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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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On One Aspect of Nursery Hygiene

by Miss Helen Webb, M.B.
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 561-570


A paper read before the Streatham and Hampstead Branches of the P.N.E.U.

My title has in all probability suggested to those present a discourse on fresh air, clothes, food, in fact all that pertains to acknowledged physical hygiene. Such matters cannot be too highly valued, nor in their proper place too closely attended to; but in these latter days they have been much ventilated, and many excellent text-books are at the disposal of all who wish to add to their knowledge or to clear up uncertain questions. It seemed to me that it would be more useful for us on this occasion, to apply some of the principles common to both physical and mental conditions to the latter, and set ourselves to consider one or two of the many problems connected therewith. The mismanagement of mental conditions, especially in certain temperaments, is even more injurious to body and mind, than unhealthy physical surroundings, while knowledge of the subject is less formulated, and information not so accessible to the general public.

Every day it is more realized by the medical profession that wrong mental hygiene in youth, lays the seeds of some of the most intractable diseases of later life. I refer chiefly though not solely, to what are known as functional nervous disorders, and to that temperament which is now-a-days called "neurotic" or "nervous," the temperament in which brain and nerve preponderate over the more animal side of the creature, and in which all kinds of physical symptoms are often but the expression of mental ill-health, explosions of wrongly managed nervous energy.

I have little doubt that at this point some of my audience are feeling that this is a subject of real interest to them, while others are saying to themselves, "This does not concern me, for my children are not neurotic, than God." To these latter I say, do not be too certain that your children are not so; and if you find that they are, do not allow the discovery to sadden you. All culture tends towards such a development. If what you mean is, that no neurotic aberration has as yet shown itself in your children, be thankful for that; and set yourselves heartily to learn how, in the gutter, to avoid being the cause of anything of the kind.

We have said that the neurotic temperament is that in which brain and nerve preponderate; in other words, the temperament in which the most sensitive and highly evolved parts of the organism present the fullest development. People of this type, if well balanced and harmoniously developed, are the very salt of the earth. Let them on the other hand become degraded and warped by a wrong attitude in those about them, and by adverse circumstances generally, they become some of the most unsatisfactory, not to say injurious of human beings. Perhaps it is because only the latter, drifting into the hands of the doctor, are labeled "neurotics" that the world has such a horror of the name. The chances are that when you meet the intensely sympathetic, pure and noble man, cultivated and refined, whose atmosphere brings with it elevation and peace, and at once relegates minor matters to their proper place, you are in the company of a neurotic. The prophets of old were neurotics, and to my mind the highest example of this type was the physical form in which Christ dwelt on earth.

Here let me remind you that three kinds of equilibrium or balance are recognized in mechanics; first there is the ordinary stable equilibrium of a chair or table, which if disturbed (provided the disturbance has not gone very far), tends to fall back into its original position. This is a good satisfactory equilibrium--very useful in common life, but which cannot adapt itself to the unusual. Is it not a type of the healthy non-neurotic temperament? Then there is unstable equilibrium--"the equilibrium of the poker balanced upon one's finger, always tending to fall in one direction or another. Do we see here a type of the inadequately balanced neurotic temperament? Lastly, there is mobile-stable equilibrium such as we see in various toys, so weighted and balanced that, lay them how you will, they tend after a few oscillations to return to the vertical position. This to my mind typifies an ideal equilibrium of character only to be found in individuals of the well poised neurotic temperament. God grant that none of us, who may be intrusted with the care of a nervous child through the course of its development, may do any rash or ignorant thing, which would interfere with the placing of its moral centre of gravity in the one spot which will for that individual insure such a balance.

Teachers naturally concentrating their attention chiefly on the well-being of the average fairly animal child, have devised excellent plans for giving him mechanical stability, plans we may compare to those devised by the joiner to keep the table steadily upon its feet. This is an object highly praiseworthy in the carpenter, and which would be quite satisfactory in the teacher, were Nature not every day throwing upon our hands a large and rapidly increasing proportion of neurotic children. What must be kept in mind about such is, that all devices for giving them that stolid equilibrium will fail; and we might as well therefore concentrate our attention on producing the kind of balance which alone is possible to them, namely the mobile-stable.

