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Ch. 13: Children and Servants

In the growing discontent with our present methods of household service, while we waver between long-held prejudice, old and dear, and the irresistible pressure of new conditions, it is worth while to weigh well the relation between this present method of house-service and our present method of child-culture.

The home is the place in which we rear young children. It is also the place in which we perform certain kinds of labour, mainly cooking, cleaning, and sewing. In the vast majority of our homes, fully nine-tenths of them, as shown by the United States Census Report, giving the number of domestic servants in proportion to the number of families, these industries are carried on by the mother. She is the domestic servant. In the remaining one-tenth of our homes the labour is performed by hired servants, the maid-of-all-work still greatly predominating. The questions here suggested for consideration are: first, is a mother, who is also a house-servant, able to supply proper conditions and care to young children? And, second, is the company of domestic servants, other than their mothers, and constant association with their industries, a desirable condition for the education of young children?

It is, of course, difficult to consider with any clearness of perception facts which have been always familiar. The association of child and servant is so old that it makes no impression on our consciousness. It will, perhaps, bring out the relation more vividly to change the sex of the servant. Suppose a man is left with boys to educate. Suppose he engages a tutor for his boys. He is willing to pay well for a man with the proper ability, character, and training to come and benefit his children by instruction and association. Would such a man be willing to engage a tutor who was also a janitor? Would he be willing to spare the time required to fill the janitor's position from the time required to fill the tutor's position? Or would he be willing to engage a man who had so little fitness for the profession of tutor as to be content to act as janitor also?

Again, in sending his boys to school to be educated, would a man be willing to have that school also run as a restaurant, a laundry, and a tailor shop? Would he think these industries and the society of the persons engaged in them good educational influences? It is clear that a man would not be willing to do these things. Yet all men cheerfully intrust their children, during their most impressionable years, to the society and care of domestic servants and the constant association with domestic industries. In most cases the servant is also the mother. In other cases the servant is not the mother. In either case the child grows up in association with domestic servants and service.

Let us not too readily conclude that this is an evil, but examine it carefully, in its physical and psychical effects. Physically, the child is born into a certain kind of shop or factory. The conditions of any labour in the home are particularly open to criticism; our sweat-shop investigations show that in glaring instance. Intimate associations with a trade, and especially a dirty or dangerous one, does not seem advantageous to a child's health and progress. In nine homes out of ten the child is directly associated with the trades of his mother, who is a cook, a laundress, a cleaner in general; and the baby is early accustomed to the fumes and heat of the kitchen, to grease and ashes and dust, to all the kitchen-work, laundry-work, chamber-work, and endless miscellaneous industries of his mother. In the other tenth of our homes the child grows up a little removed, but not far, from these same industries. They go on under his eyes none the less, but with a certain ban upon them, as servant's work.

Any mother and housewife knows the complications continually arising between children and servants. Early associations are deep and lasting. Domestic servants are not, as a rule, either at all trained in the right treatment of children or in such personal development of character and manners as would make them desirable companions for the young. Yet companions they are,—incessant, intimate, unavoidable. The formative influence of a nurse-maid or of a maid-of-all-work is of varying weight in different cases, but always a factor in the child's development. The education of a child consists in every impression received by the growing brain, not merely those received when we are instructing it. We might give an hour a day to careful instruction in good manners: we might ourselves be models of propriety; but, if the child is also in the society of conspicuously ill-mannered persons every day, an effect will surely be produced by them.

It may be suggested that an end is to be attained through exhibiting the deficiencies of servants, and exhorting the child to despise them, as the Spartans used the Helots for an awful example; but, even if this were gained, there would follow with it a spirit of scorn and contempt for fellow-creatures most injurious to true social development.

A little child should be surrounded with the best influences of all sorts, and with behaviour not to avoid, but to imitate. The long period of immaturity, which is one of our human distinctions, has its value in the accumulated improvements which may be built into the race in that time. It is a period of enrichment, of clear growth. To expose the young to disadvantageous conditions, especially the very young, is a method of education finding no precedent in nature and no justification in reason. The adult, with developed powers, may find in some degree of difficulty a stimulus to further effort; and, if confronted with injurious conditions, may strive the harder to escape or change them. But the new person, the child, has no background. He can make no comparisons. He accepts his first environment unquestioningly as "the world"; it is all the world he knows. For the very reason that we were all born and reared in the domestic factory, we find it hard to imagine any other conceivable surroundings for a young human being to meet life in. We have accepted it without dream of criticism.

