The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Children Past and Present
by L. T. Meade
[Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith, 1844-1914, oldest child of an Irish Anglican rector, was a superstar author who wrote many stories under the name L. T. Meade for girls as well as detective stories that were published in The Strand alongside Sherlock Holmes stories. She married Alfred Toulmin Smith in 1879, and they had two daughters and a son. "No other writer of the period 'made a greater contribution to girls' culture and the idea of the 'New Girl.'" C. Cox et al. (eds.), Adolescence in Modern Irish History, The Editor(s) 2015.]
(Continued from Vol. vi, p. 887)
This is a brief resume of my own bringing up, and I am firmly convinced that many other girls of my own age, in the same part of the country, could testify to a like experience. According to our modern ideas, it sounds almost appalling, but of course, the system was not without its advantages. The child so reared could not but acquire a certain hardihood of character, which ought not to be despised. The child who has very few pleasures, can appreciate those few with a rapture which the blasé child of the present cannot even imagine. The child who has scarcely any toys, can love the few with a love which almost amounts to passion. There was a doll which belonged to my early days. Such a doll! It had real hair which could be combed out at night and put in curl papers. I was only allowed to play with Miss Emily on birthdays, but how I dreamt of her and worshipped her, and prayed every night most earnestly to God that she might suddenly come alive. Pygmalion was not more enamoured of Galatea than was I of Miss Emily. One day a terrible fate awaited her. She could open and shut her eyes by means of a mysterious wire, which all those who have possessed old-fashioned dolls must well remember. An inquisitive servant had pulled the wire too sharply, and the lovely melting blue eyes had disappeared into the head. I came upstairs and saw Miss Emily sitting in the darkness alone against the wall of the day-nursery. I uttered a yell which I can recall now. My mother could not comfort me. I went to bed broken-hearted. My dear father sat up for a couple of hours that night, trying to replace Miss Emily's eyes. He did replace them, but the job was not very skillfully done, and from that day my darling squinted terribly. I loved her still, but her beauty had vanished like a dream. Poor Miss Emily! She never cam alive, and she never recovered from her squint. Peace to her memory.
Before I leave children Past, I must say something in all fairness with regard to the good of the system.
The undoubted good of the old system was a certain thoroughness--an absence of unhealthy excitement--a love of home and of household and domestic matters. I am speaking now, of course, only from the girl's point of view. The girl in the old days was educated at home--she was never supposed to be her brothers' equal; they were to go into the battle of life; she, unless she married, was to eke out her slender means in the midst of an existence ever narrowing to its final goal, the grave.
But in her early days, when the first rigorous training of early childhood was past, she had a fairly happy existence--she took considerable pains with her hand writing--she learnt to write a letter which was really worth reading--she was also a proficient and excellent needlewoman--she could make a shirt (often nearly blinding her eyes, it is true, over the process). She could do plain needlework of every description, and her fancy needlework--Berlin wool work as it was called in those days--was something really exquisite. She was also an excellent cook and housekeeper; acquired a practical knowledge of cooking, pickling and preserving. In short, if the happy lot awaited her in the future of becoming the wife of a good man, she was fairly equipped by the old mode of education for her lot. The women who did not marry, on the other hand, were equally ill equipped for a future which meant as a rule, very small means and a narrow outlook.
I now turn to Children Present.
With all our faults, and we have many in the present day, we have certainly managed to acquire a vast amount of light on the all-important subject of education. Schools are not what they were; education is not what it was; the battlefield of life has opened its arena to young women and young men. In consequence, girls as well as boys must now be thoroughly and efficiently educated. The wisest and deepest thinkers of the day have given up the best of their powers to this all-important subject. The child from its infancy onward reaps the benefit. Its physical well-being is now attended to as a matter of course; science has given us heaps of facts with regard to proper food, proper warmth--in short, to a proper all-round threefold training.
This has been very happily called the Golden Age of childhood; and with drawbacks (for drawbacks there must be to all systems, either new or old), the remark is undoubtedly just.
Remembering my own stunted and scarcely happy childhood, I resolved in my own case, to bring my children up from the very first from a totally different standpoint; and as far as moral strength and physical health are concerned, I have found my system--which after all is simplicity itself--work so far with admirable results.
I have three children, who vary at the present moment from the ages of fifteen to eight, and I can truly and emphatically say, that none of the three, so far as I can tell, has ever told even the shadow of an untruth. I do not say this in any way to praise them, or in order to make them appear as naturally blessed with higher morals than other children, but I believe most emphatically that the birthplace of a lie is the shadowy land of fear, and if a child is brought up without fear, in frank and happy relations with his parents, he has no temptation to lie. If he does wrong he will confess his wrong-doing, feeling sure that no terrible fate will await him, but that kindness, love, and sympathy, will help him not to transgress in like manner again. I believe most firmly, most fully, more and more from the bottom of my heart, day by day, and hour by hour, that the one atmosphere in which a child should live, move, and have his being, is the atmosphere of love. The child should breath love, and feel it like an air all over him. He will flourish in such a climate, as the young plant flourishes in the sun. His lot in life may be humble, and necessary trials may be great, but if he feels that God loves him, that his mother loves him, and that his great mission in life is to love as fully and as largely as he can all creatures great and small, that child's moral nature must expand in the right direction. That is the principal basis on which I have tried to bring up three children who love me far too well to do anything that I would disapprove of. My wishes are their wishes, and this state of things has come, not because of any course of discipline, any lectures, and, above all things, any angry words, but simply because of the perfect love and union between us.
