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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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Nursery Discipline

by Mrs. Ridges
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 534-543


". . . whenever you lay your hand on a child's head, you are laying it on the mother's heart."

"No child can be coerced into right doing. One man may bring a horse to water, but ten cannot make him drink. So with the child: we can do no more than lead him in the right way. He is an individual, bound in the future to stand by himself, and our only hope is to get him to care for the things we care for."

[Note from proofreader: As a parent who has looked into TCS child-rearing, I found this paragraph interesting: "I have heard a child given the power of choice when his will had not been trained to choose..."]



At 3 p.m., a lecture to children's nurses was given at 90, Harley Street, W. (by kind permission of Mrs. Morley Fletcher). Lady Campbell was in the chair, and Mrs. Ridges read her paper on Nursery Discipline.

We who live in the provinces are accustomed to look to London for all our new ideas. When we at Reading want a meeting to go well, we get down a Londoner to address it, Dr. Helen Webb for instance, and we know that we shall receive fresh stimulus and fresh thought. To bring you from the provinces anything fresh, or to initiate any novel methods of nursery discipline, is more than I can hope; but, having had for the past ten years a mother's opportunities of dealing with children, my hope is that I may be able to pass on to you some of the results of my experience and thought. With most of us mothers, and I fear even with most nurses, the bringing up of children is so much a matter of experiment, that it is often not till they are growing out of our hands that we begin to have some definite ideas as to how they should have been treated, and then we poor mothers can only lament that our chance is over, and envy you nurses, who with a fresh family of little ones can begin again, and put to the test the experience you have gained. I am glad the day has dawned when at least our nurses need not begin their work without a training which shall give them some of the stored-up wisdom of those who have gone before.

Your work of nursing is a sacred work, and you cannot pay too much regard to its seriousness and importance. I was a wise mother who, on the day that her son was to be ordained to the ministry, said to him at parting, "You are going to be ordained to-day, and you will be told your duty by those who know it far better than I do; but I wish you to remember one thing which, perhaps, they may not tell you--remember that whenever you lay your hand on a child's head you are laying it on the mother's heart." Such words may with equal truth be addressed to nurses, though probably it is only we mothers who know how true they are. It is only we who know what joy we have when our nurses deal wisely and successfully with our children; or, on the contrary, how much patience we need when they bungle and make mistakes.

To you are entrusted a mother's greatest treasures. There is many a mother who, like the Roman matron, Cornelia, regards her children as her most precious jewels. Those who have valuable jewels will often send them to a bank for safety, and there they may lie for many a long year unsullied, but the better treasures which you are called on to guard and keep cannot be thus wrapped up and securely laid aside. You are not merely custodians, caretakers; you are, whether you will or no, trainers and developers of character, and it is in this larger sense of training that I must ask you to understand the word, "discipline," which is the subject of my paper, and not to take it in the narrower sense of punishment, though I shall have something to say later on that branch of discipline. The infant is at first almost purely animal, or rather less than animal, for while the animal, with instinct to guide him, becomes very soon self-sufficient, the infant, with scarcely a sense awakened, is entirely dependent, and has everything to learn; but he has what the animal has in only a very limited degree: the power to learn, or educability, and this power leads him quickly far beyond the animal. This is why it is essential that a nurse should consider herself a trainer of future men and women. I would have all nurses magnify their office, and have a high ideal of what they may accomplish. The nurse who looks upon herself as merely a caretaker will think that, as long as the children are kept in good health, clean and neat, happy and not troublesome to the elders, all is accomplished that can reasonably be desired. But your presence here to-day shows that you have a higher conception of your work, and I believe you will agree with me that the future is of as great importance as the present, and that the importance of the present is that it determines the future. Now, I fear there are many who have never looked into the future and seriously considered what they want the children to be. For instance, why should the nursery be kept tidy? "Oh," you say, "because if I let the children litter up everything I shouldn't have a place for the sole of my foot"; or "I should have mistress complaining." Very good reasons, I grant you, but the main reason should be the result on the children's minds. Are you wanting the children to grow up methodical men and women? Perhaps you would answer, "That's none of my business; I've nothing to do with how they grow up; my business is the present."

