The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
What Is Our Aim?

by Mrs. Wicksteed.
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 718-725

[This is probably Emily Rebecca (Solly) Wicksteed, wife of the economist, Dante scholar, Marxism critic, and Unitarian minister Philip Henry Wicksteed (1844-1927) of Leeds, West Yorkshire. They had ten children.]

I suppose we all recognise certain moods and tendencies of to-day that we more or less deplore. We say, for example, that the manners of the young people are wanting in respect, that the children are less simple, that Sundays are becoming more and more secular, that the rush of life is too great, and destroys thoroughness, that nervous break-downs are on the increase, and so forth; and we fold our hands, and, feeling unable to cope with it all, we say, "It is in the air!" But, do we want, in the next generation, to see this state of things intensified? Surely not!

What I should like, then, to bring prominently forward in this short paper, especially to young mothers, is the fact that from the very cradle we are founding the character of the next generation. A trite remark no doubt, but none the less worthy of digestion. It was a Jesuit Father [St. Ignatius Loyola] who said, "Give me a child up to six years of age and I am content." He felt that he had securely laid the foundation; and if any people ever know how to get hold of body and soul, surely it is the Jesuits. They are past masters in the art of education: that is, of training character to a definite point.

We entirely disclaim the aims and ends of the Jesuit, but it would be interesting perhaps to ask ourselves what is our aim as regards our children? Have we any aim at all, as we fondle them, scold them, feed them, teach them, through these early years?

Of course we punish them for untruthfulness, check them for greediness and roughness, and are particualrly vexed with them (and show it) when untoward circumstances lead to the landing of a stone through our friend's window from Billy's catapult, or to the upsetting of a cup of tea over that other friend's latest Queen Anne chair by the wretched Molly, unaccustomed to drawing-room "four o-clock" [tea-time]. Still, beyond the genuine wish that our children should compare well with other children (which they cannot do without a modicum of the usual virtues, and above all, of "nice manners"), what, in these early years do we aim at? Or do we leave it all gradually to settle itesef, until our little child has become a big one, and goes off to boarding-school, and then blame the school mistress because she has not engrafted all the virtues under heaven upon that neglected little shoot?

By the time that a girl is twelve or fourteen the whole trend of her character is there: the foundation is laid, and can never quite be undone. Happy indeed is she if she has learnt in some measure to have herself in hand! But why do we leave alone this most important of all conceivable duties, and busy ourselves with trifles? We plan weeks and months ahead for a visit to the seaside for the children's health; we fondly picture the charming hats and frocks we mean them to have next spring; we make arrangements for the dancing class at an early age; and above all, we try to secure a good French accent by means of an indifferent French maid! (By the way Why must French always come first?) And after these things are secured, and a few trifles of course, such as the "Three Rs," and a bit of grammar, and quite a large number of little tunes upon the piano, we feel that we have attended very nicely to the early education. We have satisfied the demand made by appearances.

I think the reason that we fail to go deeper is that we formulate no aim for ourselves. What wants saying over and over again is--"The next generation shall be better than this, and we, mother and teachers, must see to it." How shall we see to it? By making the best we can on all sides of these child characters, and never losing sight of this aim. Very much love, very much patience, very much insight, and very much self-control, do we need for this. Far more thought and time that we give even to the dancing, or the party frocks, or the holiday plans.

The aim of the Jesuit is simple enough, one might think--to stifle all that does not tend ultimately to the glory of the mother Church, and to teach chiefly humility and obedience. Yet he considers the work of education worthy of all the genius and cultivation his order can bestow upon it. Why do we not imitate him in this infinite bestowal of pains? We have a nobler ideal to work for. He wants to create a perfect tool to be used by others. We want so to train our child that in after life, when power and freedom are his, he may rule himself, to the glory of God. We want to make the weak character strong, and the strong character sweet. We want to build up, harmoniously, a sound mind in a sound body, and further, to remember that beyond mind there is spirit; before which, even with the little child, we must take off our shoes and enter reverently.

A balanced character then is what we may perhaps define as our goal in education. The harmonious development of every side of the child's nature.

In the Guardian, some time ago, there was a very interesting review of the life of Sir James Paget, the famous surgeon. I should like to quote a sentence or two from it. "Undaunted courage, intense earnestness of purpose, and absolute simplicity are the most striking features of his life, and they were bound up with deep religious convictions. His strength arose, not from mere bull-dog tenacity, not from pre-eminent genius, not from the overflow of superabundant vitality, but from the beautiful balance of a finely tempered organisation, in which a strong leaven of the emotional and artistic temperament, deep human sympathy, and a keep sense of humour softened the austerity of unremitting self-discipline." Surely this sums up a noble character, and the words used are suggestive--"self-disciple," "human sympathy," "intense earnestness of purpose," "simplicity."

