Lessons for Children

Lessons for Children

"Lessons for Children" is a series of four age-adapted reading primers written by prominent eighteenth-century British poet and essayist Anna Laetitia Barbauld. Published in 1778 and 1779, the books initiated a revolution in children’s literature in the Anglo-American world. For the first time, the needs of the child reader were seriously considered: the typographically simple texts progress in difficulty as the child learns. In perhaps the first demonstration of experiential pedagogy in Anglo-American children's literature, Barbauld's books use a conversational style depicting a mother and her son discussing the natural world. Based on the educational theories of John Locke, Barbauld's books emphasize learning through the senses.

One of the primary morals of Barbauld's lessons is that individuals are part of a community; in this she was part of a tradition of female writing that emphasized the interconnectedness of society. Charles, the hero of the texts, explores his relationship to nature, to animals, to people, and finally to God.

"Lessons" had a significant effect on the development of children's literature in Britain and America. Maria Edgeworth, Sarah Trimmer, Jane Taylor, and Ellenor Fenn, to name a few of the most illustrious, were inspired to become children's authors because of "Lessons" and their works dominated children's literature for several generations. "Lessons" itself was reprinted for over a century. However, because of the disrepute that educational writings fell into, largely due to the low esteem awarded Barbauld, Trimmer, and others by contemporary male Romantic writers, Barbauld's "Lessons" has rarely been studied by scholars. In fact, it has only been analyzed in depth since the 1990s.

Publication, structure, and pedagogical theory

Publication and structure

"Lessons" depicts a mother teaching her son. Presumably, many of the events were inspired by Barbauld’s experiences of teaching her own adopted son, her nephew Charles, as the events correlate with his age and growth. [McCarthy, 92.] Although there are no extant first editions of the works, children's literature scholar Mitzi Myers reconstructed the probable publication dates from Barbauld's letters and the books' earliest reviews: "Lessons for Children of two to three" (1778); "Lessons for Children of three, part I" (1778); "Lessons for Children of three, part II" (1778); and "Lessons for Children of three to four" (1779). [Myers, 282, n. 17.] After its initial publication, the series was often published as a single volume.

Barbauld demanded that her books be printed in large type with wide margins, so that children could easily read them; she was more than likely the "originator" of this practice, according to Barbauld scholar William McCarthy, and "almost certainly [its] popularizer". [McCarthy, 88; see also, O'Malley, 57 and Pickering, 146.] In her history of children's literature in "The Guardian of Education" (1802–1806), Sarah Trimmer noted these innovations, as well as the use of good-quality paper and large spaces between words. [Pickering, 146.] While making reading easier, these production changes also made the books too expensive for the children of the poor, therefore Barbauld's books helped to create a distinct aesthetic for the middle-class children's book. [Robbins, "Teaching Mothers", 137.]

Barbauld's texts were designed for the developing reader, beginning with words of one syllable and progressing to multi-syllabic words. [O'Malley, 57; see also Jackson, 129 and Robbins, "Teaching Mothers", 140.] The first part of "Lessons" includes simple statements such as: "Ink is black, and papa's shoes are black. Paper is white, and Charles's frock is white." [Barbauld, "Lessons for Children, from Two to Three Years Old", 29–30.] The second part increases in difficulty: "February is very cold too, but the days are longer, and there is a yellow crocus coming up, and the mezereon tree is in blossom, and there are some white snow-drops peeking up their little heads." [Barbauld, "Lessons for Children, of Three Years Old. Part I", 12.]

Barbauld also "departs from previous reading primers by introducing elements of story, or narrative, piecemeal before introducing her first story": the narrator explains the idea of "sequentiality" to Charles, and implicitly to the reader, before ever telling him a story. [McCarthy, 95.] For example, the days of the week are explained before Charles's trip to France.

Pedagogical theory

Barbauld's "Lessons" emphasizes the value of all kinds of language and literacy; not only do readers learn how to read but they also acquire the ability to understand metaphors and analogies. [Myers, 270–71.] The fourth volume in particular fosters poetic thinking and as McCarthy points out, its passages on the moon mimic Barbauld's poem "A Summer Evening's Meditation": [McCarthy, 103.]

Barbauld also developed a particular style that would dominate British and American children's literature for a generation: an "informal dialogue between parent and child", a conversational style that emphasized linguistic communication. [McCarthy, 88–89; see also Myers, 270–71.] "Lessons" starts out monopolized by the mother's voice but slowly, over the course of the volumes, Charles's voice is increasingly heard as he gains confidence in his own ability to read and speak. [Myers, 270–71.] This style was an implicit critique of late eighteenth-century pedagogy, which typically employed rote learning and memorization.

Barbauld's "Lessons" also illustrates mother and child engaging in quotidian activities and taking nature walks. Through these activities, the mother teaches Charles about the world around him and he explores it. This, too, was a challenge to the pedagogical orthodoxy of the day, which did not encourage experiential learning. [Myers, 261; Robbins, "Teaching Mothers", 142.] The mother shows Charles the seasons, the times of the day, and different minerals by bringing him to them rather than simply describing them and having him recite those descriptions. Charles learns the principles of "botany, zoology, numbers, change of state in chemistry … the money system, the calendar, geography, meteorology, agriculture, political economy, geology, [and] astronomy". [McCarthy, 100.] He also inquires about all of them, making the learning process dynamic.

Barbauld's pedagogy was fundamentally based on John Locke's "Some Thoughts Concerning Education" (1693), the most influential pedagogical treatise in eighteenth-century Britain. [Pickering, 147; Richardson, 128.] Building on Locke's theory of the association of ideas, which he had outlined in "Some Thoughts", philosopher David Hartley had developed an associationist psychology that greatly influenced writers such as Barbauld (who had read Joseph Priestley's redaction of it). [Richardson, 128; Robbins, "Teachings Mothers", 142.] For the first time, educational theorists and practitioners were thinking in terms of developmental psychology. As a result, Barbauld and the women writers she influenced produced the first graded texts and the first body of literature designed for an age-specific readership. [Myers, 258.]


thumb|right|Wedgwood cameo of Barbauld (1775)
"Lessons" not only teaches literacy, "it also initiates the child [reader] into the elements of society’s symbol-systems and conceptual structures, inculcates an ethics, and encourages him to develop a certain kind of sensibility". [McCarthy, 93.] One of the series' overall aims is to demonstrate that Charles is superior to the animals he encounters—because he can speak and reason, he is better than they are. "Lessons for Children, of Three Years Old, part 2" begins:

Andrew O'Malley writes in his survey of eighteenth-century children's literature, "from helping poor animals [Charles] eventually makes a seamless transition to performing small acts of charity for the poor children he encounters". [O'Malley 57; see also Richardson, 133.] Charles learns to care for his fellow human beings through his exposure to animals. Barbauld's "Lessons" is not, therefore, Romantic in the traditional sense; it does not emphasize the solitary self or the individual. As McCarthy puts it, "every human being needs other human beings in order to live. Humans are communal entities". [McCarthy, 97; see also Robbins, "Teaching Mothers", 139.]

"Lessons" was probably meant to be paired with Barbauld's "Hymns in Prose for Children" (1781), which were both written for Charles. As F. J. Harvey Darton, an early scholar of children's literature, explains, they "have the same ideal, in one aspect held by Rousseau, in another wholly rejected by him: the belief that a child should steadily contemplate Nature, and the conviction that by so doing he will be led to contemplate the traditional God". [Darton, 152.] However, some modern scholars have pointedto the lack of overt religious references in "Lessons", particularly in contrast to "Hymns", to make the claim that it is secular. [McCarthy, 97.]

One important theme in "Lessons" is restriction of the child, a theme which has been interpreted both positively and negatively by critics. In what Mary Jackson has called the "new child" of the eighteenth century, she describes "a fondly sentimentalized state of childishness rooted in material and emotional dependency on adults" and she argues that the "new good child seldom made important, real decisions without parental approval…In short, the new good child was a paragon of dutiful submissiveness, refined virtue, and appropriate sensibility." [Jackson, 131.] Other scholars, such as Sarah Robbins, have maintained that Barbauld presents images of constraint only in order to offer images of liberation later in the series: education for Barbauld, in this interpretation, is a progression from restraint to liberation, physically represented by Charles' slow movement from his mother's lap in the opening scene of first book, to a stool next to her in the opening of the subsequent volume, to his detachment from her side in the final book. [Robbins, "Teaching Mothers", 140–42.]

Reception and legacy

"Lessons for Children" and Barbauld's other popular children's book, "Hymns in Prose for Children", had an unprecedented impact; not only did they influence the poetry of William Wordsworth and William Blake, particularly "Songs of Innocence and Experience" (1789–94), [McCarthy, 85–86.] they were also used to teach several generations of schoolchildren both in Britain and the United States. Barbauld's texts were used to perpetuate the ideal of Republican motherhood in nineteenth-century America, particularly the notion of the mother as the educator of the nation. [Robbins, "Re-making Barbauld's Primers", 158.] British children's author and critic Charlotte Yonge wrote in 1869 that the books had taught "three-quarters of the gentry of the last three generations" to read. [Pickering, 147.] Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning could still recite the beginning of "Lessons" at age thirty-nine. [McCarthy, 85.]

Writers of all stamps immediately recognized the revolutionary nature of Barbauld's books. After meeting Barbauld, the famous eighteenth-century novelist Frances Burney described her and her books:

Barbauld herself believed that her writing was noble and she encouraged others to follow in her footsteps. As Betsy Rodgers, her biographer, explains: "she gave prestige to the writing of juvenile literature, and by not lowering her standard of writing for children, she inspired others to write on a similar high standard". [Rodgers, 72.] In fact, because of Barbauld, Sarah Trimmer and Hannah More were galvanized to write for poor children and to organize a large-scale Sunday School movement. [Pickering, 146.] Ann and Jane Taylor began writing children's poetry, the most famous of which is "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star". Ellenor Fenn wrote and designed a series of readers and games for middle-class children, including the bestselling "Cobwebs to Catch Flies" (1784). Richard Lovell Edgeworth began one of the first systematic studies of childhood development which would culminate not only in an educational treatise co-authored with Maria Edgeworth entitled "Practical Education" (1798), but also in a large body of children’s stories by Maria, beginning with "The Parent's Assistant" (1798). Thomas Day originally began his important "The History of Sandford and Merton" (1783–89) for Edgeworth's collection, but it grew too long and was published separately. [ Myers, 261; see also Richardson, 129–30; Darton, 164; Jackson, 134–36; O'Malley, 57; Robbins, "Teaching Mothers", 139.]

In the second half of the 1790s, Barbauld and her brother, the physician John Aikin, wrote a second series of books, "Evenings at Home", aimed at more advanced readers, ages eight to twelve. [Richardson, 130.] While not as influential, these were also popular and remained in print for decades. "Lessons" was reprinted, translated, pirated, and imitated up until the twentieth century; according to Myers, it helped found a female tradition of educational writing. [Myers, 260.]

While Day, for example, has been hailed as an educational innovator, Barbauld has most often been described through the unsympathetic words of her detractors. The politician Charles James Fox and the writer and critic Samuel Johnson ridiculed Barbauld’s children’s books and believed that she was wasting her poetic talents. [Rodgers, 71.] In his "Life of Johnson" (1791), James Boswell recorded Johnson's thoughts:

Barbauld had published a successful book of poetry in 1773 which Johnson greatly admired; he viewed her switch to children's literature as a descent. The most damning and lasting criticism, however, came from the Romantic essayist Charles Lamb in a letter to the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

This quote was used by writers and scholars to condemn Barbauld and other educational writers for a century. As Myers argues:

It is only in the 1990s and 2000s that Barbauld and other female educational writers are beginning to be acknowledged in the history of children's literature and, indeed, in the history of literature itself. [McCarthy, William. "A 'High-Minded Christian Lady': The Posthumous Reception of Anna Letitia Barbauld". "Romanticism and Women Poets: Opening the Doors of Reception". Eds. Harriet Kramer Linkin and Stephen C. Behrendt. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky (1999), 183–85.] As Myers points out, "the writing woman as teacher has not captured the imagination of feminist scholars", [Myers, 262.] and Barbauld's children's works are usually consigned to "the backwaters of children's literature surveys, usually deplored for their pernicious effect on the emergent cultural construction of Romantic childhood, or in the margins of commentary on male high Romanticism, a minor inspiration for Blake or Wordsworth perhaps". [Myers, 262.] The male Romantics did not explore didactic genres that illustrated educational progress; rather, as Myers explains, their works embodied a "nostalgia for lost youth and [a] pervasive valorization of instinctive juvenile wisdom" not shared by many female writers at this time. [Myers, 266.]

Serious scholarship is just beginning to investigate the complexities of Barbauld's "Lessons"; McCarthy, for example, has noted the resonances between "Lessons" and T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" that have yet to be explored:



Primary sources

*Barbauld, Anna Laetitia. "Lessons for Children, from Two to Three Years Old". London: Printed for J. Johnson, 1787. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.
*Barbauld, Anna Laetitia. "Lessons for Children, of Three Years Old. Part I". Dublin: Printed and sold by R. Jackson, 1779. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.
*Barbauld, Anna Laetitia. "Second Part of Lessons for Children of Three Years Old". Dublin: Printed and sold by R. Jackson, 1779. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.
*Barbauld, Anna Laetitia. "Lessons for Children from Three to Four Years Old". London: Printed for J. Johnson, 1788. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

econdary sources

*Darton, F. J. Harvey. "Children’s Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life". 3rd ed. Revised by Brian Alderson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. ISBN 0521240204.
*Jackson, Mary V. "Engines of Instruction, Mischief, and Magic: Children’s Literature in England from Its Beginnings to 1839". Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989. ISBN 0803275706.
*McCarthy, William. "Mother of All Discourses: Anna Barbauld's "Lessons for Children". "Princeton University Library Chronicle" 60.2 (Winter 1999): 196–219.
*Myers, Mitzi. "Of Mice and Mothers: Mrs. Barbauld's 'New Walk' and Gendered Codes in Children's Literature". "Feminine Principles and Women's Experience in American Composition and Rhetoric". Eds. Louise Wetherbee Phelps and Janet Emig. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0822955443
*O'Malley, Andrew. "The Making of the Modern Child: Children's Literature and Childhood in the Late Eighteenth Century". New York: Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0415942993.
*Pickering, Samuel F., Jr. "John Locke and Children’s Books in Eighteenth-Century England". Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1981. ISBN 087049290X.
*Richardson, Alan. "Literature, Education, and Romanticism: Reading as Social Practice, 1780-1832". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN 0521607094.
*Robbins, Sarah "Lessons for Children" and Teaching Mothers: Mrs. Barbauld's Primer for the Textual Construction of Middle-Class Domestic Pedagogy". "The Lion and the Unicorn" 17.2 (Dec. 1993): 135-51.
*Robbins, Sarah. "Re-making Barbauld's Primers: A Case Study in the Americanization of British Literary Pedagogy". "Children's Literature Association Quarterly" 21.4 (1996-97): 158-69.
*Rodgers, Betsy. "Georgian Chronicle: Mrs. Barbauld and Her Family". London: Methuen, 1958.

External links

* [http://www.cts.dmu.ac.uk/AnaServer?hockliffe+87209+hoccview.anv "Lessons for Children"] at the Hockliffe Collection

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