The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Stress of Life

by Miss H. [Helen] Webb, M.B. (London), ON
Volume 8, 1897, pgs. 421-431

P.N.E.U. Conference

THE CHAIRMAN (Sir Vincent Kennett Barrington): Ladies and gentleman, I have been asked to preside at this second meeting, and I dare not say much, as I feel a great deal of the stress of life has been for many reasons--some of which might have been avoided by more careful training in early life--very much greater than it need have been. I wish to allude especially to Miss Mason's remarks about impressing children at an early age with the qualities which they may not have originally--decision, punctuality, and many other kindred qualities which greatly tend to relieve our lives of a stress which makes us old before our time. I feel this acutely myself, and perhaps it is the duty of every one of us to give others the benefit of our experience. If the result of Miss Webb's lecture will help us on this point we shall be exceedingly grateful. I will now introduce you to my eminent friend, Miss Webb.

MISS WEBB read the following paper on the "Stress of Life":--

Stress of life may seem a discouraging subject upon which to enter on the first day of our Conference, but if we stop for a moment to consider the main conception of education upon which our Union is based, i.e., the development of character in children by (a) the formation of habits, and (b) the suggesting of inspiring ideas, and then think of how those inspiring ideas act, and how habits are formed, we shall at once see that the general stress of life must play a large part in the working out of both these factors. The little child comes into the world full of inherited possibilities, and its final character will depend upon how those possibilities reach to their environment. Given--for the sake of argument--two similar sets of possibilities, (for in truth there are never two similar bundles of life born into this world) and place them in different environments; the result will be two absolutely different characters. Or take two diverse sets of possibilities in a similar environment (this last also only for the sake of argument) and two different characters will again result. The developed character is, in short, a resultant between the congenital disposition and everything to which the individual is exposed in his journeying through life.

All that is painful or hard in such environment one calls the stress of life-- "all the pain, labour and sorrow." Let us think for a little time what are the uses and evils of such stress in education, and how much of it and in what forms may improve or, on the other hand, warp character. Are there any tests by which we can judge whether the difficulties of life will act as a wholesome stimulus, or tend to stunt and warp character in its development--when pain and sorrow may be sources of spiritual inspiration, and when they will stultify and crush? It is now clearly understood that stress is an important element of growth in the physical world, and it is also well known that in order to act efficiently such stress must be intermittent and not constant. The wind which drags upon the root tree by swaying its branches, is an important element in the growth of the root and the tree. The physiologist knows that in order to strengthen and develop muscle it must be given a certain amount of resistance to overcome, that such resistance, moreover, must not exceed its power of overcoming, that it must not fatigue it beyond its power of recuperation, and that it should be varied by periods of rest. In short we recognize that the rhythm of health is action, reaction and rest (in other words, stress, resistance to stress, rest), and that each part of this rhythm must be of such a kind and amount as not to interfere with, but enhance the efficiency of the other two. We know that constant pressure produces atrophy of muscle, constant resistance exhaustion or death, and that perpetual rest is death itself. The fullest life is a balanced rhythm of the three. These applications of rhythm are perfectly familiar in the physical world, but we do not all recognise so readily that a similar rhythm is found in higher fields. James Hinton, in his Mystery of Pain, works out the question of stress in the normal production of pleasure, in a passage so admirably illustrative of my meaning, that I feel compelled to quote it nearly in full:--

    "How completely it seems to be a law of our nature, that in order to be thoroughly enjoyable and to continue so, our life must include more or less of willingly accepted inconvenience. This inconvenience may be in most cases slight, but still (with some exceptions) it seems to be in all cases necessary. There is inconvenience overcome, endurance accepted, to some extent in every life that is permanently pleasurable, and this independently of all moral considerations, merely by nature of our constitution. We see this fact strikingly exhibited in field sports and in every kind of active amusement. It reaches its height, perhaps, in the pleasure found now so widely in ascending mountains, but the same element is found almost universally in sports. Look at the roughness and fatigue of cricket, and toil and even pain of a hard day's boating; how much less charm were there in a picnic if it were not for its inconvenience and little denials. But these are only special instances of a law that seems to be universal in our experience. Whether it may seem paradoxical or not, it is fact in our nature that without endurance, life ceases to be enjoyable, without pain accepted pleasure will not be permanent.

