The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

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


Children's Capacities.

by Rachel Challice, Author of "Vexed Questions," etc., etc.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 286-290

[Blogger Kirsty Hopper wrote, "Rachel Challice is almost entirely forgotten now, but in the decade before her death in 1909, she was a well-known writer on Spain, also familiar to English readers as the translator of the popular Spanish novelist Armando Palacio Valdes." Her best-known book is "The Secret History of the Court of Spain," 1909. There's a newspaper page from 1903 that includes, "Vexed Questions: Wives' Work Discussed by Rachel Challice, Article V." Wikipedia has a 1907 photo of her.]

When people ignore the manifold modes in which the capacities of children may be developed to the benefit of themselves and others, they lose as much in the economy of labour as the people of antiquity did with regard to the use of horses.

For Edward Meyer, the famous German historian, tells us that when the horse found its way from its original home in the Turanian Steppes to the countries of the Euphrates, and from thence into Egypt, "it was never ridden or used as a beast of burthen," but its energies were only brought into play as "a steed of warfare harnessed to the two-wheeled richly ornamented chariots which figured in the battles of antiquity."

The Assyrians and Egyptians were not conscious of the mistake they made in the economy of labour, and do not parents often ignore how much the wheels of life would be oiled if the sinews of a child's strength were used to its own self-respect and to the aid of others, instead of being allowed to run riot?

In Assyria the name of the horse was ideographically written as "the ass of the East," and when people overlook the intelligence of children and merely regard them as silly little things only fit to be dressed up, played with, and amused, they miss the mark as much as those who classed our noble domestic animal with that which signifies stupidity. Is it not well for the nervous energy of a child to be directed into a right course? Well do I remember being awakened by a little six-year old boy shouting again and again: "How glad I am that nobody knows my name is Rumpelstilchen," and each time he came to the last word of the doggerel in the old fairy tale, the little fellow jumped from the rail of his crib on to the floor. And some weeks later my little nephew, who was in the next bedroom to mine, woke me up before sunrise by wildly dashing up and down the room and throwing himself each time against the door. To my shouted query as to the meaning of this commotion came the calm rejoinder: "I am only a wild beast, auntie." But ill-timed as these exhibitions of young nervous energy were, are they not noteworthy indicators of latent youthful strength, which like any other force can be used to the comfort, or discomfort of a community?

This strength when undirected leads to the water being let off in cisterns, the castors unscrewed from the legs of the furniture, the woodwork of the window frames hacked, and other similar youthful peccadilloes of an equally annoying character. But could not the force be as beneficial if well directed as it is baneful when left to run riot?

Do people realise sufficiently how much children crave for an outlet for their energies? A lady told me the other day that, when quite a little girl, she said to her mother, "I want something to do, what can I do?" "Do," was the rejoinder, "why, twiddle your thumbs one way, and when you are tired of that, twiddle them the other." "And even to this hour," said the now grey-haired lady, "I feel the chill of despair which came over me when all my impulses for usefulness were thus cruelly checked." Is it not sad to think of the stream of such young lives being left to stagnate in idleness for want of an intelligent director of it?

A fine doll's house with all its pretty miniature furniture soon palls upon its owner as she realises its uselessness, in the same way as a boy tires of his toy-soldiers; whereas a poorer little girl's sense of importance deepens with the skill which she gains in using an old dustpan and brush in her little home; and in the same class, a boy's self-respect increases with the gain of power which comes in "helping father." I feel sure that a great deal of the irritability and bad temper of children of the so-called "cultured" class is due to the lack of culture given to their inborn capacities for usefulness.

When we see the small boys of the labouring class employing their recreation hours in chopping wood, digging in the garden, cleaning knives, peeling potatoes, feeding the pigs, chickens, &c., whilst the little girls make the beds, sweep, dust, and even cook, we can understand that the time they spend at home is a source of comfort instead of friction to their parents, as it gives a healthy outlet to their will and intelligence. Why, then, should not well-to-do parents also cultivate their children's capacities for usefulness?

A lady who has a registry office in London recently told me that a rich person, who called the other day in search of a nurse, explained that she kept four nurses because she had four children, and she found that each child requires a nurse to itself to tend and amuse it. And yet, I doubt not that those four children are all more fretful and ailing than the little son of a working man I know, whose mother proudly said when I noticed him: "Oh! yes, he is a rare one with the brushes, he will soon be able to do father's boots all by himself."

I often see a six-year old boy beg to be allowed to sweep the snow from the garden paths, and indeed the way his little arms wield the broom is not without effect and the sparkle of his eyes and the roses on his cheeks prove the healthiness of the occupation.

A sensible mother of my acquaintance once told me that when her thirteen-year old son was not strong enough to go to school for a term, she grew so tired of seeing him idling about, that one day she tied an apron round him, took him into the kitchen and showed him how to make some cakes. From that day he became a competent little cook, and his occupation stopped his being an annoyance in the house. Such instruction in domestic arts contributes to the success of a man's life!

