Letter XI. December 5, 1818
My dear Greaves,
I have tried, in my last letter, to justify, on philosophical grounds, the importance which every mother is inclined to attach to the epoch, when the eye of her infant for the first time meets her own; when the expression of love in her own countenance for the first time calls into play a similar expression in the features of the infant.
This fact, which a mother will always hail with a delight inconceivable to those who cannot share in her feelings, may lead her to a train of considerations, which she will never repent of having duly weighed, and in which I shall now attempt to follow her.
The first great truth, which cannot but strike her at the very outset, is this: - it was by (kindness), by a manifestation of maternal love, that she has produced the first visible impression on the eye and the features of her infant. She will be fully justified by experience, if she recognises in this impression the first influence of her individual conduct on the mind and the heart of the infant.
Let her never lose sight of this fact. Providence by ordering that it should be thus in the course of nature, has pointed out to her a leading truth, if she will but advert to it, which she may lay down as a never-failing principle of education. In the formation of character, as well as in the mode of giving instruction, kindness ought to be the first and ruling principle: it certainly is the most powerful. Fear may do much, and other motives may be employed with apparent success; but to interest the mind, and to form the heart, nothing is so permanently influential as affection: it is the easiest way to attain the highest ends.
I have called the fact, of which I am now speaking, a manifestation of the spiritual nature in man. As such, it will invite the mother to take a new view of her relation to the child. Her child is, like herself, a being endowed with spiritual faculties - with faculties superior to, and in a great measure independent of, animal life. The less they are developed in their present state, the greater is the attention which they require. Providence has instructed her with the means of supplying the animal wants of the child. We have seen, that the child also is instructed with an animal instinct, which facilitates the task. But the eye of the child, when it meets that of the mother - that eye does not seek for the mere gratification of a present want, or for relief from a present sensation of uneasiness: it seeks for something more; it speaks of the first want of spiritual nature; it seeks for sympathy.
The animal instinct is a principle which knows no higher object than self. Self-preservation is the first point which it tries to secure; and in its progressive desire of enjoyment, self is still the centre of its agency.
It is not the same with the mind, or with the affections of the heart. The fact which speaks most unquestionably for the spiritual nature of Man, is the sacrifice of personal comfort or enjoyment, for the happiness of others; the subordination of individual desire, to higher purposes.
A moral philosopher has said that whenever the mind reflects on the future or the invisible, in preference to the present and to visible objects, then the spirit asserts its right. If we connect this observation with the preceding remarks, we may deduce from them a few plain and practical rules, by which the mother may be enabled, without any pretensions to deep and laborious research, to do much that will prove truly beneficial to the highest interests of her infant, and to the better part of its nature.
Any measure that we would recommend [to] her at so early a period, must of course be practicable without anything like instruction: it must not induce her to go out of the way which Providence has assigned to her: it must not be of a nature that could be modified, or rendered more difficult, by her situation in life, whatever it may be: it must, in fact, be limited to the manner, and the spirit, in which that is done, which every mother has both the wish and the faculty of doing for her infant. (PSW 26, p. 73-75)