Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Ch. 6: A Place For Children

The one main cause of our unfairness to children is that we consider them wholly in a personal light. Justice and equity, the rights of humanity, require a broader basis than blood relationship. Children are part of humanity, and the largest part. Few of us realise their numbers, or think that they constitute the majority of human beings. The average family, as given in the census returns, consist of five persons,—two adults and three minors. Any population which increases has a majority of children, our own being three-fifths. This large proportion of human beings constitutes a permanent class,—another fact we fail to consider because of our personal point of view. One's own child and one's neighbour's child grow up and pass out of childhood, and with them goes one's interest in children. Of course, we intellectually know that there are others; but to the conscious mind of most persons children are evanescent personal incidents.

The permanence of childhood as a human status is proven by the survival among them of games and phrases of utmost antiquity, which are handed down, not from father to son, but from child to child. If an isolated family moves into a new country, and its children grow up alone, they do not know these games. We should bear in mind in studying children that we have before us a permanent class, larger than the adult population. So that in question of numerical justice they certainly have a right to at least equal attention. But, when we remember also that this large and permanent class of human beings is by far the most important, that on its right treatment rests the progress of the world, then, indeed, it behooves us to consider the attitude of the adult population toward the junior members of society.

As members of society, we find that they have received almost no attention. They are treated as members of the family by the family, but not even recognised as belonging to society. Only in modern history do we find even enough perception of the child's place in the State to provide some public education; and to-day, in some more advanced cities, some provision for public protection and recreation. Children's playgrounds are beginning to appear at last among people who have long maintained public parks and gardens for adults. Also, in the general parks a children's quarter is often now provided, with facilities for their special care and entertainment. But except for these rare cases of special playgrounds, except for the quite generous array of school-houses and a few orphan asylums and kindred institutions, there are no indications in city or country that there are such people as children.

A visitor from another planet, examining our houses, streets, furniture, and machinery, would not gather much evidence of childhood as a large or an important factor in human life. The answer to this is prompt and loud: "Children belong at home! Look there, and you will see if they are considered or not."

Let us look there carefully. The average home is a house of, say, six rooms. This is a liberal allowance, applicable only to America. Even with us, in our cities, the average home is in a crowded tenement,—only two or three rooms; and in wide stretches of country it is a small and crowded farm-house. Six rooms is liberal allowance,—kitchen, dining-room, and parlour, and three bedrooms. Gazing upon the home from the outside, we see a building of dimensions suited to adults. There is nothing to indicate children there. Examining it from the inside, we find the same proportionate dimensions, and nothing in the materials or arrangement of the internal furnishings to indicate children there. The stairs are measured to the adult tread, the windows to the adult eye, the chairs and table to the adult seat. Hold! In a bedroom we discover a cradle,—descended from who knows what inherited desire for swinging boughs!—and, in some cases, a crib. In the dining-room is often a high chair (made to accommodate the adult table), and sometimes in the parlour a low chair for the child. If people are wealthy and careful, there is, perhaps, a low table, too; but the utmost that can be claimed for the average child is a cradle or crib, a high chair, and a "little rocker." There can be no reasonable objection to this, so long as the child is considered merely as a member of a family. The adult family precedes and outlasts the child, and it would be absurd to expect them to stoop and suffer in a house built and furnished for children.

So we build for the adult only, and small legs toil painfully up our stairs and fall more painfully down them.

But the moment we begin to address ourselves to the needs of children as a class, the result is different. In the school-house all the seats are for children, except "teacher's chair"; in the kindergarten the tiny chairs and tables are perfectly appropriate; in the playground all the appointments are child-size. "What do you expect!" protests the perplexed parent. "You say yourself, I cannot build my house child-size. Do you expect me to add a child-size house in the back yard? I cannot afford it."

No, the individual parent cannot afford to build a child-house for his own family, nor, for that matter, a school-house. We, collectively, whether through general taxation, as in the public school, or combination of personal funds, as in the private school, do manage to provide our children with school-houses, because we recognise their need of them. Similarly, we can provide for them suitable houses for a far more early and continuous education,—when we see the need of them. Here the untouched brain-spaces make no response. "What do you mean!" cries the parent. "Do you wish us to club together, and build a—a—public nursery for our children!" This seems sufficiently horrific to stop all further discussion. But is it? May we not gently pursue the theme?

