The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Opportunities that Pass.

by Mrs. Knight-Bruce.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 824-831

[Louisa Torr Knight-Bruce, 1854-1939, of Devon, was married to Rev. George Wyndham Hamilton Knight-Bruce in 1878. They had five children named Caroline Ethelfloed, Enid Frances Lillian, Menefrida Ruth, John Horace (who became a Major), and Gordon Kennet. Between 1886-1895, the Rev. served as Bishop in South Africa. He returned to England due to ill health and died in 1896. Louisa believed strongly in equal rights for women -- the right to vote and serve in local politics. She was considered a gifted speaker. At the time she wrote this paper, her children were in the 13-19 age range.]

[A paper read before the Hyde Park and Bayswater Branch.]

It was once said by a clever man that the one thing to avoid in talking of any subject was the making of commonplace remarks on the obvious. Now I am afraid this paper must be full of them. For the point we want to think over is that old simple topic of the importance of the early years of a child. Perhaps no clause of the educational creed has been so often held up or so much expounded. If there is one thing on which the educational wisdom of the world has agreed and is united, it has been on this, and it stands in the proud, if lonely position too, of being the only one. Directly we take up the study of child life at all, this meets us. There is the great Jesuit dictum. "Give me the first seven years of a child, and you may have the others." Or there is that often quoted answer of the French Bishop to the mother of a year-old baby: "Madame, if you have not begun already, you have wasted a year." Every great thinker has pressed it on us, from Plato at the highest point to--shall we say Mr. Wells at the, not lowest, but perhaps most modern? And when Mrs. Franklin asked me if possible to take this special subject, the only excuse I can make for doing it lies in a saying of James Hinton. In one of his letters he wrote of his great delight in having seen someone blush, for that blush gave him the proof he wanted for his theory of the close connection between mind and body, and then he added: "Of course I have known this all my life, but now (and it makes all the difference) I have found it out." It is just this finding out by our own experience that makes any truth a real thing to us, a thing full of life, instead of being just a platitude. And it is, I think, as our own boys and girls pass out of childhood into the next stage of their lives, that we grasp how great the wisdom was that insisted on the supreme importance of childhood. For we had better begin by confessing that at first, the insistence puzzles us all. If we are to take these old sayings seriously, don't they strike us at first as being no doubt very beautiful, but surely just a trifle high-flown and mysterious?

The little child of seven or eight is so very childish. He passes from one thing to another so lightly; no impression seems deep, or as if it could be lasting; the mind is certainly full of questioning, but it is easily satisfied. Relative values are all astray and mental clean slates are no difficulty. Do we not often feel at the back of our mind that the wise are wrong, and that it must be the later years that will be the really important ones? Now where is the truth? Is it not just in this? It is true partly because of what children are as children, and it is true partly because of what children are not as childhood passes.

First it will help us to be clear what we mean by childhood. Rousseau seems to fix its limits very wisely, more wisely I humbly venture to think than the Jesuit dictum. He says, "The most critical period of human nature is that between the hour of our birth and twelve years of age." And if we take this limit, then think of what the main characteristics in it are both of the child and of his surroundings.

I. The mind is unoccupied. It is not yet inundated with outside interests of any absorbing kind. There is neither the engrossing fascination of competition or of self.

II. It is receptive. Air we know will rush into a vacuum, and because the mind is unoccupied it is receptive. "God has made children unfit for other employments," wrote Commenius hundreds of years ago, "that they may be free to learn." The doors of the mind are open.

III. Next to being receptive it is so delightfully full of interest. True there may be no sense of proportion. The kitchen maid's new hat will be quite as thrilling as the ships at Port Arthur, but it is the very wideness of the general interest that gives us not only open doors, but in most children open doors all round. The very want of concentration is a help.

IV. Then as a rule through these twelve years the child is not set-conscious--not too shy to ask, to argue, to say it does not know, to talk freely and frankly on all subjects.

V. For my last point, those early years are ours in a way in which none of those that follow can ever be. We can in most ways, in almost every vital way, control and order the influences that surround the child. Nowadays we do not need to be told what a huge force environment is, and environment is generally ours to control in most important ways for the early years.

Now think for a moment how all these five things pass as the "teens" come on; some pass altogether, some for a time.

I. No one can call the mind of a girl or boy of fourteen unoccupied. There are lessons and school, and friends, games, hopes, aims. It is perfectly right; the individuality must be formed if our boy or girl is to be worth anything, but as it forms, the comparatively unoccupied mind passes, and with it, our opportunity.