On the contrary, it is probably more your business than anyone's. Man is sometimes called a bundle of habits, for it is a man's habits that make his character. I remember reading many years ago in an early number of the Parents' Review that every time an action was performed it wore a little groove in the substance of the brain, so that it was easier to repeat an action than to start out on an entirely new kind of action. Now, since children are always doing something, they are always making new grooves or running in the old grooves, that is, they are always making habits. I am afraid that you will feel from this that I am truly magnifying the nurse's office, and making her work stupendous, if every moment of the child's life is forming habits for his future life. But, in practice, the work is not so great as it sounds: for children have a tendency in the direction in which we want them to go, whatever that direction may be. You hear one child called obedient, another disobedient, but the probability is that each child had originally fairly equal tendencies in both directions. We are all ready to take the credit for bringing up an obedient child, and we should like to be asked the question, "How did you manage to make your child so obedient?" But if we have a disobedient child we might with equal reason be asked, "How did you manage to make your child so disobedient?" How indignant we should be, and how warmly we should deny that we had had anything to do with it.

Then again, a child being pre-eminently an imitative animal, most of its habits are formed by imitation rather than as a result of direct teaching.

To return to the simple illustration used above. You decide you want a child to grow up with a tidy habit of mind. Not everyone, I am sorry to say, wants a boy to grow up tidy. In many homes, though perhaps in fewer than formerly, it is assumed, even when not stated, that the sisters will wait on the brothers. The brothers may be untidy because the sisters will clear up after them. A truly fatal way of training boys. They grow up with the idea that women exist for their use and pleasure, and we all know that many lives are blighted by the working out of such an idea--an idea which probably had its origin in the nursery training.

But supposing we decide that every day we will see that they put all their toys away themselves. But we find it such hard work; they are so rebellious about it. Then it is necessary to ask ourselves if there is anything in us which is teaching them untidiness with more force than all our good precepts teach them tidiness. Do we drop the towel on the bed; do we leave pinafores and overalls scattered over the room when we start them out for a walk; do we leave hats and jackets about on our return; is our sewing always littering up the nursery more than ever their toys do? If so, talking and punishment are of little avail, for we shall never make tidy children.

With regard to obedience, it is a little more difficult to see how imitation can be brought in to help to form the habit of obedience. Children's rulers often seem not to have to obey anyone, so that in the minds of many children, to be grown up is to do as one likes. There, I think, lies the importance of early training in religion, that the children should feel by the way we live that we adults, who seem so free, are yet obedient to a higher power, that we are guided by duty, and obey the law of must. In this connection, I have long felt that we nurses and mothers can do a truly religious work, for, by making our children obedient to us, we are preparing the way for their obedience to God.

But now we must see if we can find out what we can do as well as what we can be to form these good habits.

We will take first obedience, because it is the prime necessity of child life. The teaching of obedience should begin in earliest infancy. Mrs. Booth, the great founder of the Salvation Army, used to say that she conquered her children in their cradles. If the nurse was worn out with trying to get the child to go to sleep, she herself was accustomed to go up, and with firm pressure of the hand keep him still his cradle till he went off. I tried it with my first child and had many a battle. I can almost feel again the aching of my back, as I lent over the bars of his cot holding him down. But in his case, one or two conquests did not settle his obedience once for all. Doubtless Mrs. Booth had herself an exceptionally strong will, and though we may not all succeed to the same extent that she did, I am sure such a course, if followed with wisdom and care, is a great help. What is certain is that the infant first learns obedience by the way he is handled, by the way his nurse holds him on her lap, bathes and dries him. There is a weak hesitating way of holding a child which invites him to show his own wishes, rather than have respect to yours. There is a firm way of holding him which is a long way removed from being rough. Horace Bushnell, the American divine, says:--"There is what may be fitly called a Christian handling for the infant state that makes a most solid beginning of government. It is the even handling of repose and gentle affection which lays a child down to sleep so firmly that it goes to sleep as in duty bound; which teaches it to feed when food is wanted; which refuses to wear out the night in laborious caresses and coaxings, that only reward the cries they endeavour to compose; which places the child so firmly, makes so little of the protests of caprice in it, wears a look so gentle and loving, and goes on with such an evenness of system that the child feels itself to be all the while in another will, and that a good will, consenting thus by habit, and quickly, to be lapped in authority. And thus it becomes a thoroughly governed creature under the mere handling of its infantile age."

When the child is old enough to understand a spoken command, the first necessity is to be sure of your command before you speak it. Uncertainty in your own mind will show itself in your manner and invite the child to question your wisdom. He that hesitates is lost, and the worst of it is that the child is lost as well. Uncertainty about your commands often arises from their inconsistency; but they will not be inconsistent if you have thought them out beforehand, and not given them on the spur of the moment to suit your own convenience or caprice. Even when a command has been given thoughtlessly, it should be as binding on you as on the child: that is, whatever unforeseen consequences of your command come upon yourself, you must not waver and think of softening the command to suit yourself, otherwise the child will think that you do not mean what you say.

We have an historic example in the case of Daniel. When Darius issued a decree, and threatened all who disobeyed it with the den of lions, and afterwards found that it meant the murder of his honoured servant Daniel, he would gladly have withdrawn it; but then it was that his subjects came to him and told him plainly that a decree once made could not be withdrawn at convenience. The king himself was as much bound by it as were the subjects for whom he made it: it was a law of the Medes and Persians which altereth not. So in your own experience you will all know occasions when it would have been so very convenient to withdraw a command. Probably, as was the case with Darius, the command had a threat attached to it, the carrying out of which cost you more than you bargained for. A command once decided upon, it is important to issue it as if you expected to be obeyed. Here it is true that what you expect to get, or as the Bible puts it, "according to your faith it shall be unto you." If you don't expect your command to be obeyed, your voice will become entreating as "Do be a good child," "Now do, just to please nurse," a way of speech which makes the child the superior who decides his own fate; or your voice will become threatening, when you actually assume that you will be disobeyed, and state beforehand the punishment. Even if the threat is omitted, disobedience is sometimes assumed.

I have heard a command given to a careless child in the following way: "Alice, will you let down the blind; now, don't make a noise: you always drop it so carelessly." The harm of this method is that it brings before the mind of the child the opposite of what you are desiring. She at once gets a picture of a Venetian blind clattering down, and is therefore more likely to produce a clattering blind than anything else. A better way would have been to have said, "Alice, please let down the blind: I know you can do it gently." Don't add "if you like," for that suggests to her that perhaps she won't like. Then, a command should be only uttered once. If you give a command twice, that assumes that the first issuing of the command was not meant to be taken any notice of; and if the first need not be noticed, why need the second, and so on. Even if in the end you get obedience, the child has retained the right to decide when he will obey, and the next step he will take will be to decide what he will obey, for delayed obedience quickly generates into disobedience.

The importance of first getting the attention ought perhaps to be emphasized. If you say, "Go and shut the door, Helen," when Helen is busily at play, the chances are that she won't realize that you are speaking to her until it is too late to hear the command, and the consequence is you have to repeat it. So that it is well to say the name first, and repeat that if you must, and then when the child has shown that she is listening, give her the command.

Next, I would say, don't over-rule. This is a temptation that we are more apt to fall into, the more anxious and earnest we are about making a child well behaved and good--and it is a temptation that women are specially liable to. Our life is absorbed with petty details, and we lose our sense of proportion. We can't see that some things are important and others but trivial, and the result is that (if you will excuse the word) we nag. We make mountains out of mole-hills, bringing all faults up to the same level, so that we have no blame strong enough for the greater faults. The result is that the child loses his sense of proportion; but instead of making every fault big, he makes every fault little, and because nurse speaks in severe tones about trivial and serious alike, he thinks the serious are as slight as he knows the trivial to be.