We can and do cheerfully admit the advantages of a public school and a public school-teacher for our children. Some of us admit the advantages of a public kindergarten and a public kindergartner for our children. The step between child-garden and baby-garden is slight. Why not a public nursery and a public nurse? That, of course, for those classes who gladly provide and patronise the public school and kindergarten. The swarming neglected babies of the poor, now "underfoot" in dirty kitchen or dirtier street, part neglected and part abused, a tax on the toiling mother and a grievous injury to the older children who must care for them,—these would be far better off if every crowded block had its big, bright baby-garden on the roof, and their young lives were kept peaceful, clean, and well cared for by special nurses who knew their business. A public nursery is safer than the public street. One hot reply to this proposition is that "statistics prove that babies in institutions die faster than babies even in the poorest families." Perhaps this is so.

But consider the difference in the cases. Children in institutions are motherless, generally orphans. No one is proposing to remove the mothers of the babies in the baby-garden. "But they would be separated from their mothers!" Children who go to school are separated from their mothers. Children who go to the kindergarten are separated from their mothers. Children who play in the street are separated from their mothers. If the mothers of these children had nothing else to do, they could give all their time to them. But they have other things to do; and, while they are busy, the baby would be better off in the baby-garden than in the street. To those who prefer to maintain the private school and the private kindergarten, a private baby-garden would be equally available. "But we do not want it. We prefer to care for our children at home," they reply. This means that they prefer to have their little ones in their own nursery, under the care of the mother, via the nurse.

The question remains open as to which the children would prefer, and which would be better for them. Perhaps certain clear and positive assertions should be made here, to allay the anxiety and anger about "separating the child from the mother."

The mother of a young baby should be near enough to nurse it, as a matter of course. She should "take care of it"; that is, see that it has everything necessary to its health, comfort, and development. But that is no reason why she should administer to its every need with her own hands. The ignorant, low-class poor mother does this, and does not preserve the lives of her children thereby. The educated, high-class rich mother does not do this, but promptly hires a servant to do it for her. The nursery and the nurse are essential to the baby; but what kind of nursery and nurse are most desirable? The kind of servant hired by the ordinary well-to-do family is often not a suitable person to have the care of little children. A young child needs even more intelligent care than an older one.

A group of families, each paying for its children's schooling, can afford to give them a far higher class of teacher than each could afford to provide separately. So a group of families, each paying for its children's "nursing," could afford to provide a far superior class of "nurse" than each can provide separately.

Here again rises the protest that it is not good for small children—babies—to be "herded together,"—see infant mortality in institutions. Again, an unfair comparison is involved. The poorest kind of children, motherless and fatherless, are crowded in undue numbers in "charitable" or "public" institutions, and submitted to the perfunctory care of low-grade, ill-paid attendants, among accommodations by no means of the best. We are asked to compare this to small groups of healthy, well-bred children, placed for certain hours of the day only in carefully planned apartments, in all ways suitable, under the care of high-grade, well-paid expert attendants and instructors.

The care of little children is not servant's work. It is not "nurses'" work. A healthy child should have his physical needs all properly supplied, and, for the rest, be under the most gentle and exquisite "training." It is education, and education more valuable than that received in college, which our little ones need; and they do not get it from nurse-maids.

Then rises the mother. "I can teach my baby better than any teacher, however highly trained." If the mother can, by all means let her. But can she? We do not hear mothers protesting that they can teach their grown-up sons and daughters better than the college professors, nor their middle-aged children better than the school-teachers. Why, then, are they so certain that they can teach the babies better than trained baby-teachers? They are willing to consult a doctor if the baby is ill, and gladly submit to his dictation. "The doctor says baby must eat this and go there and do so." There is no wound to maternal pride in this case. If they have "defective" children, they are only too glad to place them under "expert care," not minding even "separation" for the good of the child.