A home, to be a home in the perfect sense of the word, ought to be a place where all members are of one mind, and where from the earliest days the parents and children take counsel one with the other. On any point that the children can understand, I have always consulted them. I daresay many of you will smile at this, but I have really found it answer admirably. They know as far as is good for them what my anxieties are; they know as far as is good for them what my dearest hopes are, what my plans are for the future. I, on my part, know all about their plans, their hopes, their dreams. There is no subject on which my boy would not consult me. I have brought him up to do so. The world is full of terrible temptation, and I believe the safest support for a lad, when he goes into the world, is his mother's friendship. He may talk to his mother on the most private and the most sacred matters, and if he does so he will not go far astray.
I fully believe also in making one's children as happy as circumstances will permit. People have blamed me very much for my opinions on this point, but my reply to all such is invariably the same. I am answerable for the children's childhood. Their future is completely out of my hands. If great and severe trouble awaits them in the Unknown, I should like them at least to feel that they had as perfect a childhood as I could give them. My firm opinion being that happiness strengthens instead of weakens the character; that, on the other hand, hardships and privations act like the cruel east wind, and stunt the growth of the plant.
I have already said that I do not mean to allude here to the mind education of the child, but I should like just to say that I believe there are distinctly two orders of minds in the world. There is the mind which very quickly acquires; and the other mind which perhaps does not quickly acquire, but creates and thinks out problems for itself. I think the latter order of mind is very little understood in children, and the child who possesses it is often dubbed as stupid, when he is really only original. I will say frankly that I prefer the latter order of mind, and have always encouraged it in my children.
I do not believe in cramming the young mind with facts, but I believe in allowing kind mother Nature to unfold the complex and wonderful brain slowly in her own gentle way; I believe in allowing the child slowly but surely to absorb the glorious and beautiful things of Nature: the glorious and beautiful wonders of religion.
I think the mother's position towards the child ought, from the very first, to be that of a refuge--she ought not be so much of a disciplinarian--as a shadow from the storm, a great rock or shelter, to protect the little one, until it has acquired strength to walk alone, mentally as well as physically. The other morning my little girls knocked hurriedly at my bedroom door. I called to them to come in. They rushed in with eyes glowing with delight. One of them carried a wooden box, the other a bundle of loose straw. The straw became scattered on my carpet as the little one ran.
"What are you doing with that box and straw?" I exclaimed.
They told me they had just caught a live mouse, that it was in the box, and they wanted to keep it as a pet.
"But, why bring that dirty straw into my bedroom?" I asked.
"Oh, mother," was the answer, "you know perfectly well that we are safe here; every one else will be so angry, there is really no other place in the house where the poor mouse will be in safety."
I loathed the mouse, which eventually escaped, and took up its residence in my bedroom, but it was impossible to crush the trust in the childish voices. I was their refuge--they came to me. I felt that matters were as they should be.
From this point of view, I believe that a mother ought to punish her child as seldom as possible. I do not for a moment pretend that children do not need punishment. They must be made to feel that certain tasks, agreeable or otherwise, have got to be done. This amount of discipline is necessary for them. I only say that I think the mother, except on very rare occasions, ought not to exercise her undoubted authority over the child as a mean of chastisement. I have scarcely ever punished the children, and I have certainly found the system work very well, for they never quarrel, and are really, although I say it that shouldn't, extremely well behaved. If the mother punished very seldom, when she does exercise this authority, it is a tremendous lever.
A plan which I have found excellent in helping the children to overcome the difficulties which must arise with us all in fighting the battle of life, is to consult with them over their faults. In this way one can guide them to true religious feeling without any attempt at preaching. The doing day by day what is not pleasant to do is always an effort, but I find that the children now go to this daily effort with a certain strength and willingness, simply from the idea that by so doing, they are putting muscle into their souls. This thought has helped them in the most extraordinary way to deeds of daily self-denial, and to the accomplishment of distasteful tasks. The wish to possess a strong soul--a soul really equipped to do its part in life's battle-field, is an ambition in our home.
There is one more point which I should like to mention before I bring this little paper to a close. It is one which used to exercise my own mind much in my early days, and which I have thought over a good deal in connection with my children. The conscientious mother will try as far as possible to aim at perfection. She is an example, the eyes of the children are fixed on her, they watch her day by day, she aims at a lofty ideal for their sakes, and as a natural consequence, however hard she aims, she fails. Do not let her imagine for a moment that the child does not notice that fall. The child sees the angry light in her eyes, he hears the impatient words on the lips, he is surprised, puzzled, grieved, his infant faith in the Infallible is shaken.
In the training of my own children, I have explained to them distinctly, over and over, that I too fall very short of perfection, that I too stumble and fail in the battle. I have asked them many times to help me in my fight. I have begged of them to remember that they and I are side by side in the same battle of life; that we are all together struggling for the same goal. They understand, they sympathise--they help me, more than I help them.
Finally, with regard to religion, I believe that it springs up naturally in the beautiful heart of a little child. Fresh from heaven, it bears, as Wordsworth expressed it, "Trailing clouds of Glory from God, who is our home." The little child is naturally close to God. A word, a touch, a look, can keep up this holy atmosphere, and the soul which He created can expand in the mot beautiful way upward, higher and higher.
The child so directed, ought to develop into the more beautiful because the stronger and more capable, boy or girl, and so on into the noble man or woman--in short, into the stuff of which heroes are made.
Proofread by LNL, Apr. 2021
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