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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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Address by The Right Hon. James Bryce, M.P.

Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 507-519


Parents National Education Union Fourth Annual Conference
Held at St. Martin's Town Hall, May 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th, 1900

I must begin by confessing that I am not a parent myself, and although that enables me to speak with impartiality, and without any prejudice, you may well think that you, each of you, know far more, from your own practical personal knowledge, than is possible for an outsider. I may venture only to plead in excuse for the promise which has brought me here, that I have preserved very vividly the recollections of my boyhood, and of what one thought then, in a half unconscious way, about the relations of one's companions to their parents, and about the relations of parents and children generally. I have also had the observing of a great number of nephews and nieces. Let me say, apropos of nephews and nieces, that in speaking of the influence of parents I desire to include uncles and aunts--and especially aunts, who bear, I think, a very large function indeed in the forming of children's minds--particularly those aunts who are not themselves married. I owe a great deal to my own aunts, and I see constantly how much aunts do for their nephews and nieces, and I think, therefore, in considering the influence which those in a parental position may have upon children, we ought always to include them.

That which brings me here to-day is a very strong sense of the supreme importance of the part which parents play in the formation of each generation as it comes forward. I do not want for a moment to disparage the influence and importance of schools, and particularly of schools for younger children, especially for the children of those who live in more or less easy circumstances in our great cities, and who go away from home, perhaps at even eight or ten years of age, to be placed in preparatory schools; the influence of the teachers in forming the minds of such must, of course, be very great. But I may point out, especially as regards the schools where boys' minds between 14 and 18 are formed, that we are apt to make too much of them. It may well be doubted whether so much of the credit of the performance of boys is due to their schools, as is usually ascribed to them. There is a tendency to exaggeration in the way we talk about the influence of schools, and a great deal is due to the training which boys receive before they go.

At the same time I do not in the least disparage the influence individual brilliant teachers may exercise. Every now and then, an individual teacher will communicate a passion for knowledge upon new subjects, and give a new way of looking at the world and at literature which will remain for life. But these cases are very rare in schools and universities, and taking the schools all round, I believe we are in constant danger of over-estimating their influence as compared with that of the parents. The parent is in the closest connection with the child, and has means of knowing the child's mental circumstances which no one else can have. The parent has charge of the child's mind at the time when it most takes in impressions; that was dwelt upon many centuries ago, and is true now, but, as with those vital truths that are most obvious, we almost forget it. And I say to you, ladies, as parents, the influence you have upon the formation of the minds of your children, both intellectually and morally, is incomparably more important than any influence you can bring to bear in later years.

That influence may be divided into three particular kinds or forms. First, there is the stimulus you give to the child's intellectual interests. In that respect, there is much more to be done by talking to children and treating them as rational beings from the first than people generally recognize. Of course, it means a great deal of time and patience; it does want a great deal of patience if a child is volatile and easily fatigued, or even dull. But children are not so dull as is sometimes supposed. Their supposed dullness often arises from ourselves--because, possibly, one has not quite got hold of the question as it presents itself to the child's mind. If you once succeed in looking at the question from the angle at which the child looks at it, you will presently find out that the child is not really dull. You must treat a child as a reasonable being, with a desire for knowledge, because any of you must have observed that a thirst for knowledge or curiosity is the first thing a child develops. It is a heart-breaking thing to crush down a child's natural desire for information, its instinctive curiosity. It should be encouraged to be always curious, to be always asking questions, and if you answer the questions in the right way, the child will soon distinguish between foolish and other questions. And if you answer with patience you will be rewarded, and, unless you have patience, you had better not embark in the matter at all.

Secondly, as to attention. The habit hardest to form is that of attention. Heaven forbid that I should urge you to strain the attention of a child until you fatigue it; the parent should notice when a child is tired, and then should never persevere with the subject. But apart from that danger, the cultivation of steady attention is the most useful habit you can form--to give a steady, fixed attention to a thing, and continue to think about it. Sometimes it seems to me that in the hurry and pressure of present-day life, we are losing, in the end of this century, the habit of sustained thinking. We pick up ideas from books, from magazines, and from newspapers, and we do not test them or apply our minds continuously to them; therefore, the more necessity there is for endeavouring to form this habit from the first in children, because, if not formed early, it will be much harder to form afterwards.

