The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
"The Atmosphere of Home"

by M. F. Jerrold
Volume 8, no. 12, 1897, pgs. 772-777

There is nothing more literally life-giving in the whole range of English literature than Gray's description of the effect of Nature on the recovering invalid:

"The meanest floweret of the vale,
The simplest note that swells the gale,
The common sun, the air, the skies,
To him are opening Paradise"

These lines convey such a warmth and wealth of happiness that we can hardly read them without smiling for mere joy; and this seems to me to be the special feature of home--to open Paradise before the eyes of our children. There are many important aspects of home-life from first training to highest education; but there is nothing in the way of direct teaching that will ever have so wide and lasting an effect as the atmosphere of home. And the gravest thought concerning this is that in this instance there is nothing to learn and nothing to teach: the atmosphere emanates from ourselves--literally is ourselves; our children live in it and breathe it, and what we are is thus incorporated into them. There is no pretence here or possibility of evasion; we may deceive ourselves: in the long run, we never deceive our children. The spirit of home lives, and, what is more, [home atmosphere], is accentuated in them. Atmosphere is much more than teaching, and infinitely more than talk. I doubt if we could live a week even with a very reserved person without being able to say what is his aim in life, what is the thing he values supremely. That after all is the kernel of life: to make up our minds what it is that we want, what is worth striving for; and it is this central aim which makes the atmosphere of our lives, which stamps itself inevitably on our ways and words, so that we are for-ever declaring it, though it may be unconsciously and involuntarily.

There are many things which go to make up the home atmosphere. First in importance, of course, comes religion. We are not concerned here with dogma, for atmosphere is very far removed from instruction, and the teaching of any number of articles of faith, absolutely necessary as such teaching is, will not in itself constitute a religious atmosphere. The test will be whether religion is the centre of our life, the joy of our joy, the consolation of our sorrow, the one eminently important thing for which all others have to give way; whether we view the things of daily life primarily with reference to it, and whether all else is felt to be relatively devoid of interest and value. I say advisedly is felt to be, not is said to be, for much personal talk about religion is, I think, very greatly to be deprecated. Precocious piety rather inspires fear than delight; it is so much like the seed which sprung up quickly because it had no deepness of earth.

And as love and faith are the two wings of Divine, so they are of natural religion, and it is their strong protecting wings that our children must ever feel around them. We are all familiar with Faber's lines:

"There is no place wherein earth's sorrows
Are felt more than up in heaven;
There is no place wherein earth's failings
Have such kindly judgment given."

And no less is to be expected from the earthly home which is to be our children's Paradise. They must feel our large faith in them, our boundless love and our never-failing forgiveness. And that they may truly learn to feel and understand these, nothing helps more than to encourage great liberty of discussion and the free expression of opinions remembering, as Miss Sewell has said, that it is an excellent thing to have an opinion of your own, however wrong it may be, (provided you are not bent on sticking to it), different as much as we like, but without the suspicion of a "snub" or a "set down"; for, above all, we must hold each one's individuality sacred, and while we care sufficiently for the things that matter, we must also beware of heeding other things that do not matter. Little trivialities of manner or expression, the way of talking which is not just what we should have wished, the choice that is not just the one we should like to have seen made, we must learn to pass these things over as the trifles they are, otherwise there is an end to all freedom, and, what is more serious, an end of reality. Our children may then learn to be the thing we wish in our presence, but they will be themselves still, they will have their own idiosyncrasies, their own individuality, but unknown and unknowable to us. So much for the larger outlook.

But the world is alluring, and we must remember that it will be far more so to our children than to ourselves. We, even if we have not happily attained to those "years that bring the philosophic mind," have at least found out that life is full of disappointments and delays, and has on the whole more show than reality. But the young cannot have this feeling; life for them is full of boundless possibilities.

"All seems free to take, to choose,
This prize to win, this ill to lose;
The narrow line, the single chance,
The boundaries of circumstance,
Not seen, not counted, lost in light,
For youth has hope instead of sight."

There are lesser things which are most seductive to the young. Fashion, the air and manner of good society, the rapid easy way of talking that comes from the habit of living much in the world; this is all fascinating, and its influence on our children will depend very largely on the standard by which they are accustomed to see things measured. If a lofty one has been raised for them, we may well hope that they will see these ephemeral things in their true light, as agreeable and pleasant, but as possessing no intrinsic worth. If, on the contrary, they are accustomed to test things by appearance and by general opinion, we may safely predict that the first years of youth will be a mere chaos of rapidly changing views. The character will then be formed outside and in spite of the home, and the child who thus gets his own experience will always have a bitter feeling at heart, that all that has made his life of the highest value to him as been assimilated from without. I can imagine nothing more cruel than for parents to fail their children thus.

Manners have so much to do with a home-atmosphere, that it is astonishing to find them sometimes referred to as being merely surface things. It is tolerably certain that good manners result largely from good breeding, which is after all, an accident, and can have no merit attaching to it, but it remains with us whether our children's manners have any worthier root than this. Decker, in a famous paragraph, has called our Lord, "The first true Gentleman that ever breathed," thereby enunciating a very high religious truth, and it is only the conscious study of this type that can give a value to our conduct of life. Without this in view, manners are apt to be confounded with conventionality--a quality, of all others, which youth has least patience with. To do a thing because "it is done" would seem the most paralysing of motives. There is a delightful story told of Carylyle, which has my heartiest sympathy, on the occasion of being informed that everyone would be expected to appear in black coat and white trousers, Carlyle emphatically replied, "Then I for my part incline to wear a white coat and black trousers."

The only writer I know who has ever said an illuminating word for custom is Pater in his Marius, where he has the following passage-- "The world is, as it were, a commonwealth, a city, and there are observances, customs, usages actually common in it, things our friends and companions will expect of us, as the conditions of living there with them at all, as really their peers or fellow citizens." Those observances were indeed the creation of a visible or invisible aristocracy in it, whose actual manners, whose performances from of old, become now a weighty tradition as to the way in which things should or should not be done, are like a music to which the intercourse of life proceeds, such a music as no one who had once caught its harmonies would willingly jar. In this way manners would indeed be a comprehensive term for duty. Righteousness would be, in the words of Aurelius, but "a following of the reasonable will of the oldest, the most venerable, of cities, of politics--of the royal, the law-giving element, therin--forasmuch as we are citizens also in that supreme city on high, of which all other cities beside are but as single habitations."

These are golden words. St. Paul, St. Augustine and Dante have given us the same idea, and I think Dante, whose sense of citizenship is one of the strongest traits in his divine poem, has nowhere any passage more beautiful than those three lines addressed to him by Beatrice:

"Qui sarai tu poco tempo silvano
E sarai meco senza fine cive
Di quella Rom onde Cristo e romano."

(Here shalt thou wander yet a little while
And then with me for evermore shalt dwell
Citizen of that Rome where Christ is Roman).

When our children grow up and go out to see many sorts of manners, and many different standards of conduct, one of their safeguards will be in the idea they have formed of what is worth-while. Pleasure and success and admiration--they will want all these, and to almost every one of them some small triumphs will be given, and whether these are sufficient will depend on what they are accustomed to seeing valued. Let us then covet one gift for our children, that of unworldliness. It does not make for success, it does not secure against errors; it is compatible with grave faults, but it is the salt of life, of life eternal. It preserves whole and pure a certain nobility of character, and a quick perception of all things that tend to nobleness. It gives the faculty of discernment; it does not confound high with low and small with great. The things that matter! If we found ourselves in the palace of truth, and were compelled to say what these things are, I wonder what our answer would be.

Goodness, power, admiration, amusement, which is it? If we do not know--or rather, if we choose to think we do not--I am very sure our children will know with an absolute certainty. There is no truer word in Scripture than that trenchant one of our Lord's, "Therefore they shall be your judges." And they will judge as not in maturing life, when--

"The years that pass more heavily
Write large lines of charity
Upon our foreheads, and far less
Of expectation,"

but in the first flush of triumphant youth, when the heart has neither much reverence nor much loyalty, and when it is too soon for any mists of tenderness to have gathered over the home horizon, softening and harmonising it in the long blue distance.

Mercy, charity, longsuffering, these are lessons of later life; but youth is the time for uncompromising judgments, and I doubt if we ever see so clearly again. One of life's most difficult problems is to distinguish between the sin and the sinner, and still more, perhaps, to discern between what is really unsound in the character and what is only attributable to bringing up and surroundings, and I think the tendency, of this age at any rate, is towards too universal toleration. People have not the courage to say, "This is evil and that is wrong"; they are afraid to formulate any moral judgment; they would rather take refuge in a limp false charity, which is really a culpable indifference to the great issues of right and wrong doing. This, at least, is not one of the temptations of youth. "They shall be your judges," therefore let our standard of conduct be, at least, as exacting as theirs, while we must look with "other, kinder eyes" on those who fall short of it.

It must often happen that direct teaching falls to the ground, that in the march of time and science, different views will be held, and that in things which are mere matters of opinion differences will exist; but all this will be as nothing if the aim and ideal remain the same. If we have understood noble things; if we have felt and acted as though nobleness were the one thing worth being and having; if through sordidness and worldliness, we have sought out and believed in pure motives; if we have been of those who cry out to the unseen ideal, "Thou tarriest, and I have not said thou art not, nor all thy night long have denied thy day," then, I say that our children are breathing an atmosphere which is verily life-giving, and that mean aims and low motives will be to them destruction and not delight.

There are voices which carry conviction. A short time ago, when I had been pondering the question of how much home-teaching is likely to cling through life, such an one said to me, "I believe in atmosphere." The words thrilled through me and I felt I had got the key of the problem. Since then, I too, elect to believe in atmosphere--in those choices, preferences, tendencies, which have no completion here, but which flow from old into the limitless eternity.

"For an ye heard a music, like enow
They are building still, seeing the city is built
To music, therefore never built at all,
And, therefore, built for-ever."

Proofread by Stephanie H. 2008