This section is from the "The Young Mother. Management of Children in Regard to Health" book, by William A. Alcott. Also available from Amazon: The Young Mother
Duty of mothers in this matter. Children prefer the society of parents. Importance of other society. Necessity of society illustrated. Early diffidence. Selecting companions for children. Moral effects of society on the young. Parents should play with their children.
Every mother is unquestionably as much bound to have an eye to the society of her child, as to his food, drink or clothing. And if the quality, amount and general character of the latter are important, those of the former are by no means less so.
It is indeed true that many a child has been happy, in a degree, in the society of its mother alone, where the father was seldom seen, and the brothers and sisters never. And it is equally true; that a few children have so far preferred the society of their parents alone, as to become disinclined to other society. But cases of this kind are only as exceptions to the general rule; and are probably monstrous formations of character. I cannot believe that any child, rightly educated, would prefer the society of none but its parents, or even its parents and brothers and sisters.
A French author has written a considerable volume on the importance of what he calls gaiety, but which he should prefer to call cheerfulness. Among the rest, he maintains that it is indispensable to the best health. But if so—and I do not doubt it—then it ought to be encouraged in children, and the earlier the better. Now there is no way to encourage cheerfulness in the young so effectually as by indulging them with considerable society.
That the thing may be carried to excess, I have no doubt. I have seen mothers who permitted their children to play with their mates till they became excited, and were thus led to continue their sports, not only farther than cheerfulness and health demanded, but until they were excessively fatigued, and almost made sick. And I believe that the excitement of numbers, in infant and other schools, may be so great as to be injurious, rather than salutary. Still I think these are rare cases.
Truth usually lies somewhere between extremes. To keep a child, especially a boy, always in the nursery, or even in the parlor with his mother, is one extreme; and to let him go abroad continually, till his home and its smaller circle become insipid, is the other. A child properly trained will usually prefer home, and only desire to go abroad occasionally. He will rather need urging in the matter than require restraint.
But he must, at any rate, be taught to be sociable, not only for the salve of cheerfulness and the consequent health, but for the sake of his manners, his mind, and his morals.
If it is a matter of indifference, in the formation of human character, whether we mix in society or not, then, for anything I can see, an improvement might be proposed in the construction of the material universe. Instead of forming the planets so large—and this earth among the rest—each might have been divided into hundreds of millions; and every human being might have had a little planet, and an immortality, exclusively his own. Such an arrangement would certainly prevent a great many evils; and, among the rest, a great deal of quarrelling and bloodshed.
But divine wisdom is higher than human wisdom, and one world to hundreds of millions of human beings has been made, instead of giving to each individual of the universe a little world of his own, in which he might have reigned sole monarch, and only wept, with Alexander, because none of the other worlds were within his grasp. Where a family is already large, other society will be unnecessary for some time; but where it consists of a mother only, although her society is always to be considered of the first importance, I cannot but think she ought to take great pains to introduce her child occasionally to the company of other children.
That diffidence, which almost destroys the influence and the happiness of many individuals, is often cherished, if not created, by too much seclusion. Where there is a natural constitution which predisposes the child to timidity and diffidence, the danger is greatly increased; and parents should take unwearied pains to guard against it.
It is hardly necessary for me to say, that great care should also be used in selecting the companions of children. Their character will be greatly influenced for life by their earlier associates. Friendships between children are sometimes formed, while playing together, which are interrupted only by death. Those parents who are so fond of controlling the choice of their sons and daughters in regard to a companion for life, at a period when control is generally resisted, would do well to take a hint from what has here been suggested. There is no doubt but they might often—very often—give such a direction to the embryo affections of their infants and children, as would terminate only with their existence.
It is still less necessary to advert, in a work like this, to the effect which much observation and experience shows good society to have on purity, both physical and moral. Every one must have observed its tendency to form habits of cleanliness, not to say neatness. There may be excess, even in this. Young persons, of both sexes, often spend too much time in preparing their dress for the reception or the visiting of their friends. Still this is only the abuse of a good thing. Nor is it less true, though it may be less obvious, that moral purity is more likely to be secured where children and youth of both sexes associate a great deal, from the earliest infancy. [Footnote: If this principle be correct, what is the tendency of our numerous schools, which are exclusively for one sex? Must there not be latent evil to counterbalance some of the seeming good? For myself, I doubt whether moral character can ever be formed in due proportion and harmony, where this separation long exists.] There are tremendous cases of declension on record, which establish this point beyond the possibility of debate.
To say that the mother—and indeed both parents—ought to form a part of the playing circle of the youngest children, in order to watch their opening dispositions, to check what may be improper, and encourage what ought to be encouraged, would be only to repeat what has often been recommended by the best writers on education—but which must be repeated, again and again, till it leaves an impression, especially on CHRISTIAN parents. It is strange that many regard this matter as they do, and appear not only ashamed to be seen sporting with their children, but almost ashamed to have their children thus occupied. They might as well be ashamed of the gambols of the kitten or the lamb; or of the grave mother, as she turns aside occasionally to join in its frolics. When will parents be willing to take lessons in education from that brute world which they have been so long accustomed to overlook or despise?