"By two wings," says an old writer [Thomas a Kempis], "man is lifted from things earthly; namely, by purity and simplicity. Simplicity doth tend toward God, purity doth apprehend and taste Him."

These are surely with us in child nature, and only need encouraging to stay by us to the end of life. We all know the refeshingness and restfulness of child society, because of its simple-mindedness, the absence of mixed motives, and of the knowledge of them in other people. Children must learn of evil through history and literature, and through the every-day occurrences of the world around; but if a sweet wholesome atmosphere of accrediting people with the best motives surrounds them at home, and they are accustomed, of the set habit of their parents, to hear nothing but good of their friends and relations and neighbours, it goes far to preserve the simple trustful spirit that is so beautiful, even in old age. The higher one's own standard is, the more one trusts others; and that house is the best ruled where both the children and the servants know that the right course is always expected of them. It is wonderful how they try to live up to it.

After this singleness of heart, this looking ever for good in others, what shall we cultivate? Shall we take some of the sister graces, which are there if we would but see them, and then speak of those more rugged virtues which are attained with cost and which make the backbone of character? Reverence, enthusiasm, gratitude, humility, all these are inherent in children, why do we so neglect them? Reverence for holy things, reverence for parents and teachers, reverence for old age, reverence for authority, reverence for wisdom and goodness, wherever we find it. All this is our bounden duty to cultivate, and nothing but example will do it. Handle all sacred topics and things reverently, and your child will be reverent. Show the utmost consideration and deference to old age, and the child will quickly learn to imitate you. Be studiously courteous and polite to his teachers and he will not be flippant and impertinent. And let parents exact for themselves and each other the proper deference and respect that is due to them. It is a grave mistake to try to be on the same level with the child. His natural attitude is to look up with awe as well as with love, and it is the right one.

Gratitude and enthusiasm--these are both such quickeners of life! Teach a child to be grateful to God for the sunshine, for the flowers and birds, for his happy home, and you have taken the first and simplest step in his religious life. Let him see that you are thankful for the happy things of your life and are pleased by unexpected kindnesses, and you are teaching him not only gratitude but a cheerful spirit. Cultivate a child's enthusiasm all you can, never laugh at it, even though it concerns only the tint of his rabbit's nose, or the shape of his last new kite. Seize every opportunity of rousing it for noble deeds and for beautiful things in nature and in art. Carefully treasure examples for him from history, from the daily paper, or from surrounding scenes; and do not be ashamed to let him see that you yourself are carried away in admiration sometimes. The youth of to-day is sadly lacking in enthusiasm.

Humility grows naturally side by side with these three graces. Not the humility of the Jesuit. There is no gain in lowering the natural dignity or self-respect of child or man. I mean rather the opposite of bumptiousness and self-conceit. Not so much thinking little of oneself, as not thinking of oneself at all--unselfconsciousness. Humility and simple-mindedness so adorn childhood, that one deprecates the tarnishing of them by the publicity in which children live nowadays. Selling at bazaars, standing at street corners with money boxes, importuning friends with collecting cards; surely this is no improving work; and more objectionable still, the "children's page" in grown-up fashion magazines, with the children's photographs and the children's letters to the editor. It seems to fit so ill with simple ways! Can we not fence off our little ones from the glare of the world for at least ten or fifteen years and give them time to grow, and to be "subject to their parents"? There is not a day, if we would but see it so, which does not give opportunity to call out their love and sympathy and unselfishness at home, without a taint of patronage, which is so apt to spoil the little outside worker. It is sometimes a more difficult and therefore more valuable lesson in self-denial to give one's brother the largest half of the orange, or one's dearest guinea pig, unthanked or but scantily acknowledged, than to save up ostentatious pennies towards some good outside enterprise. A who can in no sense rule himself is not fit to pose as a benefactor to others. Philanthropy is not for him (in public, at least) until he has in some degree learnt to practise self-denial and self-control at home. This ruling of oneself brings us down to the very foundation of all character.

Self-denial and self-control. these are the watchwords throughout education, and all the moral wrecks and a good many physical ones too, come from the lack of them. Think how much they imply. Unselfishness, earnestness, patience, gentleness, courage, energy.

The happiness of children is considered now more than ever before, and quite rightly too. I am sure there was often a lack of sunshine in their lives long ago, but along with the present sunshine we want the keen air of duty. We want to use every means to brace and strengthen the character, to enable it to face disagreeables, to bear disappointments; and happy is the child who, instead of being sheltered from every trial, has plenty of them, so be that they are small and short-lived and natural. "Thank God, there are difficulties," said the Bishop of Rochester, speaking of the beginning of learning; and every thoughtful mother must echo him; though each struggle makes a fresh claim on her love and sympathy, it also makes a fresh link between her and her child.

