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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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Environment, at Home and at School

by H. Laing Gordon, M.D.
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 289-300


"He who chose to read would learn that environment is a more potent factor than heredity in the formation of character, and that there probably always has, and always will be, as much due to chance as to designed environment in the ultimate characters of our children and our friends and relations generally."

"Every parent is in the habit of making daily decisions concerning his or her child almost on the spur of the moment--certainly without having time to consider what the Parent's or any other Union would advise in the matter."

"The child's companions--his childish companions before school days--ought, as a rule, to be carefully selected for him as far as possible."

[Read before the Dulwich Branch of the P.N.E.U., February, 1900.]

An old gentleman, who died not very many years ago, had a peculiar habit which was not only amusing to outsiders, but may convey a lesson for us as parents. He treasured with great care the most wonderful family tree that it is possible to imagine, an original elaboration of that devised by Mr. Francis Galton, and would converse about his progenitors on the slightest provocation. Under each name in this tree of his, besides the customary details, was a short summary of the physical, mental, and moral history of the individual. If it were suggested to him that a certain pain was due to gout, he would drag you to the tree and indicate the particular ancestor whom he blamed for his gout. He was a short-tempered old gentleman and given to violent outbursts; but, as often as not, he might be seen after the termination of an outburst, picking out on the tree with tears in his eyes the ancestor to whom he attributed the particular fit of temper. If he wished to be further reminded, a reference number on the tree told him where to find the correct photograph, miniature, silhouette or portrait.

Now, of course, most of us will agree that this was a case of eccentricity, and all doubt on the point is dissipated when we learn that the old gentleman was in the habit of foretelling, incorrectly as it turned out, the disease from which he was to die, by a careful analysis of the causes of death in his family.

But it would be possible for another eccentric to summarize his life as it reached its close, by the same method as the old gentleman referred to, for, he might draw his own life-tree. At the bottom would be a summary of all the potentialities for good and evil which a consideration of the family history would lead him to expect. Above it would be shown how certain of these potentialities became powers owing to the influence of particular features of the environment; and how other of these potentialities appeared to remain quite latent and undeveloped owing to the lack of the necessary environment. Certain characteristics might be easily shewn to be due to certain events; thus we might see--"Aged two years, allowed to fall out of cradle by nurse, leg broken, badly mended; result, one leg shorter than the other." Or perhaps something after this fashion--"Aged 12; severely 'licked' at school for not knowing Virgil and given 500 lines to write; result, lifelong ignorance of Latin, deeply regretted, and general aversion to knowledge and schoolmasters." An acute recorder might make other entries--"Age, to 10: kept indoors by anxious mother whenever weather cold or wet; result, always catching cold, general poor physique, and, in old age, chronic bronchitis."

This is no doubt a fantastic idea, but it is more rational than the following kind of entry in a mother's note-book:--"Johnny has on two occasions recently stolen sugar from sideboard; fear this is taint from dear William's ancestors, who were concerned in border raids and one of whom said to have been hanged for sheep-stealing at Carlisle."

Quite apart from the humorous aspect of this subject, such a life-tree might show the physical, mental, moral and religious character in growth and development. He who chose to read would learn that environment is a more potent factor than heredity in the formation of character, and that there probably always has, and always will be, as much due to chance as to designed environment in the ultimate characters of our children and our friends and relations generally.

The development of character is one of the aims and objects of the Parent's National Educational Union idea of education. The Union is anxious to interest those parents who have hitherto imagined that, between chance and the schoolmaster, the child's character would be well looked after; and those others who devote much thought to the rearing, possibly too much, and are liable to do injury by meddlesomeness or to fall under the influence of faddists. The P.N.E.U. would invite the first class of parent to understand that much may be done by a sensible selection, or at least ordering, of the environment: and would ask the second class to study the P.N.E.U. method, which most of our members think is the best and most universally applicable method hitherto devised. Now, it is quite impossible for any person or any society to lay down rules to guide parents in every circumstance. Every parent is in the habit of making daily decisions concerning his or her child almost on the spur of the moment--certainly without having time to consider what the Parent's or any other Union would advise in the matter. It would appear that these decisions are most often made under the influence of the inborn parental instinct, and this instinct is on the whole a surer guide than any society; it certainly would be always so if each person were provided with the best knowledge on all subjects likely to affect the training of children, and if the instinct had good reason and common sense to assist it. But, unfortunately, very few of us are, by education, fitted with this knowledge, and, as a result, parental instinct often goes astray. Knowledge of the potency of environment is of first importance amongst the aids to parental instinct, as well as the recognition of the fact that much of what is ordinarily looked upon as chance environment may be made vastly more beneficial by the introduction of design.