II. Neither, I think, through the "teens," can we feel that receptivity is a prominent part of their life! Generally I think those open doors are filled up by a kind of prickly fence, made up of contradictiousness and criticism. Again, it is all right, it is a needful process of change. What a poor thing a man or woman would be, open to every new idea with no power of judgment or of criticism. The simple receptivity of a child would spell imbecility in later life, but it is God's order for childhood and our responsibility.

III. Again. How that delightful general interest of a child in everything all round it goes. Lessons and mental training take possession. Interest is narrowed for a time that it may become deeper in the end. But meanwhile another door of influence that has stood open for us to use through all these years, is closed.

IV. More or less, it may vary greatly, but perhaps a certain amount of the old frank simple questioning spirit will go. Shyness will fall down as a veil, and we must not always I think, be tearing it open. We have to discern, and many things we could say to the child are difficult to say to the boy and girl. At fourteen, for instance, the child power of talking in perfect open simplicity and naturalness of religion is gone.

And last of all. How the high tide comes in to that quiet bay, in which we have been almost alone with our children, in which we could order their surroundings. This is, I think, a thing to realise. For in some ways all the rest may return: the impressionable mind, the feeling of interest, receptivity of a higher order, will come back again as the "teens" pass into the twenties, but that time will not be in our hands. We cannot in the least pretell what influences will be round them then, life itself will have caught hold of our boy and girl, and we shall probably have to sit behind while circumstances are on the box and hold the reins.

There was a dear old Quaker lady a hundred years ago who wrote one of those fascinating diaries. People had time to write in those days, and as she sat in her orchard she meditated, and one of her meditations was this. That childhood is to human life what the time of blossom is to the fruit tree--lovely, fresh, open to sunshine and to air, tender, impressionable. But to childhood as to apple trees, blossom must pass, and be followed by a long stage of fruit forming; shut in to itself, unattractive, generally a little hard, with neither the beauty of the blossom or of the ripe fruit. It is not on this stage that the perfection of the fruit depends nearly so much as on how the blossom fared. It was the sheltered, nourished and perfected blossom that meant the perfected fruit. I believe my dear old lady was a good gardener and that her little parable is true.

If these then are our opportunities, and if they pass, how are we best to use them, and what are we to use them for? First of all, don't you think each parent will find that out best for himself or herself? Children are so different that (if I may again take a gardening lesson, and it is almost irresistible, they are so helpful), we who are growing begonias must not dictate to those who are growing arum lilies. We know, and are responsible for the heredity of our children; we must know as no one else can know, how best to help and train and guard all that they have inherited. It asks from us great care and great thought, but I think we do want to emphasize this freedom of method in childhood, and the wrongness of dictation to each other. There was an old English saying: "Every man sneezes as God pleases," and in its assertion of personal individuality it has in it a world of wisdom. But as well as this, there are some broad principles for us all that I suppose we all accept, but that it helps us in this rapid life of ours to bring back to our thoughts.

And the first of these, as we realise the importance of the child-years and the why of that importance, must be how its value is lost, and it opportunities indeed pass if we delegate them almost entirely to others. And yet how curiously popular this idea of delegation has always been. It has a most "ancient lineage." Socrates and Plato, Lycurgus and many another, while they talked with surpassing beauty on the upbringing of the child, always seemed to take it for granted that getting rid of the parent was one of the first steps to take. In one very beautiful plan we are told "that as parents for the most part bring up their children very badly, the care and upbringing of them is to be committed to the magistrate." Poor little trots! In another, and in other ways a scheme full of the highest ideas, it was held to be easier to carry out these ideas if families did not exceed a certain number. "This," it adds, "is most easily observed by removing children from a large family to one that does not abound in them." It is interesting to find that here as in so many other questions, the Jewish legislation of the Bible stands out on the other side. Their enactments were to tighten the bond.

But the real force of delegation, the handing over to others all those opportunities of child life, does not lie in long descent, but in the roots it has inside us all. It is so easy, it is so pleasant just to have the child at the times when it is little or no trouble, to give it the time and the thought and the care that are left over from the chief interests of our every-day life. It always seems to me as if it were this habit of delegation to nurses, governesses, masters--anybody--that your society of the Parents' Educational Union and ours of the Mothers' Union must work to eradicate.

