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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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Some Aspects of Physical Training Emphasized by the P.N.E.U.

by The Editor [Charlotte Mason]
Volume 8, 1897, pgs. 388-395


Perhaps never since the days of the Olympian games has more attention been paid to physical culture than it receives in England to-day. But possibly this physical cult suffers from the want of unity and sanctity of purpose which nullifies to a considerable extent most of our educational efforts.

We want to turn out "a fine animals," a man or woman with a fine physique and in good condition, and we get what we lay ourselves out for. The development, in women especially, within the last twenty years, is amazing. I heard it remarked the other day that the stiff little brocaded dresses of our great grandmothers, which are kept here and there, appear to have belonged to little women, while the grandmothers we are rearing to-day promise to be daughters of Anak. So far, so good. All the same it is questionable whether we are making heroes, and this was the object of physical culture among the early Greeks, anyway. Men must be heroes or how could they fulfil the heavy tasks laid upon them by the gods. Heroes are not made in a day, therefore, the boy was trained from his infancy in heroic exercises, and the girl brought up to be the mother of heroes. Flashes of the heroic temper seem to remain to this day in that little country with a great history. "Your son has behaved like a hero," was said to the mother of a soldier who fell the other day. "That's what I bore him for," was the reply. Englishmen, too, can die like heroes, but it is not so certain that they can live like heroes. The object of the fine physical culture that English youths and maidens receive is, too often, the poor and narrow one that they may get the most, especially the most physical enjoyment, out of life; and so young people train their bodies to hardships, and pamper them with ease and self-indulgence by turns, the one and the other being for their own pleasure; the pampering being more delightful after the period of training, the training itself rather a pleasant change from the softness of pampering. Some of our young people prefer to endure hardness all the time and go off in the Berserker spirit to find adventures; but even this is not the best that might be done. The object of athletics and gymnastics should be kept steadily to the front; enjoyment is good by the way but is not the end; the end is the preparation of a body, available from crown to toe, for whatever behest "the gods" may lay upon us. It is a curious thing that we, in the full light of Revelation, have a less idea of vocation and of preparation for that vocation than had nations of the Old World with their "few, faint and feeble" rays of illumination as to the meaning and purpose of life. "Ye are your own," is perhaps the unspoken thought of most young persons--your own, and free to do what you like with your own. Therefore, excess in sports, excess in easy-going pleasure, excess in study, excess in desultory reading, excess in carelessness in regard to health, any excess that we have a mind to, is lawful to us if only it is expedient. This loose morality with regard to our physical debts, without touching actual vice which is probably on the decline, is the reason why the world does not get all that it should out of splendid material.

But if children are brought up from the first with this magnet-"Ye are not your own;" the divine Author of your being has given you life, and a body finely adapted for His service; He gives you the work of preserving this body in health, nourishing it in strength, and training it in fitness for whatever special work He may give you to do in His world,--why, young people themselves would readily embrace a more Spartan regimen; they would desire to be available, and physical transgressions and excesses, however innocent they seem, would be self-condemned by the person who felt that he was trifling with a trust.

It would be good work for the Parents' Union to keep to the front this idea of living under authority, training under authority, serving under authority, a discipline of life readily self-embraced by children, in whom the heroic impulse is always strong. We would not reduce the pleasures of childhood and youth by an iota, rather we would increase them; for the disciplined life has more power of fresh enjoyment than is given to the unrestrained. Neither is it lawful for parents to impose any unnecessary rigours upon their children; this was the error of the eighteenth century and of the early decades of our own age, when hunger, cold and denial, which was by no means self-denial, were supposed wholesome for children. All we claim is that every young person shall be brought up under the sense of authority in the government, management and training of his body. The sense that health is a duty, and that any trifling with health, whether vicious or careless, is really of the nature of suicide springs from this view-that life is held in trust from a supreme Authority.

Lectures on such subjects as the following might be profitable:--
1. Greek games and Greek heroes.
2. How a child may be trained to his physical responsibilities.
3. The vocation of the body.
4. "Innocent" excesses.
5. Unlawful and lawful home discipline.
6. The heroic impulse.
7. The training afforded by games.
8. Athletics, their use and abuse.
9. Parental authority in physical matters.
10. The right uses of self-denial.
11. The government, management, and training of the body.
12. The duty of health.

