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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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A Mother's Letter.

Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 641-648


How do I do it? This question has been from time to time in my mind, since your pleasant visit to us in our country home. A big house, and in it a big party of eight amenable children--that is all.

The work of guidance is comparatively light when the boys are not at home. The long habit of being ruled firmly, though lightly, has made them all what they are: obedient and tractable, though full of spirit and life.

We have occasional atmospheric disturbances, but they ruffle the surface only--the deep water runs smoothly. How do I do it?

When I was a young mother, I always thought "What would my mother have done, or said, under such circumstances?" and I acted accordingly.

For many years, being much with my children was a distinct effort of duty. I have always had an intense love of reading and self-improvement of all kinds--drawing, painting, music, books old and new; my own interests were too intense not to make it otherwise than an effort of duty to give much time to my children. Whatever you may think, I am not by any means a "devoted mother," but no doubt my very absorption in my many and varied interests (though they were undertaken solely for my own gratification, and because I had myself been brought up to care for such things), was an unconscious training for the work, which I am quite ready now to admit, to be a chief end and aim of a woman's existence--i.e. the training of the children entrusted to her.

Admitting this much however, I still maintain that this training is not to be more than one out of other ends and aims in life, though, as I said before--a chief one. We owe much to other duties, and Society in its broad and Catholic sense, would be vapid indeed if all mothers were so occupied with maternal duties, as to be unavailable for social intercourse with other men and women. This very limitation is I think, part of the judicious training of children; out of principle I have always made my children consider mine and their father' s comfort and convenience first, and I must say this has succeeded, in so far as I think they are more considerate and unselfish towards their parents than most of the children I know.

I used to hate teaching, but now it interests me. I have always taught the daily bible or prayer-book lessons to the younger children myself; but except drawing, I have taught nothing else systematically, though of course much incidentally. The children's ordinary education has been carried on by governesses under my supervision, and the boys of course have been to school, but as regards them, the help and do-operation we have received from the master of the private school where they have been, has been a powerful aid in the formation of their characters, and in the sequence of their individual treatment. This entire confidence between master and parents as to the boys' characters, and great frankness in the Reports sent, I consider to be simply indispensable to their wise bringing up.

The great disadvantage of their lives, being broken up into periods, having little or no continuity one with the other, is thus minimized as far as is possible, though at the best the life of a boy at school must remain to a great degree strange to his mother. If this is so at a private school, it is to a far greater extent at a public one; this life is almost a sealed book to those at home. Now and again a glimpse between the leaves reveals a world of duties, pleasures, temptations, and self control, which brings home to one's mind with a shock, the fact of one's boy being tried in the fire, and one can only hope and pray that he may come out of the ordeal unsigned by the flame. One's helplessness to aid is the less great, when one remembers how much may be done by Intercession--but truly these weak children are often the heroes, "greater than those who have taken Cities."

You know what a tribe we have! but I have always tried to have from time to time my children singly with me; and ever since they have been at school I have made a point of having "talks" with my boys. I find they always welcome a suggestion that they should come to me for one of these "talks." I have made it a habit for years to go to my room for an hour every evening before dinner, where, on my sofa, I taka a much needed rest, for my life is a very busy one. Here at this time they come to me and on a low stool by my side they sit, and we talk. Some of my children talk freely, others leave it to me to do most of that, but gradually they get interested and "thaw." One of my boys takes a long time to thaw, but the process takes place sooner or later, and he is all the sweeter for the slowness of his confidence. Some of these talks are as great a mental effort as that of reading a stiff book, and I never begin one without asking for help and guidance, and often throughout the time they last, claim the aid and inspiration of words that never fail to follow.