Any one who knows of the marvellous results obtained by using specially trained intelligence in the care of defective children must wonder gravely if we might not grow up better with some specially trained intelligence used on our normal children. But this we cannot have till we make a place for children. No woman or man, with the intelligence and education suitable for this great task, would be willing to be a private servant in one family. We do not expect it of college-teacher or school-teacher. We could not expect it of baby-teacher. The very wealthy might of course command all three; but that has no application to mankind in general, and is also open to grave question as to its relative value.

A private staff of college professors would not be able to give the boy the advantages of going to college. We cannot have separately what we can have collectively. Moreover, even if the teacher be secured, we have not at home the material advantages open to us in the specially prepared place for children.

A house or range of apartments for little children could be made perfectly safe,—which is more than the home is. From the pins on the carpet, which baby puts in his mouth, the stairs he falls down, the windows he falls out of and the fire he falls into, to the doors to jam the little fingers and the corners and furniture he bumps himself upon, "the home" is full of danger to the child. Why should a baby be surrounded with these superfluous evils? A room really designed for babies to play in need have no "furniture" save a padded seat along the wall for the "grown-ups" to sit on, a seat with little ropes along the edge for the toddlers to pull up and walk by. The floor should be smooth and even, antiseptically clean, and not hard enough to bump severely. A baby must fall, but we need not provide cobblestones for his first attempts. Large soft ropes, running across here and there, within reach of the eager, strong little hands, would strengthen arms and chest, and help in walking. A shallow pool of water, heated to suitable temperature, with the careful trainer always at hand, would delight, occupy, and educate for daily hours. A place of clean, warm sand, another of clay, with a few simple tools,—these four things—water, sand, clay, and ropes to climb on—would fill the days of happy little children without further "toys." These are simple, safe, primitive pleasures, all helpful to growth and a means of gradual education. The home cannot furnish these things, nor could the mother give her time and attention to their safe management, even if she knew how to teach swimming, modelling, and other rudimentary arts.

The home, beside its difficulties and dangers, is full of unnecessary limitations. It is arranged on a scale of elegance such as the adult income can compass; and the natural activities of childhood continually injure the household decorations and conveniences. Perfectly natural and innocent conduct on the part of the child is deleterious to the grown-up home, so patently so that owners of fine houses are not willing to let them to families with children.

A nice comment this on the home as a place for children! Must a home be shabby and bare? Or must the child be confined to his bed? Why not develope the home to its own perfection,—a place of beauty and comfort and peace,—and let the children have a home of their own for part of the day, wherein the order and beauty and comfort are child-size? The child could sleep under his mother's eye or ear, and gradually aspire to the adult table when he had learned how to be comfortable there, and not injure the comfort of others. He could soon have his own room if the family could afford it, and express his personality in its arrangement; but the general waking time of little children could be much better passed in a special house for children than in the parental kitchen, parlour, bedroom, or back yard. "But why not the private nursery,—the sunny room for the child and his toys? Is not that enough?" The private nursery means the private nurse, who is, as a class, unfit to have the care of little children. She is a servant; and the forming ideas of justice, courtesy, and human rights in general, are much injured by the spectacle of an adult attendant who is a social inferior. A servant is not a proper person to have charge of these impressionable years.

Moreover, however perfect the private nursery and private nurse might be, there remains its isolation to injure the child. We grow up unnecessarily selfish, aborted in the social faculties proper to our stage of advance, because each child is so in the focus of family attention all the time. A number of little ones together for part of every day, having their advantages in common, learning from infancy to say "we" instead of "I," would grow up far better able to fill their places as helpful and happy members of society.

Even in those rare cases where the mother does actually devote her entire time to her children, it would still be better for them to pass part of that time in an equally wise and more dispassionate atmosphere. Our babies and small children ought to have the society of the very best people instead of the society of such low-grade women as we can hire to be nurses in our homes. And, while they need pre-eminently the mother's tender love and watchful care, they also need the wider justice and larger experience of the genuine child-trainer.

