The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Our Relations With Children.
by Mrs. Ennis Richmond.
THURSDAY, May 8th, 10.30 a.m.
Our Relations With Children.
There are two dangers which I see before us in the road that we have elected to walk in, in our efforts to attain right education for our children. One is a danger for ourselves, the other a danger for the children. Of late years we have begun to realise that there is a right way and a wrong way of bringing up children. We appeal now to a method, to a system, and every day our effort is so to improve this method, this system, that we, and those to come after us, may have something to turn to, some rules to go upon, when we or they have come face to face with the problem of education as exemplified in the particular children in our care. We want to avoid in the future the possibility, or at any rate the probability of children being placed in the care of those who have nothing to turn to for guidance and help in the task set before them.
There have always been educators who preach the gospel that a teacher is no teacher in the best sense of the word unless he has created his own method through his own intelligence and perfected it through his own experience. Those who hitherto have endeavoured to introduce science into the business of educating the young have been strenuously accused of mechanicalising education. And no doubt there is danger of this. There is danger because the education of the young is like no other process; in educating children one can never say that this or that line of action is bound to produce this or that result. In handling a child we are handling something which has a will of its own, and that will is the determining factor of its own future existence--we may, by a false method of education thwart and deform the expression of this will; we may, by a true method of education strengthen, purify and uplift the expression of this will; by no method of education can we do away with it. It is this that makes the science of the education of children so different from, so impossible to compare with, any other science.
It is easy, when we look at the matter in this way, to acknowledge that there is some foundation for the anxiety of those who see in our efforts to gain a science of education a danger of mechanical work which may be disastrous to the free development of the child. It must be acknowledged that this danger exists, and we must be prepared to face it. But it is most certainly no more of a danger for those who pursue the business of education on a method founded on the experience of others, than for those who, as occasion arises, invent their own system of education. And, in the business of education, we want as a background some real measure of uniformity; we do not want the bringing up of children in general to depend entirely on the natural genius of the person in particular in whose charge they happen to be. And we want, too, the assistance for ourselves. We are foolish indeed to scorn the standing ground won for us by the lessons and the experience of those who have gone before us. We want to establish a solid foundation on which the inexperienced or the doubtful can take their stand, so that even in their want of experience or their want of self-confidence, they may still go forward with the hope of success. Such a background--such a foundation as this is no deterrent to the play of talent or natural aptitude on the part of the teacher, it does not necessarily pre-suppose a quantity of rules which compass us about and hinder and prevent originality. It is the backbone of a method which is to be a stay and safeguard for the weak, while it is in no way a cause of stultification to the strong.
Such a method of education is what, if I understand its aims aright, the Parents' Union exists for the purpose of promoting; and such a method, if courageously carried into practice, should not be open to the danger of becoming mechanical in its effect upon children.
I should like to say here, as a parenthesis, that we ought always to be somewhat shy of any system of education which professes to be perfect, or of any teacher who professes to have found the only right way. Education is a progressive act. The greatest teachers are not those who give us cut-and-dried rules of action. To take one of the greatest, John Ruskin has not provided us with a finished system on which we may pin our entire faith. No such thing. The great value of his teaching lies in the fact--not that he has given us rules--but that he presents to our mind living truths which we may turn to account, each in his own way.
But in turning our careful attention to the question of child-education, there are other pitfalls for us which are perhaps not so easy to see and avoid as is the danger of making the training too mechanical. Rules and a science for ourselves we must have, but what I dread to see is the searchlight of curiosity turned on the children themselves; this fascinating study of children is every day gathering new followers, and we are able to find reason for yielding to its seductions in the plausible excuse that we are helping the children to their rights. We busy ourselves in all kinds of whys and wherefores, we analyse and dissect, we try to peer into child-nature, we are fired with the determination to make a science by which we shall be able to account for childish sayings and doings and in the light of which we shall be able to make deductions and establish rules.
