Letter XXVI. March 15, 1819
My dear Greaves,
Let me repeat that we cannot expect any real improvement in education, and improvement that shall be felt throughout an extensive sphere, and that shall continue to spread in the progress of time, increasing in vigour as it proceeds, - we cannot expect any improvement of that character, unless we begin by educating mothers.
It is their duty, in the domestic circle, to do what school instruction has not the means of accomplishing; to give to every individual child that degree of attention which in a school is absorbed in the management of the whole; to let their heart speak in cases where the heart is the best judge; to gain by affection what authority could never have commanded. But it is their duty also to turn all the stock of their knowledge to account, and to let their children have the benefit of it.
I am aware that, under the present circumstances, many mothers would either declare themselves or would be looked upon by others as incompetent to attempt any such thing; as so poor in knowledge and so unpractised in communicating knowledge that such an undertaking on their part would appear as vain and presumptuous.
Now this is a fact which, as far as experience goes, I am abound to deny. I am not now speaking of those classes or individuals whose education has been, if not very diligently, at least in some measure attended to. I have now in view a mother whose education has, from some circumstances or other, been totally neglected. I will suppose one who is even ignorant of reading and writing though in no country in which the schools are in a proper state you would meet with an individual deficient in this respect. I will add, a young and inexperienced mother.
Now, I will venture to say that this poor and wholly ignorant, this young and inexperienced mother, is (not quite destitute) of the means of assisting even in the intellectual development of her child.
However small may be the stock of her experience, however moderate her own faculties, she must be aware that she is acquainted with an infinite number of facts, such, we will say, as they occur in common life, to which her infant is yet a stranger. She must be aware that it will be useful to the infant to become soon acquainted with some of them, such, for instance, as refer to things with which it is likely to come into contact. She must feel herself able to give her child the possession of a variety of names simply by bringing the objects themselves before the child, pronouncing the names and making the child repeat them. She must feel herself able to bring such objects before the child in a sort of natural order - the different parts, for instance, of a fruit. Let no one despise these things because they are little. There was a time when we were ignorant even of the least of them; and there are those to whom we have reason to be thankful for teaching us these little things.
But I do not mean to say that a mother should stop there. Even the mother of whom we are speaking, that wholly ignorant and inexperienced mother, is capable of going much farther, and of adding a variety of knowledge which is really useful. After she has exhausted the stock of objects which presented themselves first, after the child has acquired the names of them and is able to distinguish their parts, it may probably occur to her that something more might still be said on every one of these objects. She will find herself able to describe them to the child with regard to form, size, colour, softness or hardness of the outside, sound when touched, and so on. She has now gained a material point; from the mere knowledge of the names of objects she has led the infant to a knowledge of their qualities and properties. Nothing can be more natural for her than to go on and compare different objects with regard to these qualities, and the greater or smaller degree in which they belong to the objects. If the former exercises were adapted to cultivate the memory, these are calculated to form the observation and judgment. She may still go much farther: she is able to tell her child the reasons of things and the causes of facts. She is able to inform it of the origin and the duration, and the consequences of a variety of objects. The occurrences of every day and of every hour will furnish her with materials for this sort of instruction. Its use is evident; it teaches the child to inquire after the causes and accustoms it to think of the consequences of things. I shall have an opportunity in another place to speak of moral and religious instruction; I will therefore only remark, in a few words, that this last-mentioned class of exercises, which may be varied and extended in an almost endless series, will give frequent occasion for the simplest illustration of truths belonging to that branch. It will make the child reflect on the consequences of actions; it will render the mind familiar with thought; and it will frequently lead to recognise in the objects before the child the effects of the infinite wisdom of that being whom, long before, the piety of the mother, if genuine, must have led him to revere, and to love "with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his strength, and with all his mind."
I am afraid that the enumeration of these first essays of a mother will be found tedious by other readers than yourself, whom I have never seen weary of watching nature and drawing instruction from the inexhaustible spring of experience. I think that we sympathise on this subject, that we feel greater interest in the unsophisticated consciousness of a pure intention than in the most splendid exhibition of refinement of knowledge. And I know not a motive which might render those efforts more interesting than the desire of a mother to do all in her power for the mental as well as the physical and moral development of her children. However circumscribed her means, and however limited at first may be her success, still there is something that will and must prompt her not to rest, that will stimulate her to new efforts, and that will at last crown them with fruits which are the more gratifying, the more difficult they were to obtain. Experience has shown that mothers in that seemingly forlorn situation which I have described have succeeded beyond their own expectation. I look upon this as a new proof of the fact that nothing is too difficult for maternal love animated by a consciousness of its purity, and elevated by a confidence in the power of Him who has inspired the mother's heart with that feeling. I do indeed consider it as a free gift of the Creator, and I firmly believe that in the same measure as maternal love is ardent and indefatigable, in the same measure as it is inspired with energy and enhanced by faith, - I firmly believe that in the same measure maternal love will be strengthened in its exertions, and supplied with means, even where it appears most destitute.
Though, as I have shown above, it is by no means so difficult to direct the attention of children to useful objects, yet nothing is more common than the complaint "I can do nothing with children." If this comes from an individual who is not called upon by his peculiar situation to occupy himself with education, it is but fair to suppose that he will be able to make himself more useful in another direction than he could have done by a laborious and persevering application to a task for which he is neither predisposed by indination nor fitted by eminent talent. But those words should never come from a mother. A mother is called upon to give her attention to that subject. It is her duty to do so; the voice of conscience in her own breast will tell her that it is; and the consciousness of a duty does never exist without the qualification to fulfil it; nor has a duty ever been undertaken with the spirit of courage, of confidence, of love that has not been ultimately crowned with success. (PSW 26, p. 113-116)