Mrs. Virginia T. Smith was born in Bloomfield, Conn., and educated in the common schools, the Suffield Institute and Mount Holyoke Seminary. She married young, and many years were devoted to the duties and pleasures of domestic life with which she combined philanthropic work. Mrs. Smith has held the position of city missionary for sixteen years, and served as a member of a board of charities for nine years. Mrs. Smith established the first free kindergarten in Connecticut, and finally secured a law attaching kindergartens to the public schools; and is receiving hearty support in her effort to establish a State Home for incurable children. Her postoffice address is Hartford, Conn.
The world moves notwithstanding the assertion of fault-finders to the contrary, and intelligence, goodness and unselfishness do increase as time goes on. It is nowhere more conclusively proven than in a look at the wise efforts made in solving the problem of what is true charity. That a wise discrimination and careful benevolence is to be maintained by thinking people will be seen by close observation of methods now quite universally in active operation in all our large cities and in many of our smaller towns.
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The most hopeful of all charities are those which elevate the very young. Every community stands under a moral obligation to give to every helpless child born within its border the best possible chance to grow into honesty and virtue. The expense to the community of prevention will be far less than that of any attempt at care in all the moral diseases caused by the poverty, ignorance or vicious surroundings of its young children.
The poorest children in a community now find the beneficent kindergarten open to them from the age of two and a-half to six years. Too young heretofore to be eligible to any public school, they have acquired in their babyhood the vicious tendencies of their own depraved neighborhoods; and to their environment at that tender age has been due the loss of decency and self-respect that no after example or education has been able to restore to them. The kindergarten comes, in these helpful, later days, to these moral standings with sweet attractiveness, happy entertainment, wise development and instruction for little heads, hands and hearts, and with many a motherly lesson in cleanliness and those heretofore undreamed of amenities of life out of which we may hope, in some far day, may be evolved, "Peace on Earth, and Good-Will to Men."
The testimony at hand already as to the prosperity and value of the kindergarten is absolutely convincing. It is essentially a woman's work. It is natural that it should be, as it is simply for the period of infancy, and is only an extension–a disciplined and orderly extension–of the development and training of little children in nice homes with wise and loving mothers.
The kindergarten system is based upon the belief, laid down by the greatest authorities on education, that the most important formative period in youth is before the child has finished seven years of life, and before the regular training of the public school belongs to him by right of age. Habits, associations, desires and experiences are acquired which last through life. The faculties are developed, the senses quickened, and good behavior, discipline, self-control, manners, morals–all begin with the first awakening powers of the child.
One writer says: "The kindergarten attempts to do for children what should be done for them, but is not always done, in the family at home. It is a lamentable fact that all mothers are not fitted to train up infants in the way they should go. Even in the well-to-do classes there is a lack of knowledge, of the right temper, of experience, or of leisure to give the young child the kind of discipline that ensures good manners, good morals, or the kindly development of his natural powers. Home training of the right sort is no doubt the best training. There is no education in the world so valuable as that unconsciously imbibed in a refined and cultivated household before the child is six years old. But what shall we do for children who do not have homes at all worthy of the name? We know that the child is father of the man, and yet our civilization is very slow to begin at the right end of a social reform. We build prisons for adults and reformatories for children. These have become necessities, and testify to an inability to deal with the evils of our society."
So then we must begin in the right way to educate the children of the very poor. We must pick up out of the swearing alleys and gutters of depraved neighborhoods the neglected, harshly treated, half-fed and half-clothed, unwashed and uncombed prattling child, whose greatest knowledge of language is of slang and profanity, cleanse it and cover it with wholesome garments; teach it how to play and how to talk and what truth is, and so, lovingly and carefully, plant the germ of good in its receptive mind, and fill its hopeful heart with happy dreams of doing something noble in the future that the results must be beneficial to a great degree to the race we are trying to save. It is a higher duty of society to prevent crime than to punish it. The one is ennobling and pleasant and the other harsh and deterrent.
Already in Connecticut we see the kindergarten added to the public schools, and the fruits of such a union are, we believe, bound to be worth far more to society than is the advanced instruction of the highest departments in the languages and mathematics.
None of the modern philanthrophic enterprises seem to give more satisfaction to those who enjoy them, or more pleasure to those who furnish them, than the little outings which poor city children receive by reason of fresh-air funds. The benevolence is contagious, and every year it is developing into wider usefulness.
Children are sent into the country for several weeks and their health is naturally benefited by the change. It brings color to thin cheeks, elasticity to their bodies, awakens in their minds the love of simple pleasures, ideals of beauty, cleanliness and purity. All through the pleasant country, in villages and farmhouses, people are found willing to take one or more of these little waifs into the family and give them a good time. We do not know whether the children or their kind and generous entertainers are the more benefited, for this opening of the heart and home is such a lovely charity that it is invaluable to those who participate in it. Family selfishness says that one's duty is all done when one's own children are carried into green fields, beside laughing waters, and into wholesome chambers in pleasant country houses for the nights; but the new and tender spirit of this later day claims that the little children of the poor need a change quite as much as any others, and that it should be a pleasure to see that it is given to them. This new benevolence becomes a threefold benediction, blessing the community where the children go, the givers, and the children, and it goes on increasing and enlarging its beneficence every year, so that one may not be able to over-estimate the moral benefit it holds.
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In the kindergarten and the fresh-air work, and in the deeper child-saving work, which means the rescue of perishing little ones in the midst of moral stagnation and death by a permanent transplanting into the sweet soil of honest and pure living, comes the dawn of better things for the little children. In these most gracious oppor- tunities are the true methods for the nurture and direction of the little children, who should each be so advantageously situated that his best inheritances should be nourished and strengthened, his evil tendencies repressed and overcome, and the atmosphere in which he lives and grows up should be one of such unselfishness, gentleness, and Christian love as to be a constant inspiration toward all that is good.
The work in this line, so thoroughly begun in some localities, should extend from one end of our Union to the other, and the workers go out to their sister states, that have not yet realized their needs in this direction, with a force that shall overcome all apathy and awaken a new and earnest interest that will not rest till the work is thoroughly established.
The work of kindly effort for the children depends for its success upon the underlying principle of our efforts. If actuated and energized by a vital love for others, they must succeed. Constantly increasing light will be given, so that the wisest course of general action may be adopted, and the remedies at hand shall be so discriminately applied as to meet the real needs of each individual nature.