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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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Girls from Twelve to Sixteen

by Mrs. Hart Davis
Volume 13, no. 2, February 1902, pgs. 81-93


"We need not despair of the times we live in. To do so is to make our own nest of thorns and sit upon it. The progress towards freedom and self-reliance must be good, though it makes us hold our breath and open our eyes very wide. We must not be always saying, 'What are we coming to? It was not so in my day.'"

Part I.

Girlhood is universally looked upon as a time of guileless happiness, innocent beauty and poetic charm. The poets call it the "interval of hopes and fears, through which the child glides trembling to the woman.""Oh, budding time, Oh, love's best prime."

But viewed from the attitude of the parent it is often a time of anxiety and perplexity.I propose to put together a few thoughts about girls from twelve to sixteen, and to deal with some of the ways in which parents may best meet the practical difficulties which come before them during that time. In the space of a short article, one cannot say much, but one hears so much about the difficulties of mothers with their daughters, that one longs to contribute personal experience, be it ever so small, as possibly suggestive to somebody. How helpful it is for a mother sometimes to visit another family containing children of the same ages as her own, and just to sit and watch. One woman finds the period of infancy the easiest to deal with, another that of girlhood, another succeeds best after her girls become her grown-up companions. We cannot all excel in everything. Happy those who know their limitations, and acknowledge them wisely without self-reproach. Then they are able to profit by what they see and hear elsewhere. To some comes the necessity to deal with a "long family," and then all these periods overlap. I started a discussion at my mother's meeting on this subject, for life as regards first principles is not affected by station, and much may be learnt from cottage mothers as to home training. By general consent, the period of girlhood from twelve to sixteen was voted the hardest, and one excellent mother who has had thirteen children remarked, "The elder girls say that we spoil the little ones, and let them do things that we never allowed in their days, and I think it is true. We have not the strength to battle along as we did at first, and we let things go."

The age of twelve, no doubt, ushers in changes, physical, moral and intellectual, and after sixteen or a little later, another change comes, requiring different treatment. Anything I may say must, then, be taken as referring principally to these years. Nursery days are gone, the land of make-believe is fading away, growth is rapid, and we are startled to find ideas and opinions fixing themselves of which we cannot trace the source. Curiosity and enquiry are stronger than ever, eyes and ears are wide open for knowledge, but there is not always the appeal to our advice or permission which implied that we could supply every sort of help, and a silence and reserve creeps over our child for which we were not prepared. We wonder how far it will go; will there soon be a wall of separation which we cannot cross? Much depends on what the earlier training has been, but I can never believe that any character can at this age be so inscrutable that with patience and wisdom it cannot be understood, and open-hearted confidence between mother and daughter maintained.

The first thing to realize is the cause of the change. The power to read fluently and the wealth of books make a new world to a child. Companionship brings in competition both in work and games. The contrast of term time and holiday time brings a great swing of the pendulum which makes three-quarters of the year quite different to the other quarter. Thirteen to fifteen weeks we must entirely take charge of, whatever may be our arrangements for the other thirty-seven or thirty-nine.

Modern science tells us that a child is born an absolute egoist, but while he lies helpless and dependent on us for everything, we do not think about this at all. Why should we? He turns to us for help, and we can give it. The joy of ministering to his wants blinds our eyes. But as the change comes over both boyhood and girlhood, and independence grows, we begin to realize the absorption of the little person in itself and its own affairs. I heard a mother say, "I cannot stand having Margaret in my room; she talks of nothing but her own self." We must meet this absorption in self by two things—by carefully-planned conversation, and by well-arranged work for others.

One of our greatest men has said, "You cannot talk to your children too much for play or for pleasure, or too briefly for correction and restraint."

If really good conversation of grown-up persons with cultivated minds can be secured, children should be trained to listen to it and value it. The details can be gone over afterwards, and obscure points cleared up. At other times when alone with them we can lead them away from their absorption in the present, from school gossip, from criticism of teachers, to higher topics; we can discuss professions for women and so guide their ambitions for their own future, we can describe and get them to describe an ideal married life and help them to classify and arrange their ideas. For, of course, all girls are sure that the "Prince will come riding by," they dream of the "happy ever after," and their fancies are as airy as little Ellie's in the poem of the "Swan's Nest" (Mrs. Browning; Romance of the Swan's Nest). We can tell histories of our own early life, or of real lives we have known, and show how they were made or marred; we can draw topics from history or fiction, and thus pave the way for them to tell us their troubles by showing that our ears are ready to hear, and our minds to counsel, when the time shall come. It is impossible to exaggerate the value of good conversation, and I think the art is little taught nowadays.

