The article transcribed below comes from our Holiday collection and was originally published in the Parents’ Review. In the article, Mary Dewars considers the importance of family traditions and the activities out of official school hours for children’s development. This article is perhaps especially valuable as many consider the upcoming summer days when schedules alter and lessons often happen “by the way.”
Application to study, serious effort to store the mind from books of serious content, mental and manual dexterity and much else are largely the business of school or schoolroom, and incidentally we expect a school of ‘good tone’ to teach other lessons. The boy or girl should learn there to play the game, to submit to discipline without resentment, to acquire esprit de Corps, to be of pleasant commerce with all and sundry, and I fact to become a civic being, able to bear himself worthily as a member of the larger community.
But there are other lessons, seldom to be learnt in their fullest scope at even the most homely or the most large-minded of boarding schools, and which are learnt at their best in the old-fashioned homes, at any time from fifty to twenty years ago; they have been somewhat neglected in the last two decades, but the swing of the pendulum seems set for their renewed consideration just now. Therefore I take them as the subject of these random reflections. Whence came the delightful conversationalist who entertained one’s youth in the days before the wireless and the cinema, the old family friend; who brought forth stories old and new from a wonderful mental scrap-book and who had the oddest, most intriguing pieces of information tucked away in some corner of brain and memory on every conceivable subject? Now it is a commonplace amongst thoughtful schoolmasters that the conversation of their boys at table and amongst each other, when in large groups, tends to the lowest common denominator of the intelligence and culture to be found individually amongst them, and the father and mother who are as intimate as they should be with their own sons and daughters, know that the child, alone with one of them, will speak of far deeper matters and with more intelligent interest, than he would when all his brethren are around him. Therefore I enter a plea for the walks and talks alone with father or mother which, in their opportunity for quite informal spontaneous mental contacts, do more for a child in certain respects than any other agency can achieve.
To make my thesis clearer, I have noted at random some of the disconnected pieces of information I have been called upon to supply in the last fortnight on just such occasions Coming home from a snowy walk, nine-year-old noted the snow sliding down a sloping roof. I told her the pointed roofs and deep eaves of the Swiss châlets, and we spoke of the flat house-tops of the Holy Land and mentioned the pre-Advent gospel and the news to be cried ‘from the house-tops’; she brought up the paper walls of Japan and asked of what material were Japanese roofs? We then discussed the slates and tiles used as roofing materials in this district, and mentioned a slate quarry in the neighbourhood. The conversation dropped as we reached our own gate, but another door had no doubt opened to nine-year-old. Her next travels will have gained a new interest in the observation of the house-tops.
Nine-and eight-year-old were discussing ‘Alice in Wonderland’; eight-year-old had received a copy with modern illustrations for Christmas. Nine-year-old turned to me and asked if I did not prefer the dear old copy we had always had, with the old-fashioned illustrations. ‘I can’t think it’s Alice or the Duchess or the Cheshire cat at all, when I see the new pictures!’ she said. I agreed and told them of the author of Alice and of his little girl-friend, the original of the heroine. I told them that Tenniel was the original illustrator, and how he had worked for the Punch of those days also. We went on to other matters, but I found both of them looking at the two sets of illustrations that evening.
A deeper speculation came on a clear blue frosty morning when nine-year-old and I were out gathering Christmas greenery. ‘I suppose heaven is up further even than the blue we can see,’ said nine-year-old. ‘I heard you say once that if we had heavenly eyes we could perhaps find heaven was not far away but about us all the time. But I think heaven must be up away in the blue ether, because you see our Lord went up at His Ascension.’ I said that we would only find out when this poor life was done. And with the shining eyes that only a child can turn upon one, my little companion replied: ‘at any rate, if we had heavenly eyes we could see our angels, because they come down from heaven and look after us and walk just beside us.’ The next minute her discourse was of a mistletoe and how disagreeably ‘squashy’ its berries were if one squeezed them accidentally!
I suggest, as an experiment, to any mother who has not thought out the quickening powers of such conversations to the children to note down for a month the subjects touched upon in the course of even a weekly walk and talk together, nor is the benefit all on one side. ‘The thoughts of youth are long long thoughts,’ and how often has a child’s ardent faith and gracious humility not shamed an older, more world-worn spirit to its knees!