To do this with any success we must be able to arrest a child's mind at a certain point and analyse it at that point; this is an impossible task, because the mind of a child is nothing; that is to say it is nothing in the stage in which we try to encounter it when we try to find, in its working, reasons for a child's actions. Quâ child, a child does not possess a mind. Quâ embryo man or woman the mind is there, very much there indeed. A child's actions are governed by its mind only when those actions are a presage of its future condition. A child's mind is always in a transition stage, and here there is no ground for scientific enquiry, no place for deductions, no evidence on which to form rules; and yet it is just here that those bitten with the craze for what is usually called "child-study" are trying to force an entrance.
Physically, a child passes through definite, recognised stages, stages which are the more or less common heritage of childhood in general, and on which, therefore, we can reckon in applying an educational method to any one child in particular; here we may make rules for the children; here we can point to experience and say "such and such a result will follow such and such a course of action." Beyond the region of the body no such ground can be found. Take away from a child the physical attributes of childhood and you can find nothing but undeveloped material.
We are committing an impertinence, an irreverence, when we attempt to reduce the immortal part of a child, a part which has its consummation far, far out of our reach, to a subject for our own curious investigation and analysis.
This is the danger of which I spoke, a danger for ourselves, the danger of mistaking interference for help.
"But," it will be said, and said most truly, "if we are to help children, it is their minds chiefly that we must consider." To this I would answer that our help to children, like everything else in this world, must be sacramental. We must use what we can see and touch and handle to reach that which is of the true importance, that which is immortal. But we must not forget that the latter is divine; it is not our business; it lies between the child and God. It is only by realising this that we can get into proper proportion our own relations to children, our true responsibility towards them. We know from experience--the experience of our own lives and of the lives of others in the present and in the past--what virtue is; we know what a child may become, and we know--and this is the most important thing for us--we know why he ought to do this or that. For this reason we can make rules for children, and we must enforce them. These rules are for the physical direction of the children; through these physical rules we touch the mind of the child; we lay down a definite rule for the child which has its issue in the affairs of the man. By our rules we start a train of discipline which comes to its completion in a region far our of our reach. This is our duty to children, this is our responsibility towards them, that we so treat them while they are children that we are helping them to become men and women whom the world will be the better for possessing.
If we recognise this as our responsibility, the rules we make--little and childish as they seem, little and childish as they must be, seeing for whom they are made--will have in them an element of eternal law. By their means we are working to the attainment of a great end.
It is not easy to work in this spirit; indeed it is often very difficult. We come to a meeting like this, or we read a book dealing with children from an idealist's point of view, and we get into a frame of mind which makes us think of children as we should; and then we go perhaps to a friend's house, or upstairs to our own nursery or schoolroom, and we hear shrieks and squeals, and all the trials and troubles of childish faults and childish silliness become evident, and one has to clamber hurriedly down to the level of common sense, and the contrast is rather painful. Even what we love in childhood seems too light and delicate a thread on which to hang such a weight of seriousness.
But this is cowardice: it arises far less from a fear of spoiling the children's lives than from a distaste to facing our own responsibilities. For the serious side of the matter lies with us, not with the children. The joy that a child takes in living is in no way lessened because we look through his physical immaturity to the time when the responsibilities of life will be his. The point for us is this, that the immaturity is for us a time of help: the immaturity will pass, and what takes its place depends upon ourselves; upon the use to which we have put this time which has been placed in our hands; upon the interpretation we put upon this responsibility which has devolved upon us.
We need not be afraid of darkening the children's lives. A child is no less spontaneously happy, as a child, because we, in the help and training we give him, are keeping our eyes fixed upon the future in which lies the idea. We give children no less sympathy in their childish joys and griefs because we are using each as an occasion to draw them on a step higher. We know, if we will only be honest with ourselves, that the children of a well-disciplined household--a household that is governed by people who truly realize the responsibilities of life--are, above all things, happy children; not perhaps particularly noisy or talkative children, though I think we should not find either the noise or the talk unduly checked, but certainly happy children, with the best and truest kind of gaiety.
All attributes of childhood change, except attributes of the mind, and these are not childish attributes at all. It is in this fact of change that our business lies. We have got to see that the change is for the better; we have got to see that the childishness is put away for something which in being more mature is also stronger and purer. The attributes of the mind do not change: they develop, but they do not alter, for they exist in the region which is immortal: their affairs are the affairs of virtue. Let us look carefully at a day of a little child's life: we shall see that though in every action there is childishness expressed, yet that in a child, virtue is a virtue, unchangeable and everlasting. A child's unselfishness, self-control, generosity, truthfulness are all of a piece with those virtues as expressed but the greatest and wisest man in the world. His expression of them may be childish, but the virtue itself is immaculate and immutable. And if we look still more closely, we shall find that a child can be as purely unselfish, as purely self-controlled, as purely loving as are ever his elders and betters. The virtue is there: it is of a piece, and has its being in the immortal part of the child: it is his by Divine right. It is for us to see that the ways in which this virtue finds expression--these ways which are changeable as childhood itself is changeable--are means to an end which is the possession of all virtue.
And where, in the child's mind, these virtues have been distorted, where--owning to the natural pre-dispositions which we all have to fight against, or to early carelessness or cowardice on our own part--the children have strayed into the wrong road; we must still, if we are to have any real success, realise that virtue is normal. Because we have fallen is no reason that an upright position is not the true and normal position for us, and I will not listen to those who say that it is true to say of vice what I have here said of virtue. It is not true. Vice changes, virtue does not. A man's vices are not identical with those of a child, a man's virtues are. And though it is entirely true to say that a childish fault unchecked becomes a man's vice, it is even more true to say that the fault in its origin was there because the virtue which ought to have taken its place was absent. Vice is unnatural, unhealthy. It is not an affair of the mind, it is an indulgence of the body, persisted in because the mind has been neglected, and therefore lacks the power to develop the appreciation of virtue. A vicious man is a foolish man, a man acting without sense. A virtuous man is a wise man, a man acting by the dictates of a developed mind.
And so I want to say here, do not let us, in making these rules for our children, rules which are inevitable and perfectly right to have, aim nearly so much at checking faults as at the encouragement of virtue. When a fault is there it must be checked. Often there is not time both to weed out the fault by gentle means and afterwards to inculcate the virtue, and then we must come down on the fault, sharp and short, often without giving any reason at all. We have to say, "You must," or "You must not," and enforce it by punishment. The necessity for such summary action may be due to our own fault, or to the fault of another--carelessness in the past, perhaps, or it may be peculiarity of the child's nature, anyhow, out the fault must go. But any such methods of discipline should be as transitory as possible; we should acknowledge this to ourselves, and with all the good in the world we may acknowledge it to the child. No one knows who has not tried it, how immeasurably helpful it is in our business of education if we take the child, on his higher side, into our confidence, if we continually appeal to his mind. Take a persisted-in fault for instance. Suppose we say to the child, "Next time you do so-and-so, I am going to punish you severely"--naming the punishment--"this fault has got to come out, you won't be yourself till it has. If you won't conquer it yourself, I must help you by punishment." If we speak in this way we shall find a very different spirit between ourselves and the child, even if the necessity for the punishment arises, from that which is usual in such transactions; and, moreover, the punishment will take its place as a link in the train of discipline which runs through all our work; we are disciplining, chastising, correcting the nature that has gone astray, turning it back into the right and safe path.
I have said that there seems to me a danger in our present way of regarding childhood; a danger for ourselves and a danger for the children. The former I have touched upon. As for the children, the danger I see is this--and here I speak with diffidence and under correction. Are we not in danger of making the children's paths too easy--too easy, morally and spiritually?
A young father, telling me the other day that his little boy of nine was going to school, added, "I do not know how he will get on, for he has never been punished." Now I know this little lad to be a peculiarly good child, speaking of goodness as we usually apply it to children. He is obedient, truthful, punctual, kind to his brother and sisters, gentle to his parents; and yet I wondered to myself whether the child might not perhaps have been stronger if he had had a little punishment, if he had won his way to the virtue he possessed through some small share of tribulation. We value roughnesses and hardships in our children's daily life; we are, for instance, most of us ready to risk the abuse to which our national games are put for the sake of the use we gain from them for our children in teaching them to bear the pain and hardships and often seeming injustice they meet with in their pursuit. (I do not mean that these are the only moral lessons that games teach, but they are the lessons to be considered in this connection).
Whatever may be the disadvantages of cricket, I believe it to be a great thing for a boy of twelve to be able to field out for hours, perhaps in the long field, where he may only get an occasional ball, and then, when his side goes in, perhaps never get an innings at all or be bowled first ball; for a boy to take this cheerfully is a feat we should value more if we applied the qualities it requires to everyday life. And it is a great thing for a child to learn to take the knocks and blows and scratches that come in his way, without making any fuss or expecting any fuss to be made by others. If a child is going for a walk, we do not go in front of him to clear the stones and brambles from his path; we let him take the risk of falls; we let him climb trees and ford streams; we even welcome the risks he may encounter; we want him to grow up hard and able to bear.
Do we, morally and spiritually, clear too many stones and briars out of the way our children are going? Do we kill all the lions in their path? Are we cowardly in our apprehension for them of trials in their way through life? We want so intensely and passionately that our children should be good that I am afraid we may be risking their chances of growing up strong. I think we are in danger of minimising the effort for the child to the detriment of the child's moral strength. I know a lady whose children have, as far as she knows, never told a lie. This--as everyone knows who knows children--is exceptional. My friend attributes her children's truthfulness to the fact that she has sedulously avoided ever giving them occasion to lie--guiding them unconsciously into a truthful habit which eventually they will find it difficult to break. She would not, for instance, say, "Jackie, have you been rude to nurse?" She would lead the conversation to the affairs of the morning, and the child would tell his own tale, bringing in the rudeness as part of the narrative, treating it very likely as a bit of cleverness on his part. This idea would of course be corrected and the rudeness pointed out, and--which was the great point--the lie saved. Such a method as this may appeal, I think, to many of us as a genuine one; but if we look deeper we may see flaws. It is quite true that if the mother says, "Were you rude to nurse this morning?" she runs the risk of the child's saying, "No, I wasn't," but she also gives him the chance of looking her in the face and saying, "Yes, mother, I was." We know the look, a brave one, followed--if the truthful impulse comes from a humble heart--by the downward look of shame and contrition. I think we incur a danger to the child when we forego this lesson for him.
And I think there is in this carefulness of ours a graver danger still, a danger to ourselves this time. Do we not run a risk of undervaluing the care of God? Are we not sometimes wanting in trust to Him? To take again the matter of physical risk, does not the wise mother feel when she sends her children out unattended on a long walk, or for a bathe or a boating excursion, that their lives and limbs are in the care of a Power to which she gladly trusts them, because she knows that if the children are to become strong and self-reliant they must learn to work, humanly speaking, alone? We know that the wise mother makes up her mind with difficulty to these unattended excursions, that it is not any case of carelessness or foolhardiness, but a deliberate and fearful resolution come to after much thought. She has learnt where to stop, where to withdraw the shelter and the shield. And do we not know the consequences, so disastrous to young people, where this power to withdraw is absent in the guardians of the young?
I think the same argument may, in common sense, apply to the care of our children morally and mentally. As I said before, I saw this with diffidence. I know how immensely the moral help which many preach now as a necessary element in our relations with children has changed for them the lives of the children. I know too and sympathise with much that is said on the value of habituating children to the right path. But I also know that care and circumspection are needed as well as enthusiasm, and do strongly believe that we may carry this human help to the verge of a mistrust of God's great watchfulness.
There is one other thought that comes to me in this connection, and I should like to try and express it, even at the risk of being misunderstood.
I see, besides the tendency to make our children's moral path too easy, a tendency to prepare them for too good a world. Many educators of today will say, "I do not care whether the world is so or not, the world ought to be so, and I will not put anything before children but the ideal best." This is of course absolutely true philosophy looking at it in one way; but when it leads us to strain our every nerve in the effort to keep our children in what I may call the rut of goodness to the exclusion of all jolts and jars, I cannot but think we are making a mistake. We are not training children for heaven--our task might be easier if we were--we are training them to live on an earth through whose lessons, even its lessons of pain and sin, they may reach eventually the heaven we desire for them.
I must apologise for treating such big questions so inadequately. I could not, here and now, nor would you wish it, attempt to give them the treatment they deserve. I hope I may have made a few surface scratches, deep enough, perhaps, to let in the thoughts of others.
In opening the discussion MRS. HUSBAND said she felt with Mrs. Richmond that the subject she had started was very immense, but there were two or three points she wished to emphasize. She was much struck by what Mrs. Richmond had said of our fighting shy of cut-and-dried rules. Such methods are perhaps the easiest, but their results last the shortest time. She reminded them of what was a commonplace in the study of ethics, that when moral philosophy is not in a thriving condition, its professors are thinking of rules, etc., but that when it is in a good condition they are trying to think of principles. The thought seemed to her a valuable one that our chief aim should be the encouragement of virtue rather than the uprooting of vice. She agreed that there is naturally no vice in children and that the virtues of the child are of the same quality as the virtues of the man. She warned parents, especially the over-anxious parent, against the danger of making things too easy for the child, though she did not agree that a child can be made hardy by punishment. Unjust punishment is one of the worst wrongs that can be done to a child.
MISS WEBB said she strongly agreed with much that Mrs. Richmond had said in her interesting and inspiring paper. The truth about anything consists of two parts, the minute part that we can see ourselves, and an infinite part that we cannot see. She wished to tell a true story about a child, which she might call a parable, and which referred to the making things too easy. A small boy of about two was playing at the window while his mother was at the other side of the room. The child said: "Mother, there is a fly here and I should very much like to help it." The mother said: "All right, dear," and thought no more about it. But presently the child said, "Mother, I have helped the fly too much and it is dead." Miss Webb continued: Thought-turning, which we discussed yesterday, refers to the very first period of life; Mrs. Richmond's remarks seem to me to apply more especially to the second and third periods. Then, as regards saving children from lying, of course this can be done too much, but I think that if we can help them by encouraging them to be open with us, we shall find that they will be more likely to be truthful when they are older. I was talking to a boy of about fifteen the other day and suggesting to him that he should show greater care and thoughtfulness for his mother. He received what I said with interest and was anxious to do what was right, but at the end of our talk he flushed scarlet and said, "But do you want me not to say anything about this to my mother?" He had been accustomed to give his mother his full confidence all his life, and to keep this from her amounted, from his point of view, to telling a lie.
MRS. GLOVER said: I was surprised to hear Mrs. Richmond say that the child she knew was one of the very few children who are truthful. I have always thought that truthfulness was the very essence of their being, they are so guileless that it would not enter into their minds not to speak the truth. I, for this reason, object to the well-known story of Washington and the cherry-tree; the delight of the father was quite out of proportion to the occasion. I should like to ask Mrs. Richmond if she would touch upon this point in her closing speech. Is truthfulness not natural to a child?
MRS. RICHMOND, referring first to the point that had been raised about punishment, said that what she meant was that there was a danger of making things too easy for a child and putting it out of his power to make mistakes. If a child were allowed to make a few of these mistakes himself, instead of having difficulties removed out of his path, he would have less to suffer when he got to the age of fifteen or sixteen. Her own experience had not been gained among quite little children, but she believed the tendency was to make the lives of these little children too easy. She did think that children were naturally truthful, and thought that if they never met us adults they would continue to be truthful. We have to be to some extent sophisticated to tell lies, but the whole subject was a difficult one, and she wished she had more time to give to it.
MRS. HUSBAND felt sure that everyone would be grateful that these points had been raised. It was evident that it was not punishment as such that Mrs. Richmond advocated, but the need of a wider experience for a child. The child was not to be brought up as a hothouse plant, the lions in his path were not all to be met and slain, but he should have some preparation for the difficulties of after life.
The report of the proceedings at the Conference will be continued in the August number of the Parents' Review.
Typed by happi, Oct 2020; Proofread by LNL, Oct. 2020
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