The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

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

by Mrs. R. Devonshire
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 814-818

Surely a happy sisterly relationship, a friendship born with us and lasting until death, is one of the greatest blessings to be found in this life. Let us consider for a moment what an ideal sisterly affection should mean, and does mean, in many happy cases. It means such a true, firm friendship as to resist the petty jealousies and susceptibilities which destroy ordinary friendships between women. It does not mean one of those friendships which feed on long and often frivolous talks at what should be bedtime, but that particularly delightful form of intimacy--often wrongfully claimed by the sterner sex as peculiar to themselves--which makes real friends love to be together, sharing the same occupation, pleasure, or trouble, with no need for words to express their sweet communion.

Between ideal sisters, sympathy for each other's feelings, sorrows, and difficulties, need not be expressed, but the conscious and absolute trust in its presence is an unspeakable comfort to the stricken one.

Again, in happiness or mere pleasure, the same ready sympathy is there, joyous and untainted with envy. Perhaps this latter manifestation of love is rarer than the first; many of us women are pitiful and compassionate, and ready enough to weep with those that weep; it is not so easy to rejoice with those that rejoice. Such sisters would take pride and pleasure in each other's attainments, and help and encourage each other's efforts by appreciation of the results. They would also unite to struggle against what are known as "family faults," such as a too-ready acceptance of a mother's unselfishness, or a feeling of superiority to other families: "We never do this," "We always do that," a form of conceit frequently met with and apparently justified by the use of the plural pronoun--or against the most common of all, a critical attitude towards guests, which makes some families absolutely shunned by their acquaintances.

Ideal sisterly love would survive absence, long separation, marriage to uncongenial husbands, even wrong-doing on the part of one sister. How exquisitely comforting a sister's undoubting and undoubted love can be in middle life--an oasis of peace in the midst of our worries, anxieties, and disappointments in our work, our servants, our more recent friendships, even our children--only those of us who have experienced it can tell.

And in old age, when childhood's and youth's recollections are an unfailing and almost an only pleasure, how sweet to recall them in company with those whose presence gave the past half its charm, and for whom the same memories have the same pure delight.

This is but a poor description of a state of things which is, alas, almost exceptional. What, indeed, do we far too often see in families where there are several sisters about the same age? We see children who appear to consider rudeness a privilege of sisterhood, calling each other "idiots," "sillies," and other such terms, and indulging in constant little quarrels about nothing. Their mother says, with a sort of proud humility: "I am afraid they quarrel a good deal, but they are really very fond of each other." Later on, these same girls will probably be prevented by a kind of false shame from expressing this latent fondness to each other; perhaps, even, they will find that affection has vanished, and only familiarity and a habit of rudeness have remained.

Or, we see growing girls in constant rivalry and jealousy of each other, each insisting on her so-called rights, her turn to go out or to have some coveted object, always inviting comparison: "Are you sure you care for me more than for Mary?" they will ask their bosom friend. Dreading comparison, too: I have known girls give up singing or some other accomplishment because one of their sisters happened to excel in it. As to taking pride in each other's successes, nothing is further from their thoughts, though they sometimes do evince interest in each other's clothes. In how many families is practising, for instance, considered a necessary evil, if not an intolerable nuisance, rather than a cause of general interest in the progress of the musician?

And when, in a large family, the elder sisters feel their beauty and social success waning with their youth, and see their younger sisters obtaining the attention which once was theirs--how often does the natural regret become bitter jealousy, almost hatred? How different it would be if the elder sister felt a new pride and delight in her "little" sister's success, and how much less this same success would harm the younger one if her love and admiration for her sister were such that nothing could detract in her eyes from the elder's superiority? What a wholesome enjoyment it would be for both if the younger one could come to the elder for sympathy in her pleasure, telling her with happy trustfulness of her new and exciting experiences. The sister's similar recollections would be more recent than those of the mother, and her help would be invaluable in keeping the young girl safe from the many difficulties and traps which surround a child "just out." She herself would be preserved from envy and ill-feeling by the almost motherly love which would so gladly respond to the trustful appeal to it.

We hear a great deal nowadays for and against the modern system by which each girl in a family takes her own line and follows it; often for the excellent reason that they cannot afford not to work; sometimes for the pitiable reason that "they do not get on at home." Does that mean that they are not on good terms with their fathers and brothers, of whom they usually see very little? Or with their mother? Sometimes, alas, that is so, but more frequently it means that they do not get on with each other. And then the mother, who would so gladly and proudly surround herself with the fair daughters who have cost her so much anxiety and trouble to bring up, often has to pay a stranger to be her "companion," an expensive and usually unsatisfactory dress-maker to make her clothes, and an equally expensive and unsatisfactory cook to superintend the inexperienced kitchen-maid who does the greater part of the work. Meanwhile, the girls are following their own lines; the eldest, let us say, as a clerk or secretary; the second as a lecturer on scientific dressmaking; the third as the head of a School of Cookery for ladies.