It is impossible at present to do more than refer to certain aspects of physical and moral environment; the subjects of religious and mental environment do not fall within our present province.

The first fact which we would do well to recognize is that the influence of environment begins to act from the very hour that a child is born, and that in no two cases is this environment similar. This may be illustrated by an example originally advanced by the talented author of the Present Evolution of Man:--"Imagine twin infants in the same cot, one awake and the other asleep; suppose an event happens that alarms the waking child, but leaves the other unaffected; suppose again that subsequently another event, observed by both infants, occurs, which owing to the apprehension and nervous irritability engendered by the previous event again alarms the first child and thus increases its irritability, but the second unaffected by fear; imagine this process repeated; then, though the original cause of fear were quite forgotten, this one child might well grow up of a much more timid and nervous disposition than the other; in which case everyone would speak of the former as naturely (innately, instinctively) more timid than his brother, though, in fact, his excess of timidity would acquired." If both children were born of what are called "neurotic" parents, wonder would be expressed as to why one child "took after" its parents and was "nervous", while the other did nothing of the sort; the reason would be that the tendency, possibly innate in them both, was drawn out and exercised in the one, while in the other, the environment was such that the same tendency remained latent.

We shall gain a clearer conception of the immense power of environment by recalling the fact, which there is much evidence to prove, that "children of one race reared by another develop the mental characteristics of their educators, not of their progenitors."

If, then, environment acts upon the individual and begins to mould his physical and moral character from the very first day of existence, it is necessary to consider environment in the home before we refer to environment at school. We do not, of course, assume that all children are born alike and differ as adults simply because their environments differed in youth; that is, of course, nonsense; no two children are born with exactly the same potentialities, either physical or mental; the environment acts by developing these potentialities into powers. We are right in thinking that the children of consumptive parents are more likely to develop consumption under unfavourable surroundings than those of healthy parents; not because the parents had the disease, but because the children are likely to be born with the kind of constitution of diathesis which easily acquires the disease and which the parents themselves possessed and handed on. There is on subtle distinction in this which requires considerable thought to understand, but it is most important.

Let us now consider the factors of the child's home environment. Broadly speaking they are:--
(1) The people around the child.
(2) The place

The people are, first his parents, secondly his nurse, thirdly his companion; the place is comprised of first his house, and second his climate in which the house is situated. Both the people and the place have a complex influence upon the child's physical and moral character.

In regard to the people, of course we cannot select the parents for our children; but we hear a great deal about what parents ought to do and ought not to do, and we know all about the potency of suggestion, the wonderful imitative "faculty" of the child, and the influence of the parents' actions and words upon what has been recently aptly designated as the "unconscious mind" of the child, how the child is more likely to be what it sees those around it to be than what it is told to be. All that has been said on this subject is merely a repetition in a more or less scientific form of the very old and pithy if homely advice, "that what we desire our children to become we must endeavour to be before them." If we have right principles and act up to this old advice, we know all concerning the potency of suggestion that we need to guide us.