The Honourable Edward Lyttelton, the headmaster of Haileybury, tells us in one of his books that when a mother has visited the school to consult with him about a troublesome son, her greeting to her boy as he enters the room will perhaps be, "There, your collar inked as usual." If it were not so sad, it would be truly ridiculous. What is often needed is a little discreet blindness. If a child is very troublesome, you must let some of his minor faults go for a time unnoticed until he has learnt to obey the weightier matters of the law. Don't ever dishearten a child by making him feel that nothing that he does is right; and if you find yourself tending in that direction, be specially on the look out for a child's good points, and you are to find some, and a little praise for these will help him to conquer in other directions.

At the same time blindness cannot accompany a distinct command. Then vigilance is necessary to see that it is obeyed. If not, the child will think that you do not really mean what you say, and he may be tempted to neglect your command; or if you merely rely on asking him whether he has obeyed, he will be tempted to tell a lie, supposing truth has not become a habit with him. The very weakness of a child's will makes commands a necessity for him. I have heard a child given the power of choice when his will had not been trained to choose, and piteous became his entreaties for his mother to decide for him, while she, fearful of rebellion, tried to make him choose for himself. Those of us who know what it is to be ill, with all powers at a low ebb, will know the rest of mind it is to have the nurse take us in hand and make our plans for us while we simply obey. In the same way, the undeveloped will of the child demands the aid of an outside strength to support it, by ruling it until it is strong enough to act independently. Some people do not believe in laying any commands upon children without giving them a reason for them. The difficulty in this method is that children's knowledge is so limited that they have not sufficient facts before them to help them decide whether your commands are reasonable or not. Also their only knowledge of right and wrong comes from their elders, who must therefore choose for them. Above all, if we are working for the future, you will see that to give commands without their reasons attached is a beautiful way of training a man to trust himself to the will of his Creator. The child often cannot understand your reasons, but he understands loving and trusting you; and love and trust are sufficient reasons for him, as they often have to be for us adults who have dark paths to tread.

But now I must at last turn to the questions of punishments. I have said so much upon obedience, because if that is gained, the need for punishment is greatly reduced. Some people believe it possible to do without punishment altogether, but they should remember that the severe look and the severe word are really punishments, though we are perhaps not accustomed to consider them such; they are punishments which affect the spirit directly, while all forms of corporal punishment, even if only such simple forms as being stood in a corner or sat on a chair, are intended to affect the spirit through the body. The infirmity of human nature is such that we often unwittingly encourage a child to be naughty. The fact that a child has sometimes the mother looking after it, and sometimes the nurse, may cause a little change in the child's treatment, and change of treatment always means confusion in the child's mind, and confusion is a frequent cause of naughtiness and punishment. This is why it is so important that mother and nurse should together lay down the lines upon which the child should be trained, so that there may be perfect understanding between the two, and that there may be no such thing as one working against the other. One of the uses of a conference like this is that mothers and nurses, through meeting together with the same ideals before them, are brought into that harmony of thought and action which is necessary in order to obtain the best results in the children.

When a child appears naughty, we must first find out in what exactly its naughtiness consists. Great consideration and sympathy are needed here; we must understand the child nature, and how the good and evil tendencies strive within him for the mastery. Without sympathy, the power to put ourselves in the child's place, we are sure to make mistakes. I had an instance of this not long ago in my own family. One of the little girls was being put to bed for her morning sleep, and hearing a great deal of crying which did not cease, I went to see what the matter was, and found that she wanted to sleep in my room, her usual resting-place. As I could not pacify her, I told her she would have to be punished by not sleeping in my room the next day; but then her older sister who was in the room came to the rescue, and I found that what I had thought naughtiness was really fear. There was a telephone in the room, and she thought it would suddenly begin to ring. So that comfort and encouragement were all that were needed to set her right, and not blame.

One necessity of punishment is that is be speedy; the sooner it is over the better, or the child may imagine that he is going to escape altogether, or his contrition will have vanished, and the punishment seem to have little relation to the offence. The only need for delay is to find out exactly in what the offence consists, and to choose the fitting punishment.