To the majority of us the great temptation is to be over meddlesome. Though the educator may have before his mind pre-conceived ideas of what is best for such and such a child under given circumstances, he will do the more good and the less harm in proportion as he holds such ideas loosely, and is ready to modify them as occasion arises. In medicine we not infrequently make use of what is called "expectant treatment." By this is meant that having placed the patient under the best and most suitable hygiene conditions, we watch the natural course of the disease, and only step in with drugs or surgical interference when we see that some avoidable danger threatens. This method is more and more resorted to in the treatment of the eruptive fevers, and some other acute illnesses which run a definite course, and in the main tend to recovery.

I need not say that under this reverent handling, Nature more often triumphs than in the days when, proceeding on some unproved theory, the doctor plied such patients with innumerable drugs, and submitted them to bleedings which often introduced elements of danger, and complications of the disease, before nonexistent.

Now it seems to me that some parents and educators of to-day have not got beyond those physicians of old, and that more of the expectant element introduced into treatment of the mind, would do not a little to lessen the percentage of failures of true development.

Not long ago I heard a man of influence in the educational world say "Now is your time when your children are young. You can make of them what you will. They are in your hands like the hypnotized in the hands of the hypnotizer." Better not educate at all, say I, than educate from such a point of view as this.

Much has still to be learned by everyone, both professional and lay, as to the best methods of education; and what I would now specially urge upon you is that true and helpful knowledge, such as alone can make action bear upon the vital points of the question, can only be gained by those who, with really open and unprejudiced mind, exercise a reverent observation of facts as they are.

"It seems to me," says a wise writer, "that the first question to be considered by anyone who wants to solve the problem of healthy education is: What are we and our children tending towards? Some people think over their plans for their children in this wise: What would I like this child to become?" They assume that (within very wide limits) they can make of their children what they please, or that if they fail to do so, it is for want of finding out the right means of obtaining their object." They seem to fancy they have a right to have plans, and that because a thing has been found good and agreeable to themselves, it must of necessity be the same for their children. Everything is made subservient in the child's education to the parent's hobby. And if the child grows up, quite the opposite of what is intended, and sickly, and quarrelsome and wicked into the bargain, they think they have a right to be surprised and disappointed. No, we have no right to be surprised at our ill-success, for our first question ought not to have been What plan will I make for my child? But What plan has already been made for it?

Let us not consider ourselves the owners of the children, but the servants of someone, who being their owner, has the direction of their circumstances more absolutely and continuously than we ourselves. We shall then grow to understand that the best we can do is to study His ways, that we may learn at least not to hinder them, and that the worst we can do for our children is to make any plans of our own at all, with respect to creatures over whom our power is so imperfect and so short lived.

We shall then learn to feel that as an under gardener, hired for a season should ask himself, not What would I like to make of this tree? but, What was my master's intention in propagating this variety? So our first question must be, What is this child's character tending towards? and what place in the great series of development is it intended to fill? In short, what can I do, or leave undone in order that my child may become as nearly as possible a perfectly developed human being? Desirable as is this point of view in all cases, most urgently is it called for in those to whom is intrusted the care of the sensitive and neurotic child.

Many methods in vogue would do fairly well if we had only to deal with the more stolid type of child, and could set the neurotics aside as exceptions for special treatment like deaf mutes or cripples. But as I have said before, this type is on the increase, and is in itself a power, not a misfortune or a manifestation of disease. It will force itself upon our notice whether we sill or not, and it lies with us to encourage normal or abnormal development in its ranks. It is surely a mistake to suppose that in making provision for these, we should be sacrificing the good of the majority to that of the exception. I believe on the contrary, that the nursery, or school so managed as to give the best possible chance to the most highly strung child in it, will also be best on the whole for the others. We may therefore regard such children as a test of general methods.

