Chapter 3 The A-B-C-Darians

"We have listened to you, gentlemen, with great deference. We have profited much, and perceive a great field of work before us. I hope we may get a little outside help. I heard the other day of a young lady learned in mosses who is in the habit of taking the children she knows on 'mossing' expeditions. But what I wish to say is, education, like charity, begins at home, and you have chosen to lead us far afield at the very outset!"

"Truly, we did go off at a canter! But don't you think it is a matter for curtain discipline? If your son Tom had not 'wondered what you are' we might have begun quite at the beginning, if there be one; or, most likely, should have been till this moment wondering where to begin. We are grateful to you, Henderson, for starting us anywhere; and more so to Mrs. Henderson for her axiom, Education begins at home."

"I daresay experienced people get to know all about it," said Mrs. Clough; "but the mother of even two or three little ones has a sense of being at sea without rudder or compass. We know so little about children, or, indeed, about human beings at all! Parents before our time had something to go upon; and the young mother could ask counsel of her elders on all matters from 'cinder tea' to the choice of a school. But now, science is abroad; many of the old wise saws turn out, not only mischievous, but ridiculous. We can't keep hold of the old, we can't get hold of the new, and there we are, like Mahomet's coffin."

"You have described our quandary exactly, Mrs. Clough; and what you say accounts for many things. The older people complain that the children of these days are growing up lax, self-pleasing, disobedient, irreverent. Now, I think myself there is a great deal that's fine in our children. They are much more of persons than we were at their age; but that they do pretty much what is right in their own eyes, are neither obedient nor reverent, nor even respectful, is, I am afraid, a true bill. But don't you see how it is? We are afraid of them. We feet as a navvy might, turned in to dust the drawing-room ornaments! The mere touch of his clumsy great fingers may be the ruin of some precious thing. We parents, no doubt, get tenderness and insight from above to enable us for our delicate work; so I suppose it is our own fault that the children are beyond us."

"How do you mean, Mrs. Meredith? And if you, mothers, don't know what to do with the children, who does? The enlightened father lays himself out for a snub if he sets up for an authority at home."

"Oh yes! you men make ludicrous blunders about children. But that's no help. A young mother gets a tender human creature into her keeping, full of possibilities. Her first concern is, not only to keep it in health, but, so to speak, to fill it with reserves of health to last a lifetime. At once her perplexities begin. I shall not even ask to be excused for venturing upon details; the affairs of a young human being are important enough to engage the attention of King, Lords, and Commons, did they but know it. Well, a mother I know wished her child to be clothed delicately, as befits a first-born. She sent to Ireland for a delicious baby trousseau of lace and cambric. You, gentlemen, don't understand. Hardly had the dear little garments gone through their first wash, when somebody tells her that 'oo' a' 'oo', is the only wear for babies and grown-ups. I doubt if to this day she knows why, but there was a soupçon of science in the suggestion, so the sweet cambrics were discarded and fine woollens took their place. By-and-by, when the child came to feed like other mortals, there was a hail of pseudo-science about her ears. 'Grape-sugar,' 'farinaceous foods,' 'saliva,' and what not; but this was less simple than the wool question. She could make nothing of it, so asked her doctor how to feed the child. Further complications arose: 'the child sees everything;' 'the child knows everything'; 'what you make him now he will be through life'; 'the period of infancy is the most important in his life.' My poor friend grew bewildered, with the result that, in her ignorant anxiety to do right, she is for ever changing the child's diet, nurse, sleeping hours, airing hours, according to the last lights of the most scientific of her acquaintances; and it's my belief the little one would be a deal better off brought up like its mother before it."

"Then you would walk in the old paths?"

"Not a bit of it! Only I want to see where I'm going. I think we live in an age of great opportunities. But my contention is, that you cannot bring up children on hearsay in these days; there is some principle involved in the most everyday matter, and we must go to school to learn the common laws of healthy living and well-being."

"Mrs. Meredith is right: here is serious work sketched out for us, and of a kind as useful for ourselves as for our children. We must learn the first principles of human physiology."

"Would not it do to learn what is called Hygiene? I have a notion, that is physiology made easy; that is, you are just taught what to do, without going fully into the cause why."

"No, we must stick to physiology: I don't believe at all in learning what to do, unless founded upon a methodical, not scrappy, knowledge of why we do it. You see, all parts of the animal economy are so inter-dependent that you cannot touch this without affecting that. What we want to get at, is, the laws for the well-being of every part, for the due performance of every function."

"Why, man, you would have every one of us qualify to write M.D. to his name!"