Even more important is it that the punishment be certain and not dependent on our caprice, so that we let an offence pass because we are busy and don't want to "make a scene." It is better to be extra busy, or have a scene occasionally, and know a fault corrected before there has been time for it to become a habit. A wrong habit being once formed, a single failure to correct it will strengthen the habit considerably, for the childe will think that after all you don't so very much mind about it. If he sees that once you let it pass, just to suit your own convenience, he will know exactly at what value you rate it, and will act accordingly.

In choosing punishments we should always make the punishment as small as possible to effect its purpose. Often the nurse's look of disapproval is enough to check the child: sometimes a severe word is all that is wanted, but if the look will do, don't use the word. It is well to remember always that our aim is only to reform the child; that we only punish in order that he may not again offend. We must never punish because we are irritated or inconvenienced by his offence. If he breaks our most beautiful vase, we should punish him for his carelessness, but not for the loss of the vase, through the latter is what probably affects us most at first.

People used to resort very much to punishments which cause shame. When I was a child we used to have what we called "a naughty card" tied round our necks with the word "naughty" on it in large letters, and you can imagine how we hated to come down to the dining room and have our mother see us so disgraced. We used to tuck it inside our pinafores, but the ribbon round the neck always told its tale, until one of the more daring of us tore it in pieces and conferred a lasting boon upon the family, for it was never replaced. The harm of such a method was that is could not be proportioned to the offence, for the card was used for all kinds of offences, and also its effect depended on the nature of the child; the sensitive child would suffer exceedingly more than the phlegmatic, unimaginative child.

Nowadays the method of punishment most advocated is to make the punishment the natural consequence of the fault, and as far as this can be done it is very useful.

Of course such punishments are not always possible. In the case of playing with fire, we cannot stoically say, "Burnt child dreads the fire," and let him burn himself; if he did, we might have no child left to train. We can't let him get his feet wet, and trust to the consequent bad cold to deter him from repeating the act; he might catch cold once for all. So that we are constantly thrown back on our own resources and are obliged to invent punishments to suit each occasion as it arises, keeping as our guiding principle the reformation of the child with the infliction of the least possible amount of distress to him, and without any ill-feeling or resentment on our part.

Nursery discipline, such as I have treated of, involves a great deal of hard work and self-denial; but all the hard work and self-denial in the world will not produce the result you are aiming at--the formation of good habits--unless you are fortified with a large stock of love and sympathy. These will bring the child into sympathy with you and make him unconsciously adopt your ideals as his own, and then the battle is half won. You must by your love create in the child desire after goodness, for, as Faber says, "the lack of desire is the ill of all ills." No child can be coerced into right doing. One man may bring a horse to water, but ten cannot make him drink. So with the child: we can do no more than lead him in the right way. He is an individual, bound in the future to stand by himself, and our only hope is to get him to care for the things we care for. Any result gained merely by coercion is not worth having, as directly the ruling hand is removed, the child rebounds, like an India-rubber ball, in the direction of the old desire. You yourselves in your own experience are, I doubt not, loyal to this day to what your mother did when you were a child; not because she made you do what she liked, but because she was your dearest friend, and you loved to imitate her. Those who think that coercion will accomplish everything are sure to be led into excessive punishments. Some years ago in Ireland there was a case of a mother, who in her efforts to make her little girl write her copy well, punished her so excessively that she died. She was not an intentionally cruel mother, but she had unconsciously laid aside the power of love and relied alone, and terribly in vain, on the power of punishment. We may think of her with shame and indignation, but all of us who rule by force, not love, are really taking a leaf out of her book. But you will find that love has to be accompanied by patience. It often seems as if we make no progress--as though we gain to-day, we lose to-morrow. One day we are rejoicing in the sweetness of the child's character, the next, every fault that we thought conquered has reasserted itself, and we are apt to despair. But we must remember that it is the last blow that smashes a stone, and that all the efforts of all the days will in the end succeed, and not one of them is wasted, but has helped towards the final triumph.

"O'er wayward childhood would'st thou hold firm rule,
And sun thee in the light of happy faces,
Love, Hope and Patience these must be thy graces,
And in thine own heart let them first keep school."
--Samuel Taylor Coleridge



An interesting discussion followed, in which Dr. Helen Webb took a leading part; unfortunately this was not reported.




Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, July, 2010