Thirdly, a great deal may be done in the way of forming children's tastes. I mean by that, that one ought to discover as far as one can what a child has naturally a taste for. I suppose every child passes through the period at which it tries to draw, but that, unfortunately, is often quite transitory. Then there is the period of mechanical devices, mechanical experiments. These things sometimes are presages of future genius, but more frequently not. They are similar to the period through which primitive man passes. I confess that I have not followed all the experiments about children's mental growth which are now being reduced to a fine art, but there is something in the view that the evolution of mankind into a civilized from and uncivilized state is not unlike the process by which the child's mind matures itself through successive phases. Whenever I have travelled among savage or half-savage people, I have been struck by this, and it is interesting to see, in this microcosm of the child, the child [go through] the stages through which man has gone in his progress from a primitive state to the maturity we call civilization.

And then about tastes. There are a good many tastes which children are capable of, which require to be stimulated and cultivated by putting things before them before the taste can be developed. For instance, a child may have a taste for natural objects which will not be developed unless the child is taken into the country; it may have a taste for drawing which will not be developed without a chance being given to it of seeing beautiful things; above all, it may have a taste for knowledge and for reading, about which I wish to say a few words presently. Now, these are the three ways in which the influence of parents may first be used in forming children's minds. It is really the years between four and eight which determine the child's character more than any years after. It is then, in particular, that the habit of curiosity--or, rather, the desire for knowledge, evidenced by curiosity--and the habit of attention are best formed, and if a child has not begun to form the habit of attention and concentration before eight years of age, you are making a very difficult work for the schoolmasters and mistresses afterwards.

I have been invited to say something with regard to the relation of the parent to the schoolmaster and teacher, but I do not think I can say anything more than that the teacher who is interested in the welfare of the child, derives the greatest encouragement from the sympathy of parents, i.e., the intelligent sympathy of parents, that is, of the parents who watches a boy or girl in the holidays, and marks the progress by them during the school term, and the growth of their minds. It is very difficult even for the best teacher to mark the progress of mind and character in 50 or 60 boys and girls, and therefore, a judicious hint given by a parent will be very highly valued by a teacher and help him greatly. In that respect, I should think a good deal might be done.

There is another subject, so obvious indeed that I am almost ashamed to mention it, and which was strongly insisted upon by those very admirable moralists at the beginning of the century, of whom Miss Edgeworth is a type. One hears that this generation thinks there is too much moral tone in those stories, but I cannot help proclaiming my own affection for them, and one of the most frequent morals in Miss [Maria] Edgeworth's stories was the extreme importance of choosing nurses and servants. Of course now it has become very important indeed, because, in a great city especially, the calls of society are more frequent, and perhaps it is impossible, even for the zealous mother, to spend as much time with her children as in less busy days. Therefore, the importance of having nurses and servants who will do for a child's mind what is necessary to be done and encourage curiosity, attention and concentration cannot be exaggerated. It is most important to have nurses and governesses with intelligent minds, though, of course, that is not the main thing. The most important thing is that they should be tender and conscientious, but next to that, it is of the greatest importance to have intelligent women. I say that, because many men and boys have told me what they owe to their nurses and governesses, and it is therefore not otiose [futile] to refer to the point.

Let us see what methods can be used for formation of boys' and girls' tastes. The remarks I am going to give you are very scattered, but they can hardly avoid being so on account of the subject. In forming tastes, the first thing is to cultivate curiosity, to encourage the natural desire for knowledge. It is an excellent thing to encourage children to read at large outside their lessons. Some have even said that the best thing you can do for a boy or girl is to turn them loose into a good library. I have seen this done with admirable effect; where the love of reading already existed, but sometimes the love of reading has itself to be developed, and a cultivation of the habit of general reading, besides lessons--of course you must have lessons to form habits of concentration--is a very good thing. It is remarkable that the books which children read, and which you might consider very unfit for them, really do them very little harm. I remember being told once by a lady whose father had a classical library of the old style, that when eight or ten years old, she read pretty well through the older British Drama, and she told me she forgot all that might have been deemed objectionable in those plays, though the reading of them had been useful because it had stimulated her imagination and given her a desire for literary knowledge. Things one might have expected would harm her had run off. Having an innocent mind, living in an innocent home, these things had not remained in her memory, though her faculties had been roused. And though I do not suggest that one should not be careful about the books which come into a child's hands, still, nature and simple innocence are great preservatives.