Secondly, let us turn their minds to plans of work that can at once be carried out for others. The elder ones may have definite tasks to do for the younger ones, and may be left a certain measure of independence in the doing. There are plenty of branches of work of this kind, the "Sunbeam Mission " [Address Mrs. Rattiscombe (hod. sec.), EaHwood, Weston-super-Mare.] was my great resource. Its principle is that the members must give work and not money; they have a sick or suffering child introduced to them by post, whom they never see, but whom they befriend. They may remember him in their prayers, and send magazines or any other little gifts to help to brighten his life. This appeals to their imagination, and their power of invention. The question, "What are you busy about?" was often answered by "Work for my child." There was a sense of possession in "my child" far greater than anything to be found in the usual school mission, and I found it develop individual effort on independent lines more than anything I ever tried. Let work of this sort be simple, private, unostentatious, but definite and practical. Are there not always the too old to be read to, the too young to amuse, the too suffering to be cheered, servants to reward for service given? Let a girl of the age we are considering realize as fully as possible the duty laid upon the young to brighten, gladden, charm and cheer the world by her presence, and a noble ideal will grow and find its expression in acts which will remove the absorbing "occupation of self-pleasing all the day long." As everyone knows, Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies is the great book to look to for inspiration at this period.

One is asked how far can girls undertake household tasks, mend their clothes, learn housekeeping, while they are hard at work/school. The answer depends so much on circumstances that it is impossible to lay down any rule. I am quite sure there is nothing they value so much in after life as an insight into the money value of common things and the daily management of a household. It often makes all the difference to a girl how the work is put to her. You may either present it in this way:—"If you do such and such things for yourself there will be more money to spend on books and other things," or, if this economy is not necessary, you may make these employments a distinct preparation for womanhood. You may show how a boy is not considered fit for a profession till he has done the preliminary practical work, such as engineering or hospital drudgery; you may prove that you cannot teach what you do not know, and that every woman requires this knowledge whether she marry or not. To live well and economically in a lodging, you must know what things cost, and to teach a servant or correct one, you must know how her work should be done. All depends on how you present the idea. Once, in a case of severe illness, I have known girls put on apron and gloves, do their mother's grate, and pulling them off again, appear at breakfast clean and neat. But I think it was partly because a new housemaid's box, "all their own," was provided. It is important they should fit and that the true principles of art can be applied to any work, and that they have a share in the constant beautifying and refreshing of the home. It is not necessary to weary them continually by irksome tasks; they may be varied, and progressive interchange between mother and girls will bring all their faculties into play. Thus you discover what is the work they are most fit for, and, bit by bit, they see into the inner management of the home they love. When an emergency arises, you know on whom you can depend, and even servants take help gratefully if they know that it is efficient. Also, the girls will learn to understand how long things take to do, and by degrees they will find out how much it is worth-while to do for themselves for comfort and cleanliness. I think simple household duties can be found for boys as well. They should be able to clear a table deftly without noise and scramble. But, above all, the principle of simplicity of life needs most careful thought and consistent steady teaching. There is so much in these days which tends in the opposite direction.

But it will be said, I am neglecting the chief business of girls, namely, to "do their lessons." By their twelfth year, some children have been already at school five years, some are at boarding schools, some have governesses, resident or daily; the next four years are of vast importance. When at last an efficient Act of Parliament shall give England a measure which shall do for us what the Technical Education Act did for Wales, we shall have schools everywhere within measurable distances, and registered teachers on whose skill we can depend. We live in transition times. The children of the poor have free education provided for them; but how many a mother in the ranks of the middle and the upper classes has almost insurmountable difficulty in getting her infants taught the first rudiments in the right way. I hold that while a family is still increasing, a mother should not undertake teaching herself. Neither are many of us capable of doing it so as to prepare them for the next stage according to modern principles. We cannot safely attempt all these things.

As we reach the age of twelve, bicycles are a help, and for those who can choose without respect to distance, many very efficient girls' schools are growing up. My only anxiety is that, in the natural eagerness of competition for efficiency, they may be founded on a scale which shall encourage too much luxury, and foster expensive habits that may be a great trial to parents. We hear of breaking-up suppers lasting till twelve at night, with rich food and ices which leave ill effects behind them. Already we see the female Eton, Harrow and Winchester. Is it not possible to have these schools and yet to maintain simplicity of life? Alongside of this, I would urge parents on their part to make the work of teachers easier by trying so to arrange the long holiday as not wholly to let go the habits of punctuality, cleanliness, order and deference which hold sway in school. Why should they all be dropped on the threshold of home? Why should hours of rising and going to bed be left to chance? Why should no fixed hours be spent in useful work? Why should a girl make a fag of her mother to unpack, mend, sort and plan all her clothes, do the whole of the shopping, as well as pay all the bills, while she simply enjoys herself or reads novels? In the holidays, surely she may learn some of those invaluable "lessons" which a share in her mother's work alone can teach. Thus will companionship begin on topics of mutual interest, and a feeling of being really useful make the days pass to some profit.