    "For the most part among intelligent persons this fact is so fully accepted and acted upon, that they are hardly conscious how universally it is true. They take their inconveniences, accept their little pains, and reap their reward accordingly in a healthful, pleasurable life. But the law becomes evident immediately in its breach: it asserts itself inevitably against the attempt to avoid it. A life from which everything has in it the element of pain is banished, becomes a life not worth having; or worse, of intolerable tedium and disgust. There is ample proof in the experience of the foolish among the rich, that no course is more fatal to pleasure than to succeed in putting aside everything that can call for endurance. The stronger and more generous faculties of our nature, delivered from their true exercise, avenge themselves by poisoning and embittering all that remains.

    "In our healthful and natural life, endurance is essential to pleasure. Our enjoyment by the very construction of our nature absorbs and takes into itself, as a necessary element, a certain amount of pain,--that is, of what would, if it stood by itself, be pain. But when we recognise this fact, we can hardly help remarking another also. The amount of endurance or pain that even pleasure will then absorb and turn to its own sustenance is not fixed. It varies, being in some cases more, and in some less; and especially it varies with the intensity and perfectness of life. A strong and healthy person can absorb into his pleasure a really large amount of what would otherwise be pain,--that of a hard day's hunting or rowing, or the ascent of a considerable mountain, or he will enjoy a great amount of risk . . . .

    "A weak person can enjoy much less fatigue, and discomforts soon spoil his pleasure; but a sick person--one in whom the bodily life is depressed or wanting in perfection--can enjoy none. His pleasure can absorb no endurance at all . . . .

    "The pains which are the very conditions of enjoyment to the healthy man, to him become intolerable, utterly unendurable and terrible. He must be laid upon a soft bed, guarded from every shake and jar, from every call upon his powers, from all loud sounds, and even brightness of the light. He can find pleasure only in that which is itself unendurable to the healthy men,--the absence of all exertion."

In the development and growth of intellect and character, is not an exactly similar rhythm of stress, resistance and rest, what alone is compatible with true vitality and real progress? "It always remains," says George Eliot, "that if we had been more strong, circumstances would have been less strong against us." The stress of some circumstances or occasion comes; then, in proportion to the strength of character already developed, will be the resistance evoked. If that resistance is strong enough to meet and overcome the stress, the character has made a distinct step in growth, and a fund of force has been laid up to be drawn upon in the next emergency. Has the stress been a temptation overcome, the next similar temptation is more readily trodden under foot; was it a threatening of danger bravely met, more courage is in store for the next time. If, however, the stress has been crushing force, or the character too weak to cope with it, the individual, instead of overcoming, is overcome, and the record is one of retrogression, not of advance. A temptation yielded to leaves a right of way for the next temptation, and the person who has been a coward once is more likely to be a coward again.

Where life is there, the part of stress is to evoke resistance. If the stress be excessive or of a wrong kind it will fail to do this at all, or will do it improperly, and its natural ends will be frustrated. When pressure overpowers and discourages, it is destructive of vitality and progress, and not, as it ought to be, conducive to both.

We call stress excessive in any given case when, on account of its strength or volume, the character upon which it falls cannot stand against it; of a wrong kind when it tends to evoke, instead of direct resistance, something analogous to friction. The complicated pressures which we may class as worries can only be profitable met, and so become factors of growth by such characters as are already well trained and developed. To children such influences are, as a rule, only injurious and bad. Worry is to them, as well as to many adults, a wrong kind of stress, or at best an unfruitful kind.