The children never expect a "preaching" I believe, nor do they ever have their confidence forced, and sometimes these talks end without any apparent object being gained. We always begin with mundane affairs; generally we discuss the pets or some interesting occupation upon which they are engaged--or else they like merely to be caressed and "smoothed." Sometimes I scold them briskly for some fault or neglect. Sometimes we talk of their futures--of life and its battles--and sometimes I tell them of my own old days--but we manage to make the best of our opportunities, and the talk generally bears fruit. I think such talks may be a bulwark to a boy entering on life. My boys know that so long as we are left to each other we shall always have them. They know that anything wrong could scarcely be concealed from me--that I should see it in their faces, and the "murder will out." Please God this thought may be a stay and preventive from evil.

The girls are different, my little pair of nine and eleven also have their talks. They have as yet no desire for privacy. Each other's presence does not check their confidence. They are amusingly open. They discuss their own and each other's foibles and relate their little experiences in self-rule exercises, a small boy of eight listening, and making a running accompaniment of quaint remark upon his own and their characters and experiences. His sisters do their best to reduce him to the level they consider he should occupy from his youth and inexperience, but the small lord of creation is conscious of the superiority of his sex.

The children's father has so far left their management mostly to me, but his unfailing support of my authority and his insistence on absolute obedience to us both, has made my task easy. "Obedience and no argument" he has always exacted, and it never occurs to the children big or little, that his or my will can be disputed when once the law is laid down. But we drive them with a light hand and their father's unfailing kindness and justice have made him truly their friend and referee, for they are thoroughly appreciative of his strong and manly character, and would perhaps tell you with some pride, how that when a boy at Harrow he was for three years head of his house--the last year remaining on by special request "because his influence was so good." This may seem little to us, but I think the echo of the old influence that was then thought useful, may be none the less so now, years afterwards; and may well be a source of pride and emulation to the old "head boy's" sons!

I think self control is the great secret of influence and authority in Parents. The absolute accord--perfect love and confidence, and unfailing good temper between their Father and Mother that they ought always to see, should be a perpetual model and pattern of what their own future lives ought some day to be. There is no training in self control such as one's own children give one. One lives in a blaze of light, one's every action is seen and unconsciously influences. One must always be serene, good tempered, unselfish, courteous, reticent, just, charitable. From living one's life so much in public, posing to the children as models of all they should copy, one is, I think, trained oneself. One finds this I think a strain and an effort for a time. Cultivated people have to sacrifice a great deal in living much in the society of children. They must either repress the children more than is good for them, or sacrifice much conversation and intercourse that is above the children's heads.

The society of husband and wife when at home and without guests, is only gradually broken in upon by the growing up of their children, so that the change is hardly realized, and I think it is the suddenness of this breaking in that often tries a stepmother to a degree that, unless she has the sweetest of tempers, strains her relations with her stepchildren. I think if men who marry a second time would remember this, and spare their young wives more, they would help both them and the children much. Unfortunately most men who have families marry a second time, because they cannot get on without a mistress to their household, and a mother to their children, whereas the second wife marries her husband for himself, and not for his children.

I think an "elder sister" is a great help and influence in a family. My eldest girl has latterly been of the greatest assistance to me. With a devoted affection for her brothers, and while apparently in most things giving up her wishes and desires to please them, she never fails to influence them for good with the intuitive tact and instinct, which is a woman's special gift in dealing with men. It is well that a girl should acquire this tact while young, for on it depends much of her happiness and power for good in later life. I think indeed my little daughter is learning at home much of what in other ways you impart to your band of enthusiastic little maidens at Ambleside--she is both learning to train and being trained.

You see from all I have told you that we are rather a homogeneous "whole."

We act upon and educate each other, tho' I think we ourselves do not approach your ideal of parents. Indeed, did we do so, we should perhaps neglect other duties, and they are great and many. As you may imagine, this being the case, I rejoice in the possession of our dear good "Mademoiselle" whom you know. Truly, "great wits jump," and she is quite a kindred spirit with you.