Returning again to the education question, what can I say but this, at every stage let girls have the best teachers you can afford. They have an equal right with the boys to demand an education which shall be an equipment for life, whether they must earn their own living or whether they will have others to work for them. Unless we realize this equality, we are not doing our duty by our daughters as by our sons. How much to spend on school instruction is, in a manner, a speculation. No general rule can be given. When you have chosen your school, leave questions such as the date of specialization, the number of languages, the best examinations, etc., to your head mistress. If you are not satisfied, remove the child. It seems to me impossible for parents fully to understand gradation and continuity, or to keep pace with all the modern requirements, the views of the universities, or the probable changes that are coming on. Those who teach a child must know what its mental powers are better than those who look on, and, if trustworthy, they should have a free hand. Get as near as you can to the attitude of a boy's father who interviews the master once now and then, and let the matter rest. Give your time to the intellectual culture that can be done at home, even in term time, and during holidays. Attend especially to the art of reading aloud and being read to. Something may be done by reading the stories which suit the period of history under study in school. These again supply subjects for conversation and discussion. I have seen a plan of teaching children to converse and discuss which seemed likely to have good results. It was suggestive for families where there is a governess. Once a week a conversational half-hour was fixed and a subject prepared, the mother herself leading the debate, and the governess taking part. A subject such as "Courage" was chosen; the governess defined what it is, what it is not; each child gave instances from life or from history, some spoke from personal experience; at the end, one child had to sum up, and it was found that useful definitions had been arrived at. Conversation is so apt to drift into mere wrangling and weary reiteration of the same topics, that everything that can be done to train children to talk pleasantly must be taken hold of. You need to teach them how to debate, and not to argue, and when to have the tact to stop and change the topic. Nothing requires to be met with more decision and promptness. The modern way both of talking and writing is so much more careless than it used to be.

It has been said that if anyone wants to study a language in its easy and conversational flow, they should break open the confidential letters of young women to one another. Such a course would betray a vast amount now of slang and great poverty of epithets. We took note once, in a joking way, when some girls were staying with us, of all the nouns qualified by "jolly" or "awfully jolly." They really were rather funny, ranging from a curate to a pudding. The author of the "History of Enthusiasm" [Isaac Taylor] has shown in his most valuable book on "Home Education" how to treat language so as to enrich it: there are one or two chapters on the subject which are most practical and useful. People often say, "Don't worry: it will all come right;" but though, to a certain extent, children in a large family are like stones on the sea-shore, and rub off one another's corners till they become smooth pebbles, yet if home education means anything at all, it means that parents must grapple with the whole subject of "Manners." Everyone is saying, and perhaps with truth, that the manners of all classes are not what they were. Let us take the remark to heart. As Benjamin Franklin said, "What signifies wishing and hoping for better times: we can make these times better if we bestir ourselves." Let us at least give as much time and thought to the matter as we can. Oliver Goldsmith's Mrs. Primrose and Miss Austen's Mrs. Bennett carried the matter to an absurdity, but it may be we do not carry it far enough. Let us teach young people that they should be courteous to one another, and let us show them that attentions and deference please their elders, and cheerful voices and bright smiles do help on everybody and make life brighter for them. They scarcely believe in their own power, when once they have been shewn it, a great conquest over themselves is sure to come. Above all, let them realise the importance of the tone of voice in which they speak. We laugh now in my own circle over the plate of pudding carried weeping up to the nursery by one ot the children because she would not moderate her loud voice; but it did its work. Better that than the humiliation I suffered when a beloved governess wrote from India, after her marriage, to my mother, "I hope they quarrel less."