An old chronicler wrote of Henry VI. that his reign had lasted upwards of 38 years without his having once meddled with public affairs. There is still a good deal of parentage that might almost be described in the same way as far as personal contact goes.

Where specially can we use our opportunities? Do they not all gather round the three great things we can do for our child in childhood:--The opportunity of religious teaching; the opportunity of making a real friendship of sympathy and trust between ourselves and them; the opportunity of starting their minds in all noble and true ways of thoughts.

"The charge of the soul of one of these little ones," wrote St. Gran, "is a higher employment than the government of the world." Into the being of each child is woven a three-fold cord of life, and however we divide the three strands, one must stand for the child's highest life, its life of conscience and will and spirit. Every one of those open doors of childhood is the opportunity for the wise and clear and strong teaching of this highest life. And yet those who know tell us that there never was a time in England among the more educated masses when this teaching is so little given. One schoolmaster after another tells us of the terrible ignorance as regards religious knowledge in which boys go to school.

Not long ago I met a very clever and charming girl who had lived a great deal abroad, and one day she said, "Why is it that we English girls seem to be the only girls who know nothing at all about our religion? We are at the mercy of anyone who comes along, while the other girls seem able to answer." More and more this comes upon us. Excellent as nurses may be nowadays, they do not teach children the simple living faith they did in the old days. Except for our delightful teachers from Ambleside, I think we must say the same of governesses. Constantly one hears that they do not wish to do more at the outside than a bare reading of a chapter, and quite as often one finds they have been accustomed to schoolroom life with no religious teaching at all. What does it mean, but that the call comes to us parents to take up what is our own highest work? We should not let our child depend for his breakfast on any chance food given him by others, and we cannot let the life in him that is so much higher than the bodily life depend for its care and nourishment on chance words from others. Through all these years of opportunity there is the little child soul. Heaven is still about them. "What you teach your children," said one of our great head masters, "becomes part of their real life. The religion we teach them is too much looked on as a part of their lessons."

Then there is the great opportunity of making friendship. If we want the friendship of the grown-up life, we must make it, grow it in those early years. A child who has been trained not "to worry mother," "to run away upstairs" very continually, to control its impulse to share its baby sorrows and delights, can hardly turn right-about-face, as it were, at eighteen or nineteen. It is in baby days that they can learn that we are the people who they know will not be hard or grudging, but inspiring and forgiving. They must grow up feeling that to tell us is the best help in every trouble and every naughtiness. There is an exquisite touch in a short life by the Bishop of Stepney of a young man, Ernest Balfour, and we are told he used to say of his friends at school and at Oxford, if they were in difficulties, "Poor old chap, I wish he could have ten minutes with the mater, he'd be all right then." It is in the giving of those times alone that so much of the secret lies. Children may turn out their pockets in company, they will not turn out their minds, and yet, of the two, the mind often has the oddest collection. We cannot exaggerate the good done if we have so used the childish years that all the queer crude thoughts and questionings of later life will be brought to us. It is often like the letting out of poisonous gases, that will germinate into disease if shut in, but will die in light and air. Remember how much our children hear nowadays that they did not hear long ago. Much of it they cannot rightly understand, and we have a new obligation to find that they hear and see rightly.

Then that last opportunity of letting our child hear broad and noble ways of looking at things. Will he or she do this if we always let our opportunities pass into the hands of nurses?

President Roosevelt, in that delightful book of his, The Strenuous Life, insists most strongly on letting the child grow up in an atmosphere of noble thought, where, as he explains it, "the scoundrel who succeeds is thought as little of as the scoundrel who fails."

I hope I have not kept you too long, but there is such strong need to-day for us to give all we have and all we can be to this work. People often laugh at our enthusiasms. They ask why the old ways were not good enough, why there need be all these new demands upon us as parents. And the answer is so simple. Because these boys and girls of ours have a different world to meet. Right and wrong, nobleness of life or meanness of life, will not be decided for them by any pressure of outside law, hardly even of public opinion. Hedges are down in every direction, they were after all outside things. But what we have to do with all our might is to put in their place hedges reared as it were inside the child. "I may," "I may not."

Each of these children has a kingdom to rule--himself, herself. Kings and queens they are by Divine creation. To-day we cannot, as we could in old times, rule much of those kingdoms for them. But it is just because we cannot that we need to use every one of those opportunities that only childhood gives us, to teach them to rule themselves wisely, purely, justly, and in the fear of God and in the service of men.

Typed by Blossom Barden, Mar. 2024; Proofread by LNL, June 2024