The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

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

Concrete Problems

Group Discussion led by Mrs. Franklin
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 636-645

P.N.E.U. Conference
At 3 p.m., there was a discussion on Concrete Problems.

Mrs. Franklin, who was in the chair, said: I feel rather nervous in occupying this position, as though I believe the debate this afternoon may be of great use, and may bring inspiration and help to many, still it is fraught with great dangers. In the first instance, let me beg people to observe the rule which I shall be very strict in enforcing from the chair, the rule of making the discussion absolutely impersonal. We are lacking in that reverence and respect which we all feel is due to our children, if we bring up and discuss in public our children's faults or even virtues. Then, again, let me say that we none of us speak with the voice of infallibility, we are all learners, and we do not lay down rules of conduct, or a system of education, which each of us can go home and then and there apply to our children. Alas, our task as parents and as child trainers is not so easy. We have to have certain true educational principles which we must master, digest, and quietly work out in all our homes in a reverent and prayerful spirit. I am afraid that some among our members do what we are always urging that the children should not be allowed to do, viz., swallow raw material without digesting it. Someone will advocate "cold baths," and they will at once, regardless of the child's physical condition, previous habits, etc., etc., go home and then and there start the practice. Someone else will speak in praise of certain gymnastics and at once a fashion and a cult is started for them without due thought and weighty consideration.

What we have to try and work out in our lives, is to remember that we are dealing with the most sacred and holy material—a human being—a God-given soul, and that we are to "endeavour to produce him at his best, physically, mentally, morally and religiously." We ought to take to heart the words in Miss Mason's admirable series of articles, "Ourselves, our souls, and bodies"—"Every now and then a reformer appears, who reasons out the old things afresh, and comes to a different conclusion, perhaps a right one, perhaps a wrong one . . . then people have to think again, and use their reason about things they believed were long ago settled."

Another complaint I have against some of our members, and that, too, against some of the most earnest, is that they expect our lecturers, and even sometimes only simple members, to be able to give them off-hand advice on every possible subject. They complain that the Union is not of the assistance they had hoped, because they do not get their many questions answered. May I tell these earnest mothers that if our lecturers gave us little "hand-books of information," "enquire within upon everything," the help would not be worth much. Every child is different, as every human being is different; we can, as I said before, but hope to learn something of the laws which govern the working of mind and body, the true springs of character, and the way to set about character training. Some of the questions put would require a deep and profound knowledge of physiology and psychology, an intimate knowledge of the child and his surroundings, and long and deep thought before they could be solved. Still, our Union is blamed, and our lecturers condemned, because they are not answered straight off-hand.

We shall now proceed to discuss the first question, with which I will combine another one sent in:—

I. B has a very fertile imagination and a great desire to please, and these causes combine to make her remarks, descriptive of ordinary events, etc., very greatly exaggerated at times, so as to be really untrue statements of facts. This is done without in the least meaning to mislead, for she is a perfectly truthful and honourable child, only she lets her imagination carry her away so that I suppose she really thinks things have happened which have done so only in her imagination.

II. How would you implant a living idea in young children of the meaning of the words "truth" and "reverence,' so that when they learn them, they may attach a real meaning to them!

Mrs. Franklin called upon Lady Campbell to open the discussion. She said she had been greatly helped in getting children to attain sincerity in telling their little experiences by an article she had read long ago in the Parents' Review. The idea was to make the child realize what a great thing it is to be dependable in narrating anything, and that accuracy was "rather a fine thing to attain.' Mothers and nurses sometimes unconsciously encouraged little exaggerations by expressing surprise at the things told them by children, instead of saying something like, "I want you to tell me just what happened,"—or "can't you tell me exactly,"—or in speaking of another child's narrative, "it is so interesting because it is so accurate."

Mrs. Franklin reminded those present of a lecture by Mrs. Boole, on "The preparation of a child's mind for science," in which she urged the necessity of making children carry out orders accurately, of telling what had been done without curtailment or addition. We all feel that there is nothing so important or so difficult of attainment as absolute verbal accuracy. There is probably nothing so rare in adults; very few people can describe a conversation exactly as it was given, and much of the harm in the world has been caused by this want of accuracy.