Yet in physical conditions alone the household industries furnish a large and constant element of danger to the child. A most casual retrospect of the accidents common to childhood, which so shock us in the daily press, show this with startling clearness. Children suffer from accidents by fire, by boiling water, by sharp instruments, by injurious substances taken into the stomach. The industry of cooking alone involves the free use of fire, a constant succession of hot products, many sharp instruments for cutting and stabbing, and various food elements healthful in combination,—but often injurious when taken separately by one ignorant of their nature. The kitchen and the laundry are responsible for many horrible and sudden deaths among young children, and many more painful accidents.

Given the essential ignorance and as essential experiments of childhood, and we may well wonder how it has so long seemed good to us to bring up our babies among such large chances of danger. If we reared them in stables, we should expect them to be kicked occasionally; if we placed them in saw-mills, we should look for some deficit in fingers; and a child in a cook-shop has his steady average risk of injury by fire, steel, or poison; in the laundry, the added chance of drowning. Apart from these main sources of danger, he finds in sweeping, dusting, and all the uncounted activities of household toil much that is detrimental to health and safety.

To avoid these dangers, our first effort has been to train the child to a prompt and instant obedience, such as conditions of imminent danger and military rule alone can justify, and also to check his natural and most valuable tendency to investigate and experiment. The labours of the household must go on: economic laws are peremptory; and the servant, who is educating the baby so unconsciously, cannot stop work to explain or illustrate.

On the contrary, the very presence of the child is inimical to the proper performance of these imperative industries; and the flushed and hurried servant cries: "Run away now. Mamma's busy!" Where is the child to run to? This is home. When is mamma not busy? To properly perform the household labour of an average family, which is of five persons in an average house,—say of six rooms,—takes ten hours a day of swift, intelligent, skilled labour. During what part of this time can the household labourer give due attention to the child? Or is it sufficient education to watch a servant at work, and to help a little when one is old enough?

If the industries involved were properly divided, specialized, and developed, much that is valuable might be gathered from their observation, and from guarded experiment, by children who are old enough. A child can receive valuable instruction in a woollen-mill or a blacksmith shop, but it does not follow that these places are suitable as nurseries. The lack of any true educational value in the position is sufficiently shown by the ceaseless centuries of ignorance in these very trades. All women, for all time, reared in this intimate association with domestic service and domestic servants, have failed to work out any better grade of performance than that which still furnishes the staple of conversation among them.

It is quite evident, from the results so painfully visible around us, that the education of our children by house-servants developes neither general intelligence nor special proficiency. The intellectual progress of humanity has shown close connection with the extension of industry in larger lines, with a growing specialisation, a wider distribution, and, of course, with the beautiful growth in special methods of education. But this kitchen education, though we have enjoyed its advantages for so long, does not seem to show good results.

The educational value of the mother seems not to be in proportion to her occupation as a house-servant, but the reverse. It would seem that our children grow in intelligence and good behaviour rather in spite of the domestic industries than because of them. Any mother who is awake to the limitless possibilities of child-culture, and who begins to work out some well-considered plan for its pursuance, knows the ceaseless interruptions of her efforts, and the peremptory monopolisation of her time, by the demands of household labour. So far, with true womanly patience,—a patience which ceased to be a virtue some years ago,—she has accepted the condition as inevitable, and plodded on, consoling herself with a "day unto day" philosophy, and with "doing the best she could"; and many moralists consoled her, saying, "Blessed be drudgery!" Drudgery has a certain value, no doubt. It developes certain characteristics; namely, those of a competent and contented drudge. The question raised here is merely whether this kind of work and the characteristics developed by it are suitable educational associations for young children.

What are the qualities developed by house-service? Let us suppose that we are all, fathers as well as mothers, occupied solely in household labour. The effect may be studied from one point of view in those countries where there are more men-servants than with us, and where the profession is sometimes followed for generations. The typical character of a butler or footman, a parlour-maid, cook, or general servant, may be traced through all personal variation. Given any sort of person, and put him or her through a lifetime of domestic service, and certain characteristics appear, modified to a large degree by personality, but typical none the less.

