Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/October 1890/Mothers and Natural Science
By MARY ALLING ABER.
A ROBIN teaches its own young to fly; a human mother often leaves the training of her babies exclusively to others. The bond of nature between the mother and child puts a premium on all that the mother does, and her constant association is an opportunity for understanding the peculiarities and needs of the child such as no ordinary teacher ever obtains.
As one's finger may trace in the yielding soil a channel for the outflow of a tiny spring, and at its fountain-head determine the course of a river, so, in the earliest years, the mother may, with little effort, give direction to the energies of the child. The mother's capacities, education, and circumstances may not permit her to accompany the child far on its course, or to contribute much to the current of its intellectual life; but let her give the direction and all the powers of nature will conspire with the child's inborn force to increase the volume and strength of the on-rushing stream.
To claim for natural-science studies the mother's power of direction, to show why mothers should interest their children in these studies, and to suggest how they may do so, is the purpose of this paper.
What mothers may do to interest children in natural science is a question which has but one answer—they may do everything; what mothers can do has as many answers as there are mothers. Between the may and the can is but one barrier—difficult to destroy—the mother's own habits of thought. Not ignorance, not scarcity of materials, not want of books—not all of these combined need long block the way of any mother whose mind still has the suppleness and sincerity of childhood; for the door into this kingdom of nature, like that into the kingdom of righteousness, is the simplicity of childhood.
It would be well, in these days of the supremacy of the material life and of increasing demands for applied science, if young women who are pursuing courses at our colleges would more often elect science studies, that they may be ready, by power to teach and by assistance and appreciation given to others, to further the introduction and pursuit of science studies in all lower schools; and to do this in a manner which shall help to put science in its true place as the handmaid, and not the destroyer, of religion.
But it is to those who have passed their school and college days that this paper must be addressed. As no body gets so stiff that proper treatment can not restore some of its lost pliancy, so no mind is so helplessly set that it can not be drawn forth and directed into other molds. What a mother can do to interest her children in natural science depends upon her power to direct herself and to master the conditions of her life. Suppose that power is sufficient, how shall she begin? A mother may think that she needs trained guides, lest she make mistakes and waste precious time and strength. She may wish to know what materials to collect, what books to buy, when and where to get the materials and books, how much time and money they will cost, and what she is to do with them when obtained. Every mother has a right to ask these questions of any one who urges her to undertake to awaken in her children a vital interest in Nature's phenomena; but all that the writer of this paper can hope to do is to give suggestions which may lead a mother to find elsewhere the definite answers required.
A mother may begin to study with her children the ever-changing phenomena that surround daily life. The house is full of lessons. Various departments of science have contributed to its building and furnishing. There is scarcely an industry that is not represented in some room; the kitchen is a laboratory in which the truths of chemistry and physics are illustrated, and the table is supplied with gifts from the three kingdoms of nature; and to produce these, to transport them, and to prepare them for use, numberless natural agents have worked tirelessly and long. And out of doors—Nature's phenomena—where are they not? The snow and rain bring them; the ice locks them across the pond and the south wind picks the lock, the breezes blow them, the birds sing them, the brooks murmur them; every tree and flower, every stone and clod wait to tell their story; the waves wash their treasures to the shore; the rainbow is their expression; the glories of morning and evening write them on the sky; the sunlight comes and goes, bringing the wonders of night and day, of storms and seasons; and all night the stars speak of times and spaces our mathematics can not yet compute, and of events before which our short earth-lives shrink into nothingness.
What shall a mother take from this vast store to give to her children? Before answering this question it is proper to consider what purpose natural-science studies may serve in the education of a child; and to do this, the objects of education itself must be known. The supreme object of education is, without doubt, the development of the individual to the utmost limits his consciousness can grasp in this earth-life; some of the lesser objects are a vocation and success in it, pleasant social relations, ability to help the unfortunate, interest in national affairs, and a love of the virtues; and all these may be included under the expression to be a good citizen. These objects imply health and industry, that the man or woman may be a producer and not a consumer only; sufficient intelligence to recognize and perform duties to one's self, to one's neighbors, and to the State; speech which is honorable and pure; and deeds which inculcate respect for the laws. Besides these, a mother may wish her child to acquire those graces of mind and heart that are difficult to define in words, but whose presence or absence is easy to feel in a man or woman; those graces which lift their possessor above the power of petty passions, of foolish conventionalities, above even the necessity to forgive injuries.