The second personal feature in the child's environment at home--the nurse--is always selected for it. Two questions may be considered--do we always select wisely and carefully, and have we good material from which to select. We are constantly being told that parents do not select nurses wisely and carefully; it is scarcely necessary to repeat why it is so essential that nurses should be carefully selected, not only in regard to their capabilities as nurses, but also in regard to their characters as women who, by their mere proximity as well as by their work, are to be important influences in the physical and moral development of the child. Perhaps, however, the much abused parent is not so much to be blamed in the matter as we are generally led to believe. Parents would select good nurses, good in every sense, if they were common; but they are not. What is really required is that nursemaids should be practically educated for their work, and I would suggest that a great work lies before the Parents Union in the direction if it will only choose to take it up. Most valuable work is now being done, but as yet only on a small scale, by various associations in training girls for domestic service, but there is nothing to show that any effort is being systematically made anywhere to fashion nursemaids out of the raw material. If our Union would take this question into consideration and give it practical shape, it would earn widespread gratitude and fulfill a useful function. This work could and would be performed better by our Union than by any other association; because we should not only see that the raw material received the proper practical training, but should also pay attention to the moulding of the character of the girls who, in turn, are to take no small part--more often than not an unconscious part, and rightly so, for the parents are the proper active moral nurses--in the moulding of the characters of our children. If we practically concerned ourselves with the training of nurses, we should do an immense service to parents, children and nurses.

The child's companions--his childish companions before school days--ought, as a rule, to be carefully selected for him as far as possible. We cannot have a better guide than that obtained by observing other children and their parents and the home from which the children come.

Turning now to the impersonal factor in the child's home environment, the place i.e., the house and its inside and outside climate, we again find ourselves back at subjects on which we hear a great deal. It is unnecessary to repeat the first principles of domestic hygiene; if we are not familiar with these, it is not the fault of our Union. Fresh air, sunshine and cleanliness, and exercise are the fundamental essentials. It is impossible for us always to place children in the most suitable climate for making the best of their physical potentialities and for avoiding likely evil developments, but we can practically never and nowhere give them too much fresh air, sunshine, cleanliness, exercise and good food; while, on the other hand, we can do a great deal of harm by neglecting these and substituting either molly-coddling or overmuch mental work before school days. Very many childish ailments are put down to the weather, or the soil, or are laid at the door of some ancestor, which are in reality due to faulty methods on the part of the parents; and every medical man is familiar with the class of mother who brings the child to be overhauled, not because of any definite ailment, but because he seems "so delicate"; and this delicacy is frequently due to material molly-coddling and is curable, not by cod-liver oil and other drugs with objectionable tastes, but by giving the child a little physical freedom. The inside climate of the house is of vastly more importance from the point of view of physical health than the outside climate. By a process of her own acting through countless ages, nature had adapted our bodies to the climate of his country; a certain number are, of course, still weeded out who cannot withstand the variations of our weather, but they are as nothing compared with the numbers who are yearly yielding their lives because of the artificial climates in which they live, and the altogether unnatural conditions of their life. The inside climate of the ordinary British home is over and over again a cause of such elimination simply because the first principles of hygiene are violated. Evolution is, of course, at work, but science has stepped in and pointed out that to wait until, by this slow but sure process, the whole race becomes physically adapted to town and indoor life, involves unnecessary human sacrifice, and has also indicated how, by rational means, this sacrifice be avoided.

But it is not only into the management of our homes that it is necessary to introduce in many quarters more direct adherence to the laws of health, but also into that of our public buildings; a great deal has been done in this direction, and public halls and theatres, workshops and factories, are being better constructed and better looked after every year. But there is one class of building in which scant attention is paid to the requirements of a large body of people gathered together--I mean in churches. As a rule, darkness and dinginess are considered essential features of internal church architecture; the windows are high up, filled with coulored glass, and only one or two little rounds or squares are made to open; to open one of these windows produces a not unnatural protest from the nearest bald-headed gentleman--the openings are so small that an injurious draught is created. If an adequate apparatus for heating the church is present, it is usually hopelessly mismanaged; and the cleanliness which is next to godliness is supposed to be attained by a perfunctory Saturday sweeping and once a year "a thorough cleaning!" There is a society called the Church Sanitary Association, established to help the clergy to diffuse correct sanitary knowledge amongst the poor. It would be well if there were a Sanitary Church Association also. Illnesses are frequently said to have been "caught coming out of Church;" as a matter of fact, such illnesses are caught in the church, not from mere draught but from the impurity of the atmosphere, laden as it is with re-breathed air, organic matter, dust and germs. This matter must be mentioned because children go to church, and when a cold develops on Monday they are often scolded for not having wrapped up or not hurried home, whereas the fault is not always theirs.