So long as we so underrate the importance of childhood,—and that in proportion to the youth of the child,—those persons who should benefit our babies by their presence will not do so. Very great and learned men are proud to teach youths of eighteen and twenty in colleges; but they would feel themselves painfully ill-placed if set to teach the same boys at ten, five, or two years old. Why? Why should we not be eager for an introduction to "Professor Coltonstall! He's the first man in America in infant ethics! Marvellous success! You can always tell the children who have been under him!" You cannot have this professor in your nursery. But your children and those of fifty other eager parents could be benefited by his wisdom, experience, and exquisitely developed skill in a place in common.

The argument does not appeal to us. We see no need for "wisdom," "experience," "trained skill" with a baby. We have not realised that we despised our babies; but we do. Any one is good enough to take care of them. We even confide them to the care of distinctly lower races, as in the South with its negro nurses. "Social equality" with the negro is beyond imagination to the Southerner. That gross inferior race can never be admitted to their companionship, but to the companionship of the baby—certainly. Could anything prove more clearly our lack of just appreciation of the importance of childhood? The colored nurse is, of course, thought of merely as the servant of the child; and we do not yet consider whether it is good for a child to have a servant or whether a servant is a good educator.

The truth is we never think of education in connection with babyhood, the term being in our minds inextricably confused with school-houses and books. When we do honestly admit the plain fact that a child is being educated in every waking hour by the conditions in which he is placed and the persons who are with him, we shall be readier to see the need of a higher class of educators than servant-girls, and a more carefully planned environment than the accommodations of the average home.

The home is not materially built for the convenience of a child, nor are its necessary workings planned that way; and, what is more directly evil, the mother is not trained for the position of educator. We persist in confounding mother and teacher. The mother's place is her own, and always will be. Nothing can take it from her. She loves the child the best; and, if not too seriously alienated, the child will love her the best. The terror of the mother lest her child should love some other person better than herself shows that she is afraid of comparison,—that she visibly fears the greater gentleness and wisdom of some teacher will appeal to the young heart more than her arbitrary methods. If the mother expected to meet daily comparison with a born lover of children, trained in the wisest methods of child-culture, it would have an improving influence on the home methods. One of the great advantages of this arrangement will be in its reactive effect on the mother. In her free access to the home of the children, she will see practically illustrated the better methods of treating them, and be in frequent communication with their educators. The mother's knowledge of and previous association with the child will make her a necessary coadjutor with the teacher, and by intercourse with the larger knowledge and wider experience of the teacher the mother will acquire new points of view and wiser habits.

As the school and kindergarten react beneficially upon the home, so this baby-school will react as beneficially, and perhaps more so, as touching the all-important first years. The isolated mother has no advantage of association or comparison, and falls into careless or evil ways with the child, which contact with more thoughtful outside influences would easily prevent. She could easily retain her pre-eminent place in the child's affections, while not grudging to the special teacher her helpful influence. Also, the child, with the free atmosphere of equality around him for part of each day, with association with his equals in their place, would return to his own place in the home with a special affection, and submit with good will to its necessary restrictions.

In all but isolated farm life, or on the even more primitive cattle range, it would be possible to build a home for little children, and engage suitable persons to take charge of them daily. It would take no more time from the housework—if that is the mother's trade—to take the child to its day play-school than it takes to watch and tend it at home and to prevent or mend its "mischief."

"Children are so mischievous," we complain, regarding their ingenious destruction of the domestic decorations. A calf in a flower-garden would do considerable mischief, or kittens in a dairy. Why seek to rear young creatures in a place where they must do mischief if they behave differently from grown people? Why not provide for them a place where their natural activities would not be injurious, but educational?

In cities it is a still simpler question. Every block could have its one or more child homes, according to their number of children thereabouts. The children of the rich would be saved from the evil effects of too much care and servants' society, and the children of the poor from the neglect and low associations of their street-bred lives.

The "practical" question will now arise, "Who is to pay for all this?" There are two answers. One is, The same people who pay for the education of our older children. The baby has as good a right to his share of our educational funds, private and public, as the older child; and his education is more important. The other answer is that an able-bodied mother, relieved of her position as nursery governess, would be able to contribute something toward better provision for her children.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman