorter time, into the wastes: and strive in their seclusion to attain the merit which shall admit them again into the inhabited world. Each of them from time to time is allowed to venture an attempt for admission, and the trial seldom fails at success; for bashfulness and modesty, in this as in all other parts of our system, we strongly endeavor to maintain and cherish." I imagine that it would be a counsel of perfection beyond even the aim of our respected Editor, to deliver parents and guardians from Willie's lame five-finger exercises, and Mary's laboured scales, from the "Swiss Boy" with an occasional wrong note, and a "Venetian Barcarole" in most unequal time; but I have quoted the passages as implying an extreme insistence on the unobtrusiveness at which I ventured to hint.

Some friends are very kind at shewing to guests books of valuable plates, but when you look at them it is a signal for at least one little boy and one little girl to close in on you, embarrassing your arms, impending your view, and enjoying it with you. You cannot barbarously shake yourself free, but you feel that if there were any convenient "wastes", you would like the children to be in them for "a longer" rather than "a shorter" time.

Wilhelm Meister asks for the explanation of certain dignified, yet singular gestures of salutation, and this is the answer he receives:

"Well-formed healthy children, bring much into the world along with them. Nature has given to each whatever he requires for time and duration: to unfold this is our duty; often it unfolds itself better of its own accord. One thing there is, however, which no child brings into the world with him, and yet it is on this one thing that all depends for making man in every point a man. If you can discover it yourself, speak it out." Wilhelm thought a little while, then shook his head. The reply was "Reverence"! and a second time "Reverence! All want it, perhaps you yourself." He is then informed that the three kinds of gestures which he has seen are suggestive of a three-fold Reverence--for that which is above us, for that which is beneath us, and for that which is around us. He challenges the statement that reverence is not natural to man, and speaks of the reverence or fear of rude people for violent convulsions of Nature, as the germ out of which a higher feeling was by degrees to be developed. "Nature is indeed adequate to fear", is the reply, "but to reverence not adequate . . . To fear is easy, but grievous, to reverence is difficult, but satisfactory. Man does not willingly submit himself to reverence: or rather he never so submits himself: it is a higher sense, which must be communicated to his nature: which only in some peculiarly favored individuals unfolds itself spontaneously, who on this account too of old been looked upon as saints and gods. Here lies the worth, here lies the business of all true religions."

As he rode along with the overseer on the following day, they were saluted by the children as on the preceding evening: but today, though rarely, he now and then observed a boy who did not pause in his work to salute the overseer, but let him pass unheeded. Wilhelm asked the cause of this, and what such an exception meant. His companion answered: "It is full of meaning: for it is the highest punishment we inflict on our pupils; they are declared unworthy to show reverence, and obliged to exhibit themselves as rude and uncultivated natures; but they do their utmost to get free of this situation and in general adapt themselves with great rapidity to any duty. Should a young creature on the other hand obdurately make no attempt at return and amendment, he is then sent back to his parents, with a brief but pointed statement of his case. Whoever cannot suit himself to the regulations, must leave the district where they are in force."

At the winding up of the book (see Carlyle's translation) these memorable words occur: "Finally, we reckon it our duty, without pedantry or rigour, to practice and forward decorum of manners as required by that Reverance for Ourselves, which arises from the Three Reverences whereas we universally profess our adherence."

We have drifted somewhat into solemnities, for manners truly are not idle; their importance is very great and they are being fashioned day by day from within and without. Character is expressed by manners, and manners influence character. Defects are emphasized and confirmed if they are continually permitted to assert themselves; and if right feeling is inculcated or encouraged, it will manifest itself graciously in the demeanor of the child. Manners and morals act together and re-act upon each other.

During the American War I met some ladies from one of the Southern States in a pension abroad; their glee when they had news of an advantage on their side was very painful to see, and the vulgar "we've whipped `em" was not a gracious manifestation. One of them had a boy of about eleven years old, who used to drive back his chair from the table as noisily as possible from the parqueterie floor, if any dish did not please him at dinner, his mother kindly explaining "He doesn't like it!" He would stomp out of the room and reappear to make his observations of a course which perhaps he might like. No doubt he had had slaves at his command from babyhood, and he would have made a perfect slave-driver in manhood, if the supply had not mercifully failed.

In Mr. Ruskin's plan of education on St. George's estates, the children are required to show "finished courtesy to each other," and "to obey orders with the precision of slaves," thus preparing themselves, or being prepared for that right service which is perfect freedom.

Many parents, I observe, think it quite right if their children obey after awhile, which is in fact saving their (supposed) dignity and pleasing themselves in a manner which is tiresome to those who have the management of them. A child who is accustomed to instant obedience gains a habit which saves the young mind from much wearing friction; and a parent who can secure frank brightness of immediate response is repaid by the pleasant manners of the child for much painstaking, thought, perseverance, and it may be, ingenuity in finding out how best to accomplish this end in individual cases.

Mr. Ruskin has remarked that the element of "learning" may be "left out harmlessly, if only the child be taught good manners, religious faith, and manual skill."