It is well that a child should be taught to keep under his body and bring it into subjection, first, to the authority of his parents and, later, to the authority of his own will; and always, because no less than this is the claim of the divine Authority in whom he has his being. But to bring ourselves under authority at all times would require a constantly-repeated effort of thought and will which would make life too laborious. Authority must be sustained by habit. We all know something of the genesis of a habit, and most of us recognise its physical basis, i.e., that frequently-repeated thoughts or acts leave some sort of register in the brain tissue which tends to make the repetition of such thoughts, at first easy, and at last, automatic. In all matters of physical exercise it is obvious to us that-do a thing a hundred times and it becomes easy, do a thing a thousand times and it becomes mechanical, as easy to do as not. This principle is abundantly applied in cricket, boating, golf, cycling, all the labours we delight in. But there is an outfit of half-physical, half-moral, habits of life which the playing-field tends to form, but which are apt to be put on and off with the flannels if they are not steadily and regularly practiced in the home life also. These are the habitudes which it is the part of parents to give their children, and, indeed they do form part of the training of all well brought-up young people; but it is well not to lose sight of this part of our work.

Self-restraint in indulgences is a habit which most educated mothers form with care. Children are well and agreeably fed, and they do not hanker after a bit of this and a taste of the other. Whether one or two sweetmeats a day are allowed, or whether they go without any, well brought-up children do not seem to mind. It is the children of cottage homes, who, even when they are comfortably fed and clothed, keep the animal instinct of basking in the heat of the fire. But there is perhaps danger lest the habits of the nursery and schoolroom should lapse in the case of older boys and girls. It is easy to get into the way of lounging in an arm-chair with a novel in the intervals between engagements which are, in fact, amusements. This sort of thing was a matter of conscience with an older generation; lethargic, self-indulgent intervals were not allowed. When people were not amusing themselves healthfully, they were occupying themselves profitably; and, little as we may think of the crewel-work our grandmothers have left behind, it was better for them morally and physically than the relaxed muscles and mind of the novel and the lounge. No doubt the bodily fatigue which follows our more active exercises has something to say in the matter, but it is a grave question whether bodily exercises of any kind should be so frequent and so excessive as to leave us without mental and moral vigour in the intervals.

Self-control in emergencies is another habit of the discipline life in which a child should be trained from the first; it is the outcome of a general habit of self-control. We all see how ice accidents, boat accidents, disasters by fire (like the recent melancholy event in Paris), might be minimised in their effects if only one person present were under perfect self-control, which implies the power of organising and controlling others. But the habit of holding oneself well in hand, the being impervious to small annoyances, cheerful under small inconveniences, ready for action with what is called "presence of mind" in all the little casualties of the hour-this is a habit which should be trained in the nursery. If children were sent into the world with this part of their panoply complete, we should no longer have the spectacle of the choleric Briton and of the nervous and fussy British lady at every foreign Doüane; people would not jostle for the best places at a public function; the mistresses of houses would not be fretted and worn out by the misdoings of their maids; the thousand little sorenesses of social life would be soothed, if children were trained to bear little hurts to body and mind without sign. "If you are vexed, don't show it," is generally quite safe teaching, because every kind of fretfulness, impatience, resentfulness, and nervous irritability generally, grows with expression and passes away under self-control. It is worth while to remember that the physical signs promote the mental state just as much as the mental state causes the physical signs.

The discipline of habit is never complete until it becomes self-discipline in habits. It is not a trifle that even the nursery child messes his feeder, spills his milk, breaks his playthings, dawdles about his small efforts. The well-trained child delights to bring himself into good habits in these respects. He knows that to be cleanly, neat, prompt, orderly, is so much towards making a man of him, and man and hero are in his thought synonymous terms. Supposing that good habits have not been set up at home, parents look to school life to supply the omission; but the habits practised in school and relaxed at home, because "it's holidays now, you know," do not really become habits of the life. The fact that habits have a tendency to become local, that in one house a child will be neat, prompt diligent; in another, untidy, dawdling and idle, points to the necessity for self-discipline on the part of even a young child.

"Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,
These three alone lead life to sovereign power."

This subject of training in becoming habits is so well understood amongst us that I need only add that such habits are not fully formed so long as supervision is necessary. At first a child wants the support of constant supervision, but, by degrees, he is left to do the thing he ought of his own accord. Habits of behaviour, habits of deportment, habits of address, tones of voice, etc., all the habits of a gentleman-like bearing and a kind and courteous manner, fall under this head of self-discipline in bodily habits.

"When first thou camest-such a courtesy
Spake through the limbs and in the voice--I knew
For one of those who eat in Arthur's hall."

Many a good man and woman thinks regretfully of the opportunities in life they have let slip through a certain physical inertness. They missed the chance of doing some little service, or some piece of courtesy, because they did not see in time. It is well to bring up children to think it is rather a sad failure if they miss a chance of going a message, opening a door, carrying a parcel, any small act of service that presents itself. They should be taught to be equally alert to seize opportunities of getting knowledge; it is the nature of children to regard each grown-up person they meet as a fount of knowledge on some particular subject; let their training keep up the habit of eager enquiry. Success in life depends largely upon the cultivation of alertness to seize opportunities, and this is largely a physical habit. We all know how opportunity is imaged--a figure flying past so rapidly that there is no means of catching him but, in advance, by the forelock which overhangs his brow.