It often strikes one that among children of the more irresponsible poor, who have neither wish, time, knowledge nor means to set round them any kind of artificial environment, we see, in its crudest form, character moulded by the stress of life.

On the child whose earliest life is full of such stern reality that at three or four he is frequently sent to fetch his father from the public house, sees his mother beaten, and well understands, even before that age, what it means to have nothing in the house to purchase the next meal, the stress of life falls with a brutal weight of which we can in but a small degree realize the force. If this child is by chance good material, most noble qualities may be developed, but the chances are that in such an environment the resulting character will, if not evil, be in many ways warped and lopsided, and in all cases, the man or woman will carry through life scars of the battle.

A child, who, on the contrary, through the wealth or mistaken and poor ideals of life on the part of its parents, has its every whim attended to and all difficulties cleared from its path, will certainly not be a happy child, and the chances are that it will not grow up into a good and happy man or woman. Here again, the material may be so good as to triumph over the circumstances, but the life will at best be a starved one, and if the right stresses are banished, one may be sure that the wrong one will creep in.

Now what advantages has the child of the poor and miserable home compared to that of the wealthy people with poor ideals? This--that though many times in the day it is called on to cope with situations quite beyond its powers, situations in which its utter helplessness to act must leave it overwhelmed with its own misery, and give a sensation as if earth and heaven were both against it, yet it nevertheless has also many times a day to meet with other difficulties which are within its power to overcome, to make sacrifices for others which, in their every-day commonness, it hardly knows it is making. The baby, for instance, who is still quite helpless and cannot possibly be left to shift for itself. The child of four is the only person to take charge of it, and therefore does so. Perhaps from habit, he is also looking after a baby of two. Either infant or both begin to cry, and necessity being the mother of invention, he soon learns how to quiet them. There may be only a half-pennyworth of milk for all three in the house, of course the grown-up person of four gives it to the babies. In these premature exposures to the stress of life he is at least happy in overcoming difficulties and making sacrifices, both the very breath of life to characters of the highest kind; and, moreover, this comes to him naturally out of what to him seems the necessary order of things, so that not even consciousness of virtue mars the educative influence of his actions. The child, on the other hand, who never knows even the healthy hunger of properly spaced meal-times; who is never called upon to help or share in taking care of a younger than itself; who is passively dressed by its nurse long after it ought to have learnt the joy of buttoning its own shoes, and the glorious art of tying strings; who is allowed to throw away its old toys as soon as it tires of them; who is never called upon to put away its things or help to keep its nursery tidy; from whom, in short, no sacrifices, either for the sake of others or for the attainment of its own objects, is ever demanded; I ask you, is not such a child shamefully robbed of its legitimate rights? Have not those in authority over it verily taken from it its birthright and sold it for a mess of pottage? And the mess of pottage is not even nutritious and comforting like that of Esau.

Nature creates in the child a need for struggle, and confers upon it opportunities for the same. It may be legitimate to modify the form of the struggle, but, do what we will, we can never make it a creature which can be healthy without struggle.

Now I do not for a moment mean to say that anyone here is acting towards their children quite in the same way I have described. Many of us, however, rightly anxious to shelter the young from the real and heavy stress of life, such as it is often too much even for grown-up shoulders, may sometimes go a little too far. Perhaps from over-tenderness and kindness, perhaps to save ourselves or our nurses trouble, perhaps from not realizing or losing sight of the healthy rhythm of life, many of us are a little prone to relax too much of the desirable stress which comes naturally upon our children. By doing so we deprive them of some of the force by which they ought to grow, and often inevitably introduce the element of worry or stress of a wrong kind. Just as children who are deprived of normal food will pick up garbage, and as child deprived of normal exercise will fidget, so children deprived of normal difficulties will make them and become antagonistic to those around them. A large part of the need of finding educative employments for children arises from the fact that they are not called upon to take their proper and possible share in the work of the world, so that when specially devised employments are not provided, worry and ennui are set up in their lives and they become exposed to wrong stress which cannot conduce to healthy development.