Professor Earl Barnes said that the subject seemed to fall into two parts—the first had been admirably answered by Lady Campbell, and the second by Mrs. Franklin. He thought that a child's want of accuracy usually arose either from exuberant fancy, fear, or the desire for aggrandisement. The means of preventing this inaccuracy, he thought, could be found by training the child in a scientific method of observation, which could be done in many simple ways. This would bring the child to the point where he sees and expresses things as they are. Why does a child exaggerate? Either because he has no idea of truth, or else because he is played upon by very stimulating social environment. We can make children truth-telling persons, and we can spoil them by keeping them in an atmosphere of non-truth. Now, an ordinary London drawing-room does not give the best opportunities for studying exact expression. In discussing children we are discussing humanity. "The things that belong to us writ large," and the problems touched upon will touch us all. We can, however, create in a child a desire for telling the truth by the methods described by Lady Campbell, and the result will be that the child will then tell the truth.

Mrs. Hickson said: We do not always realize that children's power of verbal expression is so very limited. Often when we ask what a child means, it has no words to express its meaning, and by increasing its vocabulary, we enable it to have a more exact method of expression.

Hon. Mrs. Fremantle thought that a child who erred through a strong imagination needed food for the imagination.

Mrs. Franklin said that many children would recount most minute details of events which had never happened, and would describe, e.g., the conversations held with people they had met, whom they had in truth not seen that day at all. In dealing with them, Mrs. Boole's suggestion was that we should say, "Yes, that is true in pretence world, now what is true in your world, in Charlie's world." If pulled up thus, the child would immediately give the true facts. Of course, it is not necessary to urge that one ought to be careful to show that one never distrusts or disbelieves a child. Nurses are apt to punish inaccurate statements, and to "manufacture sinners."

Mr. Sutton said: "I have often found it useful with grown-up people and children to accept their statements as if true and act upon them. The ludicrous position thus produced has a very good effect. The following example will illustrate my meaning: when appointed chairman of a certain committee, I was told that the secretary's word was not to be trusted, and that several people had refused to work with him on that account. So the first thing I said to him was, "Now mind, everything you say I shall accept as a fact and act upon it." I worked with that man for three years and never knew him to exaggerate or tell an untruth. I think the same thing would answer with children.

Mrs. Devonshire said: I think this would apply better when untruthfulness was deliberate, but children are untruthful rather from a desire to be interesting.

This concluded the first discussion.

III. Many young people in the present day read with great zeal (especially novels and works of fiction). How shall we guide this?

Mrs. Hart-Davis, who opened the discussion, said: I suppose the great question in discussing this is whether we can possibly keep pace ourselves with the things our young people read! If we can do this, I think there is very little doubt that we can direct and help them, but if our lives are too busy, this is a difficult matter. My own feeling is that if my young people were reading or talking about a book, I should get at it somehow, and should openly talk it over and discuss it with those who had read it. For instance, An Englishwoman's Love Letters [anonymous] has been read by many girls, and formed a topic of conversation in many a drawing-room, and many a mother would be glad to have read it, if only for the opportunity of talking it over with the girls and getting out of them what they themselves had thought of the book. I have a very strong feeling that numbers of the things we mothers are afraid to talk about to our children and have never found out how to reach, can be readily touched by discussing the characters in fiction. But we must read a great many novels before our children grow up, dip into every kind of love-story, so that we may not be foiled when the time for discussing them comes. Children will talk about their likes and dislikes, etc., at meal-times, but if you attack them upon the books they are reading, you can soon divert the conversation into the highest possible lines, and much more easily by attacking their books than their friends, of course, taking it for granted that everybody loves reading a great deal.

Lady Campbell said: I should like to be quite clear as to whether we are discussing the mental food we are to give or the inordinate appetite for reading?

Mrs. Franklin said: The question is really how to prevent the inordinate love of fiction. I cannot help feeling that the best means of doing this is to give the child a great number of other interests, and regard the greed for reading any one kind of book as a phase, and possibly a valuable one. It seems to me that we ought to be careful before rashly interfering with the kind of book or the amount of reading, provided the child's duties are carried out. Biographies of great men and women usually tell us that these had free access to good libraries in their youth, where they found the inspiring ideas which were for the time being the mental pabulum necessary for their growth.

