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
Influence of mothers over daughters. Anecdote of Benjamin West. Anecdote of a poor mother. Of set lessons and lectures. Daughters under the mother's eye. Why young ladies, now-a-days, dislike domestic employments. Miserable housewives—not to be wondered at. Mistake of one class of men. Mr. Flint's opinion.
One important and never-to-be-forgotten employment of the young is the cultivation of their minds; and another, that of their morals. But my present purpose is only to speak of those employments denominated manual, or physical.
It is obvious, at the first glance, that the influence of the mother, in our own country, at least, will be less over boys than over girls. We leave it to savages and semi-savages to employ their females, and even their mothers, in hard manual labor. Here, in America, what I should say on the employment of boys would be more properly addressed to the YOUNG FATHER.
There are some exceptions to the general truth contained in the last paragraph. Many a mother has—unconsciously at the time, but with no less certainty than if she had done it intentionally—given a direction to the whole current of her son's life; and this, too, at a very early period. The mother of Benjamin West, the painter, if she did not give the first tendency to his favorite pursuit, while he was yet a mere child, at the least greatly confirmed him in it, by the manner of expressing her surprise at one of his early performances. "My mother's kiss," on that occasion, said he, "made me a painter." Nor are facts of the same general character by any means uncommon.
I know a poor mother who, in the absence of her husband at his weekly or monthly labors, used to detain her eldest boy, then almost an infant, from going to bed in the evening till her day's work was finished—because, in her loneliness, she wanted his company—by telling stories of eminent men, and especially of distinguished philanthropists, until she had unconsciously kindled in him a philanthropic spirit, which will not cease to burn till his death.
But it is in forming the predilections of daughters for their destined employments, that mothers are especially influential. Not so much by their set lessons or lectures, however, as by the force of continued example. No mother who sends her child away to be nursed, and subsequently to her return seizes on every possible opportunity to keep her out of the way and out of her sight, will be likely to give her any choice of employment, or indeed any fondness for employment at all.
Nor is it sufficient that she keep her daughter constantly under her eye, with a view to qualify her for the duties of a housewife, if the daughter see as plainly as in the light of mid-day, that the mother dislikes the employment herself. She must love what she would have her daughter love, and even what she would have her understand. Nor is it sufficient that she affect a fondness for the employment; her love for it must be real. Little girls have keener eyes and better judgments than some mothers seem willing to believe or to admit.
Many persons seem greatly surprised that the young ladies of modern days have so little fondness for domestic life and domestic duties. How few, it is often said, will do their own housework, if they can possibly get a train of domestics around them; even though the care and oversight of the domestics themselves gear them out more rapidly than bodily labor would.
But there is a reason for this hostility to domestic employments. It is because mothers, almost universally, consider their occupations as mere drudgery, and bring up their children in the same spirit. And what else could be expected as the result? It would be an anomaly in the history, of human nature, if the female members of families were to grow up in love with ordinary domestic avocations, when they have been accustomed to see their mothers, and nurses, and elder sisters complaining and fretting while engaged in them; and showing by their actions, no less than by their words, that they regarded themselves as miserable and wretched.
No wonder so many girls, of the present day, make miserable housewives. No wonder a factory, a book-bindery, or a shoemaker's shop, is considered preferable to the kitchen. No wonder the world degenerates, because females, no longer healthfully employed, become pale and sickly, spreading gloom and misery all around them, and transmitting the same ills which themselves suffer to those who come after them.
It is true, the guilt of this dereliction must not be charged wholly on mothers; though they ought, unquestionably, to bear a large share of it. Those who have, and ought to have, much influence in society, erroneously, and I suppose thoughtlessly, help mothers along in their evil ways. If there were a universal combination between certain classes of mankind and the whole race of mothers, to ruin, rather than be instrumental of reforming mankind, and of saving their deathless souls, I hardly know how they could invent a much better, or at least a much more certain plan, than that now in operation. So long as those who take the lead in society, and govern the fashion in this matter, as others govern it in the matter of dress, refuse, as a general rule, to form alliances for life, except with those who practically despise house-hold concerns—and so long as our houses are filled with domestics, whose object is to aid these spoiled mothers, but whose real effect is to complete their ruin, and accelerate the ruin of mankind—just so long will human progress towards perfection be retarded.
If mothers were in love with their occupations, and their daughters knew it, then to the influence of a good example they could add many lessons of instruction. These might be given in the way of natural, unstudied conversation, and thus be not only heard with attention, but sink deep. If the world is ever to be reformed, says Mr. Flint, in his Western Review, woman, sensible, enlightened, well educated and principled, must be the original mover in the great work. Every one who has considered well the extent and nature of female influence, will concur in the sentiment; and if he have one remaining particle of devotion to the Father of spirits, he will send up the most fervent petitions to his throne of mercy in behalf of this often depressed or enslaved half of the human race, that they may speedily be emancipated, and become as conspicuous in human redemption, as they have sometimes been in human condemnation.