Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/December 1889/Mental and Physical Training of Children




MY paper is entitled the "Mental and Physical Training of Children," and I shall begin with remarks on physical training, as it is first in natural order, the physical life beginning before the mental. In these days, when there is a great rage for education, a certain top-heaviness has been produced among children, and the good homely helpmate of the mind—the body—is decidedly neglected. It is looked upon as is the dull but sensible wife of some clever man, whose duty is to get through all the home drudgery. She must be invited out with him, but is ignored in society, and is only tolerated on account of her brilliant husband. Now, I consider the body to be just as important as the mind, and that it ought to be treated with just as much respect, especially in these days of intense competition, when, given an equality of brains and education, it is the strong body that tells in the long run, and gives staying power. That alone can help the mind to bear the strain, and anything that can assist our children to bear this daily increasing strain is surely not beneath our notice.

It is really surprising to see the amount of trouble and pains bestowed on the proper housing and feeding of horses and dogs, or other domestic animals, while at the same time comparatively little attention is paid to these matters with regard to the rearing of children. Model stables and model kennels abound, while the model nursery is almost wholly unknown. Warming, ventilation, and aspect are all subjects which are thoroughly considered in the stable, while as regards the nursery they are generally left for chance to decide—though the health of a child is surely more important than that of a horse or a dog. We have all stayed in country houses, where the host has taken us over his beautiful stables fitted with every convenience, and have heard his anxious inquiries as to the health of his favorites, or we have been driven to the model cow-sheds, or kennels, but which of us has been taken over the model nursery?

The men can not be troubled about babies! (though they have no objection to puppies or calves)—they leave all that to the women—and the women, that is to say the mistresses, leave it to the nurses, often entirely ignorant though kindly persons, whose chief recommendation is that they are so fond of children! This would seem a ridiculous state of affairs were it not so lamentable.

Two of the best rooms in the house should be assigned to the children, one for the night the other for the day nursery, but this is by no means often done. In small houses where there is but one spare room, it is of common occurrence to see the largest and sunniest apartment set aside for the visitors, who perhaps occupy it for two months in the year, while the children have to live cramped up in a small, sunless garret.

Sunshine is as necessary to the human being as to the plant; and it is said in confirmation of this that, during the Crimean War, Miss Nightingale nursed the wounded soldiers in a hospital one side of which looked north, the other south, and that she observed that the soldiers lying in the wards with a southern aspect recovered far sooner than their comrades in those on the northern or sunless side. In our climate it is hardly possible to have too much sunshine, and the nurseries should certainly have a southern outlook.

Where there is a large family of children the night nursery is frequently overcrowded, and no regard is paid as to whether there is sufficient cubic space for each person. If there be overcrowding in a hospital, no matter how you ventilate the wards, a high death-rate is the inevitable result, and in the nursery depressed vitality and sickliness as certainly follow upon want of room and air. One thousand cubic feet is not too much to allow for each person.

No nurseries should be papered unless the paper is varnished, for, besides the great risk of putting up an arsenical paper, there is this to be considered—that children are certain to go through some infectious illnesses, after each of which the nurseries must be disinfected and repapered. The best thing for the walls is paint, which can always be washed and disinfected with little trouble, and once on the walls will last for years. Distemper color is the alternative to paint, but with it a dado of paint or varnished paper should be used, as it comes off when touched or rubbed. Distemper should be renewed every year, or after any infectious disease. Nothing that can hold dust should be allowed in the nursery. There should be no carpet nailed down over the floor; it can not be taken up sufficiently often to keep the room sweet, and the accumulation of dust under such a carpet is astonishing. Directly the children begin to romp, the room becomes most unwholesome with its dust-laden atmosphere, flavored by the many mugs of milk that have been spilt, and the many pieces of bread and butter that have been dropped face downward on the carpet during the past year. But I have not space to do more than point out some few things to be avoided, and must as far as possible keep to generalities.

Our lords and masters arrange the diet of dogs and horses with great care; whether the dog should be fed on meat or farinaceous foods, whether the horses should be turned out to grass or fed upon oats or hay, are momentous questions. Any one having the management of horses will notice that a highly fed animal will be able to do a much larger amount of work than one that is stinted and underfed; that a horse fed upon corn is full of spirit, while if turned out to grass it becomes lazy and sleepy, thus proving that food materially affects the spirit and disposition of the animal. And if this be true for one animal, it will be true for all; and it follows that the superior animal—the child—will be equally affected by variations in food, and will require as much care in feeding.

This will hardly be disputed, and yet very rarely is any system followed in feeding children, and if an ordinary fairly educated man were asked to consider the diet of his children, and whether such a diet might not be found which would develop to its utmost the physical powers of each child, he would probably reply that, when he was young, children ate what was put before them, and were none the worse for it. Now, it is impossible to prove that they were none the worse for an indiscriminate diet. No one can say how many slight illnesses might have been avoided, or how many severe ones might have been insignificant, had the child been in a perfectly wholesome state of body, which can only result when it has lived on proper food. Good blood can only be obtained by good food, while weakly or even diseased constitutions may be greatly amended by simple attention to diet.

How little does the ordinary young mother know of her child's requirements! The first baby is generally subjected to a terrible number of experiments: the mother, perhaps, gives it a new food merely because Mrs. So-and-so's baby takes it, having no notion as to whether it is suitable for her own infant's digestion.

I shall now turn to the important subject of clothing. The first object of clothes (at any rate in such a climate as ours) is to keep the body from being chilled during our incessant variations of temperature, and it is well to remark that the prevention of chill has nothing to do with "coddling," which is keeping the body needlessly warm merely because warmth is pleasant. Clothes should be light, and of woolen material, and should in no way impede free movement.

It may seem superfluous to state facts which are no doubt obvious to every one, but it is not of common occurrence to see a child dressed in a reasonable manner, especially when it is very young. Although I own that children are now more sensibly clothed than was the case thirty years ago, it is still common to see an infant, who can take no exercise to warm himself, wearing a low-necked, short-sleeved, short-coated dress in the coldest weather. The two parts of the body—viz., the upper portion of the chest and the lower portion of the abdomen—which it is most important to keep from variations of temperature, are exposed, and the child is rendered liable to colds, coughs, and lung diseases on the one hand, and bowel complaint on the other. What little there is of the dress is chiefly composed of open work and embroidery, so that there is about as much warmth in it as in a wire sieve, and the socks accompanying such a dress are of cold white cotton, exposing a cruel length of blue and red leg. I can not see the beauty of a pair of livid blue legs, and would much rather behold them comfortably clad in a pair of stockings. If the beauty lie in the shape of the leg, that shape will be displayed to as much advantage in a pair of stockings; if it lie in the coloring of the flesh, beautiful coloring will not be obtained by leaving the leg bare; and from the artistic point of view, a blue or red stocking is infinitely preferable to a blue and red leg.

There is a comfortable supposition that children do not feel cold so much as grown-up persons, but this is not true. It is a fact that not only has a child less power of generating heat than the adult, but that it has also a much larger surface in proportion to the mass of its body, and will consequently be far more susceptible to cold. Cold feet cause a great amount of indigestion, and exposure of the large blood-vessels of the thigh during childhood frequently sows the seeds of kidney diseases, to develop in afterlife.

Insufficient clothing and much exposure to cold have the effect of making a child appear torpid, benumbed bodily and mentally, and it stands to reason that if its small powers are entirely consumed in merely keeping alive and fairly warm, no vital energy will be left for anything else, and a child has more to do than the adult: it has not only to repair waste, but it has to grow and make new tissue. But it must not be thought that I am a friend to coddling on the contrary, I believe that, once let a child be clothed from head to foot in wool, it may go out in almost any weather; and I am sure that most nurseries would be healthier by being kept cooler. I know that I shall have the cottage children held up to me as examples of the hardening system; I shall be told to observe their rosy cheeks, their sturdy limbs. As a matter of fact, I don't much believe in them. Our hospitals are full of cottage children—poor little creatures, mostly suffering from exposure and bad feeding! The reason that the strongest live is that they live in the open air, and it is a common thing to hear a poor woman say in response to your inquiry as to her children: "I've got five, ma'am; I've buried four." The largest mortality occurs in children under one year old; and in Russia, I believe, chiefly owing to the intense cold in winter, the death-rate among children is something appalling. In England infant mortality is greatest in hot summer and autumn—from diarrhœa—largely owing to badness of milk kept in dirty vessels.

In concluding this part of my paper, I may remark that a mother should remember the old proverb that prevention is better than cure, and that, by daily careful supervision of her child, she may save him from much that the unfortunate child of a careless mother has to endure, and may also console herself, when unavoidable illness comes, that she has done all that lies in her power to provide her child with health and strength to resist disease.


As soon as a child is old enough to develop a will of its own, the first thing it does is to try and get its own way, and one of the earliest lessons it has to learn is that it can only have its own way when it is compatible with the comfort and rights of others; and even a mere baby will soon find out how far it may encroach on the kindness or weakness of those around it.