For the watchful parent, every-day life is full of suggestions for wholesome, normal, inspiring ideas, which can be made into growing points in the development of the child's character. "Every great man," says someone [Ruskin], "is always being helped by everybody, for his object is to get good out of all things and persons."

A mother who had real difficulty in meeting the expenses of her household, was one day out walking with her little boy. They passed a shop where she had formerly bought cakes for the child and he asked for one. His mother said, "Well, I have money in my purse, and I could buy cakes, but if we did so there would not be enough to buy fish for poor father who is ill. Which shall we get?" The prompt reply was, of course, "Fish for father." Ever after, in passing the confectioner's when the desire for good things nearly overcame him, the little boy would squeeze his mother's hand and whisper to her, "Fish for father, please."

This little story reminds me to say a word on the question of money stress, and of the ways and means of life as they ought and ought not to fall upon children. In those homes where, as in that of the mother I have just told you of, money is really scarce, where getting a little treat for one person really means a privation for another, it is, I believe, good and safe and truly educative to let the child hear of it, and realize how the matter stands. The difficulties come within his understanding, the sacrifices are within his power to make with a reward of sacrifice which rings true. In richer homes, however, where there is no real difficulty about the necessities of life, where treats can be had without privation, and where the child, when told that something cannot be afforded, can easily see that money is wasted in other directions, it is much better and safer, while of course never allowing waste, to limit the child's practical knowledge of finance to its own pocket money, and let it by this means realize the truth, that if you have one thing, you must do without another.

While we think of healthy stress and resistance and compare them with what is unhealthy, do not let us forget that without the third phase of the rhythm of life, all stress is unhealthy and no resistance possible, that the children's characters, like plants, need rest and time to grow. Give your garden good earth, sunshine, rain, and protection from undue stress of element, a stick here, and a tie there, as it seems needed, and then wait in faith to see how it developes. Don't pile work on your children in feverish anxiety lest by the time they are sixteen or seventeen they may not know everything that is to be known, but bearing in mind that character, grit, and how to be able to meet nobly the heavier stresses of life are the essential objects of a good education, let the rhythm of the children's lives work out peacefully, and some day you will be surprised at the fruit that has ripened in your own garden.

I should like now to say a little about a few common forms of injurious stress. We have greed that stress is an important element of growth. Early in my address I referred to the helpful influence of the wind on the growth and health of a tree. Now the amount of wind and pressure which the well-grown tree benefits by is much in excess of that which it could bear when a little plant or sapling. Round the young and tender plant we put protections to modify the pressure of the elements, and here and there, as I have said, we put in a stick or tie a string to support and train it in the way it ought to go. In the education of children, authority, among other things, may be compared to these special protections and supports of the young plants. Like them, it is a blessed means of modifying stress, and making the burden light enough for the young life to meet the weight. One is not now going into the question of authority and obedience lately brought before our notice in so many admirable papers, but I want to point out that when authorities differ to the knowledge of the child, a painful stress of the most irritating kind is brought into the young life. Two elders in the house who hold different views about the behaviour of the children, ought most carefully to keep knowledge of that difference from the children, and each loyally to support the other in his or her department. Divided authority, or rather dissentient authority, instead of being a protection and help to children, is a hindrance to development and a definite malign influence. If parents or others in authority hold different views on certain points, it is quite possible for one or both to arrange matters quietly, in such a way that no sense of division need come to the knowledge of the children.

A little instance of this occurs to me of a mother who had an exceedingly strict Puritanical nurse, with very stern notions about Sunday play and so on. The mother did not wish to teach these doctrines, but on the other hand, she did not wish the child to feel the strain of the difference in opinion, so she told it--"On week-days you can take out anything you like to play with, but on Sundays it is to be the rule that whoever you go out with is to be the person who decides what you may take with you." Here, in a moment, the whole question was settled by authority on a healthy basis.

