The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
"Be Good: or ---"

by T. G. Rooper, H.M.I.
Volume 1, 1890/91, pg. 423

[Thomas Godolphin Rooper, 1847-1903, was an inspector of schools and personal friend of Charlotte Mason; much of his writing was for her P.N.E.U. meetings. His essay "Lyonesse" describes his time as a student at the Harrow boarding school. After he died (of spinal tuberculosis at the age of 56), Mason wrote a chapter in his honor which appears in her book, "Formation of Character," vol 5 of her series. He never married.]

Nursery Ethics

Winter was drawing off. All life that had survived felt the genial influence of returning spring and the sun's warmer rays. Buds were swelling, birds were building, and boys and girls were as lively as lambs. What a place to play in is a great barn! High above the floor, up in the rafters, my father had erected a stage to carry his hay. My brothers loved to climb up in order to plunge down from that height headlong into the straw below. This game was at its height. We had no thought of yesterday or the morrow. For us time past and time to come were condensed into one Now. Though only four years old I was playing with the rest. I too climbed up the tall ladder, sat myself astride of a sheaf of straw, and proceeded to ride to the bottom. "Stop," cried my eldest brother, "or you will kill yourself." Too late! I had started! Now my brothers had a knack of guiding their straw horses which was quite beyond my tender years. During the plunge they could by a little management steer themselves clear of the edge of a sheep-pen which projected a little in their course. But I! A crack! A cry! The straw flew one way and the rider the other thump on to the solid floor! For a moment my brothers stood silent and aghast. Then they called to me "Get up," "Speak." All in vain. I neither moved nor opened my eyes. "Ah, see, he is bleeding," they cry. One of them called loudly to my grandfather and father who were working near. They hurried up and found me lying where I fell, with blood pouring from my chin, and my cheeks as white as chalk. My grandfather picked me up. I hung over his arm lifeless and limp as an old coat. He carried me to my mother, and long I lay motionless in her lap, while my father bathed the gapping wound on my chin. At last, to the joy of the sympathising neighbours who crowded round, I sighed and opened my eyes. "Thank God," said my mother, "he lives." As soon as the wound had been properly bound up my grandfather continued to ply his work. From amidst swathes of bandages I looked up at him brightly from time to time. Presently he rose, went to the cupboard, got out a cane, and handed it to my father, saying--"Your boy has been disobedient, punish him." My father looked at my mother. "Are you mad?" said she. "Is not that punishment enough?" and she pointed to my chin. "No," returned he, "for that he only gets pity from all, and is made a hero by his comrades, whilst you fuss with him and smother him with kisses. Pretty punishment that! You will only make him disobedient again at the first opportunity." "Give him to me," said my father. "Better a dead son than a disobedient child." Three times the cane whistled in the air and three times I groaned aloud, after which I was handed back to my mother.--(Adapted from "Brosamen,"by Polack.)

This graphic description of a fault and its punishment almost forces us to form some estimate of the stern old grandfather's procedure. Are we to approve it? Are we to condemn it as a piece of sheer brutality? At any rate he was possessed of a principle which he carried out logically. Obedience implicit and absolute, or punishment; there was to be no other alternative and no compromise. What was wrong must be checked by the extreme penalty of nursery law. The spirit is the same as that which has led theologians in many religious crises to burn each other, destroying as they said the body to save the soul. The principle is not without a certain grandeur. Strong measures are justified if you combine the text "Ye that love the Lord hate the thing which is evil," with that definition of hatred which is implied in Shylock's remark, "Hates any man the thing he would not kill?" Before condemning such a discipline we should inquire what is the actual result of it as proved by experience. Tested in this way the issue of it is found to be far from uniform. The consequences are not constantly either good or bad, but sometimes one and sometimes the other. They are bad when the child grows up sullen and morose through his animal spirits having been whipped out of him, and when he retains in his heart a bitter feeling of resentment against unjust treatment, thinking that his punishments have been out of proportion to his offences. Perhaps the most difficult character to deal with is one which is sullen, obstinate, apathetic, hostile alike to teachers and all grown-up people. "If a man's parents play the dog with him, look you, it goes hard," as Launce might say. Severe discipline in childhood is often followed by a most undisciplined maturity. As Hood wittily put it: "Fast bind, fast find." It is possible to explain this transformation after a little study of the nature of the mind and the will. We start with the principle of the parent that he will have implicit obedience from his children. If we think what this means, it amounts to this--that the parent decides (perhaps quite unconsciously--nevertheless, he does decide) that he will impress his own will upon his child, and that he will repress all spontaneous movement of the child's own will. What the parent will, that the child must do. Should the child follow his own will he is so often and so severely punished that he begins to think he can never act of his own accord without doing something wrong. This loss of spontaneity is a great misfortune. Another doubt might occur--"Who is so perfect himself that he has the certainty that his own will is always the most correct, and the best for childhood to act upon?" However, assuming that the parents' behests are always in the child's interest, and that there is no shadow of an objection to the rigour of the law on the score of its imperfection, let us trace the result of repressive discipline a little further. The child is told "You must not do this and you must not do that" until he ceases to act according to principles of his own, and refers all his action to his parents' dictates. In other words, he substitutes the will of some one else for a will of his own. This child is the perfection of obedience. Time goes by. The boy becomes a youth, and passes away from the direct superintendence of his father, under whose immediate influence he has hitherto acted so obediently. New circumstances and new conditions of life are opened before him. He has many new opportunities of choosing between right and wrong. What power of will has he to determine his conduct rightly?

I contend that he has little or no power of self-determination. Since the will according to which he has acted has hitherto been external to himself and inflicted upon him, if I may so say, by another, and since his will has not been patiently trained and guided but rather replaced by his father's will, the result is that he is now passive in the midst of his new surroundings. He has got into the habit of referring each action to some one else's will, and he cannot determine a course of action without such reference. In his altered state of life the recollected judgments of his parents partly grow dim and partly fail to apply. He is therefore really without moral support. His will is determined by the seductive pleasures which beset inexperienced youth, and the most strictly disciplined boyhood is followed to the surprise of all by a self-indulgent adolescence. That harsh discipline in childhood has occasionally led to the formation of a noble character no one can doubt. Its success, however, when it has been successful, has perhaps been much due to the revolt which has been set up in the mind of the person trained under it, a revolt which has stimulated a strong feeling of sympathy with suffering and oppression, but the risk of failure seems greater than the chance of success.

Boys are not the only disobedient children. Here is a scene between a disobedient girl and her mother.

"Oh, ma'am, I'm so glad that you're here," exclaimed Mary. "Miss Zaida threw the bread at me because I had not buttered it to her liking, and when I went to turn her chair round, as a punishment, she flew at me and bit my hand." Alas! there was distinctly to be seen the mark of the little teeth in the flesh. Zaida had been as naughty as a girl of four years old can be.

"Zaida," said I, "you are not acting like my own little Zaida. Go instantly and beg Mary's pardon."

"I won't. I never will," cried the child, stamping with passion.

"Then go into the corner this moment."

The child reluctantly obeyed. I wished to give her time to rcover herself, and so waited some minutes before saying, "Will Zaida be good now and ask nurse to forgive her?"

"I won't. I won't," muttered the child.

I went up to her; I reasoned with her; I tried to work on her better feelings; I spoke of God's displeasure, of my sorrow, of mary's pain. All in vain. One way alone remained. "Zaida," I said, "it grieves me to punish you, but if you do not obey me instantly I will beat you."

In her pride the child looked defiance.

Then I whipped her. She screamed with pain and passion. "Will you now ask Mary's forgiveness for so cruelly biting her?"

No, the little rebel still held out.

I felt that the child's whole future might depend on the issue of this conflict with her mother, and I dared not yield.

The painful battle lasted three-quarters of an hour.

"Zaida, I will not leave this room until you have asked Mary's pardon. I will beat you till you do." A second time I beat her, and then, thank God, her proud spirit was broken at last.

"Mamma, I am sorry; I will beg pardon."

I was thankful that I had remained firm, painful as it was to me to do so, but I had avoided Eli's sin with the risk of Eli's fate. (Adapted from "Zaida," by A.L.O.E.)

What shall we say of the treatment of this little rebel? The mother was right in thinking that her success was necessary to the child's happiness, and a good sound whipping was far better than an uncorrected fault. I question, however, whether the naughty child was dealt with in the best possible way. Would not many parents have succeeded by reasoning and persuasion, after leaving longer time for the child's ill-temper to pass away. The child had two faults at the same time, passionate anger and obstinate disobedience. The attempt to correct both at once was injudicious. The ill-temper, which may have been due to indigestion, would have passed off the next day, and then the girl might have understood the wickedness of biting her nurse, without blows to explain it.

As a relief from the stormy scenes to which I have introduced you, I will turn to a poet's description of a disobedient boy, which may restore a feeling of repose.

          My little son, who looked from thoughtful eyes,
          And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,
          Having my law the seventh time disobeyed,
          I struck him and dismissed
          With hard words and unkissed,
          His mother, who was patient, being dead.
          Then fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep
          I visited his bed,
          But found him slumbering deep
          With darkened eyelids, and their lashes yet
          From his late sobbing wet,
          And I with moan,
          Kissing away his tears, left others of my own.
          For on a table drawn beside his head
          He had put within his reach
          A box of counters and a red-veined stone,
          A piece of glass, abraided by ththe beach,
          And six or seven shells,
          A bottle with bluebells,
          And two French copper coins ranged there with careful art
          To comfort his sad heart.
          So, when that night I prayed
          To God, I wept and said,
          Ah, when at last we lie with tranced breath
          Not vexing Thee in death,
          And Thou rememberest of what toys
          We made our joys,
          How weakly understood
          The great commanded good--
          Then, fatherly, not less
          Than I, whom Thou hast moulded from the clay,
          Thou'lt leave Thy wrath, and say
          I will be sorry for their childishness.
                    (From C. PATMORE)

To avoid the need of whipping much tact, diplomacy, and watchfulness are indispensable. This skill is perhaps best shown in seizing upon accidental opportunities for moulding children's characters. The readiness that comes of observation and forethought is excellently displayed in the following scene. (Mrs. Warren's "How I Educated my Children.")

Once upon a time I overheard a conversation between my children relating to my wisdom.

"Mamma knows everything," said Alice; "she always knows when I am going to tell a story, and I shall never tell her another."

"How can mamma know everything?" asked sturdy Dick; "she can't tell what I am doing now."

Unseen I took a view of what Master Richard was about. He was deliberately notching the garden seat with a knife taken out of the kitchen. Soon after I came downstairs to give the children some fruit. When all had received some but Richard, I called him to me. He seemed instinctively to feel that something unpleasant was going to happen to him. "Do you think you deserve any fruit, Richard? I do not think you have obeyed papa, who told you never to cut the garden seat. I cannot reward you now. You have taken a knife from the kitchen, and injured the garden seat." "But, mamma, how did you know?" he sobbed, his curiosity getting the better of his vexation and disgrace. "That, my boy, I shall not tell you. I know it, and be sure that god sees, hears, and knows of every act of yours, good or bad. Do you think you are honouring God when you dishonour your parents?"

"But it was only notching a chair, mamma."

"Only being disobedient, Richard. When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, He told them not to eat of the fruit of a certain tree. Do you recollect?"

"Yes, mamma."

"Then it was not the act of eating the fruit by our first parents, nor the act of cutting the chair by you, which makes the sin, but the disobedience of the act. During your lifetime, my darling child, if you disobey God's command, you will find that some punishment will follow."

Here the little fellow slipped his hand in mine, and laid his face in my lap, sobbing, while the rest looked on awe-stricken.

"I will never do so any more, mamma. Do, mamma, forgive me."

"I do forgive you, my boy, but you have sinned against God. His forgiveness you must ask as well as mine. Come with me and let us pray to God alone together that God will pardon my Richard's disobedience." When we were alone, in the quietness of my room, the little fellow knelt, put up his hands, and said:--

"What must I say, mamma?"

"Repeat after me: 'O Lord, I pray to be forgiven for my disobedience to my parents, for the Saviour's sake, who, while on earth, took up little children in His arms and blessed them.'" I rested my lips a moment on his soft warm forehead, and said "Amen."

As a contrast to the Biblical method of treating a moral question which I have just described, permit me to bring under your notice a more systematic attempt to give moral instruction, which I extract from the life of Mr. Ellis. Mr. Ellis was catechising some school children as to what they would do in a workshop if their master or overlooker left them to themselves. Would they shirk their work? A sharp lad answered "Shirk my work, of course." The following dialogue thereupon ensued, in which Mr. Ellis inculcates with great skill the need for honest conduct.

"Can your master's eye be always upon you when you are working for the wages which he has agreed to pay you?"


"Will you be able if you like occasionally to shirk your work?"


"Should such a chance occur what would you do?"

"Shirk it."

"If you shirked your work once would you be more or less ready to do it again?"


"The more you shirked your work would you become the better or the worse workman?"

"The worse."

"When your master finds you idle and incompetent, What will he do?"

"Dismiss me or reduce my wages."

"If he dismisses you can you get as good a place?"

"No, for he will not give me a character. A good master will require a character. A bad one will be sharp enough to find out my worth and pay me accordingly."

"When, then, you fall into poverty in consequence of idle habits, will you think still that it was a good think to shirk work and form bad habits which at last get the mastery over you?"


"Where opportunities of shirking work occur what is best to do?"

"To avoid them."

"Honesty is the best policy." Such is the lesson conveyed with great skill in the above dialogue. Such instruction reduces moral conduct to a calculation, and the virtue that ensues is open to Satan's taunt. "Doth Job fear God for naught?" The mother whose Biblical teaching I have described, instilled into the mind of her babies quite a different conception of right conduct, the conception, namely, of a Perfect Being, surveying our acts and weighing them, which is more stimulating than the calculation as to whether one course of action pays better in the end than another.

A clergyman, who was manager of a school, once wrote to ask me to recommend him a good book on the teaching of elementary morality, and when I replied that I knew none better than the Bible, he was disappointed, because he wanted the subject treated in a systematic way. The code of nursery morals comprises obedience, truthfulness, courtesy, modesty, quietness, cleanliness, diligence, unselfishness, serviceableness, and a few other virtues. Do we need a book entitled "A system of nursery ethics for use in nurseries, schools, and other places where they whip children"? To my thinking the answer is "No." Children should be taught right conduct through concrete instances, and if they are properly and carefully brought up, with due attention to the need of mixing in the society of other children of their own age, if their faults are carefully traced to their sources--ignorance, thoughtlessness, indigestion, weariness, provocation, deliberate choice of evil--and dealt with accordingly, there are no principles that cannot be instilled into them in connection with actual incidents and occasions. Christian behaviour seems to depend much more upon the conduct of a Person than upon a system of morals, and therefore the child must learn from the personal goodness of others rather than from a treatise on elementary ethics.

While I have been passing by degrees from methods of correction by force to methods or correction by reason and persuasion, I have entered a protest against to much system. In Sans Famille there is an excellent example of the way in which a child may be helped in a difficulty with his lessons by sympathy and judgment, so as to save the need for resorting to corporal punishment or associating learning with whipping.

Placing her delicate boy in the shade and herself by his side, Mrs. Milligan told him that before going to play he must do his work. What work, I wondered, could this poor sickly cripple have to do. I noticed that his mother began to hear him recite a lesson which she followed from an open book. Arthur tried to recite, but could not say three consecutive words correctly. At first his mother reproved him gently, but presently with greater firmness.

"You have not learnt your task; you say it worse to-day than yesterday."

"I do try to learn it, but I can't."

"Why not?"

"I can't; I am ill."

"There is nothing the matter with your head. I cannot have you grow up in ignorance because your body is weak."

The boy began to cry, but his mother remained unmoved by his tears.

"You cannot play today until you have learnt your lesson."

Then she left him sobbing bitterly. I thought her harsh for leaving the poor little cripple without a word of comfort. However, she returned in a moment and said: "Shall we try to learn it together?"

The boy's eyes brightened. The task was the story of the Wolf and the Lamb. She began to read it slowly out loud, while Arthur repeated the words after. This was done three times, and then she left him to learn it alone. The boy made a few brief efforts, but all in vain, and he soon abandoned the task again in despair. Then I offered to help him.

"What is the story about?" said I.

"A lamb."

"Think then of lambs. What are they doing?"

"They are safe in a field."

"Think to yourself 'I see them before me sleeping because they are safe.' That is easy to keep in mind."

"What is it that guards the flock?"


"When the flocks are safe the dogs can do what?"


"Besides dogs what other guardians have sheep?"


"When the sheep are safe, what can the shepherds do to pass their time?"

"Play on the flute."

"Can you picture the scene?"

"Yes, the shepherd lies in the shade of an elm tree."

"Is he alone?"

"No, other shepherds are with him."

"Now, there you see in your mind the field, the sheep, the dog asleep, and the shepherds piping. Can you not repeat the first verse of the poem?"



He tried; and to his surprise recited the first verse quite correctly.

"Will you continue your task?"

"Yes, if you will continue your help."

He completed his task in a quarter of an hour, and repeated the poem to his mother without a mistake.

"Bother words, mamma. Jack has taught me to think of things. I see all the scene in my mind's eye, and then the words take care of themselves."

Intelligent help like this is a very true substitute for the lash, and justifies the statement that for every blow the teacher gives he deserves to receive two for himself.

One of the most appropriate cases for the use of corporal punishment, so it may be thought, is when a child develops a spirit of great cruelty. Let us consider the following incidents which are narrated in "Agnes Grey." The scene is described by a young governess.

I observed on the grass about the little boy's garden certain apparatus of sticks and cord, and asked what they were.

"Traps for birds."

"And what do you do with them when you catch them?"

"Different things. Sometimes I give them to the cat. Sometimes I cut them in pieces; but the next I mean to roast alive."

"Tom, you have heard where wicked people go when they die? You will have to go there and suffer as you made the poor bird suffer."

"Oh, pooh! I shan't, papa knows how I treat them, and he never blames me for it. He says it is just what he used to do when he was a boy."

"But your mamma: what does she say?"

"She says it is a pity to kill the pretty singing birds, but the sparrows and mice and rats I may do what I like with. So there, Miss Grey, you see it is not wicked."

A bad fault is here described, but whipping would hardly be the right remedy. The evil arises rather from want of thought than want of heart. The child has no sympathy with the suffering of the bird because he does not feel the pain himself, and has not imagination enough to realise pain which he does not feel. The right remedy is to train te imagination. How this may be done is best illustrated from the works of Fröbel, who has done more than any other man to devise educational methods that tend to make children good without resorting to physical force.

In a certain family the children, whose wits had been sharpened by an intelligent kindergarten teacher, invented for themselves a game of gaol. They had heard their parents discussing the capture of some notorious criminal, and turned the information to account. One of the children was chosen to be arrested by the others, after which he made his escape from prison and was re-captured. Now the teacher disliked this game, because it was rough and because the chief fun in it was the capture of a prisoner. It seemed a bad thing that children should associate the imprisonment of some poor criminal with their amusement.

The teacher therefore applied to Fröbel for help. Fröbel began by considering the game as the children played it. What pleased them in it? It was a delight to them to put some one in prison; his struggle to escape was another delight. He reflected what he could invent which would reproduce these delights, only in a more elevated form. What game would retain the essence of their amusement and yet engender a healthier tone. I sought in nature, says Fröbel, for some nobler form or appearance, some higher manifestation of the notion of captivity and escape. I found it in the caterpillar which changes into a chrysalis and afterwards escapes from its prison as a full-grown butterfly. Thus originated a butterfly game, as follows: --

One of the children is chosen to be a caterpillar. The others conduct him into a corner of the room, saying or singing:

          "Crawl to your prison,
                    To the dust you must come;
          Sleep and awaking
                    Fairy wings bear you home."

Then the child caterpillar is rolled up in cloaks like a chrysalis, and the others close up the corner with a stool, after which they leave it. Soon the caterpillar jumps up, tosses aside the covering, unfolds its arms like wings, and flies merrily into the open room. Presently the children return to the prison-house, and find only the weeds of the chrysalis, for the butterfly has flown away. The children sing:

          "Beneath all is empty,
                    Butterfly flutters high;
          Quick let us catch him,
                    Lest he fly to the sky."

So all the children run after the butterfly and try to catch him, singing:

          "Burst from your prison,
                    We will chase you abroad.
          Wings look so lovely,
                    Spread out on a board."

Then the butterfly sings --

          "Spare me. The flowers
                    For my cradle which swing,
          Tell me their secrets,
                    And the fairest I'll bring."

The children answer --

          "Fly to the home of the roses.
          Bring us a handful of posies."

Now the children turn themselves into flowers. Every child tells the rest the name of the flower which he or she has chosen to be, so that as many flowers are named as there are children. They divide themselves into little groups about the room, after which the butterfly visits each in turn, saying --

          "Sweet Flower, grace me with your name."

and the flowers answer --

          "Rose they call me, gentle dame."

When all have been visited, the flowers dance round the Butterfly in a ring, crying --

          "Dear Butterfly, feel no alarm.
          'Twere wrong to do thee any harm."

Fröbel's friend found that the children quickly abandoned their coarse prison game when they had been taught to play at this, and enjoyed it long as a source of unfailing delight.

In the kindergarten the flowers will grow under the genial influence of sunshine and warmth, and occasional gentle rain, but it is not necessary that there should be frequent thunderstorms. I am not inclined to abolish corporal punishment altogether, but the less there is of it the better for all concerned, as it is really a confession of weakness, and I commend to you the principles and practice of Fröbel as an effective substitute for the usual nursery commandment--"Be good! or I'll ----"

Typed by Jennifer Talsma, February 2016