One of the shortest and most effective ways to cultivate a gentle voice is to tell them openly, "I find no fault with your words at all, but the tone of voice is wrong; repeat the words again now thus." They will soon hear how much better it sounds. Every parent must judge for herself up to what age she can treat a child in this way, but if done pleasantly and not in the presence of an outsider it can be done at a later age than people imagine. I have known a girl at college say, "No one tells me these things now, and I really wish they would." It is also useful to give little practice lessons. A child is awkward often from ignorance and nervousness. Let her practise on you how to introduce one visitor to another, else she will surely put the wrong name first. For all these things, how good are simple family theatricals. Let a girl act the scene of Mr. Collin's refusal in Pride and Prejudice, and learn to curtsey to the ground in the character of Elizabeth, and it will all help. Charades and other performances, with "only the servants" for audience, are a most innocent form of amusement, and employ a holiday party for days beforehand. If the old gardener shakes his sides, let the young ones know that they contributed to his enjoyment, and if he kisses the hand of the "little missy" who hands him a cracker, then you can point out afterwards his good manners. Only study the whole question in a large and careful way. Many an enigma which perplexes and bewilders us is not so much want of good intention, but want of good manners or self-forget-fulness. Dancing lessons remove clumsiness and train the body to metrical obedience, and help to do away with shyness. I would encourage everything that brings boys and girls together in a healthy sensible way without roughness. Let them dance, play games and act together as much as possible, but let there be organised games and no rough wild romps. There is great safety in large numbers, and useful education in becoming one of a team where all are more or less equal. Acquaintances should be many, but special friends will always be few. The choice of a life-long friend is directed we know in heaven, be it of either sex, but how can girls understand men if they do not have boys to study? This applies especially to solitary girls. You cannot, try how you will, take the place of a brother or sister. You are and remain the parent, but the ordering of play hours, arid opportunities for intercourse with her fellows of both sexes, rests with you. We seem to need opportunities of meeting that are not filled with the excitement of tea parties. That kind of intercourse which leaves behind it "thoughts of good together done" and will be an introduction to the steady work done by men and women together without self-consciousness.

In matters of order and neatness and in care of clothes at this age there is much to attend to. But generally, as with boys, that improves as age advances. Theories of dress have made immense strides since our mothers walked out in shoes with shoe strings and thin soles, and scarcely ever got wet. The open air cure and the wonderful recovery of the wounded on the veldt have done wonders to convince people of the ordinary rules of health, and to make clothes more sensible and suitable, and we are certainly in less danger of catching cold. I am told architects will plan no more large bedrooms because small ones suffice when people sleep "in a draught." We are to wear no more calico and linen; our dresses are to be lined with wool. Games cannot be played in tight armour, the garments must be loose. But let us be consistent. If our girls drive in brakes to hockey matches and back again, let them do as boys do, and change their garments, and let a proper place be provided for them. I consider this most essential, and that parents may reasonably ask for it. On the other hand, do not let school uniforms and perpetual blue serge deprive the world of the pretty colours which we can as little do without as without flowers. Cycling, too, has turned many customs upside down; it must have its garments and its laws. Years ago, girls could not move from home without a groom riding behind them, or a maid in the hansom cab. Girls have to learn important lessons of how to take care of themselves, and what to do in an emergency. We must remember that it is their own experience which really gives them the best lessons. Ours may give them some protection, but they have to learn wisdom by making mistakes. But, though much of this is perplexing, let us not tire our souls. Surely it is well to have some variety from the tedious walks which girls hate so much. I remember shocking my maiden aunt by saying I was sick to death of always walking one way on the sands. In these days we have so many helps. Natural history rambles, collections to make for exhibitions, sketches for art clubs. The Home Reading Union will tell us what to read, the County Council gives us dairy schools, dressmaking, cooking and carving classes. Let us ask for yet more. We need not despair of the times we live in. To do so is to make our own nest of thorns and sit upon it. The progress towards freedom and self-reliance must be good, though it makes us hold our breath and open our eyes very wide. We must not be always saying, "What are we coming to? It was not so in my day." Young folks weary of these comparisons, and if we will not listen, they go their own way without us. We must draw near to them if we are to keep them open with us. There is another thing which we must be prepared for, and which must not take us aback. That is, in one word, "Outside influence." At the age we speak of, it comes in with a wave that gives us a shock. The class mistress becomes a heroine, the head girl of the school or the captain of the hockey team is worshipped, the friend's advice is thought more of than ours, the cousin at the University is quoted, and we feel laid on the shelf, set down, and despised. The same thing happens with boys, and fathers usually take it more philosophically. Do they move on more than mothers: I think it may be they do. But, at any rate, we must not become jealously unjust. Do we suppose we shall always have our babies in our arms and know the secret source of all their thoughts? Could it possibly be so? No; we must turn this morbid thought inside out and shake it. Ought we not to be glad of the help that comes from outside? Rather, let us win the young friends to be our friends too, and be glad to hear what they say. Let us ask questions for our own enlightenment and be willing to be informed. It will open our minds and perhaps in the end interest us deeply. When a girl returns from paying a visit, let us not begin at once to comment on the little effects the visit has had on her, and so shut up the confidences she was longing to tell us. Let her welcome home be expansive and elastic, and let her feel that you have shared and will share with her all her experiences without carping criticism. When a cow has lost her calf and receives it back again, does she not lick it all over with a soft enquiring touch and mild endearing eyes? Girlish friendships are often most romantic and engrossing. They are only dangerous where there is narrowness of mind and littleness of soul. Where life is earnest and not idle, there will be little frivolity. Avoid late hours and keep the days full of employment, and the topics on which friendship grows will be wholesome and good.

