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100-year-old book offers timeless advice on parenting

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Sep. 12, 2012, at 7:08 p.m.

I finally have discovered a clear, practical, no-nonsense book about child-rearing.

And it was published more than 100 years ago.

“The Mother’s Book: Suggestions Regarding the Mental and Moral Development of Children” is a collection of articles and advice — and one handy chart — compiled by Caroline Benedict Burrell in 1907. Thanks to expired copyrights and the American Libraries Internet archive, you can read the whole book online.

I discovered it when my colleague Rick brought a copy of the book to work recently and handed it to me, explaining that it once belonged to his grandmother. I marveled at the red embossed cover and yellowing pages.

Rick said it seemed like something I’d like to see. He was right.

“This book is intended to help the mother to develop and train her children in the best and wisest way, from their babyhood until they reach adult years,” the editor writes in her introduction.

“By studying it a mother may learn to deal intelligently, rather than at haphazard, with her growing boy or girl.”

Oh Ms. Burrell, you have no idea. Where have you been all my life?

The book is full of fascinating and timeless information, including:

•  “How early children should read Shakespeare is often discussed, but it is to be settled by the children themselves; they should read him just as early as they will.”

•  “A good way to enforce punctuality is to make the offender pay the penalty of his laziness.”

•  “Remember always that good, honest, hearty laughter helps to cure physical and mental ills.”

•  And, “Early in his life … (a child) must be taught that work, hard and incessant work, is essential to any progress, and that he must accept this as a matter of course.”

I could go on and on. There are chapters on honesty, chivalry, refinement and self-control, advice on simplifying housework, on feeding and clothing children, on dealing with fights.

There is a section titled “The Girl at Fifteen” that, though it was written more than a century ago, rings true for my own daughter as she nears that milestone:

“Winsome and clever, or thoughtful and brooding, merry or quiet, according to her temperament, the girl of fifteen is in some phases a problem to her mother, and in many ways a puzzle to herself.”

The section on sex education — “What shall be taught, and who shall teach it?”— is downright modern in its forthright approach:

“A child should be taught so plainly, so purely, so scientifically, that he will know he is learning the great truths of nature, and then no room will be left for morbid curiosity. … The truth is never dangerous.”

By far my favorite part of the book, though, is a six-page chart at the beginning that explains how children behave, what they should learn and even how much they should sleep at each year of life, from birth to 18. No modern parenting manual, with its “every child is different” and “do what works for you” philosophy, would dare to be so bold and useful.

My son, Jack, for instance, is 12. According to the chart, he should be working on such characteristics as chivalry, firmness and heroism. He should be acting small plays at home, sketching, scroll sawing, cooking meals, hoeing, playing tennis, caring for large animals and reading a foreign language. He should sleep from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m.

My friend Amy’s 7-year-old twins, meanwhile, should be working on sympathy, friendship and perseverance. They should be reading and writing French, collecting leaves, hemming, bicycling, digging, picking berries and practicing simple hygiene. They should sleep from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Neither her children nor mine do many of these things, particularly the sleeping part. I know this because Amy recently asked what time I thought a 7-year-old should go to bed, and Burrell’s book was on my desk, so we consulted the chart.

We decided that many of society’s ills might be solved if kids got more sleep.

And read Shakespeare.

And picked berries.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com.

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