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Ch. 11: Six Mothers

Broad-minded mothers of this time are keenly interested in child-study, in that all too familiar and yet unknown field of "infant psychology." They are beginning to recognise not only the salient fact that "all children are different," but the equally important one that all children have points in common.

The need of union and discussion among mothers is resulting in the mothers' clubs and parents' congresses, which form so noble an example of the progressive thought.

But so far, with all the kindly interest and keen desire for improved methods of child-culture, the mother has to return and grapple with her individual problem alone.

Here are one or two simple and practical suggestions, the careful pursuance of which, with some clear record of proceedings, would not only be of immediate assistance to the mothers concerned, but to all the other mothers yet to be aroused to the importance of such action.

Let us suppose six mothers, to take a very low number,—six mothers in one town, one village, or one city, even in the open country, so that they could reach each other easily; six mothers, who were friends and "social equals," and who were willing to admit the deficiencies of our general present methods of child-culture, and also willing to improve those methods. It is permissible for each mother to imagine that her own methods are superior to those of the other mothers, as this will give her a beautiful sense of helpfulness in allowing these superior methods to be observed and studied by the less able.

A conscious sense of inferiority is also no obstacle, for a mother having that feeling would be eager to improve by study of the better ways.

These six mothers divide the working days of the week among them, agreeing that each shall on her chosen day take charge of the children of the other five. This might be for a part of the day or the whole day, as is thought best,—let us suppose it merely for the afternoon; and it could be limited, as desired, to children of a certain age, and still further reduced, as a mild beginning, to one child apiece from each family.

This would give, as a minimum, five extra children on one afternoon a week to each mother. The maximum would be of course uncertain; but, if all the children of each mother were thus to go visiting for any part of the day, it would give to each one day in which that larger responsibility was undertaken, and five days free. There would remain Sunday, in which each family, complete, would be at home.

Now let us take a hypothetical case, and suppose that our six mothers, with considerable trepidation, have chosen one child apiece that they were willing to intrust for the afternoon to the watchful care of these familiar friends. The children, be it rigidly insisted, are to know nothing whatever of the purposes or methods involved. All that little Johnny Black knows is that Mrs. White has asked him to come over on Monday afternoon and play with Alice and Billy White, and some other children that he knows, too; that presently Mrs. Green has them come to her house on Tuesday, and Mrs. Brown on Wednesday; that his mamma lets them all come and play with him on Thursday,—in short, that his afternoons have become full and rich and pleasantly exciting, like some wonderful procession of parties.

"Not like regular parties, either," Johnny would explain. "You don't have to dress up—much,—just be clean, to begin with. And they don't have ice-cream and macaroons,—only just milk and crackers when you get hungry; and—well, 'tisn't so much regular games and p'r'aps dancin'—like a party,—we just play. And Mrs. White, or whichever one 'tis, she generally has some nice young lady in with her; and they sort of keep things going,—as if 'twas a real party. It's nicer some ways, I think."

"And which place do you like best, Johnny?"

"Oh, I do' know! Billy White has the biggest yard. But Jim Grey has the best swing; and there's a pond at Susy Green's,—a real pond,—and nothing but girls live there! Then it's lots of fun when they come to our house, 'cause I can show 'em my rabbits and make Jack do all his tricks."

Yes, the children all enjoy it. It means variety, it means company, it means a wider and closer acquaintance and all the benefits of well-chosen association and larger environment. It fills a part of the day. There is no more aimless asking, "What shall I do now?" with the vague response, "Oh, run away and play!" or the suggestion of some well-worn amusement.

It means, too, a little more sense of "company manners" and behaviour, and, on the other hand, a better appreciation of home life.

And to the mother,—what good will this do her?

Each mother would have one day in the week in which to carefully observe children,—not her own specially beloved children, but just children, as such. Her observation and care should be absolutely unobtrusive: the moment the little ones knew they were being watched, the value of the plan would be greatly impaired; and, to stop at a minor detail, from the palpable necessity for doing this work without the child's consciousness, mothers would learn to cover the machinery of government at home. It is one of our grossest and most frequent errors in the management of children that we openly discuss our efforts and failures. They know that we are struggling to produce certain results in their behaviour, usually in a futile manner.

With, however, a large and definite purpose resting so absolutely on the child's unconsciousness, more wisdom in this line would soon develope.