This palpable result of house-service is familiar to us all, and not desired in ourselves or our children. Admitting all personal good qualities in the individual servant, that in his bearing which distinguishes it from the bearing we call "soldierly" or "gentlemanly" or even "business-like" is the natural result of his form of labour,—of personal domestic service. Where the purpose of action is to serve one individual or a very few individuals,—and this not so much in ministering to general needs as in catering to personal tastes,—those who thus labour are checked in development by the measure of the tastes they serve. That is the restrictive tendency, resisted according to personal power and ability, but always producing some result. A race of men who were one and all contented to be butlers and footmen would not give as noble a fatherhood as the world needs; and a race of women who are contented to be cooks and housemaids do not give as noble a motherhood as the world needs.

Sharp exception will, no doubt, be taken to the use of the word "servant" to designate the nine out of ten women who "do their own work." There is a difference, we freely admit. They do the same work in the same way, but they have different motives. They do it from a sense of duty, oft-times, instead of a desire for wages; for they get no wages. They do it simply because they have to, sometimes, feeling it to be merely a disagreeable necessity. They do it from a more direct self-interest than the servant, as well as from a greater self-sacrifice. Few, very few women love it, and continue to do it a day beyond the time when their husbands can afford to hire another woman.

Whatever the "moral quality" of intention and the value of one's "frame of mind," the reactive effect of one's daily labour is inexorable. No matter how high and holy the purpose of the toiling housewife, no matter whether she glories in her task or hates it, her brain is daily modified by its kind of exercise as surely as her fingers are greased by the dish-water, cracked by the soap-suds, and calloused by the broom. The amount of labour and care required to run a household comfortably is not small. It takes no mean intelligence to administer a home. So does it require intelligence, labour, and care to run a retail dry-goods shop or a railroad train. The point to study is whether this particular species of labour and care is conducive to the best child-culture. Can the average woman successfully manage the mingled industries of her household and the education of her children? It may be replied at once, with some triumph, "Yes, she does!" To which we merely rejoin, "Does she?" We know that the household industries are carried on in some fashion; and that children grow up amid them (such of them as do not die), and are—when grown—the kind of people we see about us.

People did live and rear children in caves, in tents, in huts, in feudal castles. It is a question not of the bare possibility of maintaining the race, but of the relative advantages of methods of culture. Our rate of infant mortality is shamefully large, and due mainly to what physicians term "preventable diseases." It is quite open to discussion whether those diseases are not often traceable to the insanitary conditions of household labour, and their continued prevalence to the limitations of the kitchen-bred intellects of nine-tenths of our mothers.

No human being, be she never so much a mother, can be in two places at once or do full justice to several varied functions with one distracted brain. That the mother comes so near it in many cases is a splendid tribute to the power of love; that she fails in such degree is no reproach to her, so long as she is unable to alter the industrial conditions under which her motherhood is restricted.

Now that economic progress makes it possible to introduce new and wide improvements, the mother does become responsible, if she fails to see and take advantage of the change. Our complex and ill-developed household labours tend to produce certain special mental capacities in those who perform them. The housewife must hold in mind the entire contents of the home,—all its furnishing, decorations, utensils, and supplies. She must keep a running account of stock, and make good the incessant and irregular deficiencies of linen-closet, wardrobe, cupboard, and pantry, as well as the wear and tear on the machinery and furnishings. This developes one order of brain,—the administrative. The house-servant must exhibit skill in several distinct trades, and a swift facility for disconnecting the mind and readjusting it as promptly. This developes another order of brain,—the executive,—the development seriously hindered in special perfection by the attendant facility for disconnection. Neither of these mental powers is that of the educator, especially the educator of babies.

The capacity for subtle, long-continued, nicely balanced observation in lines of psychic development; the ever-present, delicate sympathy which knows the moment to suggest and the hour to refrain,—these mental attributes belong neither to the administrative nor to the executive ability. We find in the maternal dealings with children, when conspicuously efficient, precisely what should be expected of the expert manager and skilful servant. The children are well managed and well served, but they are not well educated.