"Not so; we shall not interfere with the doctors; we leave sickness to them; but the preservation of health, the increase in bodily vigour, must be our care. In this way; we acquaint ourselves fully with the structure of the skin, for example, with its functions, and the inter-dependence between these and the functions of certain internal organs. Now, secure vigorous action of the skin, and you gain exhilaration of spirits, absolute joy for the time, followed by a rise in the sense of general well-being, i.e., happiness. You remember how a popular American poet sat on a gate in the sun after his bath, using his flesh-brushes by the hour, until he was the colour of a boiled lobster. He might have been more seemly employed, but his joy was greater than if daily telegrams had brought him word of new editions of his poems. Well, if due action of the skin be a means to a joyous life, to health and a genial temper, what mother is there who would not secure these for her child? But the thing is not so simple as it looks. It is not merely a case of bath and flesh-brush: diet, clothes, sleep, bedroom, sunshine, happy surroundings, exercise, bright talk, a thousand things must work together to bring about this 'happy-making' condition. What is true of the skin is true all round, and we cannot go to work with a view to any single organ or function; all work together, and we must aim at a thorough grip of the subject. Is it, then, decided 'without one if or but,' that we get ourselves instructed in the science of living?"

"The 'science of living'––yes, but that covers much beyond the range of physiology. Think of the child's mind, his moral and religious potencies. It seems to me that we already make too much of the body. Our young people are encouraged to sacrifice everything to physical training; and there is a sensuousness, well hit-off in George Eliot's 'Gwendoline,' in the importance given to every detail of the bath and the toilet. One is weary of the endless magnification of the body and its belongings; and, what is more, I believe we are defeating our own ends. 'Groom' the skin, develop the muscles, by all means; but there is more to be thought of, and I doubt if to live to the flesh, even in these ways, is permissible:'

"You are right. But don't think for a moment that physiology lends itself to the cult of muscle. Here is a youth whose biceps are his better part: like most of us, he gets what he aims at––some local renown as an athlete. But what does he pay for the whistle? His violent 'sports' do not materially increase the measure of blood which sustains him: if the muscles get more than their share, their gain implies loss elsewhere, to the brain, commonly, and, indeed, to all the vital organs. By-and-by, the sports of youth over, your brawny, broad-chested young fellow collapses; is the victim of ennui, and liver, lungs, or stomach send in their requisition for arrears of nourishment fraudulently made away with."

"But, surely, Mr. Meredith, you do not think lightly of physical development? Why, I thought it one of the first duties of parents to send their offspring into the world as 'fine animals."'

"So it is; but here, as elsewhere, there is a 'science of the proportion of things,' and the young people who go in violently and without moderation for muscular feats are a delusion and a snare: in the end, they do not prove 'fine animals'; they have little staying power."

"But a child is more than an animal; we want to know how mind and moral feelings are to be developed?"

"Even in these matters, Mrs. Tremlow, we should find much help in the study of physiology––mental physiology, if you like to call it so. I mean, the habits a child grows up with appear to leave some sort of register in his material brain, and, thus, to become part of himself in even a physical sense. Thus it rests with parents to ease the way of their child by giving him the habits of the god [or good?] life in thought, feeling and action, and even in spiritual things. We cannot make a child 'good'; but, in this way, we can lay paths for the good life in the very substance of his brain. We cannot make him hear the voice of God; but, again, we can make paths where the Lord God may walk in the cool of the evening. We cannot make a child clever; but we can see that his brain is nourished with pure blood, his mind with fruitful ideas."

"I suppose all this would be encouraging if one were up to it. But I feel as if a great map of an unknown country were spread before me, where the few points one wants to make for are unmarked. How, for instance, are we to make a child obedient, kind, and true?"

"Your question, Mrs. Tremlow, suggests further ground we must cover: a few set rules will be of little service; we must know a little, at any rate, of the content of that which we call 'human nature.' We must add to our physiology, psychology, and, to psychology, moral science. Complex, yet most simple, manifold, yet one, human nature is not to be ticked off in a lecture or two as a subject we have exhausted; but there is no conceivable study which yields such splendid increase for our pains."

"And the spiritual life of the child? Does either of these 'ologies' embrace the higher life, or is it not susceptible of culture?"

"Ah, there we have new conditions––the impact of the Divine upon the human, which generates life, 'without which there is no living.' The life is there, imparted and sustained from above; but we have something to do here also. Spirit, like body, thrives upon daily bread and daily labour, and it is our part to set before the child those 'new thoughts of God, new hopes of Heaven,' which should be his spiritual diet; and to practise him in the spiritual labours of prayer, praise, and endeavour. How?––is another question for our Society to work out."