The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Natural Priesthood.

by Mrs. M. E. Boole
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 705

[Mary Everest, 1832-1916, married the mathematician George Boole; they had five daughters who distinguished themselves in math and science. Mt. Everest is named after Mary's uncle George Everest.]

". . . total abstinence for young people is one of my own very especial hobbies; but I do seriously believe that the danger of thwarting the deliberate will of the father is greater than that of occasionally taking what is, for children in average health, a needless and harmful drug. And I say this, not because of any notion about 'a wife's duty'--for a mother owes more duty to her children's real interests than to her husband's mere wishes--but because I hold that a mother can hardly have any more solemn duty to her children, than to spare them those terrible mental conditions which are the result of one parent insisting on their pursuing a line of conduct, while the other is silently wishing them to pursue the opposite line . . ."

Part I--The Parents

Now that the theory of unconscious mental action and the belief in the power of silent suggestion are accepted by a respectable section of the medical and educational public, it becomes possible to state a doctrine which has been held by some of the most thoughtful teachers in all ages--that of a Natural Priesthood, whose power it is not safe to ignore, because it comes direct from the Creator, and exerts itself without the aid of legal or ecclesiastical arrangements.

This priesthood falls into two divisions--that of parents in their own family; that of certain individuals on society at large. I shall deal first with the influence of parents; the psychological doctrine alluded to above, so far as it refers to them, is this: --The ethical and religious ideal which should dominate the education of any child should consist of these elements of the general type ideal for humanity, which at least one of the parents believes in, and which neither parent actually objects to. The main importance of the principle I am here trying to explain comes in, not in questions of detail, but in the great questions of ideal, and of aim in life. Books on ethical education usually contain not only scientific statements about the laws on which depend the formation of habit and the adaptation of educational means to ethical ends; these statements are almost always mixed up with suggestions of what end we ought to pursue and what ideal of character we ought to aim at producing. But it must be remembered that the writers of such books can only give, at best, a general type ideal for humanity; whereas the individual child is not only a human being, he is the child of some man and some woman. [The Unconscious Mind, Alfred Schofield, M.D., pp. 202 et seq. The whole book is full of most interesting and suggestive matter.] Dr. Schofield tells us that parents can, to a large extent, conquer heredity by means of habit. No one agrees with that more heartily than I do; heredity is a good servant, but we should never allow ourselves to think of it as master. If we cannot exterminate it, we can at least put it into harness and make it take us up-hill, instead of allowing it to run down-hill. We can conquer mere heredity. But what I assert is that one parent cannot, and ought not to try, to conquer the will-force of the other (even if, or perhaps I should say, especially if that will-force is exerted in silence, and manifested by no outward expression). For instance, the wife of a drunkard may do much to arrest hereditary tendencies in her children, by bringing them up as total abstainers. Very few men who have experienced the evil effects of intemperance would object to their children being prevented from following on their own down-hill road, if the matter were fairly laid before them in their best moments. But the case is quite different if the father is a sober man, with the rooted objection which many sober men have to the whole theory of total abstinence. Any attempt on the part of the mother to run counter to the father's desire to educate their palate to know good wine, would add to the children's chance of developing any and every form of neurotic instability, including (and I think especially) the tendency to alcoholism. The wise course for the mother to pursue in such a case would be to give no wine on ordinary days, never to give it at all in compliance with the child's desire, never to let wine come as the response to a craving or whim: but on Sundays and family festivals to give a little to each child, as a sort of sacramental performance in honour of father's presence. I have chosen this instance because total abstinence for young people is one of my own very especial hobbies; but I do seriously believe that the danger of thwarting the deliberate will of the father is greater than that of occasionally taking what is, for children in average health, a needless and harmful drug. And I say this, not because of any notion about "a wife's duty"--for a mother owes more duty to her children's real interests than to her husband's mere wishes--but because I hold that a mother can hardly have any more solemn duty to her children, than to spare them those terrible mental conditions which are the result of one parent insisting on their pursuing a line of conduct, while the other is silently wishing them to pursue the opposite line; for let me repeat--it is not at all enough that conscience and good-breeding prevent the parents from audible disputes; silent will-tension is often more efficacious for harm than open disagreement.

The ultimate outcome of this doctrine, if it were ever generally accepted, would be a new perception of the conditions of legitimate marriage. It would be seen that neither social convenience nor that personal attraction which we call "love" can suffice to justify two human beings in combining to put children into the world; that nothing can really justify it, except such harmony of aims (whether those be high or low in themselves) as shall avoid tension between the two parents as to what they desire to make of the children. A perception of the psychological principles here indicated underlay the ancient notion that one should not marry "out of the pale of one's faith." That was a crude object-lesson, intended to convey to the ignorant some faint glimmerings of the great question at issue, which is, not--were the two intending parents confirmed in the same sect? but--are their general aims and ideals the same?

But most of the readers of this journal have to do with the offspring of marriages already accomplished. How can the danger of silent will-tension be best met and minimized?

First of all, in reading books on Psychology and education, make a clear distinction between the parts which refer to the ideal to be cultivated, and those which only teach the best means towards certain aims. A novice would be much helped in this by marking the passages differently in the margin of the book, or by registering them in a note-book under the separate headings. If either parent has not time or inclination to study practical psychology and hygiene, it ought to be understood that he or she defers--as to matters of mere procedure--to the one who does study. But in the matter of aims, in all that has to do with the ideal we accept in regard to ethics towards man and faith towards God, the parents should take counsel frankly together. Let them decide first on such elements of ethics and of faith as they can heartily agree upon. These may amount to very little; a husband and wife may kneel week after week at the same altar and listen to the same preaching, and yet have far less in common as to their ideal of desirable character than can often be found in common between a Christian, a Mohomedan, and a man who professes no particular creed. But I would say to the parents--the elements of devotion and faith, however little they may amount to, which you truly hold in common, are the spiritual inheritance of your children; take care that you do not dissipate it. By each fixing his or her attention on aims as to which you differ. Next, select such elements of character as one parents cares about, and the other is simply indifferent about; these come second in importance for the child's spiritual nurture. And for those elements as to which your desire, when you allow yourselves to form any, are conflicting, there is only one safe course to pursue--cultivate the habit of suspending all desires on those points. Turn away from the temptation to think of aims, however sacred they may seem to you, which conflict with the active wishes of your fellow-parent; turn away from them as you would from temptation to physical infidelity. We are shocked when we hear of a young wife eloping from her husband in company of some sentimental admirer, on pretence of intellectual sympathy; but it a wife mentally elopes in company with her favourite religious preacher, the leader of some "movement," the founder of a "society," or the writer of some educational text-book, to a grand but impossible Ideal, into which the father of her children, being a practical man, cannot follow her, especially if, as often happens, by reason of such flight into the empyrean, she ignores any homely virtues or good customs which the father may be anxious to cultivate in his offspring, but which the society or sect of her choice has failed to see the need of, she commits a spiritual infidelity of which the other and grosser is only the physical analogue. It has been well said that "the father is the priest of the family; and any woman who supposes that fact to be the less true because of any theological theories she may have learned elsewhere, only show the radical unsoundness of her own theology."

But I am bound to add that, in my experience, mothers have seldom taken up the dangerous position of ignoring the priesthood of the father, except in cases where the father has voluntarily abandoned his function. How often does one hear a father say such things as this:--"I never interfere with the religious instruction of the children; that is the mother's province. I let her teach them what she pleases while they are young." The implied, and sometimes openly uttered addition is:--"I will see that they are properly taught logic and philosophy later on, and then they will not believe in superstitions very long." Now the real meaning of this seeming liberality is not difficult to see. Anyone who honestly takes upon him or herself the business of steering young minds, is driven sooner or later, to the conclusions that some kind of religion is a necessity. Where there are children, someone must perforce express some idea, or feeling, or hope, or aspiration about our relation to the unknown, the unseen and the future; and all such ideas and aspirations are connected somehow with religion. Every parent who takes up his function must have a religion of some sort; only by shirking his duties can the father enable himself to retain the agnostic position which satisfied him in his days of adult bachelordom. He leaves on his wife the whole burden of deciding--with such extraneous help as she can get--how to meet her children's questions about birth, life, death, the invisible and the beyond; and meantime he himself is concentrating his thoughts, his will-power, or projecting into the children's unconscious mind the seeds of future conscious doubt. Now let us understand this clearly. If the father desires now that his children shall in future feel conscious doubt or disbelief of what their mother is teaching now, that is simply equivalent to trying to project the seeds of doubt into the unconscious mind of now, in the belief that the seedlings will grow there for some ten or a dozen years before they emerge up into consciousness. Has the father who does this any conception of what poison those seedlings may be secreting and pouring out into the nervous system during those ten years?

In the light of what is now perfectly well known to medical science about the intimate connection between the unconscious mind and the nerves, we can see that it is simply cruel for any father to let his mind rest on the thought that his children will discard, by-and-by, hopes and aspirations which he silently permits their mother to instill into them now. For he thus starts a habit of general doubt of what they are being taught, a divorce between the conscious and unconscious cerebration; whereas nerve-health depends on the two working together in harmony. It starts a habit, not of that "honest doubt" which stimulates scientific investigation, but that vague slipshod dishonest kind of doubt which consists in lazily amusing one's conscious mind by supposing oneself to believe some sublime truth, till the time comes to act upon it, and then discovering that, after all, one is not sure enough about it to make sacrifice for it. Divorce between the conscious, uttered teaching of one parent and silent suggestion from the other, is, I believe, one of the most fruitful sources of nerve degeneration and practical inefficiency in after life. One main aim, if not the main aim, of all education should be to secure the closest possible harmony between the conscious and unconscious cerebration. A few ethical principles, agreed on between the parents, acted on steadily by both, and enforced by both on the children in a cheerful matter-of-course way, lays the foundation of steady character and purpose. Religious and spiritual teaching given in words by one parent while the other refrains only in words from dissent or even from sneers, is, I believe, one of the most fruitful sources of nerve-storms in childhood and of incapacity later on.

The priesthood of the parents is a fact, whether we like it or no. "This is a hard saying; who can bear it?" But it is true, whether we will or will not hear.


The second kind of Natural Priesthood is composed of persons who possess in any marked degree the faculty of winning what is called "influence for good" outside of their own families. Such persons, as we all know, are the leaven of society; they prevent us from settling down into a condition of contented and common-place selfishness. Therefore, what I am about to say, will seem to enthusiasts a terrible heresy; but I fear that it must be said, of the majority of these inspired prophets and reformers, that too much of their society is undesirable in a house where there are children. It is true that a few words spoken in the hearing of a child, by a man or woman charged with a strong sense of some great mission to be accomplished, not unfrequently give impulse and direction to the child's whole future career, and do much to steady and energize its mind. But there are very few original and strong thinkers in whose company it is good for children or those in charge of them to spend much time. In the first place, any strong personality is likely to absorb the vital force of those around, and weaken their character; and in the next place, an original thinker becomes the centre of the circle in which he moves; he sets up so strong a relationship to himself that, without his intending it, the more common-place relationships often become insensibly slackened and weakened in his neighbourhood.

Serious people too readily take it for granted that an influence is necessarily "good" if it appears to tend in good directions, e.g. in the direction of "altruism" rather than "egoism"; of large aims rather than small ones; of philanthropy rather than personal or family aggrandizement; of intellectual recreation rather than physical pleasure or mere social amusement; of spiritual belief rather than materialistic opinions. In this matter, more perhaps than in any other, it is well to remember the proverb that le mieux est l'ennemi du bien (the impossible better is the enemy of the attainable good). Teachers and thinkers who have large and wide aims, perhaps for the very reason that they themselves so easily impress others, because they exert a strong influence without taking much pains to secure it, are often very ignorant about the mass of small threads of connection which go to form the practical bonds of life, and which must be preserved, if those who are ultimately responsible for the conduct of young people are to keep the kind of practical hold necessary for good discipline and for forming habits of self-restraint. If one were addressing leaders of "movements" and "reforms," one might say a good deal about the duty of reserve and caution in this matter; one might warn them that influence towards good is not always and necessarily good to exert; one might remind them of the harm which may be done by suggesting to impressionable people that some other system is higher and "better" than that which the hearers understand and are capable of carrying out. But this journal addresses itself chiefly, not to leaders of thought, but to parents.

". . . the mother of young children is, or should be, to some extent 'in retreat'; not all things, 'lawful' and good in themselves, are 'expedient' for her."

A young woman who has not been very serious before marriage is sometimes made so by motherhood; there is a strong temptation, then, to seek shelter from the pressure of responsibilities for which she feels unprepared, by flinging herself into some religious, ethical, or spiritual movement, headed by a strong and earnest personality; she thinks she ought to believe what clever, pious, earnest people tell her; she hopes that, by acting under their direction, she will fit herself for the function which she understood too lightly, but which she now feels to be overwhelmingly sacred and important. It may be well for her to check herself by remembering that the mother of young children is, or should be, to some extent "in retreat"; not all things, "lawful" and good in themselves, are "expedient" for her. Just as there are certain forms of physical exercise, excellent for strong unmarried girls, from which she abstained for a few months before her child's birth, so there are certain kinds of intellectual, spiritual, and emotional exertion from which she should abstain for a few years after it. This applies specially to any kind of new thought which causes in her irregular and exciting emotional strain. Whatever else is doubtful, it may at least be taken as certain that an atmosphere of doubt and unrest is bad for children; and a woman who undertakes to live with them, and devote herself to them, thereby undertakes not to worry herself and distract her family relations by importing into her home ideas which disturb its peace, however sublime and lofty they may sound.

And if she fears that, by omitting to study at once the grandest ideas within reach, she may miss the opportunity of fitting herself to be in future a good spiritual guide for the young souls entrusted to her, she may take comfort from reflecting on one or two principles of development, quite established as scientific truths, though not always understood by enthusiastic reformers.

Up to the advent of man on earth, evolution took place by means of conflict with external restraints and difficulties; but all which is distinctly human in man's progress connects itself with the development of restraint from within, of a power to store up force by suspending impulse, and waiting for the fitting time before carrying impulse into action. Therefore a woman, powerfully impressed by some preacher or writer, seized by the afflatus of some great movement of reform, if she has the courage to postpone joining it till her children no longer need special care, will thereby not only make herself a better mother for the time being, but will put herself more in a line with all the philosophy of human development, and with the essential truth of all high spiritual thought, than she would be likely to do by following out at once an immediate impulse, however lofty that impulse may seem.

Another very important principle is indicated by evolutionists in the statement that ontogeny follows and summarizes phylogeny. That is to say that the development of the young individual, before reaching its mature phase, passes through successive phases of evolution through which its race has passed; and it would seem only consonant with this well-established law of nature that a child should have some practical experience of working out in its own person the ethical ideas in which its parents were brought up, before it is forced into contact with those newer ideas which are ultimately to dominate its own generation. The mother therefore will better prepare the child for its own adult place in the world by teaching it well what little she herself well knows, than by plunging into a chaos of untried plans and hopes. Moreover the worst, the most retrograde, the most worldly plan of life contains the possibility of being so carried out as to afford scope for as much self-restraint and as much practical altruism in detail as young children are fit for. The excuse for random smashing up of old systems is, of course, that "We cannot put new wine into old bottles lest the bottles should burst." But children do not need new wine. Milk for babies does not need a specially strong vessel; the important things is to keep the vessel always clean and sweet. That is just what a young mother should do: give endless attention to inventing ways of freshening up and cleansing whatever system of religion and of ethics she herself already understands.

To take a concrete instance. A young woman gets caught in the rush of some modern ideas about respect for labour and the injustice of the present relations between employer and employed. There are two courses which she may pursue. One is to fill her house with advocates of reform, who talk much and eagerly about the wrongness of existing conditions; and to try and organize her own relations with her servants and tradespeople according to some ideas formulated by these apostles. If she does this, she will almost certainly make mistakes at first in carrying out those ideas, for no one can carry out a new and untried scheme without making mistakes. She will create some friction and confusion in her home, and probably excite some opposition in the minds of her nearest relatives, possibly also of her husband. She will perhaps think of this as her sacrifice to the cause of reform; but there is another course she might pursue, another sort of sacrifice she might make to the cause of reform. She might keep the outer machinery of life going in grooves to which she is accustomed, and yet be careful to organize detail in such a way as to turn her children's hearts, their unconscious minds, towards respect for every kind of labour. She might adopt such little homely suggestions to this end as were made at the conference last May--seeing that the children open the door for a servant who is carrying things in or out of the room; making them careful to think the shop-assistant who serves them, thus instilling the conviction that the person who actually works, confers an obligation on the one who only pays; speaking of the penny for the crossing-sweeper not as alms given to a beggar by a social superior, but as her contribution towards the recognition due by society to those who serve it. However the adults in the house may dislike street noises, as long as a child finds pleasure in listening to street music, it would be well that he should be encouraged to show respectful gratitude towards the performers. Much confusion may be caused in children's minds by speaking of taxes in any grudging manner. To a child, taxes should represent the cheerfully-paid salaries of park-gardeners, attendants at museums, and other officials, whose services he himself values. And the policeman should be introduced to his notice as the gentleman appointed by the community to organize street traffic, prevent accidents, help inexperienced people over crossings, and restore lost children and dogs to their homes, and to prevent rough people from disturbing quiet citizens. To carry out all this kind of detail involves a great deal of quiet, leisurely thought; it cannot be done in an atmosphere of moral doubt and emotional turmoil.

Now my present point is, that the second of these courses, the one which involves carrying out principles into small detail, is by far the more likely of the two to educate future men and women willing to join the cause of reform, and able to work effectively for it. All experience shows that young people brought up in a turmoil of moral excitement caused by an atmosphere of generous revolutionarism in their early homes, become in later life, neither the most likely people to join in social reforms, nor the best able to grasp great principles.

A good deal of courage and faith is needed to enable a young woman, tempted by large and generous ideals, to grasp the reasons for the reticence here suggested. The things which prosaic educationalists recommend her to do seem so trifling compared to the vast changes which need to be made. The enthusiastic social reformer asserts so vehemently (and alas! with so much truth) that all possible kindness and courtesy from the well-meaning portion of the wealthy class makes very little essential difference in the fate of the labouring poor; that what is needed is a sweeping and wholesale change of our whole social machinery, and in all the relations between capital and labour. But, however true this may be, it does not follow that a mother of young children should in any direct way occupy herself about the matter. She is, as I said, in retreat for the time being; the business she has undertaken is the sowing of seeds, not the leveling of forests or the transplanting of trees.

For these reasons it does seem to me that a mother need not fear that she will be robbing her children of any valuable inheritance, if she decides to keep within narrow bounds, while they are young, her intercourse with all persons possessed of power to lead and influence thought, except such as show that they themselves have enough of ethical training and mental discipline to respect ancestral thought-modes, and the normal priesthood of parents.

So much I venture to suggest to parents who are sincere adherents of reform-ideas. As for the woman who insincerely courts the society of an earnest moralist, merely because he happens to be, for the moment, a social celebrity, she only gets what she deserves if a chance word spoken by him shatters the foundation on which their respect for her rests. An earnest reform-leader is a priest of living truth, an ark in which glows electric fire; the idolaters of old, who knew that the very presence of truth suffices to shake false gods from their pedestals, were wiser than many fashionable mothers in our so-called "scientific" age.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, 2011-2015