Another and kindred consideration. We have all met the man who could talk with interest of only that one subject on which he was something of an expert. It may be of motor engines or speed trials, it may be of stocks and shares and the money market, or the technicalities of some process of manufacture. More simply, there is the man whose ideas are bounded by ‘huntin’, fishing’ and shooting’.’ It seems to me that the boy who will tell only of what he can make with his Meccano, or spends the holidays planning out his progress in games the following term, is likely to develop into just such a man, and misguided parents, proud of his mechanical or sportive bent, who encourage him to concentrate solely on his pet interests, have only themselves to thank if he grows up one-sided and a bore.
Of course, however little the construction of cranes or the matter of cricket scores may interest one personally, it does not do to douche his enthusiasm with cold water. But if one listens sympathetically and educates oneself up to some real understanding of these matters, then one can legitimately ask Bob or Jim to come out of that isolation of day-dreaming into which he withdraws as to an inner fortress, when the family discourse is of books or music, flowers, or contemporary events! All should share in some degree in the interests and preoccupations of each, and it is a mistaken kindness for parents to keep every personal trouble of their own from their children, lest it cast a shadow on the young lives. Cardinal Bourne has stated that he prefers candidates for the priesthood to come from day-schools for this very reason. The boarding-school child has been kept in an artificial atmosphere where family money troubles, a parent’s sickness, a baby’s fretfulness, never enlarged his sympathetic understanding of ordinary folk’s lives.
Each child should have his or her chance to contribute to the family store as well as to collect. I can instance a family where the boy was a brilliant scholar and had a strong scientific bent. His father enjoyed his conversation on such subjects, and the girl, who seemed neither literary, scientific not even practical, was relegated to the background, and when she came in, bursting with school news, was told ‘to be quiet and let her brother talk.’ A year or two of travel with relatives showed her in a new light; her aunt discovered in her an aptitude for humorous relations of little episodes, detailed accounts of all she had seen, and when Rosa returned home she took quite a new place in the circle. Having gained self-confidence, she spoke freely, and in her brother’s long study hours became more and more her invalid father’s companion, making him laugh heartily again and again at her traveller’s tales. I even heard latterly that Rosa had been invited to talk to a group of people from the village on famous French towns she had visited, so her talent is at last coming into its own.
One mother of a family was counted upon for a recital of adventure which kept a whole lunch-table amused, moved or interested, had she but spent a morning shopping in the High Street. Had she been further afield, she would bring back a store of wit and pathos in the telling of her experiences which would occupy every meal-time for a week. No mean power, that fresh sparkle of wit and pathos which played like a fountain over the events of every day, and bore its owner with a brave smile through many a dark and troublous hour of sorrow.
The long country walks of a girl with her father were a formative influence in an earlier generation. I do not know if they find their place in many time-tables of today? At first the invitation was an honour a little nervously accepted; one had to stand on mental tip-toes, but one’s reward was in the living anecdotes from history, the tales of far lands, and a new vista was surely opened when one leant on a stile and father noted the contrast of red roof with dark evergreens, spoke of ‘the sky-line and the middle distance,’ and said that ‘chrome yellow entered into the scheme’ or that ‘indigo would be needed to paint that cloud.’ Father was neither historian, geographer nor artist, but a well-read man who had travelled far and wide and who dabbled happily in water-colour and visited picture galleries. But fathers and mothers had a prestige in those days, and may have now if they but will, which caused their words to sink in and their interests to have value beyond that of any expert lecturer.
Before coming to a deeper side of what may be done for a child in these contacts of mind with mind, I must mention one more actual experience which may prove the value of the accidental revelations which come best in the informal home environment. Reading aloud and story-telling are old-fashioned mothers’ arts which I have not despised, but to my chagrin I found that delicate eight-year-old, kept back for years by ill-health and then away for months at a south coast boarding school, cared nothing for even the simpler readings to his nine-year-old sister. But one day when, with exaggerated emphasis, in the style beloved by three-year-olds, I was relating the tale of ‘hundreds and thousands and millions of cats’ to the ‘littlest one,’ behold eight-year-old edging up, listening wide-eyed and, what I stopped, asking breathlessly, ‘May I come when you read to Baby tomorrow?’ Now on this fruitful track, I soon led up eight-year-old’s interest to small books on foreign lands, or the coming of the Romans and the Britons painted in woad, which his big sisters had enjoyed at six, and as he had just acquired the art of reading–rather uninterestedly from the Readers—I provided him with small sister’s nursery rhyme book, and he could be heard sitting up in bed reading Mother Hubbard and other classics at the pitch of his lungs, with evident enjoyment. Mothers who are distressed that a child of theirs takes no interests in books provided, or a suitability to age in years, might find this a useful experiment and try to work up from a few years lower. At three, four, and five this boy would not listen to the rhymes and tales he is now thoroughly enjoying; yet he is by no means deficient in other capacity, nor in any way behind many of his equals in play.
What deeper things may a child get from his parents which he may miss if he spends two-thirds of his early days away from them? It has been said that religion should be ‘caught rather than taught.’ True, our Lord can work a miracle of grace for the most neglected soul, as many a worker in evil haunts can testify, but His own method, which He handed on to the disciples, was of teaching and preaching, and above all of leading a good life before the brethren, without ‘fear of the populace.’ Now a child who sees a father pray, whose mother speaks of the Giver of all things to him when she rejoices with him in God’s gifts, whose parents express hope and trust in dark days and put the service of the Master before mammon, that child has the living flame handed to him as from a torch lit at a sacred fire, and what has been thus transmitted may, in future years, burn very low, but it will hardly be extinguished, and in an hour of sore need may burn up, clear and heartening, once again.
A family sense of honour, justice, gratitude, rectitude and principle, all these are to be cultivated, not by long discourses, but by the word in season, and above all the example of the elders. A schoolgirl who has seen, alas (!) several shabby actions among her companions, and had had her young trust in human nature rudely shaken, was once again in a game to ‘say what would surprise her most.’ Looking pointedly at some of her school-mates, she replied. ‘To see any of my brothers looking at letter that didn’t belong to them!’ And another, of like age, once said to me, when she had been two years orphaned, ‘Daddie was so particular about honour. I shall never forget how he looked and what he sid when I once opened a letter addressed to him on the way home. I thought it was my school report, which he always showed me, but there was a note too, and he explained so carefully about strict honour, and was so sad, that I made up my mind I would never do anything dishonourable again after that.’
There should be traditions in each family and they should be zealously guarded and fostered. One family may make much of musical talent; another, of a vivid personality in each of its members. A house whose every room is restfully charming, a table which is served delicately, and daughters and sons who welcome the stranger to the board are valued in most circles. There is, too, the lavish, warm-hearted, even if rather hap-hazard, hospitality of which some nationalities seem to have the secret. There is a feeling abroad to-day that wireless, the cinema, the big organised entertainments of our age, have stolen from us much of the charm of former years, and that we are rapidly becoming a nation of spoon-fed robots. If so, it is time we parents made a stand. The remedy is in our own hands. A quiet, spacious growing time at home fosters depth, originality, initiative and all the amateur graces. The wireless, the cinema, the guild and every other outside agency could and should be auxiliary fare, valuable if kept in their place, only they must not monopolise.
To come back to the whole pith of this rather diffuse paper, walks and talks with father and mother, each child alone in turn, and also the whole group together; family evenings; a share of each one in the interests of all; the fostering of breadth and culture by talk and reading and observation pooled in a common fund, will see to it that our children grow up with a breadth of outlook which no school can give, and a share in the troubles as well as the joys of the elders, a witness of their strivings as well as of their achievements, and contact of a child’s young innocence with the calm faith won after storm, will combine to the making of those whom we would wish to bring up as ‘persons’!
It is our object to form clear-thinking, deep-feeling, firm-willed human beings, who shall grow to their full stature and be ready to take their part in the life which must be lived and the work that must be done, if these are to form a meet preparation for the wider joys and greater rewards in the life that lies beyond.
Dewar, Mary. (1934). Lessons By the Way. Parents’ Review, 45. Issue 3. 175-182. London: Parents’ National Education Union.