These remarks I make with regard to the much debated question as to whether children should read fiction or not. When I was a boy it was almost an accepted doctrine that they should not do so. Nowadays, if anybody thought this, he would hardly venture to state it. But you must remember that there are various kinds of fiction. The kind which is best is that which stimulates the imagination and the imagination purely, and therefore the kind of fiction best for children is of the imaginative quality. In this I include fairy tales, The Arabian Nights, folk-lore, and so forth. People tell me that children grow up now who are ignorant of The Arabian Nights and even of Robinson Crusoe. This is very shocking. I have heard it said that The Arabian Nights are not good in moral lessons; I am not sure it is not an advantage that these lessons are absent. You want things to appear to children's minds in a way in which the ordinary every-day things of common life do not appear. The scene from The Arabian Nights, for instance, in which a man who has been acting as cook is going to be put to death, because he had made a confection which was deficient in pepper, is a scene which pleases children in respect of what you may call its humour or its absurdity. And this is what you want--you want to present things in categories apart from the everyday life, and therefore these fairy stories, in which time and place and the ordinary rules of action are suspended, so long as poetical justice is maintained--for they like poetical justice--are very good for children. You want them to live in a world outside their own; and for that reason it is better they should have that kind of fiction than grown-up people's fiction, which, of course, is chiefly occupied in depicting the world in which we actually live and in which they will live. They come into that soon enough, and it is better that they should live in imagination as long as possible. And although in my boyhood days I read a great many of the then modern novels, still I do think, especially in a time like ours, more prosaic than those days were, it is good that boys and girls should have fiction of a type far removed from that of the ordinary novel of society. And that remark seems to apply even more strongly to such children's books as are permeated by sentiment of a moral and religious kind. I am not sure that such books are altogether good for children. I make this remark with some diffidence, but I certainly remember from my contemporaries that the influence of these books--[Yonge's] The Heir of Redclyffe, for instance--was sometimes to make them rather morbid. What you want is to keep the child as long as you can in the presence of a natural, simple, primitive world, and to carry it back to the condition in which man himself was when he was face to face with nature, and barely recongnized the contrast between himself and nature; when he lived a natural simple life, as he did in the days when folk-lore was produced.

There is another point on which a word may be said. A great deal may be done in the way of giving children a taste for nature. The more we live in towns, the more necessary the taste for nature becomes, and though the ignorance of nature is far more dreadful and apparent in the case of poor children, so that it has become a grave and almost a national evil, still it is an evil in all classes. To be sure, town children go into the country now for some time in each year, and have a better chance than forty or fifty years ago, but it is important that, as the greater part of children's lives is spent in town, and as the proportion of towns-folk to country folk is always increasing, that the cultivation of a taste for nature should be regarded as among the duties of a parent, and it is perhaps one of the greatest sources of pleasure there is in the world. But it needs direction. I have been very much struck by the fact that many young people want their observation cultivated. While they will observe keenly if you show them a thing, they will not even see it unless you shew it to them. That may seem at variance with our a priori views. You would think that a faculty of observation would play upon any class of object it is brought into contact with, but this is not the case. It wants direction, as a rule. One finds cases where a child has been given a taste for botany or geology or entomology or something of that kind, where there was no reason to think it would develop the taste, until it was taken and, so to speak, pushed into it. I remember myself having been, in that way, brought to the stage of asking questions on branches of natural history which I had never observed, and should never have observed if it had not been for my father and my uncle. They both taught me these things, and gave me a taste for observing them which has remained with me all my life, and been a source of the greatest possible enjoyment to me.

In any observations to be made upon what parents may do for the moral training of their children, one enters a still vaster sphere, and one in which I must stand in inferiority to you who have practical experience. I remember to have heard an eminent authority say that as between rewards and punishments, rewards are more dangerous than punishments. One can easily see whence the remark comes, i,e., by training the child to rewards you lower its moral standard. Now as regards punishments, they are to-day out of fashion. None of us would like to bring them back. I have always had a theory that it ought to be possible to bring up a normal child in a well-conducted home, under well-conducted parents, with hardly any punishment at all; and, if that theory has any amount of truth in it, the truth lies in the fact that it is much more possible to reason with a child than we are generally in the habit of assuming. Why don't people reason with children? From the commonest of all human faults--laziness. You remember once Dr. Johnson excused himself by saying it was "sheer ignorance," and another time by saying it was "simple laziness," and one of the chief reasons why parents will not reason with their children is because it is too much trouble. Of course, I do not mean to say there are not occasions on which you cannot give a child all the reasons for whatever you tell it to do; you must sometimes come to saying that you know better than it does, that you have a reason for telling it to do what you say, and that it must trust you. That is an appeal to reason. But apart from that, there are really a great many cases where, instead of giving a mere blunt command, you can explain to the child why it should do a certain thing, and it really is all the more disposed to listen when it is so addressed. In most of us, there is an element of pure self-will, and self-will is not nearly so strong when conciliated by an appeal to reason. Now, a strong will is in itself a valuable quality; the children that are not self-willed do not generally come to much, and you turn strong will to good account and avoid conflicts with it if you appeal to reason, because then you get out of the direct conflict between yourselves and the child, because you put the matter to the sense of the child and let him judge, which is a compliment the child appreciates.

And in that connection, it ought to be added that it is a very dangerous thing to have a pure trial of strength with a child. There are occasions when a self-willed child will defeat the parent. Of course, such a defeat is a serious defeat, and wise parents have told me they always avoid, if possible, coming to a pure trial of strength. You cannot always be quite sure that you will win, and the struggle itself is bad for the child. It seems to me, looking back to one's own childhood days, that children are better now than they were then; certainly they are better mannered, they are very self-possessed, have extraordinary sang-froid [composure] and savoir faire [tact]. I think, too, they are much less mischievous than they used to be. In those old days, there was a tendency among earnest and pious people to think too much of small childish transgressions, and to weary children with dissertations upon their duty. It is a very dangerous thing to bore a child; you do it harm instead of good. Perhaps it is not necessary to enter in the present day into any questions as to lecturing children on duty; for it is not in fashion now to talk about duty as it used to be. If there is any disposition among parents of the boys and girls of the present day it is to let them think that their business in life is to "have a good time," instead of, as was the way in previous years, descanting to young people upon their duty and giving them more moral harangues than was perhaps altogether judicious. But nowadays, although I do not for a moment suppose there is any less zeal on the part of parents than then, the disposition of parents is to ride with a looser rein, and to let boys and girls think the world was made for their enjoyment. But you are all able to judge of that better than I can. One more remark about punishment, and about reproaching children for their faults. It is a very dangerous thing to over-shoot a child's sense of justice, and if you hurt its sense of justice, and blame it when you need not do so, or more than it deserves, you will only do it harm.

Last, about religion. Perhaps one may venture to make a single general remark on this delicate subject. There is too much tendency now to look upon the teaching of religion as a matter which belongs to the schoolmaster, the schoolmistress, and the clergy. It is not primarily a matter for them--it is a matter for parents. In our public discussions about what is called the teaching of religion, some seem to me to be led astray by the fundamental fallacy that it is in lessons that religious instruction consists, and not in the influence on the mind and character which the parent or teacher exerts; it is in that the value of such instruction resides. Of course, there are numbers of children in this country whose homes are not capable of giving them the kind of religious instruction in schools. Of course, you must. There is a strong case for securing that, in elementary and secondary schools, the leading events in sacred history, with principles of Christian morality, should be taught, and that the Bible should be read. But I do say, as regards children with properly constituted homes, that it is from the parents that both doctrinal and moral teaching should come far more than from the schools. You cannot make much of religion by lessons: of course, you can teach a child Scripture history--for a child ought to know its Bible history, and most children do not seem to know it now as well as they did 50 years ago, and they have a great loss. You can also, if you think it worth while, make it learn by heart from a catechism statements of dogmas which it cannot understand, and which, if you try to explain them, you may find that you do not yourself quite understand. But if we think of those religious convictions or sentiments which have been most valuable to us, which have stimulated, guided, and helped our lives, it is not through lessons and certainly not by means of catechisms or other such manuals that we have acquired them. They have been due much more to personal influence, and the influence that is strongest, deepest, and most abiding, is that which comes from and is bound up with the recollections of parents and of others personally dear who watched over us in childhood. Early associations make all the difference, and the early associations that are most powerful and most pervasive and helpful through after life are those which stand rooted in the home.


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Mrs. Ashley Carus-Wilson said: With regard to the kind of books children like in the present day, may I give the following illustration? I know a little boy of five years old, who has various books of the "Gollywog" kind [like this?], but the book which he prefers to any other is a little dumpy diminutive volume, with much used leaves and brown cover, nearly one hundred years old--Miss Edgeworth's Frank. Then, as to turning children to browse freely in libraries, I can only say that from the age of thirteen I browsed very freely in a library and was early familiar with Shakespeare, Scott, and "The Arabian Nights," and I feel sure there could be no contamination to a child in reading this grand literature of the world. On the contrary, it seems much more sensible reading than the stories written not so much for children, but for those who have the care of children. Take, for instance, such a book as Misunderstood, which is a valuable book for parents, but an unwholesome one for a child. [probably this one by Florence Montgomery.]

Mrs. Franklin: Surely one great opportunity is being lost by modern parents, i.e., the holiday time of the older school boys and girls. There is a growing practice among wealthy parents to choose these times for their own trips abroad. I ventured, rather humbly, to say this to a parent a short time ago, and he said, "Well, if we were at home with the children, what would the life be? We should be in a large country house, the boy of fifteen would be out shooting rabbits or playing cricket, and we should only see him at meal-times." But not only do we go abroad and take our holidays when our children are at home, but we fill our houses with guests, and have very little time left to give our children. That brings us to the subject of books. In the long summer days, I think not even the most active boy wants to be running about all day long, and I see no reason why one or two hours a day should not be devoted to reading with our children. Many of the hints and counsels that we get at this meeting appear to some of us very difficult to compass; we hear that we are not to be irritable, that we are not to be tired, that we are to do our best; but when we are told that we are to give good books to our children, then we feel that this lies more or less in our own hands, and we can do it with a certain ease. True, it implies a certain power in the choosing of books, but we can get a good deal of help by reading those recommended in the Parents' Review and, in that way, I think even the least literary of us can find good material to help our children. There is nothing more obvious than the fact that you can form a child's literary taste before ten or eleven years of age: I don't think, for instance, it is any use to try and induce a boy of fifteen, who has been nourished on "Tit-Bits" and such literature, to suddenly become interested in history and folk-lore. I hope the remarks in a recent article in the Cornhill--"A Modern Parent"--do not apply to any of us: they should not do so because, if anybody has taken in what is said here, they will feel that we do not give our children "spoon food," that we do not approve of giving them namby-pamby books and poetry written expressly for them. I should recommend you to read that article, and to tell outsiders that we modern P.N.E.U. parents are not like that.

Dr. Helen Webb: In inducing children to take an interest in a study of nature, botany, natural history, etc., we must be careful to guard against their being taught by somebody who is not a real enthusiast. The help that Mr. Bryce received must have been given by real enthusiasts. With regard to turning children into a library, I think that gives a beautiful opportunity of forming a habit of attention and concentration. If a child goes into a library and finds something that interests him, he sits down with his elbows on the table and reads and reads and reads, quite oblivious of anything else. Then about those crises of interest that a child gets, such as drawing and stamp collecting: surely these crises are very closely connected with some stage of growth in the brain; they give an indication of the brain being developed in some special way, and show us where we can get the best work for the time being. It is well to let children work at their hobby. As to giving reasons, I would say, be sure you give the true reason. Laziness is a dreadful fault, and I think we are much more likely to give the first reason that occurs to us, and to forget that a child is not only exceedingly just, but excessively logical. It is much better to say, "I haven't time now, I will tell you another time," or "You cannot understand yet"; but I think it is dreadful to see a child thirsting for knowledge, and getting stones when it asks for bread.

The Right Hon. James Bryce, M.P., in reply, said: I do not feel that I have any remarks to make apropos of the discussion, because I agree with everything that has been said. With regard to Dr. Helen Webb's remarks, I fully accept her view, that a habit of attention may be cultivated by letting a child read by itself in a library. Perhaps, however, it ought to be added that if a child is allowed to read exactly what it likes, and not required to read anything else, it will not form a habit of fixing its attention upon what is difficult and troublesome; so that when it comes to things which do not attract it, it may recoil from them. Thus you cannot trust to the library only. Apart from that, I have nothing to express but agreement. In taking my leave, allow me to express my thanks for the opportunity which has such an admirable aim in view. Nothing in the world can do more for a country than that mothers should be alive to the invaluable opportunities given to them in forming the minds of children, and to the enormous results that may be obtained through their discharge of that duty. I therefore wish all possible prosperity to the P.N.E.U.


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