Letter XX. January 25, 1819

My dear Greaves,

In describing the manner in which the immediate influence of the mother is gradually weakened, and the connection between her and the child loosened, we must not stop at the enumeration of those facts which I have detailed in my last.

It is not the mere physical growth, the acquirement of the full use of all the faculties of the body, which constitutes the independence of the child. The offspring of the animal creation have indeed reached the highest point of their development when they are strong enough to subsist and provide for themselves. But it is far otherwise with the offspring of Man. In the progress of time the child not only is daily exercising and strengthening its physical faculties, but it begins also to feel intellectually and morally independent.

From observation and memory there is only one step to reflection. Though imperfect, yet this operation is frequently found among the early exercises of the infant mind. The powerful stimulus of inquisitiveness prompts to exertions which, if successful, or encouraged by others, will lead to a habit of thought. If we inquire into the cause of the habit of thoughtlessness, which is so frequently complained of, we shall find that there has been a want of judicious encouragement of the first attempts at thought.

Children are troublesome; their questions are of little consequence; they are constantly asking about what they do not understand; they must not have their will; they must learn to be silent.

This reasoning is frequently adopted, and, in consequence, means are found to deter children from the provoking practice of their inquisitiveness.

I am certainly of the opinion that they should not be indulged in a habit of asking idle questions. Many of their questions certainly betray nothing more than a childish curiosity. But it would be astonishing if it were otherwise; and the more judicious should be the answers which they receive.

You are acquainted with my opinion that as soon as the infant has reached a certain age every object that surrounds him might be made instrumental to the excitement of thought. You are aware of the principles which I have laid down, and the exercises which I have pointed out to mothers. You have frequently expressed your astonishment at the success with which mothers who followed my plan, or who had formed a similar one of their own, were constantly employed in awakening, in very young children, the dormant faculties of thought. The keenness with which they followed what was laid before them, the regularity with which they went through their little exercises, has given you the conviction that upon a similar plan it would be easy not only for a mother to educate a few, but for a teacher also to manage a large number of very young children. But I have not now to do with the means which may be best appropriated to the purpose of developing thought. I merely want to point to the fact that thought will spring up in the infant mind; and that, though neglected, or even misdirected, yet a restless intellectual activity must, sooner or later, enable the child, in more than one respect, to grow (intellectually independent) of others. But the most important step is that which concerns the affections of the heart.

The infant very soon commences to show by signs, and by its whole conduct that it is pleased with some persons, and that it entertains a dislike, or rather that it is in fear, of others. In this respect habit and circumstances may do much; but I think it will be generally observed that an infant will be easily accustomed to the sight and the attentions of those whom it sees frequently and in friendly relation to the mother.

Impressions of this kind are not lost upon children. The friends of the mother soon become those of the infant. An atmosphere of kindness is the most kindred to its own nature. It is unconsciously accustomed to that atmosphere, and from the undisturbed smile, and the clear and cheerful glance of the eye, it is evident that it enjoys it.

The infant, then, learns to love those whom the mother considers with affection. It learns to confide in those to whom the mother shows confidence.

Thus it will go on for some time. But the more the child observes, the more distinct are the impressions produced by the conduct of others.

It will therefore become possible even for a stranger, and one who is a stranger also to the mother, by a certain mode of conduct to gain the affection and the confidence of a child. To obtain them, the first requisite is constancy in the general conduct. It would appear scarcely credible, but it is strictly true that children are not blind to, and that some children resent, the slightest deviation, for instance from truth. In like manner, bad temper, once indulged, may go a great way to alienate the affection of the child, which can never be gained a second time by flatteries. This fact is certainly astonishing; and it may also be quoted as evidence for the statement that there is in the infant a pure sense of the true and the right, which struggles against the constant temptation, arising from the weakness of human nature, to falsehood and depravity.

The child, then, begins to judge for himself, not of things only, but also of men; he acquires an idea of character; he grows, more and more, (morally independent.) (PSW 26, p. 95-97)