We may now consider a few points concerning the environment at school. It is scarcely necessary to point out the parental duty and right to select the school for the boy or girl; it is altogether wrong that either fashion or proximity should enter into consideration in such a question, a boy must not be sent to a school because it is near or because everybody else sends their boys there, or because his father went to it, but because it is the right school for that boy.

The moral environment of the boy at school depends largely on the influence of the masters and the other boys on the boy, sufficiently recognized that it is no less incumbent upon the parent to send his child to school morally and physically sound than it is upon the schoolmaster to provide sound moral and physical surroundings for the child. Our sympathy is aroused for the master who is blamed because the child has developed poorly at school, and who is obliged to refrain from pointing out that the ill-development was begun at home, and that the evil direction was pursued rather than initiated at school. Boys and girls largely guide themselves and each other to evil or to good, to work or to idleness; the direction which they take depends very largely on the impulse which has been given to them by their home-environment. A boy prepared at home to do good, to be straight and manly and to work well, is not so likely to be drawn out of his course in an ill-ordered and carefully selected school. Each of these follows the bent given him at home. It cannot be too clearly understood that children take a large part in creating their own moral environment and that it is the parents' duty to show them how to do this rightly; it must not be left to the schoolmaster; however willing and capable, his efforts may be too late. But this is no excuse for schoolmasters to allow the environment of the boy to take care of itself. I have known masters refuse pupils because the parents asked for individual attention to some small peculiarity of the children; this would go to show that, in some scholastic institutions, individual attention--attention to the physical and mental character--is either disregarded or is impossible, owing to the large number of boys gathered together in one house. In such schools, the aim would appear to be to turn out boys of a certain mental shape and stamped with a particular trade mark, much as a manufacturer turns out and stamps his goods. As members of the P.N.E.U., such schools are not for us; the latest popular phrase amongst educational critics is that boys go to school, not to gain knowledge, so much as to learn how to gain knowledge; I would add that they also go that their characters may be smoothed and rounded, polished, stimulated and strengthened by friction, example and design. Such a process turns out each boy with a different individuality; the trade mark is in a corner and has to be hunted for, it is not impressed over the whole surface as on a pat of butter.

It is unnecessary to say any more on this subject, unless to insist that when a boy is once sent to school we must place entire confidence in the headmaster; practically everything must be left to him, hence it is on our choice of a school with a satisfactory headmaster that the after-development of the child largely depends. We want to know the character of the headmaster, and in public schools of the housemaster also, rather than his college and his degrees. If we are satisfied as to this, we can depend upon him for the rest; the right kind of man selects his undermasters because they not only have the necessary mental and physical accomplishments, but also because they are the right sort of men to rightly influence boys; the right kind of man takes an interest in every boy, is known to him, not merely as a mighty one sitting aloft with ever-ready rebuke, but as a friend in need and deed. Each parent must select the man whom he thinks will best undertake the care of his boy, and in most parts of this country, there is no lack of choice. The day is not far distant when the facts that a man took a good degree or got his "blue", has capital or wants a job, or that a lady is amiable, has seen better days but is now in want, will be considered insufficient reasons for their taking upon themselves the scholastic care of the children of other people. Excellent persons answering the foregoing descriptions have made admirable school teachers and school proprietors, but the system permits in every quarter what can only be descried as a terrible experiment upon children. The question of whether teachers should or should not be specially trained for the work before them has been hotly discussed, and it is curious to note that the parent as parent has taken scarcely any part in the discussion, indeed he does not seem to have been considered in the matter. When we consider the question of the physical environment at school, at which we may now glance, we shall be convinced, if a consideration of moral environment has not convinced us, that teachers would be the better of some training. It is altogether wrong, for instance, that either men or women should be allowed to set up schools and undertake the care of the young who are unacquainted with elementary facts of practical hygiene. To take one example, there is a certain limit to the number of boys who should sleep in one dormitory, and the limit is decided by the cubic capacity of the room. Now, it is a fact that boys are often crowded into dormitories without regard to the cubic capacity. As the school increases in popularity, boys flock to the school, and the master, generally in ignorance of wrong-doing, merely adds beds to an already overcrowded room. At a recent meeting of medical officers of health and others interested in the subject, it was resolved to petition for powers to inspect secondary schools in the same manner as factories and workshops are now inspected. If these powers are granted, the result will certainly be an improvement of the physical environment in many schools, and this is highly desirable, even although it may lead to some curtailment of the liberties of private school proprietors. It is to the credit of the teachers and school proprietors that there appears to be a general opinion amongst them in favour of this suggestion.

