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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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Talk to Nurses

by Dr. Helen Webb.
Volume 11, 1900, pg. 437


"Don't you remember all it was to each of you to help your own dear mothers to do little things about the house; what honest pride and confidence it gave you to dry the best tea-cups without dropping them, and to rub a bit of mahogany with a rag till you could see your face in it? There would not have been half as much educational value for you in cutting out cardboard boxes, folding paper, &c., &c., good as these last may be."


Wendi Capehart writes: This article is called a talk to nurses, or some such thing, but it is very useful to all of us.
          I learned a lot, or had crystallized much of what I vaguely realized. The mothers of the class most involved in the PNEU simply did not raise their own children. They spent lots of time thinking about it, writing papers about it, attending meetings about it, and they really cared about it, but over and over in these volumes I am seeing this faint thread about how in their modern 'today's culture,' women had so many social obligations that they needed well-trained, intelligent nurses to support them in their work.The nurses had the bulk of the child-rearing work for children from babyhood to about five. Mom was involved - but she came and went. Nurse was always there. Nurse also had almost no other job to do except care for the children. So of course Nurse could devote the constant time to habit training that was expected. I don't mean that nothing in this article is applicable. It is - it's very good Year 0 stuff since it's addressed the girls who had charge of the 0-5 year old set (and today, that's us moms).
          But I also think this is why they could say spanking is never necessary, scripture to the contrary. First off, they didn't want the nurses dealing out corporal punishment, for obvious reasons. Secondly, it's always a simpler matter to get a child to mind somebody not its parent, or not as familiar to it than it is to get a child to be consistantly obedient with Mom when Mom is the only one around. It's not the same as having Nurse, Cook, Gardener, undernursemaid, parlourmaid, second housemaid and the tweeny all there, and all bowing to Mom's authority.
          I also note that a lot of the distractions offered to redirect the attention involve sending the child to other adults ("take a message to cook," "take this package to the gardener" . . .) Somehow I just don't see that working for me ("The crockpot wants to see you . . .").
          So I went ahead and typed this article because there was material that was applicable to Moms today - but I'd sure like to know some answers to more more specific questions - like what Charlotte or the Dr. Webb who gave the speech in this article would have done about (specific discipline areas). -- Wendi


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Tuesday, May 15th, 3 p.m.

Lady Campbell, and Friends,

As this meeting, in great part, consists of those who, though not actual members of our Union, are most closely associated in their work with others who are, I should like to begin by explaining in a few words what the P.N.E.U. really is, and some of the purposes for which it exists. It is a union of parents, teachers, and all others interested in education, and it aims, not only at the study of the best methods of education, but at putting these methods into practice. Now, some here may say to themselves:--"What have we to do with education; it is no part of our business! Why not invite governesses instead of nurses? We have, for the most part, the charge of children before they come to an age to be educated. We don't meddle with that, we leave it to governesses, tutors, schoolmistresses and schoolmasters!" If such thoughts are passing through any of your minds, I must answer them by saying:--"I beg you pardon, but I cannot agree with you!" The education of which we speak is not merely book-learning, but education in the sense of the training of character, in its relation to behaviour, to the formation of habits, and to the whole conduct of life. Such education begins at the moment of the infant's birth, and, even for the old, does not quite cease at this side of the grave. It really consists of all the influences of every kind which surround us through our whole lives, but on the little child, the things about it act with a very special directness and power. These surroundings are, every moment of the day, intentionally or unintentionally shaping the life of the man and woman into whom the child is to develop, and this fact brings a great weight of responsibility on the shoulders of all who have anything to do with little children from the very first. Perhaps, realizing as one does, the specially active development which goes on during the first three or four years of life, one is almost tempted to say that the moral responsibility of the nurse is even greater than that of the teacher.