It seems to me of infinite importance to press the necessity of a disciplined early life, and to insist that it cannot begin too soon. A good nurse can teach even a baby self-control, by not taking it up whenever it cries. She can also teach it self-indulgence by letting it have an indiarubber perpetually in its mouth. A mother is fast weakening the feeble power of self-control and self-denial in her child when she permits it to be constantly spending pennies upon itself in sweets and toys, thus yielding to every opportunity of self-gratification; and she does a further injury when she allows this self-pleasing to keep her children away from school when any particularly fascinating enjoyment is at hand, making pleasure come before duty. The thing may not seem to matter very much now, but it will matter very much some day. Not the amount of lessons missed, or of sweets devoured, but of force of character lost. Surely, the satisfaction with which we say now and then, "That girl has some grit in her," is sufficient to show that "grit" is not too common.

[Indiarubber: the first pacifier was marketed in 1901 by Christian W. Meinecke. It was called a "baby Comforter" and was made of india rubber.]

I should like now to say just a few words about girls specially, and first about that dear amphibious thing, the growing girl, half in the nursery, half in the drawing-room, not quite at home in either, and scarcely knowing what she would be at. Now is the time to reap the benefit of a disciplined childhood. I verily believe that the more she has learnt to command herself, the less she will want to break away from her mother. But the old argument, unaswerable in childhood, "because mother says so," must be gradually replaced by something deeper and more compelling. I should call that something the sense of responsibility to God; I am not at liberty to injure my health by foolish, careless neglect; I am not at liberty to waste my brain power by unworthy reading; I am not at liberty to fritter away my time in perpetual trivialities; because I am responsible for all these gifts to God." Working on these lines, a mother can still guide her girl, and she must, for has she not the experience of age, and the wisdom of the world at her back? Books and companions are so strong an influence that I should have very little of one or other as intimates at this age. A girl has plenty of head work to do, and needs recreation; let it be as much as possible in the form of fresh air games, no crouching over sensational little magazine stories when the sun is shining out of doors, or indeed at any other time. I should quietly shelve everything in the shape of a magazine. Those fatuous stories are every whit as unwholesome as the earlier sweets, far more so indeed, for it is not only the self-indulgent habit of lazy reading that is concerned, but the possible harmful tone. The newspaper should be the prerogative of the father and mother to read aloud, and happy, thrice happy the home which had the influence of a wise, intelligent and judicious father. There is nothing like it to give breath and wholesomeness to the growing girl.

And now a word as to that finished product, the young lady home from school. I should straightway point out to her that her education had only just begun! She comes home with all her powers drawn out, her mental faculties stimulated, only in many cases to have them brought up short, and fairly quenched. All those years of study leading apparently to nothing! Surely this is largely the mother's fault? She does not direct, she does not encourage the continuing of an education whose lines were so carefully laid at school. A still sadder spectacle it is to see the girl with no tastes at all, no enthusiasms, no worthy ambitions, nothing beyond balls and young men!

Only a short time ago I heard of a girl just returned from a fashionable London school, who said that she was absolutely bored to death by each day when "there was nothing on." In the face of so incredible a state of things is it any wonder that one feels impelled to preach the doctrine of early training.

The wise mother will have a plan of life well thought out and broadly sketched, to be filled in by her daughter according to her particular tastes. Lectures, courses of reading, opportunities of following up artistic tastes, should be encouraged. But the primary idea should be, what can she, as the eldest daughter, do to contribute most to the welfare and happiness of the household? and rule her life by this.

I would strongly urge practical work in the home as a valuable part of the newly-fledged girl's career. I would haver her learn everything, from cleaning the kitchen stove to getting up the five-guinea pocket-handkerchief. By the way, why should not every girl not only learn, but continually practise getting up her own "fine things"? It is interesting and beautifully clean work, and surely to crimp one's collar is no more infra dig. than to crimp one's hair? Then, which of us can darn our best tablecloth to our own, or anyone else's satisfaction nowadays, or mend those aggravatingly fine silk stockings? We elders need more sight, the juniors more patience! I wish the good old fashion of sitting still and sewing would revive. It might do something towards stemming the tide of restlessness, and bringing back some of the old composure of manner. I am quite sure that manual training of all kinds would go far in many cases to avert nervous breakdowns.

Finally, one word about Sunday. The question of books and pastimes has exercised most of us. I boldly say that no book fit to be read on week-days is unfit to read on Sundays. But I should appeal to that sense of responsibility; and the girl whom it constrains on week-days to give her fresh morning powers to strong helpful work, of hands or brain, will recognise that the pause, from the rush of every-day life on Sunday, is equally constraining, in order to dwell with higher minds on higher things. And it is good sometimes to be alone. George Herbert says: --

    "By all means use to be alone,
    Salute thyself, see what they soul doth weare,
    Dare to look in thy cheste, for 'tis thine own,
    And tumble up and down what thou find'st there.
    Who cannot rest till he good fellowes find,
    He breaks up house, turns out of doors his mind."

Typed by Rondalyno, Dec. 2020; Proofread by LNL, Apr. 2021