Shall we ever forget how General Baden-Powell's natural powers of resource, increased by home cultivation in all practical matters, proved an irresistible power in the now historic siege of South Africa?

I well recollect the tone of envy with which I once heard a little girl say, whilst watching the kitchen-maid hearthstone the door-step, "How I should love to do that!" Indeed, why should not young people be taught to do all kinds of work? Might there not be more sympathy with the servants and more capacity to fill their places when they are not forthcoming, if girls were drilled in every department of household duties as a naval or military officer is schooled to the office of every sailor or soldier under his command? And yet many people do not even trouble to teach their children the necessary art of tidiness. Complaints are heard of the litter of toys, books, &c., in a playroom, and the worn-out nurse patiently proceeds to reduce the chaos to order. In a poorer person's cottage such a complaint is not heard, for from the time the child can walk it knows that if it does not take care of its few toys, it will have none at all. Necessity is the nurse of the poor, and it teaches more than the servants of the rich. It is, I know, easier to put the place tidy than to send for the culprit and show him how to do it. But the parent who takes the trouble to make the child respect Heaven's first law of Order, is amply rewarded in later life when the boy or girl has cultivated the habit.

Some children I know, whose naughtiness had been for weeks the despair of the governess, were sent down to a farm in the country. At the end of a week they were reformed characters. The parents enquired the cause of the change. "Well, as they seemed so anxious to do something, I just let the little girls feed the poultry," said the farmer's wife, "and my old man gave the young gentlemen a granary to sweep out."

If parents of the cultured class made it a general custom to equip their children with a knowledge of practical matters whilst their hearts and hands are malleable, we should not only have less fractious and more companionable young people at home, but in the after vicissitudes of life, either in England or in the Colonies, they would be capable men and women. What competence can be attained by a girl whose mother tells her to ring for the servant to draw up the blind? and this is no mere imaginary case, but a frequent fact of social life.

It is astonishing how rapidly children catch up the details of any practical art. Having assisted at developing, toning and fixing some photographs last week, a little tiny fellow was talking the next day quite glibly of the use of the hypo. and other necessaries in the process, and can now take his part in the work.

["Hypo" is an emulsion of sodium thiosulfate.]

Might not the system of education in England's elementary schools be more successful if it embodied, as it does in Italy and Sweden, technical instruction in Home Arts? Madame Retzius, daughter of the late Prime Minister of Sweden, being a woman of culture and sympathy, thought it was not right for such a source of self-respect and comfort to be left to mere chance opportunities. So mainly through her instrumentality "Arbetstuge" or workrooms are now attached to the different schools in Stockholm, where the pupils can, if they wish, learn some craft or art to beautify their lives both morally and physically.

Thus often when the bread-winner is incapacitated by sudden illness, a child's skill in basket-weaving, knitting, netting, carpentering, &c., saves the home from penury; and it is now a common thing in Sweden to see a family enjoying extra little comforts through a child being able to add to the little store by using its fingers in some intelligent way. Is not this Scandinavian system more sensible than the English way of giving a smattering of music or French and even dancing, &c., in Board Schools?

Thanks to the philanthropic spirit of those among us, technical institutes and classes are more common than in former days. Would that every little town and village had such a centre of instruction!

I am sure many will agree with me that one of the saddest elements of a workhouse or infirmary is the depression of those who, being beyond the age of enforced labour, have no light occupation with which to lessen the monotony of their days, whilst those who can knit, net, carpenter, embroider, &c., look quite cheerful and interested.

Many ladies now try to remedy this state of things by teaching the inmates how to do some easy handwork which is sold by the Brabazon Society. This is strikingly seen in what is called "the afflicted ward" of the Kensington Workhouse. Every one of the twenty-five or thirty women is incapacitated in some way--one has St. Vitus' dance, another is half paralysed, another deaf and dumb, another blind and so forth, but all are either knitting, embroidering, sewing, crocheting, &c., and the interest taken in the occupation by those versed in it before affliction weakened the powers, is in striking constract to the laboured efforts of those who have only recently acquired the practise.

[The Brabazon Society "was initiated in 1882 by Lady (Mary Jane) Brabazon (1847-1918), later the Countess of Meath, to provide occupation for the non-able-bodied inmates of workhouses in crafts such as knitting, embroidery and lace making." Wikipedia]

In the large dining hall of this workhouse the walls are hung with some really fair, albeit somewhat crude, life-sized portraits of Queen Victoria, and one of the present King and Queen, copied by an inmate of the house. "You can't think what a pleasure and pride it was to the poor man to do these pictures," said our guide, and indeed the art instruction which made a pauper feel he had some place in the world had indeed proved fruitful seed.

Typed by Chrysanthanum, June 2023; Proofread by LNL, June 2023