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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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Limitations of Theory

by Mrs. Backhouse
Volume 13, 1902, pgs. 779-


[Paper read before the Darlington Branch of the P.N.E.U.]

When our Secretary asked me to read a paper to the P.N.E.U. my first impulse was to decline, as I felt that I belonged to an era in education that is past, and that I could not do much to help the mothers of the present day. I replied to her assertion that, at any rate, I had had much experience, that it had not had the results of making me develop any theories on the subject. I must confess with some shame, that while wishing most earnestly to train my children in the best way, I have not thought out, as I might have done, the reasons for their conduct and the best way of treating it, but rather followed in the path of those who had gone before me, doing my best day by day, seeking to know what should be, but at the same time rather justifying a title proposed to me for this paper—"Experiences of a Muddler."

After this, it may seem surprising that I should attempt to write anything on what has become almost an exact science, or to pass criticism, however tenderly, on the laws laid down by people much wiser and better trained than myself. I should not have done so had I not been reminded that one of the objects of the P.N.E.U. is to encourage parents to confer together, and that the papers read need not always be didactic treatises, but might sometimes be homely chats on what is interesting us all so much—the training of our children.

This paper therefore does not profess to be an essay on education, but simply somewhat discursive remarks on several points which I have thought of a good deal, and which I think deserve attention. I have said nothing on physical training, on natural history pursuits, on the cultivation of the artistic faculties, or on many other subjects of interest; not because I think them unimportant, but because I am largely in harmony with the teaching of the P.N.E.U. on these points, and they do not need emphasizing. The points I touch on are those in which I see danger ahead if we mothers do not watch the tendency of our times. It is because I admire and value the work of the P.N.E.U. so much, that I am anxious it should not be marred by any exaggeration—and it is in no carping spirit that I would suggest that it sometimes rides its hobbies rather too hard. No doubt it is a good thing to have theories, but in the matter of education, I believe they must be very elastic. So many circumstances affect the children that cannot be calculated on or scheduled, that we must be ready to let our pet theories give way to the stern reality of facts. It is impossible, for instance, to make hard and fast rules for the up-bringing of children. There may be a few which are rules of the house and to which the children as well as the elders must conform, or disorder will result—but varied dispositions require varying treatment. The nervous, imaginative, sensitive child cannot be dealt with in the same way as the indolent, matter-of-fact one; one needs soothing, the other rousing surroundings as different periods in the family life lead to modification of training. I feel sure no one who has many children has been without the criticism of the elder part of the family as to the way in which the juniors are brought up. They generally think they were to be the leaders, [which] led to much care being taken with them which perhaps the younger ones do not need, as they follow along the path already marked out for them. I always maintain that if the discipline is less strenuous, the younger members of the family have far fewer privileges in the companionship of their parents and in their devotion to them, and that there is compensation in these things.

I believe strongly in the importance of cultivating right habits, and in the power they exert over us; but sometimes I have felt that there was a danger of putting habit almost in the place of God—of thinking that everything can be accomplished by careful training, and that a child can simply, by care and watchful oversight, be turned out a great and good character. Valuable as habit is, it cannot renew the heart, and the mother who trusts entirely to her training is in danger of sad disappointment. It seems to me that those who place too great importance on habit run the risk of leaving God no room to work. I would encourage in a child every good habit possible, but at the same time teach him what he will learn sooner or later by bitter experience—that he needs a power beyond his own good resolutions or training. Thus he will early learn the reality of asking for and receiving God's strength for right doing. It is surprising how soon a child will grasp this and learn to put it in practice, a lesson which, when once learnt, is of priceless value. To change an old saying, we might say, "Habit is a good servant, but a bad master." What is done merely through habit is more or less mechanical, and there is a danger of want of adaptation to surroundings in those who are too much bound by it.

As an ideal, the thought of concentrating attention on one point is excellent, but I want no one to be discouraged because she feels it an almost impossible ideal to attain to. Often, if the mother devoted herself to eradicating some weed in one child, other weeds would grow unchecked in the rest. For another reason, I also doubt if it is good to be too devoted to one. It is sad, but true, that jealousy is a feeling ever ready to spring up, proceeding from the child's longing for love; and children cannot understand the reason, but will be quick to perceive that "mother is always having Mary with her," or "Tom gets all the treats."

There is another subject which I feel very important, and one which present-day theories bear upon, viz., the danger that exists of bringing children up too softly, as regards body, mind, and soul. These three are so closely and intimately connected that they act on each other almost without our realizing that they do so. Whatever tends to slacken or enervate the body, instead of bracing it, has its effect on the mental habit, and that again on the spiritual life. Englishmen and still more Scotchmen have long been famous for the energy and hardihood of their characters, and a strenuousness which has stood them in good stead in many crises of the nation's history, and has enabled them to triumph over circumstances. We want to keep this before us in bringing up our children, and let them learn the real pleasure of overcoming inclination. It is said, "Difficulties mean so many things to overcome"; and they are meant not to dishearten us, but to develop and strengthen our character. This hardness, which is characteristic of the Britons, comes partly, no doubt, from the uncertain and often rough climate of our islands, but also because, in the past, there has been a Puritan element in our up-bringing and a contempt of what is pampering or softening, which it would be a grievous thing for us to lose.

Love of ease and creature-comfort pervades our twentieth century civilization, and is a real danger. We are ready to applaud those who "scorn delights and live laborious days," and to speak approvingly of "plain living and high thinking"; but how many of us put in practice what we admire in others? The atmosphere of modern life must affect our children. The prevalent love of delicate cookery is a questionable advantage; not only does it cause an immense amount of time to be spent both by mistress and servant on what, after all, is not a very noble object, and cause anxiety to excel which might be given to a better cause, but it leads to the eating of more than is really necessary or wholesome. Few of us with healthy appetites are proof against the allurement of dainties, unless we know that they are absolutely injurious. The tendency to indulge the appetite because things are tempting, will have its effect on the children, even if they are plainly fed. It is only natural for them to place undue importance on the question of food, when they hear it a frequent subject of conversation, and what can we expect but that they will look forward to the time when they also shall be able to indulge themselves? The same principle applies to dress and general style of living. The modern (or perhaps not the most modern) drawing-room reminds one of the words of Ezekiel: "Woe to the women that sew pillows to all arm-holes." Few people care to sit on upright chairs as our grandmothers did; and even boys and girls take to armchairs without apology.

There is no sin in these things, unless it be that of selfishness and self-pleasing; but I believe that luxury is gradually softening the national character, and we need to watch against its inroad. We long that our children shall grow up to take a noble and useful part in the work of the world; and the self-indulgent man is rarely the one to be of service to his fellows. Then, when we come to the mental attitude, we find that ease and pampering of the body does not lead to an active and braced condition of mind. I have a great dread of making things too easy, and when I read the other day "every five minutes of the school hours should be made delightful," I could not help wondering how a child brought up on this principle would meet the hard things of life. Multiplication tables, learning by heart, are disagreeable, no doubt; but the determined effort to master a given task has a permanent effect upon the mental powers. No one wishes more than I do that lessons should be made interesting and even fascinating; but it does not therefore follow that every difficulty should be removed; rather, let the child learn the real pleasure and sense of power which comes from pulling himself together and doing his best to overcome. It will give grit to his character. It was said by a teacher lately, "Where my greatest difficulty lies is in the inability of so many children to meet difficulties."

It is worth while for mothers to consider how far home training is responsible for this, and what they are going to do to remedy it, for, if true, it shows a serious state of things. I believe this training should begin early. The little child who is accustomed to get into his cold bath, to eat the crust or fat he may not like, to put away his toys, to go to bed at a word, has learnt a lesson which will stand him in good stead in face of greater difficulties.

I have said that body, mind, and soul are inseparably connected, and what affects one has its results on the others; and if we turn now to the spiritual life, we shall find this borne out. We shall all agree that, more important even than the cultivation of the physical and intellectual faculties, is that of the moral and religious nature. If we allow a child, as a rule, to choose the easy path, he will find it less natural in the face of temptation to take the right one, regardless of the cost. I confess to having felt a kind of shock when I heard it said lately in a carefully prepared and beautifully written paper, "Let it be easiest to your child to do right." Far be it from me to suggest that difficulties should be put in the way of right doing; but I shrink from the right path being chosen because it is easiest rather than because it is right. For this reason, I should lay stress on the importance of training to prompt obedience in early childhood. People say now, that it is better to reason with a child and tell him why you require certain activities; but apart from the impossibility of making a young child understand the merits of a case, I do not believe that morally this is right. Carlyle says, with something of the rugged truth which characterises him, "Obedience is our universal duty and destiny, wherein whoso will not bend must break. Too early and too thoroughly we cannot be trained to know that 'would,' in this world of ours, is a mere zero to 'should,' and for most part as smallest of fractions to 'shall.'"—Sartor Resarius, Part II., Chapter II.

It is because I believe that obedience is "our universal duty" that I would urge all mothers to give special care to this point. The mother who trains her child to obey his parents because it is right is making it more natural—more the habit of his mind to obey God. Nature is absolutely in obedience to God's laws, and if our children are to be the best that is possible, it must be as they live up to His laws and His purpose for them. Much might be said of the value of habit in spiritual things: the habit and practice of daily prayer and Bible reading, of expecting God's help, of seeking His guidance. Perhaps we need not dwell on this, except to say that the mother's own practice in these matters is perhaps of even more importance than what she teaches. I find myself involuntarily dwelling on the importance of this cultivation of habit, which I began by saying it was dangerous to carry too far or to depend on too much. In doing so, however, I am proving that it was only a caution I wished to give, not a wholesale condemnation.

There is another point to which I should like to draw the attention of young mothers: this is to the danger that exists of allowing outside engagements to draw them away from what is their first duty and highest privilege: the care of the children. There is a certain monotony in the daily life of a family of little children which is wholesome and satisfying for them and yet, perhaps, becomes irksome to the mother, who is young, and has been accustomed to go about and is fond of society or philanthropy (the latter is as great a danger as the former). She will be urged to do this and that, and at first, perhaps, she consents with reluctance, but by degrees she gets more and more involved in engagements away from home, and the children slip almost imperceptibly from under her influence.

No one except her husband has a prior claim on the mother, and I do not believe that in a rightly ordered family, the husband's and the children's claims will clash. The father has his duties toward the little ones, and those who teach that the children should be the mother's care alone are, I am sure, wrong. The father after some years will proudly talk of "my son," "my daughter." Why should he not from the first take an equal share of responsibility, if not of care, as to the training of the baby who should bind himself and his wife more closely together than before? The very word husband means the one who binds the family or the house into one, not the one who separates, and if there is a true grasp of what fatherhood means, he will rejoice to take his full share in the nurture of the child.

One of the results of the undue absorption of the parents in outside work or recreation is the loss of reverence which is so common. The children do not look on their parents as the centre round which their lives revolve, but rather as occasional visitors in it, instead of depending on them for happiness and teaching. They are driven to get these from others, and they grow independent. We hear children, even little ones, speaking of their parents by their Christian names, and as they grow older, the words governor, chief, or pater and mater, take the place of the beautiful old words father and mother, with all their sweet associations of love and cherishing. The two latter, I grant, are the same old words in another tongue, but to me they sound less in harmony with the fifth commandment, and as if the honour were somewhat lacking.

I do not want the children kept at a distance, but some of these things may be checked in childhood, without any lessening of close intimacy, and serve to maintain the sense of reverence in the character which ennobles and deepens it. I do not want the parents to be the slaves of the children, that is a danger in the other direction, and one which perhaps also exists in these days, when, as we often hear, "the children train the parents."

I realize now more than I did when my children were young the need for looking forward. Have we not often felt, if we had only foreseen what the result of some action would be, we would have acted differently? We can, as we approach a question honestly, often we see the probable result—but this sincerity is what is difficult. We are often blinded by what is pleasant at the time, or by what every one does or allows, so that we fail to see the effects of our action. This is one of the numberless cases in which we need to seek the wisdom that is from above; to ask that we may have that true insight given which will enable us to judge rightly, and to ask also that our wishes and desires for our children may not be fashioned by the standard of the world around us, but by those which are inspired by God.

Although the training of the children should be the first object with the parents, it is not good to let them be too conscious of it. It encourages a sense of their own importance and tends to make them self-conscious if they see that everything has to give way to them. Talking about them and their doings and repeating their sayings in their presence has also this effect, and, I daresay, have often noticed how this spoils the sweet simplicity and unconsciousness of childhood. Some self-control and self-denial may be needed to avoid this error, but it is worth-while exercising it. We want, not only to be unselfish ourselves, but to help our children to be so, and this has sometimes to be done at the risk of appearing selfish ourselves. There are some women so loving and unselfish that it is a pleasure to them to slave for others and to go without many things for the sake of those they love. This may beautify their own characters, but there is danger for those who are mothered by such. Let the children also learn the delight of self-sacrifice and the joy of service. This danger is great for some of us who are strong and capable in body; we love to be independent, and would rather do things for ourselves than ask others to do them for us. The truest self-denial is sometimes to accept service.

Before I close, I wish just to mention a subject which should claim the earnest thoughts of every mother. I allude to the maintenance of the right relation between men and women. This is not the place to enlarge upon social questions, but since much depends on us who are the mothers of the upcoming generations, it is well we should feel the immense responsibility which rests upon us, as regards the standard of the society in which we move. It lies largely with us and our training of our sons and daughters, whether this standard shall be raised and become one which befits a Christian land, one of purity, of respect for women, of equal treatment of men and women as regards morally; or, whether it shall be lowered and, with the lowering, decadence and baser views of life shall prevail in our dearest land, as in many others where the position of women has been thought lightly of. Miss Ellice Hopkins has written a book, called The Power of Womanhood, which I would recommend. Her thoughts on the bringing up of brothers and sisters are very suggestive and full of weight and worthy all consideration. It is for us to give noble thoughts on the subject of love and marriage, that our young people may look on it as a sacred covenant, and to train both sons and daughters so that their future partners may find them helps who are meet for them.

Ruskin has a beautiful passage on the position of women. He writes of the relation a wife should bear to her husband, but I think we may adopt his words as applying also to a mother's relation to her sons, and with it I will conclude:—"Their whole course and character are in your hands; what you would have them be, they shall be, if you not only desire to have them so, but deserve to have them so, for they are but mirrors in which you will see yourselves imaged. You fancy, perhaps, as you have been told so often, that a wife's rule should only be over her husband's house, not over his mind. Ah no! the true rule is just the reverse of that: a true wife, in her husband's house, is his servant; it is in his heart that she is queen. Whatever of best he can conceive, it is her part to be; whatever of highest he can hope, it is hers to promise. All that is dark in him she must purge into purity; all that is failing in him she must strengthen into truth; from her, through all the world's clamour, he must win his praise; in her, thorough all the world's warfare, he must find his peace."

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Feb 2009