Mrs. Devonshire thought that it was a pity that in schools where games are compulsory, reading was apt to be discouraged, and thus came to be regarded as "forbidden fruit," whereas, in reality, it was exercise as much as games, only that it brought into play a totally different set of nerves and muscles.

Lady Campbell: I know a girl who has this inordinate appetite for printed matter, and will read anything from Gibbon's Decline and Fall to the piece of newspaper serving as a parcel wrapper. It does become a serious question how to guide that passion without destroying the love of reading, which will become such a joy in the future. But if you see that a child's tremendous interest in reading becomes almost like dram-drinking, and that it only appears to live while reading, and afterwards experiences a sort of mental lassitude, what is to be done? Such children read the moment they wake, which is like starting the day on meringues. One thing is to allow a definite time when this reading is permitted, or rather when the child has leave to take any book it likes, so as not to allow a sense of stealthy guilt. It cannot be right to check the thing constantly, so the only alternative is to put in other interests with tact at the right moment. For instance, getting up a special interest in a piece of needlework destined for a gift.

Mrs. Franklin: I suppose that one great way of preventing this fault, if it be a fault, is to form a child's taste, and this we must begin quite early, with very young children. I believe that if children are read to a great deal—not little story-books, but good literature—they will gain a habit of attention and will not become greedy, devouring readers; above all they will not "skip." I think if, when we talk over the books with our children, and find out that they do not remember what they have been devouring so greedily, we should show them that they had not really grasped what was in the book, and I agree with Lady Campbell's advice as regards giving a definite time for reading. There is a great deal of comfort in the thought that these are phases and that the child, who for some months will do nothing but read, will at another time do something else with equal zeal. I believe, too, that the schools can help us much in this way. I know that Mr. Badley's pupils will rush to find the books about which he has talked in his lessons, and as these are usually rather hard, they will not produce that greed which we deplore.

Mrs. Macgillycuddy: It seems to me a parent's duty to choose books for our children. A little girl who was staying with me said that she had read all sorts of novels, including Lady Audley's Secret [by Mary Elizabeth Braddon].

Lady Campbell: I am speaking in the place of Lady Helen Lacey, who has been called away, but wished to speak of the importance of making children acquainted with the very best literature. I know that her children, when seven and nine years old, had parts in Milton and Browning read to them and listened with interest and appreciation, and even if they did not understand quite all, the experienced a thrill of pleasure from the beauty of the language.

IV. The next question of "How a child can be taught the proper use of money" was then taken.

Prof. Earl Barnes urged that it was good for a child to spend, but bad for a child to save money. The putting of cash in a bank and the putting of sixpences in the church plate involved abstract considerations that a young child could not grasp. "But surely," a lady asked, "to teach a child to put its money in the plate is to teach it unselfishness?" The Professor retorted that it was far better for the sixpence to be spent on a sweetmeat in the company of other children. Their hungry appealing eyes would convey a definite meaning, some of the sweetmeat would be surrendered and unselfishness would thus be encouraged.

Subsequent speeches revealed a general agreement that it is well to let a child learn the meaning of money, by earning pennies and spending them, according to unassisted personal promptings.

The meeting adjourned for tea.

The two following questions were then taken together:— V. If a child shows signs of temper, how can he best be helped? VI. How would you train a young child with a very strong will, so as to develop the will in right directions, and to avoid repressing it and causing a bad-tempered attitude in the child?

Mrs. Franklin asked whether all present had read "The Philosopher at Home," in Parents and Children, which dealt with this question of temper.

Mrs. Anson said she felt that people might read this article and yet not learn to enforce obedience in their children.

Lady Campbell asked whether we ought to try and avoid giving our children opportunities for self-control.

Dr. Helen Webb said that our business was to train the child's will, and that was not done by "battles of will" between the person in authority and the child, nor by tempting the child more than he could stand. If we in authority help the growing will by that valuable adjunct of "change of thought," we teach him self-control. Prevention is better than cure; but, of course, the all-important thing is to start early enough and not let the child's quick temper grow in strength by exercise; what we must remember in the forming of good habits—and this is a large part of moral training in the child—is that, if any lapse occurs, if there is any struggle which comes as a temptation to the child, we must be careful that the whole incident be not repeated, and that it be forgotten as quickly as possible. Otherwise if the same circumstances arise again, the battle will probably be repeated again with a like result. If, however, we come to it fresh after some lapse of time, we may see how we have in the meanwhile strengthened the child's will, by the way in which he will now react to the outer stimulus. The question of "expectation and of suggestion" is also a most important one too often forgotten.

Mrs. Franklin then said: Let me put two pictures before you; one is of a mother for whom I should like to use that delightful adjective which Mrs. Clement Parsons gave us this morning, I mean the "inadequate mother." She is receiving a caller, and her baby aged two-and-a-half comes in. Instead of waiting till the child's natural courtesy asserts itself, she bids him say, "How do you do?" The child is silent, and after repeated requests he is put into a corner. After a time the child is taken out, but still refuses. At the end of some long time the child sobbing, white and tired, gives a sullen greeting and is released. People will say that the inadequate mother conquered, but I hardly think she taught the child a willing obedience, a self-control, a respect for authority. Anyhow, I may add, that I know that, in spite of much similar treatment, with the addition of an occasional whipping, the child at five-and-a-half is quite unmanageable, and the mother inadequate. Naturally, this incident would give us a text for many further reflections on the mistake of reproving children before other people, on the teaching of good manners, etc., but this would take us beyond the questions under discussion.

Now for my second picture: a child of about two is asked to put some scraps of paper into the waste-paper basket. This he does cheerfully and happily till it comes to the last piece, then with a mischievous look he puts it on a chair. "No," says the nurse, "in the waste-paper basket,"—again, with a look of mischief, he puts it on another chair. Then the nurse says, "Come here," and when he has come, does something to his frock, and shows him some trifle, and after a minute: "Now, quick, I want that in the waste paper basket," and the child with the fresh suggestion does it at once. That is what we mean by avoiding battles, and by a right use of change of thought. It is not: "Annie, dear, go to bed" and when the child refuses and looks disinclined to do so: "Oh! my darling, come and sit on my lap and I will read you a story." In my second example, I maintain that the child's will was being trained to fall in line with that of his nurse, he was, with her help, made to do the thing he did not want to do, he could not follow the temptation of the moment, the funny mischievous little game, and so learnt self-control. Of course, this was not prompt obedience, nor was it by any means prompt in the other example, but this was a training towards prompt obedience, and the other was not. There is no lesson, said Mrs. Franklin, which the P.N.E.U. would teach its members more, than the implanting of a respect for authority, and a cheerful loving obedience. This is why I always beg young mothers to join us before they have by mistakes prepared for themselves many hours of regret. The obedience we hope to get is the cheerful obedience to a wise ruler and friend, not the "fearful obedience" to the autocrat.

Dr. Helen Webb said: One must work out this question of change of thought with a young child before one sees its inestimable value in strengthening the will and the conscience, and helping the child to grow strong and wise, and to distinguish between right and wrong.

Lady Campbell referred to the incident in Kingsley's life, where he recommends the treatment of changing a child's thoughts when about to give vent to temper, by sending him to run round the garden.

Mr. Underhill recommended leaving the child alone in a room until he would come round, which was a rule pretty soon.

A few other remarks terminated this discussion.

Mrs. Franklin read several letters from parents of boys who had worked in the "Parents' Review School," and one from a preparatory schoolmaster, all of which spoke of the satisfactory teaching and training which had been given by the school. Mrs. Franklin then called on Mr. H. Underhill, of Wootten Court, Canterbury, to open the discussion. (Unfortunately the corrected notes of the report of Mr. Underhill's speech arrive too late for publication.) Several other people took part in the discussion, which, however, took the form of definite questions to Mr. Underhill as an experienced schoolmaster. In answer to one query as to the age at which a boy should begin Latin, Mr. Underhill said that he should consider ten a good average age for commencing, but referred the questioner to the articles in the last Blue Book published by the Education Department on "Preparatory Schools," and particularly to Mr. Mansfield's article. The general feeling of the meeting seemed to be that the question could be answered decidedly in the affirmative.

As the meeting had already lasted till past six o'clock, it was thought best to omit the discussion of several other interesting questions which had been sent in.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Mar 2009