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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 Ministering Children's League

by Florence Montgomery, Author of "Misunderstood," "Thrown Together," "Transformed," etc.
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 513-517

In saying a few words about the "Ministering Children's League," I am only going to touch on points connected with one side of it: i.e., the assistance it may be in "promoting habits of unselfishness and thoughtfulness for others" among children: first, because I think this is such a very valuable and helpful part of its aim; and also because its other side, the "teaching the children of the rich to take an active interest in relieving the necessities of the poor," has, I think, been very fully dealt with by others.

Now it is a sad fact—but facts are stubborn things, and have to be faced—that the impulses prompting to evil in a child's nature are generally stronger than those prompting to good. As a writer of the day says, "You may call it original sin, or you may call it by its more modern name of heredity, but there it is." Take only the prompting with which we are just now concerned. The impulse to selfishness is from infancy plainly to be seen. "It's mine." "Give it to me." "I want it." "It's my turn." Are not these familiar phrases to anyone familiar with nursery life—the presence of that eternal "I," which from our birth on into our old age seems one of the most difficult things to eradicate from our moral constitution. Any effort to assist in arresting this state of things from the very first should be welcomed; and this assistance may, I think, be given by the "Ministering Children's League." For the habit of thinking for others, like all other habits, has to be formed. It does not, unfortunately, except in a very few rare instances, come naturally. We hear a great deal in these days about education. There is an eager search everywhere for new and improved "systems" of learning; but we must not forget that children need training as well as education: that it is indeed a part of education, and that it cannot be ignored without serious loss, not only to the child himself, but to the well-being and happiness of homes and of society in general.

Unselfishness and thoughtfulness for others begin, like charity, at home. It is there, therefore, that they must be inculcated. Now mothers are proverbially unselfish, and for this very reason are perhaps not the best people to teach their children to be unselfish, at any rate, as regards themselves. Anyone will endorse what I say who has seen in some homes the schoolboys lolling all over the drawing-room in the best armchairs, while their mother has to content herself with any she happens to find unoccupied (generally the one furthest away from the fire); or heard a child forcing a tired mother to go on reading out loud long after her voice is exhausted. Her gentle "I think, darling, I must leave off now: I am getting so dreadfully husky," only met with, "Oh, no, mother! Do just finish the chapter: it's only a few pages more," from the remorseless child. And no doubt a mother is placed in rather a difficult position in these ways; for if she insists on her children giving way to her comfort in all the little details of every-day life—if she turns her boy out of the armchair, and seats herself in it, etc.—she runs the risk of her children thinking her selfish, which, as example is always better than precept, would be, of course, fatal. In these matters a third person seems to be wanted, who would put it into the children's heads to be unselfish and considerate towards their mother. I daresay some people would say the father is the proper third person, and so no doubt he is; but then he is not always present; and even if he is, he is more often than not sitting absorbed in his newspaper or book, and is quite oblivious of what is going on.

And here, I think, is one of the ways in which this League is able to help. It acts, so to speak, the part of the third person, by directing the child's own attention to unselfishness and thoughtlessness for others. "Evil is wrought by want of thought" in most cases; but ten times more so in the case of children; who, naturally heedless and thoughtless, require to have their attention directed to a subject, and their consciences roused as regards it. All this the League no doubt does; and its aim is so simple that any child can understand it at once. Its initials (M. C. L.), forming as they do the first letters of the motto "Myself comes last," puts the whole thing into a nutshell. And in the consideration for others, I would include as of great importance the habit of consideration for the feelings of others.

How much happier homes would be in after life if this habit were always inculcated! The child who receives a present ungratefully and ungraciously; who throws cold water on the effort made to please him; who repels the little suggestion for his amusement; will very likely grow up into a surly man or woman, who is perpetually hurting the feelings of those with whom he or she lives, and chilling the atmosphere all round them. "It is always more gracious to accept than to refuse" is not at all a bad precept on which to bring children up; and from the first they should be checked when they meet a present, an offer, or a plan, with "I don't want that"; "I don't like that"; "I don't want to do that," etc., etc. These things seem trifling; but it is, after all, trifles that make up, not only the sum of human existence, but the sum of human happiness, above all, the happiness of home-life.

Grown-up sons with bad manners to their mothers, husbands with rough and morose manners to their wives, might have been very different had they had a little more training in their childhood as to the sensitive feelings of others, and been taught a little more care in not wounding them by discourtesy and unkindness. And since "everyone can in his daily course, if he will, shed round him almost a Heaven," it does seem a pity that in so many homes, the atmosphere shed around should be such a very different one. We hear a great deal now of undutiful daughters, and of the determined "independence," which is, after all, only another form of selfishness. To them the above remark will equally apply. And then another fact which has to be faced. In these restless days, the early training of children cannot, and does not, rest with the mother so entirely as it used to do. It must perforce devolve upon others, for the simple reason that the mother is so much more away from home.

That there are, unhappily, selfish and indifferent mothers, whose only thought is their own pleasure and amusement, we all know too well; but it is not of them that I would speak. Away or at home, it would make no difference to the children, they would probably be playing bridge with their friends in the drawing-room at the "children's hour". But even with mothers whom we would not for worlds class with such, the question is often not so much "What is the mother?" but "Where?" Locomotion is so easy, travelling so cheap, the desire for change so insistent, that people who some years ago would have gone to Brighton "for a little sun," now go to the Riviera; those who would have gone to the Riviera go to Algiers or Cairo; and those who would have gone to Algiers or Cairo go to India, North America, or Japan.

Then, too, the "week-end" visit has destroyed the children's Sunday, which used to be spent with their parents, and is now spent with the nurse or the governess. You have only to attend a children's service in London to see the change. A few years ago young mothers always brought their children themselves (and what a pretty sight it was!), whereas now you will see them come in most cases with the nurse or the governess. I do not say the mother can help it; she has her husband to think of, and he likes to travel and visit, etc. I am not concerned with causes—only with results; and the result of the restlessness of parents is that the children are left alone with nurses or governesses for long, long spaces of time. They thus often become the early influence in the child's life to a great extent instead of, or at any rate almost as much as, the mother.

What a help some outside guidance must be to them; putting ideas into their heads as to the training of the children left in their charge, and giving them encouragement in carrying them out, by the feeling of how many others are working with them for the same ends, and on the same lines.

For "L'Union fait la force"; and many a solitary young governess in her isolated schoolroom at the top of some big country house, with the consciousness heavy upon her of the emptiness and silence of all below, of the untenanted rooms with their shrouded furniture, with no one to talk over her little pupils with at the end of the day, no help or sympathy in her daily and often anxious and difficult task, might have her hands strengthened, her spirits cheered, and her thoughts guided, by being linked to a society like the "Ministering Children's League," and so carry out all the more effectually her vicarious duties. And thus, in the mother's often prolonged absences, valuable time would not be wasted; for childhood is short, it fleets rapidly away, and there is not time to be lost if early impressions are to be made.

And I would end by urging on all young mothers the supreme importance of early impressions, for from the influence hardly anyone, let him live as long as he may, ever completely shakes himself free. How strongly this comes out in biographies and autobiographies all readers of "Lives" know. Man after man bears testimony in his "Recollections" to the value of the impression made upon him in his childhood by his mother's teaching and influence. What is learnt at a good mother's knee clings even to the most hardened. He may go astray all his life, and her teaching may seem to lie dormant or dead, but oftentimes it comes back to him at the last, and with the dew of the early morning of his life still upon it.

"You may break, you may shatter the vase if you will,
But the scent of the roses will cling round it still."
from Farewell! by Thomas Moore

Note—All information about M.C.L., its Aims, Methods and History, will gladly be given by the Secretary, Mrs. Phillip. Address: 83, Lancaster Gate. W.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, November 2008