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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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Parental Peculiarities and Parental Possibilities.

by Dr. H. Laing Gordon
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 463


Dr. H. Laing Gordon then read a paper on
Parental Peculiarities and Parental Possibilities.

To those members who have assisted in the formation of a new branch of the P.N.E.U., the truth will have come home that success depends less upon the trustworthiness of principles than upon the manner in which they are put into practice. The Union exists as you know in London and its suburbs as well as in cathedral, manufacturing, market, seaside and residential towns. In each locality the influence of occupation and environment modifies the needs of parents. The rank of society to which members belong would also modify requirements; but at present our work is limited more or less to the more prosperous classes. Those who have knowledge of the lower classes recognize that much might be done amongst them by the Union. This has been urged on a previous occasion by Mr. Rooper and is emphasized by the fact that applications for speakers to the poor are not infrequently made to the Union. But there is scope enough for our voluntary efforts in our own ranks, at least for the present.

Although requirements vary according to locality and surroundings, the principles of the Union are capable of adaptation everywhere; indeed they flourish in any soil so long as they are carefully planted, tended and nourished. Much of the early work of a new branch is merely a turning over of the soil, to remove its useless material and discover its wants. I take leave to say that there is no task requiring more tact and patience, than that of removing or overcoming the obstacles in the way of genuine P.N.E.U. work. I do not propose to consider the local difficulties in Union work, due to particular features of environment, these are best met on the spot at the time of establishment. I rather ask you to consider certain difficulties which exist in all quarters and are common to all branches.

In a new district where the Union has not been heard of until the suggestion to establish a branch is made, it is sometimes difficult to convince local members of the scholastic profession that the society is not a banding together of discontented parents to confound teachers. Then again we all know how useful much of our work may be to young people of both sexes alive to the responsibilities which some day may be theirs. But how often we are told, "Parents Union! Oh! I am not a parent." Indeed, I have even heard of a mother being shocked and offended because a well-meaning friend wanted her daughter to join the Union. But these are merely examples of minor difficulties met in the course of organization. To meet and eradicate wrong principles and wrong methods and substitute more enlightened ones, is at once more important and more difficult.

The preconceived notions of parents regarding physical, mental, or moral education are obstacles met in fearful and wonderful shapes in all quarters. It is interesting to consider the origins of such notions. Many of them are traditional, having been handed down from one generation to another; others are due to deficient ordinary education; others are due to actual false teaching; while not a few are due to a misinterpretation of facts.

Some traditional teaching is no doubt correct, and there is often a tendency to neglect good old-fashioned practice for new-fangled fads. The fact that the ancient church rules of periodical fasting and self-denial are good for the body, whatever they are for the soul, has been brought forcibly before the public in the recent discussions arising out of the crisis in the Church; a traditional practice has received at least theoretical scientific approval. But old women's tales are not often trustworthy guides. The person who meets one with the phrase that "it was my father's custom and so it shall be mine," is probably the most hopeless person to try and influence.

A recent letter, signed "Headmaster," in one of the daily papers, if illustration is required, shows the necessity for some of the work which our society attempts:--"We have, unfortunately, been suffering during the past term in our school from more than one infectious complaint. In order to guard against our misfortunes being carried elsewhere, before the holidays a circular was sent to the parents pointing out the danger of their sons going about indiscriminately. One of the boys showed me a letter, lamenting that he could not, under these circumstances, go home at once, because of the danger to the other children; but consoling him with the promise that, for the week that he was away from home, he should be taken to Maskelyne and Cooke, the Zoological Gardens, and such other places of amusement as he might select!"

There are, again, some parents who have sound principles, but who carry them out with such mistaken zeal that they altogether defeat their object. The child of the hopelessly stupid parent is indeed more often a success in after-life than that of the aggressively intellectual parent. I do not use the term stupid in an offensive sense, nor the term intellectual in an admiring sense; I may safely say that by "stupid parent" I mean the parent called stupid by the aggressively intellectual parent; and by "intellectual" parent I mean the parent called intellectual by the stupid parent. The offspring of stupid parents may be satisfactorily developed by a good environment, in which the parent assumes, because of his stupidity, a small part. But for the child of the intellectual system-enveloped parent there is little hope; each separate "faculty" is met with a plan for its development; the parent is the overwhelming feature of the environment; the child's will and reason are overpowered by the parent's, indeed they may be altogether prevented from attaining maturity; and the result of the process is altogether unsatisfactory. "Neglected" children are often said to turn out better than "carefully brought-up" children. "Neglected" children are the offspring of stupid parents and may tumble into a fortunate environment; while the "carefully brought-up" children have been stunted instead of developed by their "intellectual" parents who monopolized the environment, and admitted only such other influences as they were themselves able to regulate and actively control. Please observe that of course the P.N.E.U. parent comes neither under the heading "hopelessly stupid" nor yet the heading "aggressively intellectual." The P.N.E.U. parent neither neglects nor fusses over his or her child's physical and mental education; and has various other virtues needless for me to recall here. I am merely enumerating some outside types of parents whom P.N.E.U. parents might beneficially influence.

To my mind the parents with firm but mistaken ideas of their own about education, whether derived from superstition or from false education or from misapplication of the truth, whether they merely obstinate parents holding the little knowledge which is a dangerous thing, or full-blown aggressively intellectual parents, all are more difficult to deal with than frankly stupid parents. The latter are content to hand over the care of their children to others, and stupid parents, paradoxically as it seems, are often very sensible. A mother once openly told me that she had taken care to send her son to a school which "turned out little gentlemen"; obviously she had recognized the fact that the boy's home couldn't turn him out a gentleman, and she displayed sound sense in placing him as she had done. This boy indeed would probably outstrip in life's race the child of an intellectual mother who once rebuffed my few words on the physical care of her infant--words which appeared necessary--with the startling statement that "she believed in nature, not in doctors!" This would really have been quite a gratifying statement, and a most sensible one, if the speaker's practice had proved that she knew her deity. But alas! for some modern conceptions of this nowadays much worshipped goddess!

It may be said that the stupid parents can with difficulty be led to take upon himself his responsibilities while the intellectual parent overburdens himself with them. It is often a very great blessing to have to two parents. I recently saw a little boy saved from his intellectual mother, in an instructive manner. She had read somewhere that gymnastics harmfully "stretched the bones" of little boys and she founded theories of her own on which she purposed to bring up this youth without the horrors of either physical or mental "stretching": fortunately the "stupid" father stepped in and packed the boy off to school with happy results, but after a good deal of fluttering of the maternal wings.

In considering the causes of these faulty preconceived ideas, it appears to me that much of modern journalism is an obstacle rather than a help to true progress. Book-knowledge has long masqueraded as education; and the crammed child of yesterday has grown into the superficial adult of to-day, incapable of appreciating anything better than the vast cheap journalistic literature which has grown up in response to his demand. Pseudo-scientific articles are to be found, mulium in parvo, in papers of the aptly-named "snippet" type; in 3½d. magazines, interposed between stories of the penny-dreadful type; or tastefully arranged in ladies' weeklies amidst the perplexing illustrations and descriptions of varieties of millinery and gowns. This sort of "science" is read and regarded as dry; some intellectual parents found their theories and their actions on this scrappy knowledge; whilst the stupid parent is hopelessly misled by it. True knowledge of all kinds must be sought; the knowledge shoved before us on railway book-stalls is of no real value, however dainty may be its journalistic dress. It is more common to hear a man say, "The Daily so-and-so says," than to hear him say, "I think" or "I have observed." Originality in thought and action are not possible for the average man with an intellect nourished only by his daily and weekly papers. And possibly this may be one cause of the mediocrity of the age and the lamentable lack of men of marked individuality and men of action. It must not be implied that I mean to sweepingly condemn newspapers and magazines; many of them, of course, deservedly occupy a healthy influential position.

We are apt also to overlook the influence of the modern book and pen-and-paper education upon memory. The American ambassador recently stated that if all Milton's works had been destroyed fifty or one hundred years after his death, they could have been restored from the memories of his American readers alone. Sir Walter Besant has thought fit to make merry at this statement, and no doubt such an effort would be impossible for the modern journalist or novelist with an undeveloped natural memory, but with an excellent artificial memory consisting of typewriters, transcribers, and British Museum hacks; but no so for the New Englander, or for our own countrymen of one hundred years ago, with developed and exercised natural memories only. We may observe even to-day in remote country districts where pen-and-paper and book-learning are not essential parts of daily life, that the inhabitants use their memories more and pen-and-paper less, and that therefore their memories are, through stimulation, more highly developed than the average town-dwellers'. In this respect, when living in a remote part of Devonshire, I was often put to shame by my groom, and when in South Africa I found that the even more imperfectly educated Boer excelled my Devonian groom in the power of his memory. I can imagine the contempt of some of my Boer friends could they have seen, as I recently saw, an eminent man sit down at a private dinner party, with what he called his brain beside his wine glasses, a scribbling-block on which he jotted things to be remembered for business or mere mental-pleasure purposes. Whilst most of us carry our note-books and pencils we do not go that length, nor do we all stop in crowded thoroughfares and write post-cards to ourselves to remind us next morning of some important fact just occurred to us, as does a respected professor in a Scottish University, and others no doubt. But few of us have the memory for what concerns us of the Devonian groom and the South African Boer; and this is to be attributed to the modern development of pen-and-paper brains.

But whatever may be the true causes of false preconceived ideas on education in parental and sometimes in scholastic minds, such ideas undoubtedly do exist. For the sake of illustration I propose to briefly consider the subject of Heredity.

By many heredity is feared as an awful "bogey." Some are apt to attribute to this influence any traits in the child which appear superficially unaccountable, and are content to fold their arms as if resistance were useless; others mightily perturbed when they find their child stealing jam, hunt up their family tree for a bad ancestor, and having found him or her triumphantly exclaim, "I told you so!" This exaggerated idea of the power of heredity is due to a faulty conception of its nature. It is not generally recognized what may and what may not be handed on from parent to child.

Briefly, both physical and mental characteristics may be divided into those which are inborn and those which are acquired. Now inborn characteristics are always hereditary, and acquired characteristics are never hereditary.

This is at first sight more understandable in regard to physical than to mental traits. The Jewish nose the Scots high cheek-bones are inborn traits and are obviously transmissible; the quality of tallness is also inborn and hereditary, tall parents most generally have tall children; if we could take short children and stretch them, this acquired length would not be transmitted to the next generation.

To take another instance, the blacksmith's children do not naturally develop strong muscular arms, because their father acquired them by exercise, and they are no more likely to have them than the city clerk's child; the blacksmith's and the clerk's children have, ceteris paribus, equal chances of developing strong arms if they only vigorously exercise them.

If we regard physical education in this light, our understanding is cleared although our responsibilities are perhaps increased. It grows evident that our children develop their physical potentialities into powers in direct ratio to the stimulation to which they are subjected. Now, physical characteristics once acquired by the individual tend to persist; hence the importance of so placing our children that the environment shall stimulate the development of the best of which the child is capable, so that that which is best may persist through life. Herein lies the essence of modern preventive medicine--the highest development of the art of medicine--which directs its efforts not only towards the shutting out of disease, but also towards the development of individuals so framed that they will be able to resist disease when attacked by it. Far better to stimulate growth and develop resisting powers and make children strong against disease, than to be skilful in the manipulation of clinical thermometers and adepts in the use of bronchitis kettles, or to possess all the other little accomplishments acquired at popular ambulance lectures.

By recognizing the simple facts, that acquired physical characteristics are not hereditary and that environmental is of more importance than heredity (from parents' and educators' point of view), you will agree that parents open up for themselves many possibilities in regard to their children, which are out of the reach of those who ignorantly consider that stuffy and dirty rooms at home or at school are of no account, and that the child gets colds every term because his father or mother is subject to colds or may once have had a delicate chest.

But on the subject of mental heredity there is even more misunderstanding than upon physical heredity. Many foolish things are said and written about mental heredity, even in papers upon educational subjects. It is worse than foolish to dogmatize upon a subject of which we know so little. But the facts as they appear to-day seem to explain much which has hitherto been perplexing. Here again, inborn characteristics are hereditary, acquired never are. It is important to recognize what are inborn mental characteristics and what are acquired mental characteristics.

Inborn mental characteristics are the instincts, common to all races of mankind, civilised and savage alike, e.g., imitation, sexual and parental love, love of life, jealousy, fear, hatred and so on; all being characteristics necessary for the preservation of the race. These instincts arise quite apart from stimulation from the environment and therein greatly differ from acquired mental characteristics which arise in us only in response to appropriate stimulation. The acquired mental characteristics are reason, knowledge, ways of thinking and acting, likes and dislikes, &c., &c., in fact practically the whole of man's mind is an acquired and non-hereditary characteristic.

"But," someone may say, "what nonsense! Why I know a man who distinctly inherits his musical talent from his father!" And you may hear the same said of the literary, artistic, and other talents, as well as in regard to cricket, or to stealing and other forms of crime.

Well this statement is partly right and partly wrong. To understand why it is so, consider what a talent is. It consists of two parts: first, of the capacity to make an acquirement plus a capacity for utilizing such acquirement when made--that much is inborn and may be hereditary; secondly, it consists of knowledge acquired because of these two capacities--this part is not inborn and cannot be hereditary. Now a man may possess these capacities to acquire and to utilize when acquired in regard to, say, music: he may be of great inborn musical talent and yet may be no musician at all, because he has never had an opportunity of acquiring musical knowledge owing to defects in his education and environment. But this very man's son, receiving these capacities through heredity and being more fortunate in environment and education, acquires musical knowledge, exhibits musical ability, and becomes known as a talented musician.

Some people believe that because a father has acquired musical knowledge and ability, it is more easy for his son to acquire musical knowledge and ability; but this is absurd, because it implies that acquired knowledge is hereditary. Were it so the great musician's son would be greater than his father, the great artist's son would be greater than his father, and so on. W. G. Grace's son would score millions where his father scored only centuries; whereas we all know such has never been the case.

The children have to being all over again and acquire, often painfully and laboriously, that which their parents of the talented man is at an advantage over the average child because he may inherit his father's capacity to acquire, and because he is reared in a musical or artistic, and so on, environment, and has more opportunity of acquiring the necessary knowledge by the powerful imitative instinct.

Regarding morals, again, it is the same. Morals form an acquired mental characteristic; they never were and never are hereditary. They are entirely matters of time and place. What is moral in one country is immoral in another; what is moral in one age is immoral in the next. "Our Pagan ancestors persecuted the Christians, our Christian ancestors persecuted the Pagans and the Jews; we hold religious persecution a crime." Moral systems are not inborn, they are acquired by the child from the parent, by one generation from the previous one. They do not appear in the infant until the imitative instincts have come into play. It is a fact beyond dispute that "the children of any race, if reared by another race, develop the moral nature of the educators not of the progenitors." The child of the cannibal African brought up entirely by English people exhibits the English not the African moral nature; the desire to eat human flesh is acquired happily only by imitation and education. It may be interesting to recall the fact that the inhabitants of a certain Polynesian island, formerly cannibals but not thoroughly under missionary influence, have in their native parliament just passed law making flirtation a legal offence!

I began the remarks concerning mental heredity by stating that the only hereditary mental traits were the instincts, but from what I have since said you will see that this statement has to be modified to include the power of acquiring non-transmissible mental traits--in other words, the power to acquire what we call mind. It requires no great effort to realize that this is quite a different thing from acquired characteristics themselves being transmissible, which is the popular conception of heredity.

The civilized man and the savage differ scarcely at all in instincts; but they differ enormously not only in their power of acquiring mental traits but also in the traits they acquire. In the higher civilization the environment is more complex and the stimulation proceeding from it the greater. The higher the civilization the great the power of acquiring mental traits and the more numerous the traits acquired. By recognizing the fact that man's mental evolution has apparently been entirely in the direction of the power of acquiring mental traits in response to stimulation from his environment, we arrive at a clear understanding of the power and limits of mental heredity and we are able on further study to see many things in altogether new and brighter lights. I recommend, to those interested in this subject, Dr. Archdall Reid's Present Evolution of Man, a book which fully sets forth the view I have briefly sketched, treat the much misunderstood subject of mental evolution in a masterly manner, and has distinctly advanced our knowledge of the subject. To the book, and also to the author himself, I am indebted for much that I have said on heredity.

The realization of these truths and their outcome opens up once more splendid possibilities. In the first place we are enabled to recognize the true value of heredity, a much lesser one than that usually attributed to it. We see that when we have reason to believe a child inherits a power to make good acquirements, we are in a position to select an environment for him in which this power will be fully taken advantage of; and that when we believe a child inherits a power to make bad acquirements, our obvious duty is, early and late, to select for him an environment in which this tendency towards what is bad will receive no stimulation. Furthermore the ground is cut from under the feet of those who blame their dead progenitors for unpleasant characteristics in their own children, for which they themselves are really directly or indirectly responsible, by example, or by permitting a faulty environment; and the mouths of those are shut who say, "oh, it's an instinct," or "it can't be helped, it's hereditary."

The influence of environment receives its proper value. We see how it is that the child's mind, blank at birth, may be written upon by wise design as well as by chance influence: we recognize the importance and the power of both wise design and chance influence; and we realize above all that the child's characteristics tend to resemble those of his parents or early guardians in virtue of the strongly implanted instinct of imitation, more than virtue of the much talked of an feared heredity.

Upon us parents falls the duty of seeing that the influences which are to stimulate the formation of our children's minds, to develop their potentialities into powers--through which they are to acquire conscious knowledge, reason, ways of thinking and acting, likes and dislikes--are, from the very first, right influences. It is for us parents to see that we do not merit punishment like Eli of old, because our children made themselves vile and we restrained them not. On the parent devolves the duty of selecting or at least suggesting the teachers, companions, and nurses, and all the other hundred-and-one influences which go to make up the environment in which the child grows to the man.

I have been led to enter at this length into heredity, but not at a length sufficient to do justice to the subject, because although parents and teachers very generally recognize the importance of educational influences, they do not do so from this simple point of view. It may be quite new to some of my listeners that the child's mind is a blank at birth and that it rises subsequently in response to stimulation from the environment, the chief factor in which is usually the influence of his progenitors. But this is nevertheless true, so far as our present knowledge teaches us. To others it may be new that the same fact is true, not only of individuals, but also of the aggregation of individuals, called a race or nation--that "not only will the child reared by the slothful probably be slothful and the child reared by the active probably be active; but that if one generation be slothful, the next also will be slothful--that if one generation be active, the next also will be active; and that therein lies the key to the distinguishing peculiarities of nations and races and to much of the history of the world."

I trust I have made clear that the parental peculiarities, of which I have given examples, are largely due to a want of appreciation of fundamental facts; that they may be overcome by pointing out the elementary simplicity of fundamental facts such as heredity, which I have taken as an instance; and that our parental possibilities in regard to our children are simplified and hopefully increased by clear unbiased conceptions of these fundamental facts.

In conclusion, if there be any here to whom this aspect of the subject is new, and who may possibly think that I am quite wrong in what I have said about heredity, that I also have spoken altogether too dogmatically on a subject of which we know so little, I shall be more than pleased, because it will indicate that their interest in the subject, looked at from this point of view, is aroused, and that they will therefore study the matter for themselves. Although these views on heredity are held to-day by those best able to judge, they are after all only opinions. But I have set them before you with attempted precision, not only because they appear scientifically sound and explanatory of much which is perplexing without them, but also because I have wished to avoid, if possible, fogging ourselves with too much of the abstract, and overlooking what is after all our chief concern, the practical outcome--a danger sometimes complained of in regard to P.N.E.U. addresses and papers.


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Here followed four Demonstration Lessons by students from the House of Education:--

12-12.20 (a) Natural History Lesson to Class 1b,
By Miss Spearman.
12.20-12.35 (b) A First Reading Lesson to Class 1a,
By Miss Mackenzie.
12.35-12.50 (c) A First Grammar Lesson to Class 1b,
By Miss Evans.
12.50-1.10 (d) A Literature Lesson to Class IV.,
By Miss Nesbitt.