Closely connected with that of alertness is the habit of quick perception as to all that is to be seen, heard, felt, tasted, smelt in a world which gives illimitable information through our five gateways of knowledge. Mr. Grant, in his most interesting studies of Neapolitan character, describes the training of a young Camorrist; (the Camorra was, or is, a political faction. We may think ill of the ends of such training, but the means are well worth recording). "The great object of this part of his training was to teach him to observe habitually with minuteness and accuracy, and it was conducted in something like the following manner. When walking through the city the Camorrist would suddenly pause and ask, 'How was the woman dressed who sat at the door of the fourth house in the last street?' or, 'What were the two men talking about whom we met at the corner of the last street but three?' or, 'Where was cab 234 ordered to drive to?' or, perhaps its would be, 'What is the height of that house and the breadth of its upper window?' or, 'Where does that man live?' " This habit, again largely a physical habit, of quick perception has been dwelt upon in other aspects. All that now need be urged is that the quickness of observation natural to a child should not be relied upon; in time, and especially as school studies press upon him, his early quickness of observation deserts the boy, but the trained habit of seeing all that is to be seen, hearing all that is to be heard, remains through life. We have not space to go further into these habitudes of body, which become, also, moral and mental habitudes, but perhaps lectures on such subjects as the following would be useful:--

1. Self-control in emergencies.
2. Self-restraint in indulgences.
3. Self-discipline in habits.
4. Alertness to seize opportunities.
5. Promptness and vigour in bodily exercises.
6. Quick perception as to that which is to be seen, heard, felt, tasted, smelt.

A habit becomes morally binding in proportion to the inspiring power of the idea which underlies it. When I was a child I used to have a book or books full of moral aphorisms from the Greek and Latin classics. These fine rolling sentences, full of matter, made, I recollect, a great impression on me; and one can understand that the Greek or Roman boy, brough up on this strong meat, developed virtues in regard to which we are a little slack. In like manner the early church personified and typified in a thousand ways the three evangelical and four cardinal virtues and the opposing seven deadly sins. We shall have to revive this kind of teaching if we would have children undertake the labour of the discipline of habit, a discipline that we can do no more than initiate.

Touch the right spring and children are capable of an amazing amount of steady effort. I know of a little boy of ten who set himself the task of a solitary race of three miles every day in the hot summer holidays because he was to compete in a race when he went back to school; and this, not because he cared much about sports, but because his eldest brother had always distinguished himself in them and he must do the same. When we think how little power we have to do the tiresome things we set ourselves to do every day, we appreciate the self compelling power a child can use, given a strong enough impulse. The long name, Fortitude, would have its effect on the little boy in the dentist's hands. It is good to know that it is a manly and knightly virtue to be strong to bear pain and inconvenience without making any sign. The story of the Spartan boy and the fox will still wake an echo; and the girl who finds it a fine thing to endure hardness will not make a fuss about her physical sensations. She will be pained for the want of fortitude which called forth the reproof, "Could yet not watch with me one hour?" and will brace herself to bear, that she may be able to serve. Portia, the wife of Brutus, gave a fair test of her quality when she wounded her tender flesh to prove that she was fit to share her husband's counsels.

Service is another knightly quality which a child should be nerved for by heroic examples until he grudges to let slip an opportunity. Courage, too, should be something more than an impulse of the moment; it is a natural fire to be fed by heroic example and by the teaching that the thing to be done is always of more consequence than the doer. Prudence, too, is a condition of knightly service, whether to our kind or to our kin, and courage without prudence is recklessness; but, in this connection of bodily service, prudence is largely concerned with the duty of health. I have heard of a boy at a school where a good deal of hygienic teaching was given, getting quite anxious and overcharged with the care of his own health. This meaner kind of caution is not worthy to be called prudence, which should regard every physical power as a means of service and of conflict, and should think it a shame by any fool-hardiness to make any part of the body unable for its due service. For Chastity we can have no impulse higher than "Your bodies are the temples of the Holy Ghost"; but how inadequately do we present the thought! The inspiring ideas which should sustain all physical culture and training are very numerous, and lectures on such subjects as Chastity, Fortitude, Courage, Constancy, Prudence, Temperance, illustrated by heroic examples, should strengthen the hands of parents for the better physical culture of their children. Let parents see to it that they turn out their children fit for service, not only by observing the necessary hygienic conditions, but by bringing their bodies under rule, training them in habits and inspiring them with the ideas of knightly service.