The mother who now says, "What would you do with a child like that?" or "I'm sure I don't know what to do with that child!" before the child in question, would soon perceive that such an attitude in an educator does not produce confidence in the object of the education. Quietly and unostentatiously, and often with the assistance of some keen girl-friend, these mothers would soon learn to observe accurately, to generalise carefully, to reduce cautiously, and then to put the deduction into practice and observe the results.

As beginners, pioneers, they should make their first steps very modestly. For the first season some one trait should be chosen for study,—say self-control or courage or consideration of others. Having decided on their line of observation, let each mother make a little note of how high each child in the group stands in this line.

How much self-control has my Johnny, as measured by his age?—as compared with others of his age? When did I first notice self-control in Johnny? When have I seen it greatest? Does he gain in it? What should be done to help Johnny gain in self-control? And then go over the same questions with regard to the other children.

Then, with self-control as the characteristic, the natural development and best education of which they wish to study, the afternoon parties begin. At first the children might be left absolutely free to play in ordinary lines. Then, after the first observations were recorded, delicate experiments could be introduced, and their results added to the record.

It is very difficult for the individual mother to rightly estimate her own children. "Every crow thinks her babe the blackest."

Yet the character of the child is forming without regard to any fond prejudice or too severe criticism; and his life's happiness depends on his interaction with people in general, not simply with beloved ones at home. The measure of Johnny's self-control may not seem important to the parental love which covers or the parental force which compels; but to Johnny's after-life its importance is pre-eminent. When one sits for a portrait to a fond and familiar friend, and sees all fondness and familiarity die out from the eyes of the artist, feels one's personality sink into a mass of "values," it brings a strange sense of chill remoteness. So, no doubt, to the mother heart the idea of calmly estimating Johnny's self-control and comparing it with Jim Grey's seems cold enough. To have Mrs. Grey estimate it,—and perhaps (terrible thought!) to estimate it as less than Jim's,—this is hard, indeed.

Yet this is precisely what is to be obtained in such a combination as this, and in no other way,—the value of an outside observer, through Mrs. Grey's estimate.

Nobody's opinion alters facts. The relative virtues of Johnny and Jim remain unchanged, no matter what their respective mothers think or what their irrespective mothers think. But each mother will derive invaluable side-lights from the other mother's point of view.

Each opinion must be backed with illustration. Instances of observed behaviour must be massed before any judgment has value.

"I think your Jim is so brave, Mrs. Grey. When the children were with me the other day, the cow got loose; and the girls all ran. Some boys ran, too; and Jimmy drove her back into the cow-yard."

"But Jimmy was the oldest," says Mrs. White. "Perhaps, if he'd been as young as my Billy, he wouldn't have been so brave."

"And he is afraid of the dark," says Mrs. Brown. "At my house he wouldn't go into the back cellar after apples, even with the other children. Isn't he afraid of the dark, Mrs. Grey?"

Mrs. Grey admits this, but cites instances to show courage in other directions. And always five dispassionate observers to the one deeply loving and prejudiced.

If it should happen that Jimmy is generally admitted brave beyond his years, with the one exception of fearing darkness, and that exception traceable to a nurse-maid's influence, the mother of Jimmy is rejoiced; and a strong light is thrown on the nurse question. If it prove that by general opinion there is a lack of courage such as should belong to his years, there is cause for special study and special action in this line. Most valuable of all, the habit of observing a child's behaviour as an expression of character is formed.

The six mothers would of course meet to compare notes, preferably in evenings, when children were all in bed and fathers could be present; and the usual difficulty of leaving home in the evening could be met in such an important case as this by engaging some suitable person to come in for an hour or two and stay with the sleeping little ones.

All such details would have to be arranged according to personal and local conditions; but the end to be attained is of such enormous value that considerable effort is justified in reaching it. Even in the beginning, a usefulness would be found in the united interest, the mutual helpfulness of the combined women, drawn together by the infinite and beautiful possibilities of their great work. In the light of other eyes, they would see their own children in new lights, and, by careful following of agreed lines of treatment, soon learn with some finality what would and what would not be useful in a given case.

The observations and experiments of one earnest group of mothers like this would be a stimulus and help to uncounted thousands of ungrouped mothers who are struggling on alone.

It is by such effort as this, such interchange of view and combined study, and the slowly accumulating record of established facts, that humanity progresses in any line of similar work,—in floriculture or horticulture or agriculture, or what you will; and this greatest of all our labours, humaniculture, sadly lacks the application of the true social law,—in union is strength.

The child needs not only love, but wisdom and justice; and these grow best in the human soul through combination.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman