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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."
The Practical Attitude of the Leisured and Educated Classes Towards the Nursery.

by Mrs. Edward Sieveking.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 652

A few months ago there appeared in a well-known London evening paper the following suggestive paragraphs:--"Mothers are turning their attention very specially to their children's nurses.

"A flagrant case of cruelty in a family of exalted rank has been no doubt the cause. A visitor sleeping near the nursery heard continual cries from the children, and communicated the fact to the beautiful grandmother. On investigation the poor little people were found to be covered with weals inflicted by the nurse. She, of course, was at once dismissed. Mothers who live much in the world find it difficult to devote as much attention as they would wish to their offspring, but the necessity for so doing can hardly be too strongly urged."

There is something in all this which, by its easy skimming superficiality of treatment, is almost humorous when one comes to consider the supreme gravity of the subject dealt with, and all that it calls in question.

It seems a little late in the day for mothers to be only "beginning" to turn their attention to their children's nurses. One reads a little farther to see what started them on this apparently unexpected departure, and one sees at once what was, as the writer puts it, "no doubt the cause"--the "flagrant case of cruelty in the family of exalted rank." A family, by the way, who, though of "exalted rank," were possessed, it would seem, of singularly low and stunted ideas of their duty to their neighbours, if for "neighbours" one substitutes the word "children." How was it that they were all so deaf that they could none of them--not even the "beautiful grandmother"--hear the "continual cries from the nursery"? It was left for a chance visitor to acquaint these parents in "high life" with the wrongs and miseries of their children's home life.

Of course the above case is not a solitary instance, but it shows, so it seems to me, where the fault of the whole system lies--the system that presents these cases, every now and again, before one's eyes--viz., that when mothers relegate the duties which are theirs into the hands of paid substitutes they are opening the door to many dangers to the children--possible and actual. To take the initial duty of the mother to her baby, one cannot think that there is, for a woman, a more womanly, motherly duty in this world than that of giving, direct, the power of living to the little helpless human being to whom she has, in the first instance, given life. I suppose there is nothing so absolutely satisfying, so comforting to anyone as to feel that he, or she, is necessary to someone whom they love. And as one goes on through life, to the greater number of us, I take it, there are only a limited few--sometimes a very limited few indeed--to whom one case feel in any sense really necessary. I imagine there are only a small percentage of us who are the happy possessors of such a capital opinion of ourselves that we are not aware of the probability that when we slip out of this life most of our friends will pursue their interests, undeterred (except in a few instances), to any lasting effect, by our absence. But to her baby the mother is from his first day on, his greatest, deepest necessity. There will come no one along the way of life whom he will ever need, or cling to, in such a simple, reliant faith again. Yet the greater number of women in society take up their skirts and pass by on the other side when the question of nursing their children is in question. The reason that rickets begin to show themselves so often in children of the upper classes, is said by some well-known doctors to be due, not to hereditary weakness in many cases, but merely because of the dislike of the mother to be, so to speak, "tied" to her baby.

Then, as regards practical work for the children. I am told that throughout the Middle Ages the children of the better classes were with the mother and the rest of the family--lived with them, I mean,--all day, instead of their being relegated to a room in the house shut off (as the nursery often is) from the rest of the house, till their seventh year. Only the other day I had a proof of a commendable "medievalism" on the part of Germany. A German friend of mind told me that in a large part of Germany it is a common custom to have no nursery at all in the house, but for the mother to have her children all day long in the living room downstairs. She added, that of course the children's attendant would be there to, but still the children would be actually living with the mother and under her own immediate supervision all day long, and every day. So that one is forced, I think, to own that, though in many ways we are in the forefront of civilization, in this respect at any rate, we might take a lesson from another country. Then, too, Mme. Daudet, quite recently, expressed her surprise at finding the English mother's home habits so different, she says, from those of the French, which she declares to be as domestic as possible in the highest circles of society. Certainly our own present-day habit as a nation, to hire an outside woman from a lower class, of whom one practically knows personally, very often, nothing, is comparatively modern, and perhaps one would not be far wrong in fixing the date of the custom at about the middle of the last century. There are plenty of customs which the years have seemed to sanction for a long time, nevertheless one fine day they are taken down from their post where they have been hung as a sign to tell the rule of the road to many wayfarers in the past, and then they have to be examined as to whether or no they are worn out, or whether they still point straight along the way of life. And it seems to me that there is, in the custom of paid substitutes for the mother's own service to her children, very much that might be overhauled with advantage. It is extraordinary when one comes to think of it, what a marvellously powerful thing tradition is! It is often the long tail of light behind which distinguishes the comet of some brilliant idea that appeared unexpectedly in the world's sky once on a time. It is like the ripples which pursue their way one after the other to the remote edge of the water, after some new idea has cut its passage through the surface of the pool of life. Human nature has a deep-seated veneration for precedent, and it likes, on the whole, to take its traditions as they come, without the trouble of long standing is to bring oneself up short, as it were, with a nasty jar to the system. So most people prefer that their minds should run along the rails smoothly laid for them by the care of previous generations.