Now a few special words about the neurotic child. Many are sensitive in a high degree, often painfully so, and seem to experience both pain and pleasure with more readiness than other children. They may show a greater moral sensitiveness to moral influences. A look will be understood where another child would require a word; a word convey more pain or happiness than a definite punishment or reward to a phlegmatic child. This state of things where it exists is readily seen and acknowledged by everyone; but I would also warn you, that such children are apt to be physically sensitive to mental influences, and to give manifestations in the form of physical illness, of nerve storms going on within them. We must not be too ready to suppose in every case when a child is ill or feverish, that it is because it has caught cold or eaten something indigestible. Many neurotic children are subject to such little illnesses recurring not infrequently. They are feverish and sick, and very often for a day or two show all signs of an attack of some acute disorder, which may even be alarmingly severe. You may be pretty sure that if a child has such a habit, there is something going wrong in a very sensitive nervous system, and that in all probability the cause is to be found in some wrong point in its mental or moral environment. Do not dose each attack as a disease in itself. Learn to keep your child quiet, and not fuss over it, and carefully set yourself to find out what is wrong in the tenor of its life. This is no sign that the child wants coddling. Find the conditions that suit it, and then let it live freely in them. Don't stiffen it up with tonics to make it able temporarily to endure what is really unsuitable for it. Perhaps the very schooling that you think it a pity the child should miss these few days while it is in bed, may have something to do with the mischief. Or some nurse whom you have no reason to mistrust may be an unconscious exciting cause. The very machinery of competition, which used to be supposed necessary to egg on the average child to do his work, may be a powerful enough stimulous to determine nerve explosions and consequent exhaustion in more sensitive little people. In any case, beyond the exciting cause, the predisposing one lies deeply in the child's constitution, and the difficulty must be faced as a whole. What we have to aim at, is not the patching up of each little illness as it occurs, but such a steadying of the child's nervous system, that it may outgrow the tendency to these explosions. We must break the habit, which, if left alone, will continue through life in other forms of functional if not organic nervous disease.

Of the many more complex and less obvious forms of moral sensitiveness to be encountered in different children of neurotic temperament, I shall only briefly discuss two. One of these is eminently safe, the other exceedingly dangerous, and the former may perhaps point us to a path of safety in some other puzzling cases. Extreme sensitiveness to the principles underlying facts, giving the power of intuition of truth, has been the birthright of some of the best balanced neurotics. All that such children require is space to grow, and that those about them should be reverent and reticent. The child sees through conventions to principles, and if facts are supplied in moderate quantity, he will educate himself. This type is not uncommon among our great artists, writers, and scientific men. And in the best developed specimens the history has generally been a childhood fairly sheltered, opportunities for quiet commune with nature, and access to good books and wise counsel, when the need for either is felt. Some day the child becomes aware of his growing wings, and it is fortunate for him and the world, if his surroundings allow him to shape his life without reference to sordid or worldly motives. In the childhood of such a one, any attempt to force him to accept some other version of things than what he sees, is a danger to health and sanity. And many a real seer is more or less mutilated for life, by the plans and formulae of those who have the ordering of his education and early days.

Perhaps the most dangerous kind of sensitiveness is that which is open, not like the last to principles and truths, but to the mental and moral influences of the people around. We hear a great deal now-a-days about thought reading. It is played with on all sides; signs and wonders are exhibited in public, and in some circles unwholesome drawing-room manifestations are quite a fashion. Can anyone doubt that quietly, day after day, we are all in our measure thought reading those around us, and that in not a few markedly neurotic people, the faculty is capable of almost infinite development. The wholesome and legitimate work of such individuals is to be interpreters between original intellects and the world. The mill of conventional education succeeds in making them fantastic and hysterical, if it does not even endanger sanity. It is a common misfortune for this form of temperament, to have its reflected manifestations of genius or wisdom mistaken for the proceeds of its own brain; and I can imagine no more delicate problem before a parent or teacher, than that of discovering whether a sensitive precocious child is using its own brain, or reflecting the thought processes of others. Intuition has many ways of mirroring the intellectual acts of another person. Some children can translate almost any sentence just while the teacher has his attention concentrated on the words, and therefore seem clever at languages. Sometimes a child has spasmodic fits of original creative power in some art, each fit being distinctly traceable to contact with an original artist. Many of these children begin thinking on waking in the morning, about something, which persons with whom they are en rapport, talked after the children were asleep the night before, and no doubt many of the little beings whose precocious sayings and early deaths are recorded, have been thought absorbers, saturated with one's special line of feeling, taken from the on-sided tension of the enthusiasts under whose influence they came.

If the intellectual absorber always mirrored the exact results of intellectual action, thought readers would be more easily detected as such. But the reflection often differs from the original in ways which deceive superficial observers. The intuitional reflection is apt to take a more picturesque and concrete form than the original. To give one instance which has come to my knowledge. A philosopher thought out an abstract problem over night. One of these children of sensitive intuition was asleep in another room of the same house. Next morning she awoke after a restless night, prompted to write a weird and fanciful allegory, illustrative of the principle which had occupied the thoughts of the philosopher. It is a mistake to attribute these productions to the genius or inspiration of the juvenile writer, efforts to be praised or notices. By the wise parent they are recognized as danger signals, indications that the child is in too close contact with some thinker, one probably whose own brain is dangerously active,--who is shedding his force unduly, and so influencing intuitionists who are en rapport with him. The influence will probably be all the more marked if the thinker's brain is going through any crisis of change, notably that change which we call death.

Such cases as I have instanced may seem extreme, but the same thing in a less marked degree is very far from uncommon. What a temptation to the parent or teacher of such a child to inspire it with his or her own personality, and spur it on to work beyond its real powers; and how extremely dangerous to health, sanity, and true development is such a course. We cannot hinder children of this kind from being influenced by those around them, but we can see that the strain and pressure is not all in one direction, and that the exciting influence of the too intellectual to which the child most readily lends itself is counterbalanced by that of duller and more apathetic people. One can provide the very little ones with sensible commonplace nurses--essentially of the chair and table type--who, while they will see after the children's bodily wants, will be certain not to provide excitement in the nursery. As the child grows older, and begins to have lessons, the work provided for it ought to be easier than it can readily accomplish. Perfect thoroughness must be insisted on, and much may be gained a little later by making it responsible for the work of younger or stupider children, and for making them understand what they learn. The object of this last is obvious, as anything a child can explain again and teach may be supposed to have become a part of its real knowledge, and not to be a reflection of the thought processes of others. Of knowledge acquired by intuition alone, the owner is not likely to be able to give clearly the steps and explanations.

Above all, let nothing tempt you to cherish ambitions for such children,--nor to leave them much with any teacher who is ambitious for them, or believes them to be clever. Neither let a clinging fondness make you keep them too entirely under your own influence, or that of anyone to whom they become markedly attached. It is not necessary altogether to deprive them of the pleasure which such company gives them, but see that there are other influences at work.

In short, do not let all the stress draw in one direction. Do something to keep the child back. The non-responsible people around it will always be trying to bring it forward. The use of school to children of this class is not that they learn, but that they may not become absorbed in one person, and have their emotions over cultivated. Only by well balanced oscillations between opposites will these interpreters, open to all influences. Reach what is their only safety, the position of mobile stable equilibrium. A most sensitive and well balanced intuitionist of this type has said, "our much talked of superiority to mere intellect is very like that of the wren in the old song, which was made King of the Birds. Because of its very lightness, the eagle easily carried it in his feathers as high as he could go, and then a few flaps of its own little wings took it just a little bit higher, and the wren may therefore catch sooner than the eagle a glimpse of the unrisen sun."

I cannot conclude better than by another quotation from the same thought absorber. Speaking of another like herself, she says, " know that I may say in her name as much as in my own, that we who have received in any marked degree the power of absorbing thought by magnetic contact with thinkers, cannot safely either indulge any earthly ambitions of our own, or allow ourselves to become the tools of any one order of human intellect. Our function is to be servants of that unseen Truth whose vesture of many coloured truths, the intellects of the earth rend between them; and humble prophets of that Eternal Unity, fidelity to whom is for us health, life and light." Truly the parents of anyone with such a mission before him, may count themselves blessed.