But you will forgive me a little criticism. Are not your "beautiful mothers" a little spoiling to the children, and sometimes perhaps rather a trial to other people? Are they not sometimes somewhat too cheap--too much and too often the servants of their children? I say advisedly "their servants;" they serve their children insomuch as this is the bent and end of their existence, being mothers. A reaction was bound to come, but perhaps the educationist of this day deals too exclusively with the duties of parents to children. Must we not remember that if the children are accustomed to "be considered" always and not "to consider," this perhaps may defeat its own object when the next generation comes to be trained up? Granted, that in the old days of repressive child training, this object of the duty of children to their parents was strained to breaking point. Child life was clouded, overshadowed by fear, misunderstanding, harsh misconception, onerous rules. Parents' love and sympathy was swallowed up, drowned in etiquette and misjudged severity. But barring the lack of tenderness and sympathy (which scarcely existed, and when it did was considered a weakness), this method of education certainly often turned out fine and noble men, and sweet, well disciplined women. The sweetest and noblest woman I ever knew had a mother who absolutely neglected her children (in so far as personal intercourse was concerned) until they were old enough to be interesting, which was when they were able to sympathise and take part in her own intellectual and artistic pursuits.

I think we need a juste milieu between these two extremes. The children should not be trained with the idea that they can possibly be the first object with their parents. First and foremost the mother should make all give way to the father's comfort and convenience. She should show how much they owe to him, how he toils for herself and them--how often (perchance) he denies himself what otherwise might be his, but for what he does for them--their education, pleasures, health, and what not. On the other hand, the father's tender care of "the mother," his courtesy to her, his chivalrous treatment of her woman's nature and (perhaps) weak body--should teach the boys unconsciously to themselves, that reverence and tenderness for woman, which even Miss Cobb and Co. have been unable to deprive the generality of well bred Englishmen.

I thank God my children have succeeded to a heritage of a good and honest race; it is a superlative privilege. When He comes to bind up His sheaves I think we may find many of our children's sins visited upon us! We indeed, in the light of modern science, owe pretty nearly as much to our children before they are born as we do to them afterwards--yes! And to our children's children. Do not let us allow our love and duty to our children run to seed. Love and unselfishness in mothers is pretty, sweet, and very edifying, but if we wish to train up men and women to do their duty in their turn, our rule must be absolute and bracing, tender and sympathetic in turn. We must even sometimes deprive them of innocent amusements and pleasures if they interfere with our own comfort or convenience. If we deny ourselves for them, we must exact that they also should do the same for us, and perhaps the acceptance of such self-sacrifice is a considerable one in itself.

But when I urge a "bracing treatment" I do not for one moment regret those dead methods and cruel trainings of the past. Only, let us rule absolutely, howbeit tenderly. The best drivers drive with "a light hand," and women can ride with ease some horses who fret under the heavier hand of a man. In this connection I may say I have found the hand a curiously effectual instrument in dealing with my children. The close affinity between children and parents can be greatly intensified by touch. I do not believe that this exists only between certain parents and children. I believe that any mother's hand, provided it is tender and strong in touching, can create a sensitive current between the two natures that not only exists at the moment, but that will last in memory, and its influence be brought back by association in after times. It ahs a distinct physical effect on my children and this I have seen react upon their nerves and tempers.

Last, and not least, our "light" should shine very brightly in the children' s eyes. I know a man who has been through the fire of many and heavy troubles. His mother is old and very deaf, but is the more spiritually beautiful. Since his childhood this man has nightly gone to her room early or late to bid her goodnight, and he says "the mother at prayers" is the most beautiful sight he knows. Let the light shine. We English are such a reserved race, we willingly hide it under the bushel, the more perhaps the brighter it be. Let us allow our boys to see the longing sometimes of "Thy Kingdom com," and know why! (I can see the wonder and awe in my boys' eyes now). They cannot understand that now in their health and strength and hope of life, but they will someday. In seeing us "love Jesus" they will learn to love Him too; and that love has kept armies at bay!

I think no one can make hard and fast rules as to the treatment of children in general--they must be treated individually. One's only general rule I think should be that of Love. Whatever we do to them or for them, let us always let them see and know that we are always loving them.