In many cases, where no pains have been taken to educate the judgement of a child, by encouraging it to decide and act on its own judgement in matters within its own province, it is suddenly called upon to make decisions about something concerning which it has not and cannot have sufficient data to go upon. If the child is conscious of its incapacity, it becomes overwhelmed by its own incompetency to decide, and if, on the other hand, it takes the matter more lightly, it runs the risk of forming habits of hasty judgement. Like every other power, the power of judgement should be educated by coping progressively with problems which fall well within the power of the child to understand and over come.

Too strong temptation is a stress which we ought carefully to keep out of the lives of our children. Let us see that they are not tempted beyond what they can reasonably withstand, be it in the direction of untruthfulness, dishonesty or anything else. A child ought to be watchfully kept out of every position in which, by a lie, it could gain a great advantage for itself, or, still more, for anyone it loves, until it has clearly shewn in smaller instances that it knows what truth is and values it.

And here, one word against the danger of blaming children for faults which are the logical outcome of states of mind we have ourselves fostered in them. A child, for instance, is promised some great treat, to go somewhere or see something, and when the day comes something occurs either in weather or family arrangements to make the treat impossible. The change of plans seems a small matter to the mother, and she carefully explains to the child that the occasion is not one worthy of much regret. Too late! She has already dwelt on the pleasure, and magnified it to the child in anticipation, the expectation is tuned up to a high pitch, and it is quite absurd for her to blame anyone but herself for the crushing influence of cultivated disappointment in its heavy stress upon her child. Again, those who always keep people busy amusing and occupying their children, have no legitimate reason to complain if the child is incapable of amusing or occupying itself for an hour. It has contracted the habit of being thought for, and cannot be expected to initiate for itself. In such cases the fault is due to the child's environment, not to itself.

If the child sets before itself an ideal, let the parents not overtly or unduly diminish the sacrifices which must be made for the attainment of the ideal. Let the child make his own sacrifices, and encourage it to overcome the necessary difficulties; but do not, as long as they are within his power to overcome, interfere to lessen them. If the ideal is something with which the parents cannot quite sympathize, care must be taken not to bring a false stress into the child's life by asking him to decide between his own inspiration and obedience to his parents. Rather put the burden of the reason why upon the child. Let him gather all evidence, make good his own case, and show you why he wants what he demands. Often the object will die a natural death in the process; but often the parents will have to realize that it is their difficult duty to set aside ideals they have formed for their children, but about which the child cannot see eye to eye with them.

After all your child is a separate human being, with a character of his own, resulting from the action of the environment or a congenial disposition which may not be essentially like either parent, and it must find his own path in life, and walk on it alone with God.

DR. SCHOFIELD: The lecturer (Miss Webb) spoke of the value of stress being presented in sufficient doses to be overcome, and these to be gradually increased. That is a very important principle, and it is one which is carried out in my own department of medicine. Horses can be trained to resist the stress of diseases to any extent. The horse is inoculated with an exceedingly small stress--an attenuated dose of poison: he successfully resists this and thus is prepared little by little for a stronger dose. After some months the strongest doses can be given without injuring the horse, it having been gradually trained to overcome the stress. That is the picture of the training for children suggested by Miss Webb. I think there is in the present day an evil tendency towards want of stress in the digestive foods which are prepared. People who live on digested milk and so on cannot be in a really healthy state. We are made for stress in our normal conditions, and by avoiding a healthy amount of it we weaken ourselves, so that you can see we get an illustration of both sides of the question from the physical world. One word about disappointing children in their anticipated pleasures. It is impossible to pronounce definitely upon this. It depends upon the amount of stress which a child has been taught to hear: if he is a spoiled darling, of course he kicks up a tremendous row, but if you have accustomed him to disappointment in small doses I think it is very good training. While fully agreeing with Miss Webb, I think it may be occasionally well to train the child to some disappointment, regulating the dose of the stress by the strength of the child.