Emerson, in speaking of Lincoln, said: "His heart was as great as the world, but in it there was no room for the memory of a wrong." From the days of early manhood to the crowning act of his life, what a succession of kindly deeds are found in Lincoln's history! As the mind dwells on them, the great Proclamation is seen to be but the consummate flower on a plant which could bear no other. Such men do not fail when the time for great action comes. They do without fear what lesser men shrink from, or dally with, until the time for action has passed. No small soul, no life full of petty motives, ever rises to a great emergency. To one who meets the details of every-day life with a vain, selfish spirit the great occasion may come; but his will not be the honor of seeing it and of using it worthily. So, if a mother would have her children become men and women of the larger type, she must look well to "the reiterated choice of good or evil which gradually determines character."
What can natural sciences do toward this character-building? Have not studies other uses? Yes; but, while serving other uses, a study which does not mold character is of small value. This character-building receives little or no consideration in much that passes for education—a mistake from which the whole after-life of the child suffers. There is at present a "craze for information," as though to be a store-house of facts were a thing desirable in itself. Information so assimilated as to be a source of ready power in thought and conduct is a great good, but unless so available it is of little value. The mere desire for getting information might well be called intellectual avarice, for he who seeks this alone is almost as useless and miserable as the more sordid hoarder of money. Also, there is an idea, somewhat current in these days, that for children study should be transformed into play. I must protest against any such notion. Hard, patient, honest work is needed. The child who plays at his studies will play at life, play at everything, and will probably carry from cradle to grave the deception that whatever does not furnish him amusement is of no value, that work belongs of right only to those miserable beings who have little capacity for amusement. There should be much delight in study, but there will be disagreeable drudgery as well, and any training is false which does not teach the child to do the drudgery promptly and faithfully. A mother who saves her child from disagreeable tasks does him the grave injury of sending him forth into adult life without the fixed habits which will enable him to meet its responsibilities with ease and dignity.
Now, for all this development of a child into a worthy man or woman natural-science studies have peculiar fitness. To secure and preserve health, considerable knowledge of these studies is a necessity; and their relations to preparation for self-support are obvious. In the proper pursuit of natural-science studies the capacities for accurate observation, for painstaking experiment, and for unbiased sincerity are developed; and without these capacities there can be no true progress in them. A slight prejudice introduced as a factor in estimating the results of a series of observations will vitiate the result, and may ruin the value of the whole work. Natural-science studies are as exact as mathematics in demanding obedience to their own laws. Reflection upon these considerations will show their value for intellectual development and training. The moral and spiritual influence of these studies is not less great. A child learns to be truthful in the presence of truth that never swerves; learns to be gentle when at work where one rude touch may destroy the labor of weeks; to be brave when he sees the struggle which everything in Nature makes for its own development; to be patient in waiting for Nature's slow processes; persevering when he sees that she gives up her secrets after repeated efforts only, often to be made under circumstances appalling to a spirit less mighty than her own; modest when he and his little come into daily comparison with her and her abundance; obedient when he sees that obedience to law brings beauty, pleasure, and life, and disobedience brings deformity, sorrow, and death; reverent before the majesty and power and glory of Him who is the life of Nature; generous, because she pours out her whole wealth to-day, never fearing that the morrow will not care for itself; joyous, because above all her struggle and pain rises a perpetual paean of triumph.
If convinced that natural-science studies have special fitness for the training of children, with what study shall a mother begin to work? Although Nature herself indicates an order which may be pursued with advantage, this order is not so important that it need be attempted where conditions do not favor it. This order takes, first, rocks and soils, with enough of chemistry and physics to explain some processes of soil and rock making; second, plants, as depending on soil, air, and sunlight; third, animal life; and fourth, man's structure. After this order has been observed through an elementary course—just enough to give a hint of the cycle of change from the rock world through the soil, plant, and animal, back to soil and rock again, to show the intimate dependence of Nature's kingdoms and processes—these studies may be carried on together, a few weeks of each year being devoted to each one. This may be done until the student has reached the years when he may wisely devote himself to one branch as a specialty. Attention to the whole cycle of Nature is not inconsistent with thoroughness, since the little that is selected from each part may be thoroughly studied. A little work well done is of more value than to run over the whole field superficially, not only to the contents of the child's mind, but to his growth in character.