When the mother—the housewife-mother, the servant-mother—begins to look into educational processes, she is appalled. It is easy to show her, if she has a clear and at all educated mind, what conditions would be best for babies, what kind of observation and treatment; but she knows full well that she cannot furnish these conditions. She has neither place, time, strength, skill, nor training for this delicate and careful method. Her work—her daily, hourly inexorable work—fills the place, consumes the time, exhausts the strength, does not develope the skill, and prevents the training of the educator. Many mothers do not even recognise the possibility of better methods, and strenuously resent the suggestion that they are not doing all that could be done.

They resent even the kindergarten, many of them. The relatively slow progress of the kindergarten method is as good a proof as could be offered of the lack of educational perception among mothers. They are willing to "serve" their children endlessly,—wait on them, wash, sweep, and cook for them. They are willing to "manage" their children carefully and conscientiously, and do not recognise the need of better educational treatment for babies. This attitude is a perfectly natural result of the reaction of the absorbing household industries on the mind of the mother. Her interest is eager and alert in all that concerns the material management of the family, from wall-paper and carpets to some new variety of hose-supporter,—down to the least detail of decoration on an embroidered muslin cap for the baby.

In any matter of greater beauty or economy, or in some cases of sanitary improvement, the housewife-mother's mind is open. In indefatigable zeal in direct service—no task too difficult, too long, too tedious—the servant-mother's hand is ever-ready. But the same devoted, loving, conscientious mother will fail appallingly to keep in touch with the mind-growth of the baby; will often neglect and even seriously injure its development in what is, after all, the main field of human life. The young human being needs far more than to be fed and clothed and waited on, however lovingly; or even than to be taught in schools in a few set lines of study.

We have made splendid progress in external things, in material forms and methods of production and distribution. We have travelled far and deep in scientific study, climbed high in art, and grown through grand religions. Our one great need—a need that grows daily greater in the vivid light of these swift-moving years—is for a better kind of people. The progress in human character does not keep pace with our external improvement. We are not trained in the right management of our own faculties; and come out of "the home" into "the world" well fed enough, well dressed enough, but with such unkempt, unbuttoned, dangling strings of neglected character as bespeaks the orphan soul.

Ask any mother to describe her children's complexion, costume, and tastes in eating. She will do it glibly, profusely, and with feeling. Johnny would never touch meat till he was ten; Maud would eat nothing else; Jessie could never bear potatoes. Maud was very near-sighted. She had early taken her to an oculist. She would probably have to wear glasses always. Jessie was so hard on shoes. She used two pairs to Maud's one,—even worse than Johnny. Now ask her to describe the distinctive mental characteristics of each, at what age they developed, and what measures she has taken from year to year to check Jessie's personal vanity, to increase Maud's courage, to develope patience in Johnny. Ask her what she has tried for croup, and she will discourse freely. Ask her what she has tried for the gradual reduction of self-consciousness, and she looks puzzled.

The human race is capable of beautiful development in character, as we see in occasional instances. That such beautiful development is largely assisted by right education, especially in the very first years, is proven by a thousand experiments. That most of us grow up without any intelligent psychic training, without wise attention and skilful care in soul-growth, is but too evident. Better education for the young of the human race, that education which the child never knows of, but which surrounds him with helpful influences from his first consciousness, is an imperative need.

Some attempt at this work is made by all conscientious mothers, and wonderful success is sometimes attained by a mother of special genius for child-culture (and who, by the way, is seldom distinguished as a housekeeper); but our general average in humaniculture is low. Nothing in the range of human effort is more important than the right education of children, which means the improvement of the race. The first years are of special value, the first influences and associations of pre-eminent importance.

If the household industries are incompatible with the best child-culture, they should be withdrawn from the household, specialised and professionalised like all the other industries once considered essentially domestic. When a broader intelligence is brought to bear on our infancy, when we do not grow up under the unavoidable assumption that the principal business of life is to "keep house," there will be a better chance for the growth of those civic virtues so pitifully lacking in us now. So many marks of progress in these lines are now evident that any intelligent woman can see the way open before her. The public laundry is sapping the foundations of our domestic industry; the "Domestic Service Bureau" is beginning to furnish skilled labour by the hour; the "Prepared Food Association" is solving another problem. The way out of these household difficulties is opening fast. It needs only a fuller recognition among women of the value of this change to bring it in with greater rapidity and success. For the sake of our children let us free the home from its archaic industries.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman