The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Practical Attitude of the Leisured and Educated Classes Towards the Nursery.

by Mrs. Edward Sieveking.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 716

"It struck me as irresistibly comic that anyone should gravely prefer being nurse to their chickens instead of to their babies."

(Continued from page 657.)

A well-known French writer has declared that the whole drift of a child's character is determined by the time he is seven years old: "Give me the child for the first seven years (as a famous Church dignitary said), and he will be a Jesuit all his life." Is it possible to over-estimate the meaning of these words to the parents? And, yes, most of the women in society to-day are certainly giving over the charge of these first seven years of their children's lives into the hands of others--paid substitutes. What is more important to the child than its first environment, its first impression of life? They colour the whole of life, one would be tempted to think, and this being so, how can we let any chance, hap-hazard survey of life be made on the white unsketched-out map of the child's future--(because, of course, the future is to a great extent sketched out in the early days of life)--by some ignorant hap-hazard nurse or nursemaid. And here I must add, that I am not for a moment undervaluing the services which a good nurse does often for the children; some are absolutely self-sacrificing; some know what to do in a crisis, and do it, when the mother who has never learnt her nursery "A B C" stands by completely non-plussed. And here comes in the pity of it, that the mother should be content to miss for good and all, all the sacred, intimate little duties in the nursery which are so comforting and repaying to those who do them, a service which so completely "blesses" her "who gives" and the child "who takes." A mother, who also was nurse to her own children, said to me the other day, "I love the attending to their little bodies, there is so much besides that one can rub in the while." And that is just the gist of the whole matter--the things that one "can rub in" with the daily physical services, the little opportunities that drift daily to the mother's feet--the "daily bread" of nursery life. The baby, as a rule, is quickly discriminating, and his first smiles, his first overtures are given to her who stands daily ministering to his little needs.

I have, as we all have, I suppose, seen how little children often cry for the nurse in preference to the mother, who, as likely as not, appears in the nursery but for a few minutes of the day, and then is no more seen by them. She, being "cumbered" with "much serving" of the society demands of her day--demands which call for a great sacrifice of her time for little purpose.

I was talking to an acquaintance the other day about this very subject, and she differed widely from me as to what the mother should undertake for her children; and after talking about it for some few minutes, the conversation drifted a little, she said, "I busy myself with my chickens: I always feed them myself and see to all their little requirements." It struck me as irresistibly comic that anyone should gravely prefer being nurse to their chickens instead of to their babies. I know that many people insist that a wise supervision is better than actual practical nursery work. Of course, supervision only, in some instances, notably, where the mother herself is unable through weak health to undertake the strain of the work, is the wisest plan; but then, to be successful, it has to be really wise supervision. For what one may call an intimate supervision is a very difficult affair, unless the mother is her own head nurse; and, of course, it is a sine qua non that she have help.

Touching the remark that many people a propos of supervision--that a wise supervision is better than the mother herself busying herself with practical work for her children--I should like to remind them that no one can supervise properly unless they have actually done the work they undertake to superintend. Now, how many ladies have done the work for the children which they so confidently supervise? It seems to me that to superintend effectually, it is necessary to be constantly on the spot. In this connection, consider the hours most women who live much in society, are, perforce, away from the nursery: the mornings, shopping; the lunches at a friend's house; the afternoon teas; the theatres, etc., when the supervision has to be in abeyance.

Then, another point has to be considered. I have often heard women say, "Oh, but I choose a thoroughly capable, reliable nurse whom I can trust." But everyone has not the gift of discriminating character; and that this is one of the most imperatively necessary things in this connection everyone will readily allow, I think. And there is, there always must be, the risk of a mistaken estimate of the nurse's character--a misplaced confidence.

Only the other day a friend of mine was telling me that a few years ago (her son and daughter are now almost grown up) she found out from an old servant, that long ago, when her children were babies, and she and her husband were in the habit of going out nearly every evening, leaving them with perfect confidence in the nurse's care, the nurse and all the servants used regularly to go out: locked the children up in the nursery at the top of the house, and did not return till just before their master and mistress were expected home. And so, there were the children, left alone for hours together at the top of a big London house; and an attack of croup, as everyone knows, may come on suddenly and unexpectedly, and in nine cases out of ten the attack occurs in the evening, and if not treated within a few hours, must necessarily be fatal. Then again, a nurse, whom the mother had believed trustworthy, took her charge, a baby girl, into some stables where she had an acquaintance among the grooms, and the child caught glanders from one of the horses suffering from the complaint there, and died--for, to a human being, glanders is fatal in all cases, I believe. In another case, a clergyman told me, a nursemaid had been strongly recommended to a lady by a certain charitable society--most reprehensibly, for the sake of giving the girl "a chance." The first Sunday morning she was left in charge of the children at home, and all the family were at church, she deliberately held the boy and girl--quite little children--in front of the fire till their legs were badly burnt. The little boy was rendered by this treatment a cripple for life, and the little girl seriously injured for years.

I have given these instances simply because they have come under my own notice lately; but, of course, one could easily multiply them, for the shady depths of some phases of nursery life need only to be stirred for dark shapes at once to rise before one's eyes. I only give the foregoing to illustrate my statement that such things can occur under what is considered to be, quite rationally by some of us, as a wise, careful supervision. Those are the times when that supervision is "off duty," and when it is only too easy for the unscrupulous nurse to do what she likes. For, indeed, everyone who has tried the experiment knows how wide a gulf is fixed between demonstration and practical work of any kind. Look at the difference between an occasional supervision of how things are going on, when one pays one's accustomed visit, and everyone "faces the music," to when the house door shuts with a clang behind one, and one has turned the corner of the street, for then is the time for the lights to be turned down, and many things occur that would considerably amaze the mistress of the house could she but see them then! Supervision is not the same effectual thing as the practical profession of the mother-nurse, who devotes herself, while the children are babies, to being continually on active service. But, at the same time, there are the dangers which, as usual in life, stand close behind the path of this as other things. Exaggeration in good inevitably merges into evil, which is the constant shadow clogging the good in this world. And nothing is more difficult than to know exactly the moment when one begins to step wide of the mark which is the boundary of the wise medium of the balance of duties. The mother must see to it that her own life is kept going as well as the life of the children--her mental life, of course, I mean. If she does not--if she lets everything go, for the sake of the nursery life, and practically sacrifices herself on its altar--she is in effect severing her future connection with the children, because when they want her later on, she will probably have dropped out of their stride. She forgot that the interests, which are hers now would be theirs, too, in the days that were coming, and that in those very interests they would meet in the future on common ground when they had come into their inheritance of the mind. I heard of a case in point a few days ago, when a mother, having entirely given up everything for her children as little children, when they were growing up found herself, metaphorically speaking, left completely out in the cold, and this simply because she had let drop, one by one, all her own interests and pursuits, and now that her nursery occupations were done with, she had nothing left, in good repair, to take up instead. But if she has an assistant nurse working with her, the mother surely has opportunities of keeping up her own pursuits in her off half-hours and in the evenings.

And now just a few words from the mother's own point of view with respect to the way the nursery works on her; the way the practical handiwork reacts on herself. Many of us have been forced to face problems, forced to acknowledge how insoluble and unsatisfactory they often are, and we have at length got with others to the block at the end of the park where the gate is shut on any further progress. And there are among us those who have proved how restful it is to get back, as it were, to the simple beginnings of things--to be simple with the simple--and to take one's stand on the ground of practical manual work for the children. I suppose most of us have found how invigorating manual labour is when the mind is tired. And those who can do it, who are free to do it, find it what very few things in this world are--satisfactory and strengthening when it is work for one's own children. There is nothing in all the world that grips one like the attraction of work, when once one has realized fully how work rescues one, as it were. There are many dead-level, dreary monotonous days for most of us, and nothing takes the sting of these out so effectually as work which leaves one no time for thought. Some of us have made mistakes in the past, and there is nothing in the world like a present work to help one to forget a past mistake. And often "virtue" goes out in the doing of one of the simple, every-day ministerings to the needs of one of His little ones, which can, pro tem., stop the pain of a persistent sorrow.

Certainly it seems self-evident that, without the little personal services from the mother to her child, one specially direct, immediate sympathetic contact is missed. If the work is tiring in one sense, it is full of rest in another. If it is imperative in its call, and demands much of us, it opens the gates of an absolutely new world--a world of new discoveries and the study of human nature intimately--at its earliest--a world of experience, too, which only befall the close, faithful student of child-life.

"I pick up experiences," so runs a sentence in a play of to-day, "every-day, as children pick up shells on the sea shore; and in every one, as I put it to my ear, I hear the mysterious music of the world." And, as one picks up experience, so to speak, from the nursery floor, one may hear, if one only knows how to listen for it, the far-away notes of the melody of the future, which will be sounding in the ears of the world when the child of to-day is a man.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, 2011-2015