MRS. ANSON: I wish to say a few words to mothers whose children are in London and not in any day school. I have myself been asked to send children from Pimlico to classes in South Kensington; from this class to another, then to lunch at a friend's house, and finally home to me. I feel myself very strongly that we ought to defend ourselves from this, for it means very often that they have to go by omnibus, in which they see so much to distract and so many people passing, and this, though causing pleasurable excitement, is very tiring. We ought to give the children only one or two classes in the week, and give them plenty of rest to grow, and amid the difficult life in London we should try and introduce as much as we can of the quiet of country life. It is far more healthy for children, and if we keep this ideal before us we can introduce into the London child's mind the quiet of the country by allowing its eyes and mind to remain as quiet as possible. Our beloved Union perhaps tempts us rather because it puts so many attractive classes before us.

MRS. WHITWORTH JOHNSON: In the matter of meals, I think it is training a child in decision when we ask it which of two dishes it would prefer. This is often one of the little difficulties between the mother and the aunt of the child.

MRS. E. SYMES THOMPSON: In thinking about the stress of our children's lives, we ought more and more to think about the stress of our own. All women who are deeply interested in their children are also very much interested in other people, and very often spend the strength required for home in the social duties and engagements they undertake. Children are often very much puzzled by their mother liking and being pleased with everything they do one day, and the next day (owing, perhaps, to a little overstrain) objecting to everything. This is often a great difficulty with older children. For my own part, I think there is a great deal more difficulty in training the young in London than in the country. They get so many invitations and varied occupations, that continually pressing them to be employed may become a danger; they get headaches, and with that little tempers, and so on. The mother's aim should be to keep herself well under control, and to give her children enough stress, but not too much.

MRS. BOOLE: It struck me in listening to Miss Webb that the amount of stress a child can bear depends upon the genius of the parents in adjusting the stress. A lady friend of mine was left a widow very badly off with one little boy. Friends offered to place her boy in a public school, and she could have got work suited to herself. She refused everything and started in business, for which she is totally unfit, and of all things she chose to keep a boarding house. The child was the most impossible child to live with for anyone keeping a boarding house. I spoke to her about this, and she said, "It is my one chance of educating the boy"; he wished not to part from her, and she said, "If I have boarders they will not stay if you make it impossible." I called upon her after some time, and she said that the experiment had been quite a success. The slightest hint from anyone who was there as a boarder will make that child perfectly amendable. He makes himself useful, puts up curtains, mends locks, etc. If his mother proposes sending for a man to do the things he says, "Oh, that's rough on a fellow, mother; I could have done it" ; and if his mother suggests that he is due at cricket, he tells her that cricket can wait. Whilst I was there I made an attempt to remonstrate with him about the noise he made; he met my rebuke with the sweetest smile, and seemed determined to help his mother in every way. I ought to say that his mother is an exceptional genius in managing him, but I should be very sorry to recommend the plan of keeping a boarding house to others similarly circumstanced. What I want to bring out is that you cannot put the maximum possible stress upon a child unless you feel you are inspired to carry out the plan in this way. Leave a margin between the maximum strain which you feel might be right and the strain you actually put upon it.

MISS WEBB: I am afraid Dr. Schofield has gone away with a wrong impression. I should like to point out that the instance I gave was that of very high tension of mind being produced on the child, and then, when the inevitable disappointment came, he was blamed for being disappointed. Disappointment must be graduated to the powers of bearing.

Now about food at meals. It may be very valuable in some cases to give a child a choice of two foods at meals, but there are nervous children who are miserably uncertain, and in these cases, it is better not to ask them, but to help them to something until their feelings are a little established and clear.

One speaker referred to the stress in our own lives. This is a tremendous question. I think it is of the utmost importance, especially in London, that parents should not fritter all their energies away even on good objects, but should keep a reserve for their children; they are more important than the parish. I do not think I have anything to say in reply to Mrs. Boole's remarks.

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