About this age there comes a great desire for a little corner absolutely her own, where a girl can be uninterrupted, and not sent out of the room to make way for others. Often, if the nursery is full, she is not wanted there, guests fill her mother's rooms, and she shares her bedroom with someone else. If she wants to study, where is she to go? Perhaps it really turns on some very simple thing, permission to light a fire, or the purchase of a little table. A girl who takes her share of household duties has as good a right to study in peace as her brother, to whom everyone gives way. Another point is of importance to her—her correspondence. It is to my mind a sad comment on domestic, life that head mistresses and boarding house ladies should have suspicions of improper letters passing to girls in term time, and have to ask us to take precautions. The matter must want attention at home. The suggestion of such a thing at so early an age is bad. As the time comes when a child's correspondence is sacred even to her mother, let there be a clear understanding on the subject and mutual confidence. In this, as in so much else, Daniel Deronda's words are good, "Those influence us who believe in us." Fairness brings openness, and suspicion breeds deceit. It is in these small things, it seems to me, that we must be careful, on these it depends whether a girl becomes one of those who "gets on with her mother" or the contrary. Some people seem so afraid of pride and conceit in a child that they never can give unqualified praise. They cannot fully and freely say a thing is good or right, work is well done or satisfactory. They must invariably qualify it with a comment which leaves a sting in it. You see the tears rise, the little face fall, the commendation is all forgotten in the criticism which followed it. No child's work is perfect, but both its work and its efforts to do right must be looked at from its own standpoint. Let the criticism be given at such a distance of time as to allow it to feel the full measure of your approval without discouragement. Creation and originality wither up at the touch of criticism, and many children are far more sensitive than we can in any way conceive.

Another thing which repels them is the bustling high wind which some people carry with them wherever they go. To set an example of diligence is no doubt of great importance, but it is quite possible to get through a quantity of work and yet have leisure. If you take your own work in a methodical manner, one thing at a time, if they see you willing to be interrupted, and observe that you begin again calmly where you left off, it has a far greater effect on them than if you are always posing as the busiest person on earth. They measure the amount you get through probably better than you do yourself; and if you make a bustle of your life, they easily take up the line that you are inaccessible, and therefore go their own way. Some people like to live as if they were catching a train. They are really only running after their own tails; they cannot select what must be done this minute, and what can be put off to the next day. Put them where you like; they will still have no leisure. If you want to teach the methodical use of time and orderly habits of mind, you must first learn to show a calm front and have a heart "at leisure from itself." I heard a woman who had many friends spoken of as one "who when you want her advice does not jump up to fetch her knitting before she will listen to you." I have never forgotten the impressive words of my old grandfather, spoken as he gave me a thermometer with a compass on the outside of the cover: "Child, try to be always of an even temperature, and always within compass."

It may be worth while to mention one or two suggestive books. In Mrs. Tail's Memoirs [or, Mrs. Tait's?], much may be learnt, though she evidently erred on the side of over-exciting the children's brains. Mrs. Mainwaring's Journal [by Emma Marshall] carried a large family through many vicissitudes. The Mill on the Floss has much to say on boys' and girls' education. George Eliot has painted a wonderful mother in Mrs. Amos Barton. The Heir of Radcliffe, [Elizabeth Gaskell], is little read now, but I think the mother in it has hardly ever been surpassed in fiction.

Lastly, I would say, do not dwell too much on difficulties. I have often tried to put down for my own correction what are the "difficulties" of a given period, and opposite to each, to fill in the solution. It is a capital corrective for the mind. Looked at six months or a year after, they seem so absurdly small. No difficulty can touch every side of our nature at once; everyone has a reserve force of elasticity and resourcefulness to draw upon, and above all, it is always the unexpected which comes in to save us.

Let us then start again with courage, and we shall realize that girlhood is the most joyful period of life; that its egotism can be lessened by a high ideal carried out into practice; that education, if efficient, will end in that culture which enriches conversation and social intercourse, and that it is possible to make life serious in purpose and yet merry and charming, and to fill the young hearts with enthusiasm enough to last a lifetime, and memories of home which shall endure for ever.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Feb 2009