Before choosing the school for his child, every parent should read that excellent guide entitled Health at School, by Dr. Clement Dukes, who has been for many years medical officer to Rugby School; he will there find full information concerning the many details into which it is impossible for us to enter here. All the necessary points concerning the internal climate of the school must be enquired into at the same time that we are satisfying ourselves as to the suitability of the headmaster, and also of the external climate of the school, if we are in a position to make a choice in this latter respect. It is only by parents showing that they are "alive to the necessities for ensuring the safety of the school and requiring the presence of these before sending their children," that it will become impossible to find a school either for boys or girls in which due regard is not paid to the conditions necessary for proper physical well-being and development. The demand, as usual, will create a supply.

It is impossible to agree with those who maintain that too much attention is paid to games and sports at school and too little to work. In many boarding-schools, the balance between the two is admirably maintained; but it is to be feared that in very many private day and boarding schools, both small and large, the reverse is the case. Games and sports are too often organized for the few rather than the many and in some cases merely to advertise the school. Not only do some masters still allot impositions and "keep boys in" by way of punishment, and indulge in other devices which never attain any good object, but even quite young children are too often given an inordinate amount of home lessons. In some cases this is due to the boy in whom there is something wrong somewhere, but where it is the rule-and there are plenty of schools both for boys and girls in which it is the rule-the fault lies in the system. In Dr. Dukes' book there are tables giving the amount of work of which a boy is capable at each year of school like, and also the amount of sleep required at each year. These tables are excellent guides and might well be thoroughly digested by the parent before he tackles the headmaster on the subject. Impositions and keeping in and any punishment which deprives a boy of the time in the open air to which he is rightfully entitled ought to be abolished-they are abominations and more often than not indicate incompetence of the master rather than of the boy. The question of home lessons is a sore one between teacher and parent and leads to endless unpleasantnesses. Sometimes the teacher is to blame-his zeal for the boy's mental accomplishments has led him astray; sometimes the parent himself is to blame--he has become impatient and expected more result than he actually sees; sometimes as we have said the pupil is to blame. But it may be assumed that when the majority of the pupils in a school are overburdened with home lessons, that either the teachers do not realize the limitations of the pupil's powers of absorbing information, or else the instruction is imparted in surroundings which are not conducive to physical health and therefore do not permit full mental application, hard as the boy or girl may try or the teacher may drive. The tables given by Dr. Dukes will help the parent to see whether his child is having the balance between work and play properly maintained--they are not rules, but guides, and doubtless come as a great surprise, not only to many parents, but also to those masters whose aim it is to cram so many facts a day into their boys and who point in triumph to scholarships won and Oxford Local Examination results as the criterion by which their school is to be judged. The military operations in South Africa have emphasized the fact which many medical men have long vainly endeavored to bring to the notice of the public, that more attention is required to the physical education of our youth, at least of the middle and lower classes; and there is a general feeling at last that no large school for boys should be without its cadet corps for the elder pupils, amongst other forms of physical exercise.

From what we have said it will be seen that there are many points concerning the environment of children at home and at school which call for the thought and attention of the parent. We have touched only in a superficial manner on a few of these; others will form the subject of future consideration. It must be insisted that our remarks refer only to the average healthy child, not to the exceptional or really peculiar or delicate child. If the individuality of the ordinary child has to be carefully considered at home and at school, care and thought are much more essential for the exceptional child. Many children kept at home would be much better at school and many sent to school ought to have been kept at home.