But now and again, it may be in the course of our long journey, one is turned out of the comfortable train of habit and forced to wait in some quiet siding of life, and then, perhaps we look back along the way we have come and begin to wonder why the line was laid as it was. And it is a question whether our own particular lines of custom were laid altogether wisely in the past, when English mother decided to do by proxy what it were far more natural, to take only one point of view, to do themselves for their children. There were so many things in years gone by that it was not expedient for a "lady" to do! And the ripples of that past idea are still disturbing the waters of the present day, before they finally, as we hope, exhaust themselves.

In the days when it was not "lady-like" to do anything else for her livelihood but to governess someone else's children (which she always might do, by the way, whether she were fitted for the task or no), I feel confident it must have been considered also not decorous to do the "drudgery" (as Dr. Pye Chavasse calls it) of nursery work for the children. Consequently someone had to be paid to do it instead.

I remember when I used to play the organ many hours a day, the wife of a brewer in the country who lived near by and had daughters of her own to whom she taught the lady's vade mecum of propriety, remarked to an acquaintance à propos of organ playing, that "it was not nice for a lady to use force."

And even now there lingers the curious little superstition that though a lady may wheel her child in a "go-cart," it is infra dig, to wheel him in a perambulator! But why should she sink at once in social position because she drives her own baby's four-wheeler? She may always take out her dog for a daily constitutional, and even by pulled along ignominiously by its string and not lose caste at all! But I suppose it is only the remains of that old idea about "using force" that is still on its rounds. One hopes all the same, that now many people are beginning to understand how to make "drudgery divine," as an old writer quaintly puts it. And one of the ways of doing this begins without doubt at the nursery door. Why should we put children during the most impressionable years of life with women of a less cultured class than their own?

That is a question I have never heard satisfactorily answered. It is absurd to suppose that a child, all day long and every day with the nurse, does not get influenced in some decisive way by the indescribable atmosphere (for lack of a better word) of her class. For every class has it atmosphere. It carries it with it, unconsciously, everywhere: it colours all that class is concerned in, opinions, superstitions, points of view, motive powers and traditions, etc. And talking of traditions, I suppose the class from which we ordinarily take our servants possesses more inalienable, immovable traditions than any other. If one runs one's head against any one of them it is only one's head that suffers, the tradition has not even the least corner chipped off. No limpet sticks tighter to its rock than do the uneducated classes and their traditions; and there are, of course, times when a good tradition cannot be too firmly clung to, but those to which some nurses are faithful, are often inexplicable and generally unreasonable.

Again, someone has said wisely, "No art but the best, for the child." In this connection, look at the ideas of the nurse class as a whole, about art, in pictures, ornaments, etc. Is there anything so terrible as the ornaments which they love to stick about the mantelpiece? And there is certainly a very real education in good or bad art for the child in the objects which are always before his eyes in his nursery. And then, too, there are stories we have often heard, about nurses trying to frighten children in the dark; and this sort of influence is one that undeniably does introduce nameless terrors, unreasoning panics, etc., to the childish mind, which sometimes linger on long after childish days are done. Only the other day I heard a lecture from a well-known doctor, in which he mentioned that he knew of a case where a nurse, having been given two or three bad nights owing to the restlessness of her little charge, deliberately dressed up in a long white sheet and suddenly appeared at the end of the child's bed to give it a sudden shock. The child screamed with fright, and at once passed into a stupor from which it never recovered consciousness. Then, too, I know of a little child (I heard it from herself since she has been grown up) left alone in a night nursery in the early years of the century, night after night alone with her own terrifying fears, while the nurses sitting in day nursery beyond, retailed for each other's delight, in that whispering undertone which heightens the horror and creepiness of any story,--how they would not be surprised any day if the French were to land, and then, if they did, the Tower of London (near which was the little girl's home) would certainly be the first place they would attack; and the probable burning of houses and other horrors were speculated upon ad lib.

During the seven years I have been myself practically studying the subject and working at nursery duties for my own children, I have often in town watched clumps of absorbed nurses in the London Square Gardens, when they were well embarked on one of those thrilling recapitulations, which have for their bulwarks and supports the invariable "she says" and "I says," and all the while, a stone's throw from them, were their little charges sitting about unheeded on soaking grass, laying up seeds for future illness--illness which to the mother would be wholly unaccountable.

Now, of course, I am fully aware that some mothers of the cultured classes are not strong enough physically to undertake the nurse's work for their children; some, too, are personally unfitted for it, whether in easily irritated nerves or by some other disability; while others have their husbands at home in the daytime, or have some other definite calling which seems to be what they are best fitted to perform. Yet, when all that is said, I am convinced that there is a fair percentage who could very well do more for their children than they undertake, without any resultant ill-effects to themselves or to others; and, surely it is a grave fault of the too artificial civilization of to-day, if the women of the educated classes, as a whole, are too weakly to take charge of their own children. The woman of to-day take a great deal out of herself in one way or another. She is much exercised in plans of life, of real work for others, nursing in hospitals, etc., but the married woman seems to have over-looked an active duty ready to her hand--because, perhaps, the duties which are close to us are always the most difficult to get into focus--a duty which will have a far-reaching important effect in the future, that of undertaking the personal charge of her children.

(To be continued.)