Letter XIX. January 19, 1819

My dear Greaves,

I have, in my last letter, supposed an infant to be arrived at the period, when the immediate connection with the mother begins gradually to loosen itself.

The different degrees of the relaxation of this tie must in a great measure depend on the natural disposition, and even on the physical constitution of the child. A sickly child, or one whose first movements are marked by timidity, will for a long time know of affection or confidence in no person but only the mother. But children of a healthy constitution will soon give signs of an inclination to make themselves independent of the assistance of others. They will be found to observe a great many objects to which their attention has not been called in any way; next to observation, or rather together with it, will come desire; and instead of expressing this by their usual signs, and waiting patiently till it is complied with, they will make attempts to reach the object and appropriate it to themselves. These exertions which at first are very imperfected, and sometimes ludicrous to the beholders, will be repeated every time with greater energy, till at length they succeed. And if it is impossible to succeed, the desire, instead of subsiding, will be only increased.

I have already alluded to these cravings of the infant, and spoken of the necessity to counteract them by firmness and benevolence.

But I did not then mean to describe them as something which in itself was bad or blameable. I described them as the necessary effects of the animal instinct, of which even an excess, though to be prevented, yet could not, at that tender age, be punishable; and from this reason, while I recommended an affectionate mode of counteracting them, or rather of substituting something better in their place, I decided against every measure that might proceed from severity.

If, on such a plan, a mother has succeeded in repressing the inordinate cravings, she will not then have the least occasion to look with other feelings than those of gratification on those little attempts at independence. They are the most unquestionable signs of the progress which a child has been making. And if they are well directed, she may look upon them as the precursors of a long and laudable activity.

All the faculties will appear to take part in the development of the child. They will all be called into play by circumstances which surround the child every day and almost every hour. Who knows not that it is an event in the life of every one of us to be able for the first time to walk without assistance? It is an event which is commemorated in the family and related to all the friends, who severally express their joy at the long wished-for consummation.

I would certainly not wish to spoil their joy at the event: I am far from underrating its importance: but I would at the same time wish them to bestow, in addition to their congratulations, a few moments upon a more serious consideration. The time when a child first begins to walk without assistance is indeed an epoch in the history of his education. It is evident that it is the most marked step of physical independence of others. But at the same time it occasions a new mode of manifestation of the affection.

The child, who is now able to move as he chooses, is also able to come to the mother. Instead of seeking for her with the eye only, or stretching out the little arms after her, the child is now enabled to seek the presence of the mother; and the more this has the appearance of a free and voluntary effort, the more endearing will it be to the mother as a new sign of affection which continues, and may long continue, a bond between them, when the last trace has disappeared of the helplessness which had first claimed it. (PSW 26, p. 93-95)