Like plants, children can grow up naturally and wholesomely, or, their minds and characters may be twisted and injured in the growth. We all know that when a gardener wants to get one specimen of a plant or tree to be as fine and healthy as possible, he has to find out how it is natural for it to grow; in other words, what are the laws for its growth. He must know what kind of earth it had where it chose to grow as a wild plant, for all kinds of plants have somewhere been found in the wild state; he must find out how much moisture it liked, what shelter from the wind, how much sunshine, and so on. He knows that if he does not give his plant all that is good to it in these ways and in others, it will not become as fine and as beautiful as it might otherwise have been. Now, the plants that we, as gardeners, have to do with are nothing less than human beings, and it is about as awful and solemn a thought as can well come to us, that any of us, by ignorance or want of thought, to say nothing of any evil intention, may put such moral stumbling-blocks in the way of any little child, that when he grows up he will not be as good and as useful a man as he would otherwise have been.

There is a very deep reason why all the little things done and said around it have so much effect upon the child's character. It is because anything which anyone sees, or does, or hears, or in any other way becomes aware of, makes, at the time, a real change in the substance of that person's brain. Every time the same thing happens again, that change in the brain becomes more and more marked. As the result of this, the brain builds into itself the influences of everything around the child, and it comes to pass that each time a thing is done, it becomes easier to do the same thing again. We all know how practice makes perfect. How doing the same thing over and over again, we come to do it more and more easily, till, at last, we can often do it without being aware that we perform the act. The first time, for instance, that anyone tells a lie, they do it with difficulty, they do it awkwardly; they blush and shew themselves uncomfortable, so that anyone observing may see that something is wrong. Next time it comes more easily, next to that more easily still, and so on till some people reach a point of untruthfulness when a lie rises to the lips more readily than the truth. This is what is meant by forming a habit. Habits may be formed in almost anyone at any time, given the proper conditions of tendency and surroundings. In the young boy or girl, however, they occur more readily than in the grown man or woman, and those in charge of the little child can either thoughtlessly or intentionally shape habits of mind or body in almost any direction.

About the question of habit, we might give many lectures, but to-day we have not time to dwell very long upon it. I must, however, say just this much. It is well that those who are responsible for children should never forget that, whether they mean it or not, this great forming power is constantly at work upon the children, and that they can do nothing which does not influence the child for good or for evil.

Practically, what you, as nurses, should aim at in the training and education of a young child is that it shall form good habits about the small things of daily life. That it shall be clean and nice in its personal ways; bright, cheerful, and natural in its manner; shall come to eat its food prettily without having to think about how it does it; that it shall be industrious and neat, swift and cheerful to obey, truthful and open, and that it shall see and hear nothing in the nursery which it feels its nurse would wish it to conceal from mother or father. If this last ever happens, it is, for the child, a first seed of deceit and untruthfulness. For remember that, to the young child, its father and mother are as God Almighty, and the most elementary righteousness demands that, in your position, you should have in yourselves complete loyalty to those parents, and cultivate the same in the children under your care. As part of this loyalty to the children's parents, one must remember loyalty to the children themselves, and to your work itself. Just remember--at least once or twice a day, if you cannot oftener--remember when you say your prayers, that what you have in your charge is a future man or woman, and that, in no small degree, through your wisdom or folly, that life will be affected and shaped. I think the habit of having such a thought coming into one's mind regularly would be an immense help against carelessness in such a sacred charge.

It also would bring with it real reverence for the children. Does it sound funny to you that I should speak of reverence for a child? We ought to be very reverent about children with their fresh, pure, minds. As Christ said, take heed that ye offend not, despise not, hinder not, one of these little ones. "Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of Heaven." If our Lord felt such reverence, how much more ought we to do so.

There are so many ways in which this spirit ought to enter our work, that I can only touch on a few of them.