As we are none of us born models of virtuous behavior, some kind of punishment must necessarily be used now and then in the nursery; but, as far as is possible, the child should be made to feel that the punishment is the natural result of his bad action, and not the mere venting of anger and annoyance on the part of the parent or nurse. If a child once finds out that certain actions always entail unpleasant consequences, he will no more think of committing them than he would think of putting his hands in the fire, which, he has early learned, has an unpleasant habit of burning. There are no better philosophers than children, who always resign themselves to the inevitable; but let the children be certain that it is the inevitable—let the child find out that bad behavior in the drawing-room means instant banishment to the nursery; that if he knocks his brother with a stick the result is "no sticks"; that if he refuses to put away his toys one night, he must manage without toys the next night, and so on.

If the mother merely talks at the child, and says, "How often must I tell you not to do so?" or, "I shall send you up-stairs," the child soon perceives that, after all, this entails no consequences, and he very wisely acts accordingly. On the other hand, nothing should be denied to a child without some reason. A great many mothers, and most nurses, bring up children on the principle contained in "Punch's" remark, so delightfully illustrated by Du Maurier: "Maud, go and see what Baby is doing, and tell him he mustn't."

With regard to corporal punishment, I think it wholly unnecessary. Even those who assert that it is good for children can not deny that it is bad for parents. No one is virtuous enough to be judge, jury, and executioner in one. And if it is harmful for a mother to treat her child like an animal, it must no less harm the child to be treated as one, and to be governed through the feelings of pain and fear, instead of the higher ones of reason and affection. But here I can not do better than quote a few passages from Locke's "Essay on Education," which I think very wise:

The usual lazy and short way by chastisement with the rod, the only instrument of government that tutors generally know, is the most unfit of any to be used in education. For from what other motive but of sensual pleasure or pain does a child act who drudges at his book against his inclinations, or abstains from eating unwholesome fruit that he takes pleasure in only out of fear of whipping, and what is it to govern his actions and direct his conduct by such motives as these? What is it, I say, but to cherish that principle in him which it is our business to root out and destroy? And therefore I can not think any correction useful to a child where the shame of suffering for having done amiss does not work more upon him than the pain.

And again:

I am very apt to think that great severity of punishment does but very little good, nay, great harm, in education, and I believe it will be found those children which have been most chastised seldom make the best men.

If the mind be curbed and bumbled too much in children, if their spirits be abased and broken much by too strict a hand over them, they lose all their vigor and industry. For extravagant young fellows that have liveliness and spirit come sometimes to be set right, and so make able and great men. But dejected minds, timorous and tame, and low spirits, are hardly ever to be raised, and very seldom attain to anything.

Again, when a child does well, Locke advises his father and mother to show pleasure, and, upon his doing ill, to show a cold, neglectful countenance, and this, he says, "if constantly observed, I doubt not but will of itself work more than threats or blows, which lose their force when once grown common, and are of no use when shame does not attend them." With regard to the early teaching of children, it should be remembered that a young child is always learning, and therefore parents should not be in too great a hurry to begin that branch of education popularly known as "lessons"; and lessons themselves must not be looked upon as an end, but as a means, or as tools put into the hands of a child to enable him to shape his own life and discover its uses and beauty.

We do not want to manufacture little prigs, who have swallowed a mass of facts never to be digested, but we want children who can take an intelligent interest in all that is going on around them. They will learn much if their mothers will only take the trouble to answer questions in an intelligent manner: it is either laziness or stupidity to repulse a child with "Don't ask questions."

A mother who conscientiously answers questions will find that she too has profited as well as her children, and if there are some questions the right answers to which it would be impossible for children to understand, let them be told so honestly and not put off with evasive answers. Nothing is better for young children than to be sent to a good Kindergarten: they learn to be obedient when they find obedience is expected as a matter of course; they learn to be observant, which is of great use to them in after-life; and they are made to take a pleasure in all they do, as all they learn is made interesting to them. The Kindergarten principles may, however, be carried out in all home teaching, when pleasure in learning will be found one of the greatest aids to mental digestion.

I should begin the teaching of a child as a favor, not as a task; if he is inattentive, I should by no means insist upon the lesson being done, and so give it the air of a task. It is far better to say: "I really can not waste my time in teaching you. I have other matters to do, and if you can not give me a little attention you may go away." With the natural perversity of human nature, the child immediately becomes anxious to learn, and feels at once that you are doing him a favor, not he, you. If a child seems dull, never force it to learn. If the dullness proceeds from delicacy, every effort should be made to strengthen the body, and definite teaching should begin later than with a robust child. It is most foolish to cram the head of a backward child with phrases it can not understand—at most it can but learn parrot-fashion, and such a proceeding is about as senseless as loading a delicate stomach with indigestible food. If a child has an appetite for its bodily food, it can digest, and the same rule holds good for mental food. There is no use in cramming it down if the appetite for knowledge be not there.

All teaching should proceed from the concrete to the abstract, though the reverse method is generally employed. Arithmetic, for instance, should at first be taught from objects, and not by names and figures which are mere symbols and abstractions, and most difficult for the minds of children to grasp. The relative value of different kinds of money may be easily learned by quite young children, merely by letting them play at shop with real money. At the same time they are unconsciously learning both addition and subtraction. Weights and measures should be learned in the same way, and they will be far better impressed on the memory than by merely learning the tables of weights and measures in an arithmetic book.

Again, with languages—rules of grammar should be learned last of all; a language is formed long before any rules for speaking it are formulated. The rules of grammar are only the recorded observations of what I may call the habits of a language. Every child should learn a new language as it learns its own, by talking it, looking at picture books and learning nursery rhymes, and the language will have some chance of developing naturally and easily, and of being retained for use in after-life. As languages are usually taught in schools, they are of no value beyond that of mental gymnastics, and when the school life is over all the rules and exercises, learned with so much weariness and disgust, slip from the memory, from having made no impression on the mind.

If the child has a natural bent in some particular direction, this should be encouraged as early as possible. I think, as a rule, children are taught far too many things. Who does not know of girls who, with no ear for music, are forced daily to undergo the drudgery of practicing, merely because it is the proper thing for girls to play, at any rate a little? Many persons will be terribly alarmed at the suggestion that science is one of those things all children should be taught. The word science suggests to them all that is dry, cold, difficult, and unromantic—why, I can not tell, for the word itself only means knowledge, and children find anything acceptable and interesting that will answer their numerous questions concerning all around them, and far from being dry and unromantic. "Science," to use the words of Mr. Herbert Spencer, "opens up realms of poetry where to the unscientific all is a blank."

Science properly taught is most valuable to children, in that it encourages a spirit of inquiry and love of truth, and trains them in habits of accurate observance of all around them, all of which qualities must surely be of use to them. These conclusions will not, perhaps, be acceptable to those persons to whom science is represented merely by the learning by heart of a collection of arid statements: such as the distance from here to the moon—the rate at which the earth revolves on its own axis—and so on. I should certainly advise them not to teach their children science of this description.

Before ending my paper, I should like to say a few words with regard to what I think a great evil in the education of girls. At an age of rapid growth, a girl's health is sometimes ruined for life by the system of brain-forcing to which she is subjected. In many cases she has to work eight hours a day, which is the average number of working hours of a grown man. Examinations follow one after another, there is no time to attend to the development of the body, at the most one hour in the twenty-four is given up to a mild walk; and the continuous sitting in a stuffy room, stooping over books narrows the chest, and spoils the eye-sight; at the age of eighteen a pale, anæmic young lady emerges from the schoolroom, doubtless stocked with knowledge, but also with headaches and backaches enough to spoil the rest of her life.

When one considers the extraordinary rate at which a girl of fourteen will grow, and how much of her forces must be consumed in the mere act of growing, surely it seems more reasonable to lighten her work than to increase it. Such a girl should only be allowed to work in the mornings, when she is freshest, and the rest of the day should be devoted to the open air, and development of her body by healthy outdoor games. Above all, even if she has work in the afternoon—and some time must, I suppose, be allowed for preparation—no mental work of any kind should be allowed after 5 p. m. After a long day at school, many a time does the tired child return with a quantity of exercises, etc., to be prepared for the morrow, all of which must be done in the evening, and it stands to reason that it must be highly prejudicial to the brain to be taxed at a time when it is fatigued, and the physical powers of the child are at a low ebb.

In a paper entitled "Home Lessons after School Hours," sent to me by my friend Sir Joseph Fayrer, and read by him at a conference at the Health Exhibition, he points out the dangers attending the cramming system, and instances many cases of brain disease resulting from it.

In conclusion, let me say that moral development can not be too early or carefully attended to. Morals in a child are in a very rudimentary condition, and much depends on the mother as to whether they are to develop and give strength to the character, or whether they are to wither away, like unused organs of the body. Truthfulness, courage, and unselfishness are blossoms of character growing from but small seeds; let them be nourished in the warmth and sunshine of love and sympathy, and watchfully protected from choking weeds, and at last will come the crowning of a fine character, without which all the book-learning in the world is but a parrot's jargon.—Nineteenth Century.