The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Food and Clothing of Children Beyond Infancy

by Helen M. Wilson, M.B.
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 833-838

[Miss Helen Mary Wilson, 1864-1951, received her Bachelor of Medicine at the London School of Medicine and became House Physician at London's Temperance Hospital in 1891, then worked in private practice in Scheffield from 1893-1906. There's a photo of her at NPG.]

So much has been said and written about babies that there is now no excuse for ignorance about them; but there is perhaps, rather a tendency to think that as soon as the child can speak and make known its wants, its bringing up is a very simple matter. The age I am going to refer to (roughly, from 2 to 14) need just as careful and thoughtful watching as babyhood; mistakes do not always bring such swift and evident punishment as they do at an earlier age; but they are at least as pernicious, and their fruits may show themselves throughout life. Everyone knows how immensely important these years are in the moral development, but, physically, they are even more momentous. A mistake in moral training now may possibly be corrected later, for moral growth and development go on through the whole life; but most of the physical growth is concentrated in these years, and any organ which is starved or cramped now will never make it up, but will be a source of weakness through life.

I shall not attempt to cover the whole ground of hygiene during this period. Exercise, fresh air, sleep, are of the utmost importance, but somehow or other, children usually manage to take care of these matters for themselves. For food and clothing, they are absolutely dependent on their elders, and there seems in these departments more scope for mistakes.

Beginning with Food, the chief question is how best to supply material to meet the expenditure of energy so evident in the constant mental and bodily activity of a young child, and to build up the different parts of the growing organism. At the same time, every thoughtful mother must recognize that here moral training cannot be neglected: this is the first appetite that develops, and it cannot too soon be brought under control. On this aspect I shall say little--only dealing with it so far as it comes within the physician's province.

In the first place, the food must contain the right elements; there must be carbonaceous food--that is fat, sugar, and starch--for supplying heat and energy; and there must be nitrogenous food--as in meat or raw eggs--for repairing waste, and for building up the body.

Next, these must be approximately in the right proportions. If there is not enough of the nitrogenous or flesh-forming food, the child becomes fat, perhaps--but flabby; the bones and internal organs are imperfectly developed. If, on the other hand, there is not enough of the carbonaceous food, the child becomes thin, the whole organism is deranged, and the nervous system especially comes unduly excitable.

There is, as you know, one food which contains all that is necessary for life, and in early months for growth, and that is Milk. For the first six years of life, milk should constitute the most important article of diet, though of course it needs to be supplemented. In some form it should appear at every meal, and, except pure water, it should be the only beverage allowed. I sometimes hear that a child cannot or will not take milk. In the majority of such cases, it is the discipline rather than the digestion that is at fault, and the mother should persevere till she finds some means of administering it, for it is far too important a food to be lightly given up. To make it palatable, instead of adding sugar, it often answers better to add salt--this gives a relish as it does to meat.

If milk seems really to disagree, it should be diluted with hot water or barley water--or it may be scalded--or, in any case, it may be given cooked, in the form of milk puddings.

Next to milk come farinaceous foods--grains of various sorts. Of these, the best is oatmeal. But in order to be digestible, oatmeal needs more cooking than it usually gets. Good porridge should be boiled for 2½ to 3 hours. Oats are especially valuable for promoting muscular developments. May I repeat the familiar story of the definition given in Dr. Johnson's Dictionary? "Oats," he said, "are a grain eaten in England by horses, and in Scotland by men." This gave offence to some Scots, till one of them wittily rejoined, "Yes, and where will you see such horses or such men?"

With reference to oats and to whole wheat meal, it must not be forgotten that they contain many particles of indigestible husk. For this reason, they act as laxatives, and are useful in constipation; but for the same reason, sometimes they are too irritant and have to be left off.

Macaroni and vermicelli are excellent foods, with nearly as much flesh-forming value as mutton.

I need not enumerate the other grains; they are all useful, and give variety to the diet, though their food value varies a good deal.

Eggs are an excellent food for children, a useful substitute for, and addition to meat.

Meat may be given from the age of two years, but in strict moderation; if a child thrives without it, there is no need to be in haste to begin it. Till seven years, it should never be given more than once a day, and it need not be given oftener till the age of 10 or 11. Too much meat means so much less of more needed and useful foods, and besides, in excess, it is an irritant to the bowels and kidneys. It is a great mistake to give meat to puny children in the hope that it will fatten them. Meat is never a fattening food, and especially not in children.

This applies particularly to nervous excitable children, who very often have nervous excitable parents. I want to say a few words specially about these cases. Such children need the most careful watching if they are to grow up sane healthy men and women, with sound minds in sound bodies. Care is all the more needed, because the nervous parent is inherently likely, unless warned and watchful, to give the worst possible education to the nervous child. Such children are usually precocious, thin, and great meat eaters, and these things are the things to be fought against. Fatten them by giving plenty of milk, of fat, and of farinaceous food; see that they have plenty of sleep; and keep back their precocity by a healthy open-air life, and by constant watchfulness against over-study and over-excitement. The later they learn to read, the better; they will do it fast enough when they begin. And remember that it is not only at school the mind is exercised; be careful about the stories and fairy tales the child gets a hold of. Some there must be; the child will invent his own romances if he gets no others, but let them be mild and not terrifying. Encourage rather gardening, natural history pursuits and companionship with more stolid children. If the physical culture of precocious and nervous children were more arduously attended to, we should not hear much about "over pressure" at school, or about breakdown at college.

Meat broths and plain gravy are, of course, excellent for children. They may occasionally replace meat, but do not let them replace milk.

Fat is the next item and a very important one. The more of it, the better, especially in cold weather, and for children with a tubercular tendency--that is to say, those who may have inherited a predisposition to consumption or bone disease. Children should be taught to eat fat with their meat, but often those who need it most have a great dislike to it. So we must circumvent them, remembering that there are many forms of fat. Children will eat butter or dripping and will enjoy fresh cream with their porridge or stewed fruit. For older ones, fat bacon and the gravy of bacon are excellent, and so are sardines in oil. Milk with a little finely chopped suet boiled in it makes a nourishing beverage that few children object to. One very clever but rather startling writer says he knows of many delicate children whose lives have been saved by toffee--made the old way, as it used to be in the says when sugar was dear and butter was cheap.

Sugar is an equally necessary part of the food, and nearly all children have an instinctive love of it. But sweets should only be given with or immediately after meals. If eaten in large quantities at all times, they set up acid fermentation and seriously disturb digestion. When the digestion is impaired and the appetite poor, it is a great mistake to allow sweets, and yet this is just when they are often given--to tempt the appetite!

Fruit is an excellent article of diet for children and adults, and supplies a real want of the system. If plenty of good ripe fruit, raw or cooked, is supplied, children are much less likely to be tempted by the sour green fruit which causes so much trouble in the summer. As a laxative in habitual constipation, a little fruit should be eaten first thing in the morning--either an orange or other fresh fruit, or some stewed prunes or figs.

Vegetables well cooked are also very necessary and useful, but good cooking is all important, for making them both attractive and digestible.

Now for the things that should not be eaten. Salted and preserved meats and pastry are to be avoided. No highly seasoned or stimulating food should ever be given. In this I include pickles, pepper, mustard, and spices of all sorts. These things are apt to derange digestion, but they do more mischief than appears at the time. They pervert the appetite, create a distaste for simple food, and accustom the stomach to crave for stimulants. There are competent observers who consider that the use of stimulating food in childhood and youth leads directly to intemperance in later life. Certainly no one will question that those who can relish simple food have a better start in life's race, and it should be a distinct aim to keep children as long as possible content with perfectly simple food.

Tea and coffee come under the same condemnation. That they have a distinct effect on the nervous system we all know by personal experience. The young, growing nervous system is easily affected and it is very much better left undisturbed by all such stimulants: girls will learn the virtues of a cup of tea quite soon enough; if you teach it them too soon, they will, it is to be feared, learn to lean on it as an indispensable support, to the detriment both of brain and stomach.

Children under ten ought never to touch tea or coffee: it is better that they should be kept from these beverages till they are fourteen.

Of course, no sort of alcoholic drink should ever be given to children without express medical orders.

To sum up, in feeding children we must aim at simplicity combined with variety. It can hardly be necessary to warn this audience against giving the child "just what we have ourselves"--a phrase which is a bugbear to doctors when dealing with the children of the less educated classes. If the diets are to be made alike, it would be very much better for the elders to take just what the children have.

All this is very easy with some children, but what about those who have decided views of their own as to what they will and will not eat? Is a child's own inclination to be taken as a safe guide? The answer is that the rules always hold, and the child is no more to be allowed to follow its fancy in this respect than it is to be allowed to play with matches or to stand in the rain, amusements for which some children have a distinct natural taste. True, you may see children who seem to thrive on what we must pronounce most unsuitable diet. But remember first, that mischief may be done now which will not be revealed till after many years, when some important organ, owing to its defective nourishment now, will give way before its time. Or the evil results may be shown earlier, when illness comes, and the unwisely indulged appetite may easily turn the balance between life and death: a child who has taken what he chose when well, will probably when ill demand apples or cakes, and refuse all suitable food, which can only be given after an exhausting struggle. Altogether, a spoilt child has an infinitely worse chance in illness than one who has been well trained. Over indulgent parents would do well to remember that judicious discipline is not only necessary for their darling's happiness and moral welfare, but for its very life.

There is, of course, a great difference between refusing to give a child the unwholesome things it cries for, and forcing it to take the wholesome food it dislikes; by the latter, much harm may be done. Each case must be considered by itself. Children, like their elders, have idiosyncrasies, and occasionally cannot eat certain articles. If it is some unimportant thing that is disliked, not much notice need be taken. But before admitting that a child cannot take some really useful and important food, like milk, every possible means should be tried.

Usually a taste may be cultivated for any article of diet. The best way is to put only one or two tea spoonfuls on a plate, and get that taken, either by exercise of authority or gentle bribery. If this is repeated occasionally,--never offering a large helping,--a taste will probably in time be acquired.

(To be continued.)

Proofread by LNL, May 2021