It matters little where one begins, so that the study be honest and thorough. Any beginning will lead everywhere else, for, though there are straight roads for the specialists to follow, the whole field is covered by a most intricate network of roads. A mother may begin where her present knowledge is least liable to blunder. If she had a fondness for physics in her school days, let her take that. Let her teach her child the laws of mechanics as illustrated in his daily life and observations. Let her teach him to drive a nail properly, and she teaches him to avoid the working of the law of the wedge; teach him how the windows are hung, and she introduces him to weights and pulleys; show him a man unloading a barrel of flour at the door, and she shows him the inclined plane; in teaching him to use a pair of scales, a can-opener, a claw-hammer, a nut-cracker, she teaches him the use of levers. The wheel and axle may be taught from the well or the clock.
The properties of bodies and the laws of expansion and contraction find abundant illustration in the daily life. Let the child fill an old jug with water, cork it tightly, and set it out of doors some cold night. The break found the next morning will not be forgotten. Then take him to a neighboring ledge of rock, show him its cracks filled with ice, and he will not be slow to draw the lesson of how the strong rocks are broken asunder. Then show the child the tiny snow-flake with its six crystal arms, so delicate that you hold your breath lest they vanish while you look; and lead him to see that the jug and the mighty ledge of rocks are broken by these fairy creatures. What tale in mythology or folk-lore is more wonderful than this? In every drop of water is the fairy crystal spirit, but it can not embody itself where heat is. Cold is its good genius; and when cold comes, the fairy spirit works., throwing out one dainty spar after another and interlacing them with threads more delicate than those in our finest laces; and the fairy spirit has a body; the crystal exists. But if the water is confined and has not room enough, why, these frail things break the bond, break the jug, break the giant rocks. If this story is well taught, the child's soul will bow before it in reverence. He will learn, too, one old but great lesson which may be applied in human affairs—"In union there is strength." The single ice crystal seems powerless; the many do mighty work.
If a mother is fond of chemistry, she has no less a field of work from the combustion of fuel and the burning of the evening lamp to the whole process of cooking, digesting, and assimilating food. Here, too, comes the question of the purity of air, water, and foods. A child may be taught to detect some impurities in all these, and also to test the safety of the colors in wall papers and in the fabrics used for clothing and furniture. These are but a few of the many topics close at hand for every mother fond of chemistry. Through all of this work in chemistry the mother has admirable opportunity to impress on the mind of the child the great economy of Nature. As the child sees the wax of the evening candle gradually disappear, he may be made to understand, by a few simple experiments, that some portion of the air is uniting with the wax; that invisible watery vapor and gas are produced and pass into the air; and that soot is given off. She is then prepared to believe Nature's great law—change, but no loss. The child, once impressed by this law, will find abundant illustrations of it, and will seek to know and understand the changes which produce the seeming losses so constantly occurring.
Perhaps some mother has a preference for astronomy. In warm evenings the little ones may sit out awhile to listen to stories about the stars. No subject is more delightful to a child. The little of the great truths which he can grasp will awaken and broaden his young mind and fill his tiny heart with noble and poetic sentiments.
Botany, zoology, and physiology will suggest fields of work as boundless as they are interesting. It is not necessary to suggest special lines of work in each; but let me urge that the intimate relations of everything studied to the life of man should be kept before the child, so as to cultivate that sympathetic interest which tends to produce gentleness and humanity toward all things. The song-bird rids his garden of insects, and the pretty wayside flower furnishes him medicine. By invisible but real bonds the life of man is united to the lowest animal and the smallest plant.
While it does not greatly matter where a mother begins, it does matter that, as she goes on, the child see relations clearly. Hence arrange the work in logical sequence, and branch off soon into other fields, that the little mind may have a natural, broad base on which to arrange its treasures of knowledge. All this, too, must be varied according to the age and tastes of the child. Rightly presented, any one of the subjects named will soon win the respect, love, and enthusiasm of any child not hopelessly spoiled by too early dissipation in artificial social life. Such studies are one of the best correctives of this evil, and I have seen them cure some painful cases of it.
