Dora B. Montefiore, New Age January 1903
Source: New Age, p.4-5, 1 January 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Several friends have written me, adding to their Christmas wishes the echoed desire expressed in my last letter for greater simplicity in our own lives and in those of our children. The remarks they make on the bringing up and training of children have led me to look through once more, amongst other educational works, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s book, “Concerning Children,” published in 1900. Some of the thoughts therein contained may be of value to us women at a season when we have the young from nursery and schoolroom more especially, with us, engrossing our time and thoughts, and taxing sometimes our powers of management. The rearing of her children is the most important work that the mother has to perform; and, says Mrs. Gilman, “though it is necessary for the good of the child that the interests of the mother be subordinated to his interests, still it does not follow that her indiscriminate surrender of personal interests always benefits him. On the contrary a too self-sacrificing mother tends to develop selfish short-sighted, low-grade personality in the growing life she seeks to benefit, where her honest maintenance of her own individual rights would have had a very healthy effect.... The natural tendency of the mother to love her own young is strong in us – the maternal passion; but like all passions it needs conscientious and rational restraint. The human soul has grown to such a stage of development that we are capable of loving and serving great numbers of people. The woman who is still confined to the same range of interests which occupied her in the earliest grades of human life, inherits her share of this socially developed power of loving, and concentrates it all upon her own immediate family.... The child will get a far more just and beautiful idea of human relations when he finds himself lifted and led on by a mother whose life has a purpose of its own, than when he finds himself encompassed and overwhelmed by a mother who has no other object or interest than himself.... A study of what all children need will help the mother to understand what her own child needs far more accurately than when she thinks of him as the only one. The continuous application of the mother to the child is not so advantageous as the quality of her companionship and influence, and her sacrificial devotion too often weakens his sense of justice, and makes him selfish.”
Parental success, our American cousin reminds us, is judged of their ability to make their children mind; but obedience, unhesitating prompt obedience, is not one of the cardinal virtues which Mrs. Gilman cares to see cultivated in the Twentieth Century child. She shows that though obedience in the past, during the period of our slow evolution towards a higher type, was of extreme necessity in order to preserve the young and immature individual, and through it the species, yet now that “it is being ever more and more recognised that progress lies in a well-developed average intelligence rather than in a wise despot and his stupid serf,” this habit of obedience, forced in upon the child during its most impressionable years, instead of developing judgment and will, encourages “that fatal facility in following other people’s judgment and other people’s wills which tends to make us a helpless mob, mere sheep, instead of wise, free, strong individuals .... The small acts of infancy are the child’s first problems in living. He naturally wishes to understand them. He says “Why?” To which we reply inanely, “Because I tell you to.” That is no reason. It is a force, no doubt, a pressure, to which the child may be compelled to yield. But he is no wiser than he was before. He has learned nothing except the lesson we imagine so valuable – to obey. Docility, subservience, a quick surrender of purpose, a wavering, untrained, easily-shaken judgment – these are the qualities developed by much obedience. Are these the qualities we wish to develop in American citizens?” Though this may appear to many subversive teaching, there is much of suggestive truth in it, which deserves beating out; and if mothers will lay to heart the hint that obeying does not develop the brain, but checks its growth, because it “gives to the will a peculiar suicidal power of aborting its own impulse, which weakens our power of continued effort,” we might in time develop a democratic force which could be counted on as a real stable factor in English political and social life, That American boy who, when told to say his prayers night and morning, and ask for Divine protection, replied that “He didn’t mind saying them at night, but that he thought an American boy wasn’t worth much if he couldn’t take care of himself during the day,” has taken his first. step in reasoning and towards the formation of a good judgment and a strong will. “What is important,” says Mrs. Gilman later on in her book, is “that the child shall gradually establish a rational and connected scheme of life and method of action, his young faculties improving as he uses them, life growing easier and plainer to him from year to year. It is for the parent, the educator, the brain-trainer to study out details of method and delicate applications. The main purpose is that the child’s conduct shall be his own – his own chosen course of action, adopted by him through use of his own faculties, not forced upon him by immediate external pressure.”
DORA B. MONTEFIORE.
Dear Madam, – I have so often read your NEW AGE articles with interest and with profit, that I feel the more regret in differing wholly and emphatically from you in regard to a part of the article in the number for Christmas Day. I read, I confess with astonished pain, the recommendation as coming from yourself, to “sterilise the criminal who is likely to hand down a direct tendency to the worst forms of degradation.”
In this case, the degradation of the victim and of all concerned is infinitely in excess of any other possible degradation. Hanging, immoral and inhuman though it is, would be moral in comparison. Vivisection of the criminal for the common good would be no less justifiable. Never could I for one moment believe that salvation of body, soul, or spirit, rests on the mutilation of the very body given by the Creator as the temporary house, servant, and workshop combined, of the spirit within it. Every bodily drawback cramps the soul, the spirit. Not eternally; no, but what we all wish is to put every possible advantage in the way of the criminal, that his soul may have scope and emerge from its enclosure of crime and selfishness, of darkness born too often of ignorance and need, but which can be turned to light.
Moreover, many thinkers now hold that evil and good tendencies are by no means transmitted with the certainty formerly believed in, but that character is formed rather by surroundings and training. And again: Where are the most dangerous criminals? Not always in our prisons. They are around and among us, whether in the slum or in the palace of the wealthy, for the more unscrupulous the villain the easier is it for him or her to escape detection, and so with exceptions, our jail criminals are “unlucky” rather than examples of the worst villainy. Is not this the very reason, or one main reason, why at this hour evil has so much power in the world?
There is one other thought which must appeal to all women – for every woman is a mother at heart. In removing from the criminal the possibilities of parentage, you remove an attribute possessed of divine powers – powers of healing, of education, of blessing, of uplifting – powers of which it is perhaps impossible to over-estimate the divine value. Who can realise for one moment the influence of a little child, and be willing to forbid the possibility of this divine avenue to the light of heaven, to any human being? The more erring, the more needy; the more erring, the more open to feelings of hate, of bitterness and revenge; in whom, sowing the wind, you would reap the whirlwind. Never shall we attain the peace, love, and gentleness we seek, in any other way than by the exercise of the same qualities ourselves. Hanging revolts us because it meets force with force – as vengeance. It is absolutely opposed to the Law of Christ, of love. Pardon me, dear madam, if I say that even more opposed to Christ and to love would be the mutilation of the criminal – Faithfully yours,
ELEANOR. M. BEEBY.
December 21, 1902.