Lessons for Children is considered Children's Literature
Lessons for Children is considered Children’s Literature

In this blog, I would like to focus on some lessons Anna Barbauld’s imparts on children in the first and second part of Lessons for Children. Children are taught various lessons that are age appropriate and are also taught lessons that, for the contemporary reader, seem strange. The first volume, intended for children between the age of two and three, consists primarily of directions Charley, the example boy, must follow. The second consists of all the outdoor activities Charley can participate in and learn from.

Consisting of five volumes, it is interesting to note that the first part pays attention to how children should distinguish skin color, particularly the color of Africans. Most people from different cultures, such as the Russians and German, are identified by the food they eat or by the activities they engage in: “The Russians travel in sledges over ice” (23).  However, African and Indians are identified by the color of their skin. Moreover, Native American’s facial features are not given as much attention as African’s: “Negros are black, their hands are black, and their faces are black, and all their bodies. It will not wash off; it is the colour of their skin. Negroes have flat noses and thick lips and black hair curled all over like wool” (23-24). No other ethnicity is described by its physical features except for the Indians, and there are simply referred to as “copper-skinned.”(23) This suggests how racism is ingrained among the British at an early age and how it targets a particular ethnicity rather than any non-European group. This makes sense as seeing Africans as other was particularly important as they were an integral tool to advancing the empire.

Barbauld as one of the nine muses
Barbauld as one of the nine muses

Barbauld’s work also offers some details on children’s diet, encouraging them to abstain from eating both meat and butter. While there is no reason given to the child as to why they should not eat these foods, but it might be because it was assumed that such foods were harsh on a child’s digestive system. Instead, they are encouraged to eat fruits, bread, and cheese in addition to tea. Another aspect of the lessons that is worth noting is that certain lessons are left open-ended. No direct recommendation is given to the child or parents about an action that yields negative consequences. For instance, near the conclusion of the first volume, Charles asks his guardian if she will “Lay by [her] and come play with [him]” (56). Instead of responding, the text moves to the next lesson. There may be a conflict which the narrator avoids and which Barbauld leaves guardians to resolve. If the guardian agrees to play with the child, then she might be encouraging idleness in leaving her work, but if she refuses to play with him, then she might be neglecting him. Instead of offering advice to both child and parent, Barbauld leaves this decision for the parent.

Portrait of Anna Barbauld
Portrait of Anna Barbauld

In both the first and the second volume, extensive emphasis is put on the necessity of learning how to read, but in the second volume, such advice is inserted in places that are less direct than in the first. While listing the activities and occupations of various people, the narrator also states the occupation of “good boys,” which is to read: “Shoemakers make shoes. Old people wear spectacles. Good boys love to read. The barber shaves….” (94). Each group is identified by what they do for a living or by a feature characteristic of their age group. In inserting that “Good boys love to read,” the narrator is also ingraining in the child that a good boy is identified by his love for reading – such an activity defines his personhood. It seems to be an intentional method of inculcation so that the child always associate the trait of a “good boy” with “love for reading.” (94).

Barbauld has much to say on the ways in which children must be educated. Some of her tactics are direct and simple while others are indirect and more complicated – their ultimate aim is to instill in the child values that will stay with them on a deeper, and perhaps, subconscious level. Her works also reveals some interesting assumptions and attitudes the Victorians had about children. While Lessons for Children may not have been widely distributed and read, Barbauld was still an influential woman of her time and a notable figure of educational development.

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