Now, in the matter of truth. Some people seem to imagine that it is of much less consequence to say what is not true to children than to grown-up people. As far as oneself is concerned, the sin is, I suppose, the same in both cases, but an untruth spoken to a child is far more likely to be injurious to it than the same deception of a grown person. If a child asks questions, either tell it the truth in whatever form it can understand it, or let it know that it is to be satisfied without an answer to that question just then. In the case of many questions a child may ask, the wisest and best thing for you to do is to send it to its mother. She is its best teacher, and knows best how she wishes it taught. If we are not quite straightforward with children, we cannot expect them to be so with us, or to get that habit of truthful speech, which is such a possession to carry through life. In keeping a child truthful, remember that it is most important not to frighten it into untruthfulness by too great severity. If it be severely punished for some fault, the temptation. to hide faults will be so great that it will readily come to conceal them, and not be quite open over anything it happens to have done amiss.

This leads me on to the great question of the correction of faults. You notice that I do not say, "punishments." I don't think you have really anything to do with absolute punishments. They are seldom needed, and if they are, the child's parents alone should have the responsibility of deciding and administering them. Any nurse who understands little children (and let me tell you that if you have not some measure of such an instinct, you have mistaken your profession, and had better turn to some other work) can get the child's will on her side, and cultivate in it a cheerful obedience. When this is done, and rightly made use of, occasions suggesting the necessity of anything to be called punishment will cease to arise.

In cultivating the habit of cheerful obedience, we must never make use of fear. If we did, the obedience would not be cheerful, and you notice, I always use that word. You must have good reason in your own mind for what you allow and what you forbid. The thing forbidden should be something either undesirable or injurious for the child itself or for someone else, or really wrong, not just forbidden because you feel tired and worried and out of temper at the moment. You must be consistent in what you allow and forbid. Children are often bewildered by being allowed to do something one day which, another day, is severely forbidden as if it were a mortal sin. If you are consistent, you need give no further reason. That a thing was forbidden yesterday is, to the mind of a child, quite sufficient reason why it is forbidden to-day.

Then, do not make the strain of obedience too great. By this I mean, try not to leave the child too much exposed to temptations he finds it hardest to resist. One cannot, of course, remove all temptation, but one can see that he is not tempted more than he can bear. In cultivation of the habit of obedience, do not give reasons. That it is not allowed by someone whom the child has real reason to respect, and that that person is consistent, and makes as few things as possible into sins, is all that is desirable. Someone has wisely said that he who multiplies sins manufactures criminals. As it is best never to give an order without meaning to have it obeyed; for that very reason, we must avoid giving such orders as are unnecessary.

Always believe in a child's goodness rather than his wickedness. Believe, and let him feel that you believe, that, of course he will obey, of course he will speak the truth, of course he will be able to carry out something he undertakes or is asked to do, and that there is no question of his being selfish or jealous, or showing any other sin. If you do this, you will have your reward. If you believe the other way, you will reap the whirlwind.

Have you ever read Uncle Tom's Cabin? If so, you will remember how the naughty little negro Topsy, who played every kind of trick on Miss Ophelia, who thought ill of her, was at once subdued into good conduct by the love and faith of Eva, who thought her capable of all virtue. This also was one of the secrets of success in the methods of the great Dr. Arnold, one of the greatest schoolmasters of this century. He believed in his boys, and put them on their honour, and they lived up to his expectations.

In giving orders to a child, or directions, let them be affirmative, not negative, e.g. say, "Mind you carry that carefully to mother," not "Now mind you don't drop that." In this way, you make it believe in itself, and give it confidence in the undertaking.

In the same way, when a child has done something not quite rightly or well, you will help it much more by blaming the fault than itself. When Tommy comes in with muddy boots, say, "Oh, Tommy, look at all that mud! It is not nice on the carpet!" Rather than "Oh, Tommy, you bad boy to bring so much mud onto the carpet!" In the first instance, you and Tommy stand side by side, and sympathetically regret the state of the floor; in the latter, you set Tommy over against you, and give opportunities for the appearance of the germs of enmity and self-pity, both bad seeds!

In the same way, if it is your pleasant duty to give praise, then praise more the effort than the achievement, and praise the thing done rather than the child for doing it.