We hear now and then of two or three old maids left sufficiently well off to end their lives quietly together in a little home of their own. People almost pity them for "having to live together." Why is not this considered a privilege, and who would think of pitying a mother and daughter, or even a brother and sister, for having to live together? It does not in the least follow that the brilliancy and accomplishments of a clever woman, or her capacities for doing good, will be smothered by the affectionate companionship of her sisters, her best and truest friends. Nor is it probable that a dull and uninteresting woman will find among strangers the same patience and tenderness that her sisters will show her.

Some families offer quite a different state of things--a sort of leaguing of the children, brothers and sisters, against their parents, a mutual agreement to keep secrets from them. This is usually brought about by excessive severity on the part of the parents; it was more frequent in the last generation than in this, and is altogether undesirable. Sometimes, also, real love has sprung up between brothers and sisters as the result of some great common sorrow. God forbid that this should be necessary.

In most happy cases, the parents are responsible for the loving atmosphere in the home. It has been said often in this Society, by our wisest and our best--but surely cannot too often be repeated--that they influence their children chiefly by their example. Certainly a husband and wife who love and respect each other will not let their children see or hear anything but mutual courtesy and consideration. But there are other influences and examples--the children see and hear their nurse, they meet other children, they watch poor children in the streets. It is impossible to be too particular as to the manner of the nurse, to the children and to other people. She should have instructions never to allow rudeness from one child to another--children should be as polite to each other in the nursery as to visitors in the drawing room. Some people think this exaggerated and hypocritical; surely there is more hypocrisy in having two different standards. If a child is allowed rudely to snatch anything from his brother, accompanying the act by some such amenity as "you stupid," why should he not behave in the same way to the "dear little girl" Lady So-and-So has brought to play with him whilst she is calling on his mother?

Another important thing is to teach children respect for each other's property. This has far-reaching results in later life, as conducing to probity and honourableness; but it also helps very much to keep matters smooth between brothers and sisters. A great cause of quarrels and animosity is removed when nothing is ever borrowed without leave, when each child has to put away his own things and is responsible for them; therefore unable to accuse another of taking this, or breaking or losing that. One peculiarly irritating habit, common amongst nurses, is to take pet belongings of the elder children and give them to the little ones, "Let Baby have it, he wants it." This will not help a child of three, or even a girl of twelve, to love Baby! Parents can also help their children to love each other by suggesting little kindnesses from one child to another--perhaps afterwards suggesting due gratitude from the other to the one; children enjoy feeling grateful, even when they do not spontaneously originate the feeling. They can also be moved to pride in each other, taught to feel as much pleasure and satisfaction in the success of a sister as in their own; when this esprit de famille has been fostered in their hearts, there is no room left for envy and its accompanying hatred and uncharitableness. Envy is an evil to be warily fought against, as precautions against it sometimes awaken it to knowledge of itself. When a child shows signs of it, he should be pitied, not scolded, and led to consider it a sort of disease, to be ashamed of and got rid of as soon as possible.

Work, at lessons and otherwise, should be made a source of general interest; children will follow their parents' lead, and soon like to hear how far Mary has come in her History, or about the new piece of music Dolly is going to begin. A remark from the mother to a girl, in a room adjoining the music room, "Why, Dolly nearly knows that sonata!" will often turn the irksome sound of the sister's practising into quite an interesting evidence of progress. Parents can also arrange that the greatest pleasures should be those that can be taken in common, teaching each child to help in the general happiness. As to the difficulties of "turns," etc., the parents should, of course, exercise absolute fairness; but it should be remembered that absolute fairness does not mean that little tiny children should be taken in their turn to entertainments which their elders at their age would never have been allowed; this is another thing that the average nurse is apt to urge upon the mother.

Self-denying love from an elder sister to a little one is more frequently met with than any other form of sisterly affection. The mother should see that this be not all one-sided, that the elder sister always get her due, and that her abnegations do not result in the other's selfishness. A little child can easily be brought to think gratefully and admiringly of a kind elder sister. And when this almost motherliness exists on the part of her elder daughter, the mother should shield her from criticism in the same way that a wise mistress shields a nurse; she should not blame her before the little one, even for trifling faults, but take her to task in private; and she should not allow disparaging remarks form the younger children.

When girls are growing out of babyhood, differences of opinion, even quarrels, and some consequent ill-feeling may arise. It is wiser to encourage forgetfulness and evaporation of this than to insist on apologies and "making up." Talking over quarrels only embitters them. Two children who are induced more or less willingly to "kiss and be friends" are much less likely to feel at peace than if the mother or nurse suddenly brings before them an object of equal interest to both. Later on, with each one in private, the mother will preach a little loving sermon on the wickedness of the things they allowed themselves to say, and on the danger of losing one's temper and control of one's speech.

There is one serious reason for positive disunion among some families, which I have not dwelt upon; that is, the obvious and manifest preference of one or both parents for one particular child. I am sure we all hope and trust no P.N.E.U. parent would commit such a grievous error. We are all trying to do our very best by our children; we give them our time, our thoughts, our infinite love; we try to provide for their future in a material way. Let us try and leave them this legacy, when our love is taken from them--their mutual love for one another.

Proofread May 2011, LNL