To a school where I was teaching there once came a child of nine, with manner and face plainly stamped with artificial life, and for weeks her teachers despaired of ever seeing any genuine, simple feeling. The child did not for a moment lose a painful self-consciousness which did not forget to air her charms at the entrance of a visitor, or when she wore a new article of apparel, as she frequently did. The first time she was asked to make a bill of materials which she might buy—materials of any kind—simply to show how bills are written, her bill began:
and proceeded through eight or ten similar items of fancy and expensive dress. After our first vacation of one week this child returned with a glad, eager look on her face, and, going close to her teacher, said: "I am so glad school has begun again. There is nothing interesting going on at home." From that day her manner gradually changed; she came to love the stones, flowers, and animals wmich we studied, and her face lost its blank, soulless look and became sweet and gentle. This change in expression was so marked as to be spoken of by a frequent visitor.
Materials for study in any department of natural science are so abundant that it seems almost unnecessary to touch upon this topic. The greater abundance of botanical and zoological material in summer invites to those studies at that season, while physical and chemical studies may quite as well receive attention in winter; but with care and a small outlay in money any of these studies may be pursued at any season. A window garden, where a child may plant seeds at varying intervals and then pull them up and examine the whole plant at different stages of growth, is possible at any season; but this had better be done in early spring, when the vegetation starting out of doors increases the interest of the child and supplements his work.
The preservation of materials and the formation of collections are important. Encourage the child's efforts in this direction. Let the boys and girls make shelves, boxes, or cabinets in which to keep the collections. A set of wood-working tools and ability to use them will be a useful adjunct to natural-science study.
Whatever a child collects should be received with a smile of encouragement, no matter how worthless it is, until he has gained some power of discrimination. Let a mother refrain from showing disgust or fear of any natural object—even of toads, spiders, and snakes—lest she foster in the child the common superstitions which attach harm to innocent creatures. And if the child brings a handful of frogs' eggs, sticky and dripping, the mother had better not say, "Now go away and throw those horrid, dirty things out; I will not have the house filled up with them"; and proceed to chide him for soiling his clothes and dripping water on the carpet. Let her show the child she is pleased with what he has done; get a jar in which to put the eggs, call the child's attention to the tiny dark spot in each egg, awaken his interest by telling him how the eggs were deposited and why they are fastened together in such a gelatinous mass, and that if he keeps them and gives them fresh water, a little animal may come out of each one. This will keep alive the spirit of investigation; and, after all this has been done, she may show the child how he might have kept from soiling his clothes and the carpet. A mother should never make fun of a child or laugh at his preferences, but try to enter into the child's thought and feeling, and, having done this, she may lead him to what she wishes. She should be patient, too; for, while the child's perceptions are often more keen and true than hers, he will find it hard to follow her reasoning processes and to see relations which are very simple to her. A mother should teach kindness by her own treatment of helpless creatures. Let her not crush the insect in the house, nor pull the weed from the garden with anger or impatience, but teach her child respect and kindness for all life until he has reached years when he can clearly distinguish between necessity and cruelty.
Be glad when questions are asked; hail them, if they grow naturally from the lessons, as the dawn of a good day for the child. Never say—as many a mother and, alas! many a teacher does in answer to a child's question—"Oh, that is too hard for you; you must wait until you are older." Is it surprising that children so treated lose courage and go through life thinking of every new difficulty, "Oh, that is too hard for me." There is a simple side to every subject; and if a child comprehend not a tenth of what is said, he is helped and satisfied by the effort to treat him as an intelligent being. If the child can not answer the mother's questions or his own, he should, if possible, be sent to Nature herself to find the answer, the mother giving only so much help as to direct his attention and insure his finding the answer within a reasonable time.
The child himself should handle the objects, manipulate the materials in experiments, make and record observations, and so learn to give accurate attention, and to keep exact accounts of what is seen, to use his own hands and eyes, to do. He who can do as well as think is twice armed against poverty or misfortune.
Accidents may be turned to account, not only to teach how to avoid them, but the immutability of Nature's laws. The sooner a child finds that Nature never forgives a sin against her, the better for his health and happiness. I know one mother who has taught her child to see the relation between headaches and candy; and so well he understands it that now, at ten years of age, he does not overindulge, although the favorite sweets stand always on the library-table within his reach.
Take advantage of any unusual phenomena. The last transit of Venus was a chance offered not again in the lives of ourselves or our children, and every one might have seen it through a piece of smoked glass. A recent railroad-cut exposed fine examples of ripple marks, which will soon be buried from sight by falling earth. After some storms there are exceptional opportunities for lessons in physical geography and geology. Such chances are of more value than many things for which we put them aside.
The relation of natural-science studies to health and to the mental and moral culture of children has been suggested. Their industrial uses are familiar to all; so intimately are they connected with the life of man that knowledge of any branch makes one more capable in the conduct of his life. The relations between these studies and the great workshops of the world may with advantage be pointed out until the child feels the mighty pulse of the world's work and acknowledges his debt of service and brotherhood to all men. The habits of mind produced by continual contact with things, forces, phenomena, and laws promote clearness of insight and ability to look over a wide field, and to gather the facts necessary to form right conclusions.. These are the habits which give success in business.
Another important advantage in the study of the natural sciences is found in their relation to invention. The emancipation of man from continuous manual toil is the prophecy which Science has already uttered; and she but waits the men to put her forces at work in the right ways to fulfill this prophecy. A child rightly started has before him the possibility of doing some of this needed work, and so adding to the sum of human knowledge and comfort. If he does not do this, he will have the understanding which will appreciate and encourage the labor of others; and if his pursuits early lead him quite away from the impetus to those studies which his mother may have given in childhood, still her labors will be rewarded by the increased enjoyment which touch with Nature adds to any life.
For mothers who have acquired little or no knowledge of natural science, it may be well to indicate some of the best sources of information and direction. For the most elementary works, Appletons' Science Primers and Ginn & Co.'s Guides to Science Teaching are among the best. For more advanced standard books, the works of Dana, Le Conte, and Geikie in geology, of Dana and Brush in mineralogy, of Gray and Bessey in botany, of Packard and Huxley in zoölogy, of Huxley and Martin in physiology, of Remsen in chemistry, of Meyer and Wright and of Ganot in physics, of Newcomb and Young in astronomy, are among the best.
Better than books are the collections of a well-arranged museum if they are by good fortune accessible. If possible, use them with the children, not for the amusement of an idle hour, but as teachers speaking more directly from Nature's heart than books can do. Also better than books is contact with a living teacher and association with others interested in the same work. Such help may be sought with assurance that one will seldom fail of kindly welcome and of all possible assistance. The Agassiz Associations, whose president is Mr. Harlan H. Ballard, whose headquarters are at Pittsfield, Mass., will furnish any mother with the opportunity of putting herself in contact with workers in this field, and of getting invaluable aid and inspiration.
Thus far in this paper the benefit of the study of natural science to the child only has been considered. But what of the mother? Truly, what increases the well-being of the child must increase hers also; but is there no personal gain to her apart from her child? Will it be nothing to be introduced to Nature, and to become a welcome guest where one has been a comparative stranger? Will it be nothing to leave the artificial and conventional, where so many masks are worn, and make friends with Nature, who cares nothing about dress, income, or pedigree?
Few mothers have not felt the renewal of youth which comes when in the woods, on the mountain, by the shore; have not found their cares slipping insensibly from them when gazing into the depths of the sky, listening to the murmur of a brook, or inhaling the sweet breath of the summer wind. Let me assure these mothers that every step in the study of any natural science will open more wide the door through which Nature will pour such healing balm.
mother, tired with housekeeping, give your family simple, uncooked fruit for dessert; let puddings and pies go unmade, and give the time so saved to the pursuit of enduring pleasures; finish the little dress with a few less ruffles, and fashion for your child's mind a garment which can not fade or grow old; make fewer calls on your fashionable friends and more to the wood-lot, the open meadow, and the running brook; lay aside the latest novel, and go
"Read what is still unread
do not stop to gossip about the newest scandal, your neighbor's new bonnet, or forthcoming party, but pause and bend your ear in the quiet places where the secrets of all life are told.
You have many hindrances in fashion and conventionalities. Do you wish you could stop and live differently—live more simply; wish you could offer family and guest alike simple bread, vegetables, and fruit without the fuss of the many courses and interminable combinations which consume time and often ruin the digestions and tempers of those who partake of them; wish you could get a few simple, artistic patterns for your own and your children's garments, and use them year after year without all this harassing discussion of what is style and fashion; wish you need go to no large parties, or ever give any, but let the few chosen friends come when they desire and take you and your home life as they find them? Do you wish all these? Then prove the desire by making them all true. But you answer, "I can not unless everybody else does." 'Tis the old story of "foxes and tails." We actually follow the maxim, "your conscience, not mine"; and forever is asked not, Is it right? but What will they think?
Why not make these radical changes? Every step of progress was once a difference which some brave spirit bore alone. Instead of fearing to be different, one may be proud and thankful to have found a better way to live: "The great world will come round to you."