As I said before, every experience leaves its traces in the substance of the brain. All the time, too, while the brain is growing, everything the child does with its hands and, as well, its mind, helps to strengthen the brain and make it powerful in other ways. This is why so much is heard nowadays about children doing handiwork at school, and learning to be deft and skillful with their fingers; this makes their hands more useful, but it also makes their brains more powerful. Now there is something connected with this point that I very much wanted to say to nurses. There are a number of little things which children might do in the nursery and house which would produce this effect still better than the handiwork taught in schools, and would at the same time make the children much wiser and more useful men and women. I mean such things as putting away their own toys, dressing themselves, helping to spread and clear away from the tea-table, helping to dust little things in the room,--and even to wash up or dry the tea-things. I am well aware that it is much easier to do any or all of these things oneself, or, still more so, to get the nursery-maid to do them, than to see that a little child learns to do them nicely and neatly. All the same, if you let these opportunities of valuable training pass, you are as much to blame as if you let the fruit and vegetables decay in a garden because it was too much trouble to gather them, and then sent out to a greengrocer's to buy more. Don't you remember all it was to each of you to help your own dear mothers to do little things about the house; what honest pride and confidence it gave you to dry the best tea-cups without dropping them, and to rub a bit of mahogany with a rag till you could see your face in it? There would not have been half as much educational value for you in cutting out cardboard boxes, folding paper, &c., &c., good as these last may be.

Furthermore, there is great value for both young and old in a little daily effort, the feeling that something definite has to be done, whether it is pleasant to do or not. It is much plainer to a child that this something must be accomplished if it is something useful, something the object of which it can see, or which is helpful to one it loves. Any of us will undertake a difficult task with ease if it be vitally interesting to us. To tie your shoes with the prospect of getting out, to dust a row of books and have the pleasure of putting them straight and neat, are no small interests.

Attending to pets is another place where interest will inspire to a bit of effort. The educational value of this is enormous, but it is not to be trusted to too small children, and we must be sure to see ourselves that the child is quite regular in feeding the animals, and cleaning their houses and cages.

Just as stomach needs rest between meals, and ought to be filled in the intervals, so the brain of a child, especially of the quite young child, who is taking in new experiences and ideas with a rapidity we cannot possibly realize, requires times of peace and quiet over and above what it gets during sleep. For this reason, young children should, as much as possible, be allowed to amuse themselves quietly alone. As long as a little child will play by itself on the carpet with a few bricks, sticks or stones, it ought to be allowed to do so. There is no greater mistake than rushing at a baby which is quietly and happily engaged in its own thoughts, and snatching it up to look at something out of the window, or to dance it round the room. By such interference we show great want of reverence, and do a distinct violence to the baby's development. I do not mean that when the child has had its quiet time, and is evidently wishing for more amusement and attention, you are to neglect it. There is a time for everything.

Another way in which want of reverence to children is shown is by gossiping in their presence, and talking before them of things not suitable for them to hear. This sort of thing is liable to lead to much evil. Amongst other things, it makes the child ask questions which one may be tempted to answer untruthfully, and there is also the temptation to oneself to tell the child not to repeat to its mother what has been said.

Don't talk about children in their presence, or make examples of one to another. This last is of great importance

If I have helped even one or two here to see more clearly than they did before that the work they have undertaken is as important and responsible work as there is in the world, because the materials they work upon are the bodies and minds of those children who will be the men and women of the next generation, and that it is impossible to care for the bodies of children without at the same time influencing their minds, I shall have done even more than I hope. You have undertaken a profession which, above almost every other, needs patience, tact, self-sacrifice and loving-kindness, and any of you who perform its duties at all as they ought to be performed will be, in a most especial sense, about our Father's business.

To conclude, I should like to read you a little poem, familiar, probably, to many of you, written by a very, great man to his nurse when he dedicated to her a volume of some of the sweetest children's verses which have ever been written. He was a wise man, and knew much about the growth of the human mind, and never forgot all his life long what he owed to one of the best of nurses:--

          "For the long, nights you lay awake,
          And watched for my unworthy sake;
          For your most comfortable hand
          That led me through the uneven land--
          For all the story books you read
          For all the pains you comforted:
          For all you pitied, all you bore,
          In sad and happy days of yore;
          My second mother, my first wife,
          The angel of my infant life--
          From the sick child, now well and old,
          Take, Nurse, the little book you hold
          And grant it, heaven, that all who read
          May find as dear a nurse at need
          And every child who lists my rhyme,
          In the bright fireside nursery clime,
          May hear it in as kind a voice
          As made my childhood's days rejoice."
                              Robert Louis Stevenson


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Lady Campbell (Chairman): I am sure we have all listened with the deepest interest to Dr. Helen Webb's useful and stimulating address, and I know it has interested her to speak to an audience of nurses, that body to whom we all owe a great debt, and from whom many a mother may learn a lesson of self-sacrifice and patient endurance. You will, I think, all feel that you have been helped, and find that things you had yourselves thought of dimly and vaguely, have now been given shape and form, and that you have had an indicator pointing you on the way you wish to go. I am asked by a mother to put one question--given a difficult child to manage, how far is it right to divert their minds from the thing that is causing trouble between the one in authority and the child?

Dr. Helen Webb: I am very glad this question has been asked, because the question of diverting children's attention is very important and valuable indeed. Their attention should not be diverted in any way that they consciously realize, but if you can suddenly bring in any strong interest, to take the place of something undesirable that is going on, it is a great power in your hands, and one of the ways of lessening temptation. The great art is to do that properly and nicely: it is rather a heaven-sent give to be able to do it well.

A Nurse: If a child is trying to help do something, and does it wrongly, should the child be told so, or is it best to appear pleased with its efforts?

Dr. Helen Webb: If a child is helping, and puts away a thing in the wrong place, for instance, I think it would be best to tell it so. No right minded child would make a fuss, provided it was corrected in a bright cheerful manner that appealed to its reason.

Lady Campbell (Chairman): I must put in a plea for co-operation between mothers and nurses, for the importance of this is not always recognized. Mothers and nurses should always apparently agree, and if there is anything to be said on either side let it be spoken of quietly afterwards, but not before the child.

Miss Allen: Will Dr. Helen Webb explain what she meant about punishment? Does she disapprove of little nursery punishments altogether?

Dr. Helen Webb: Certainly not; but punishment is too strong a word for such small things. I should rather call them corrections. What I meant was that, in the case of serious punishment, a nurse should never feel that she is the person to inflict it. I do not know how people here feel on the subject of corporal punishment, but, personally, I think it is never necessary. Of course, little corrections for faults are necessary sometimes, and these are quite within the nurse's province, but--and let me lay great stress on this--she must be quite sure that such corrections are deserved and just, and that they are not given because she herself as a headache.

Mrs. Hart Davis: Have any of those present--when a child is quite good and being talked to--ever tried the plan of making it state what it thought the punishment should be for a fault? Their remarks are exceedingly interesting, especially if the matter can be put into the third person, or in the form of a story. You get at what the child really thinks. I would not suggest that the child should be punished according to its own estimate, but you will get at the stage of reasoning the child has arrived at. We are apt sometimes to punish a child of two as though he were five, and a child of seven as though he were only five.

A Nurse asked--with regard to diverting a child's thoughts--whether it was justifiable to change its thoughts or tell it a tale after the child had become consciously naughty ?

Dr. Helen Webb thought not, if the matter could be coped with in some other way. But it was a mistake to rebuke a child in its hot blood, and sometimes, by telling a story, the child would be cooled down and become quite good.

A Nurse asked whether, if this method was adopted, self-control was sufficiently gained ?

Dr. Helen Webb thought that if a nerve crisis was eminent, it must certainly be diverted, as it was very bad for the child.

Mrs. Hart Davis said that she had found cold water very valuable under these circumstances. If the child could not be persuaded to drink it, a little could be thrown about the room.

Lady Campbell (Chairman) instanced Charles Kingsley, who always, when he saw one of these crises approaching, made a point of giving the child something active to do, such as sending it off on an errand to the gardener and so on.

Dr. Helen Webb thought this method very excellent.


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