Thursday, 26 October 2017

Susan Isaacs: the remarkable woman educator who changed parenting



An important but relatively unknown part of Susan Isaacs’s work is the parenting advice column she wrote for The Nursery World in the late 1920s and 1930s, under the pseudonym of Ursula. But in case you think this is a sort of dusty by-way from the past, I would seriously urge you to read an important new collection of some of those columns, Wise Words: How Susan Isaacs Changed Parenting and think again – because they speak to contemporary concerns about childhood, learning, health and parenting in a remarkably vivid way.

At this stage, I must declare an interest: Wise Words is edited by my partner, Caroline Vollans. Throughout the development of the book, from first idea, to the months she spent digging around in the Isaacs archive at the UCL Institute of Education, I have been privileged to be the first to hear her excited accounts of discoveries amongst many hundreds of letters and Isaacs’s answers.

Astoundingly, Isaacs answered every single letter – published or not – and she quite clearly saw her work as Ursula Wise as being as important as anything else she did. She spent much of her final months, suffering the agonies of cancer and the dreadful side-effects of powerful radiotherapy treatment, putting together a collection of the columns which is now long out of print.

In a recent journal article, the researcher Michal Shapira argues that the Ursula Wise columns were instrumental in popularising ideas from psycho-analysis and offered a “powerful rebuttals to behaviourist, disciplinarian parenting methods helped shift the focus of caregivers to the child’s perspective, encouraging them to acknowledge children as independent subjects and future democratic citizens.”

Childhood and parenting in England were changed forever by the columns of Ursula Wise: and Wise Words offers a fascinating insight into how Isaacs persuaded, argued with and encouraged middle-class parents and nannies to think differently about the children they loved and cared for. 

To give you a flavour of the book, here are a couple of my favourite letters and the replies. There are more details about how to order Wise Words and how to claim a 20% discount here.


The first letter I have selected is a striking example of how Isaacs argued for a decisive shift in parenting approaches, away from obedience and training reinforced with punishments, and towards a more enlightened view of the children as having legitimate desires and the need for “friendly co-operation” between parent and child.

Letter One: THE PARENTS’ PART

Child training is not just a matter of demanding obedience. Friendly co-operation and understanding are more important.

2 DECEMBER 1931

“Worried” writes: “I really am frightfully worried about my small son, aged five and a half, and feel that you better than anyone can advise me. He has been always a nervy, highly strung boy owing (the doctor said) to delayed circumcision, and backward in walking and helping himself (he was two before he walked, and twenty-two months before he crawled), but not in talking and intelligence. He is a fine, well-developed boy. He has a baby sister of two years, but started his naughty ways before her arrival, so I do not think it can be jealousy. I have always insisted on obedience, and he knows it, but on being told or asked to do things at once answers, ‘No, I won’t’. Also, when one makes a simple statement such as, ‘It is raining’, he immediately says, ‘No, it’s not’.

But it is his attitude to his little sister that worries me most. I cannot make him remember he is older or instil the smallest bit of the protective attitude into him. He wants to be treated and to have everything she has, and takes anything from her, often hitting her or knocking her over until I am really scared to leave then together. I may say that she sticks up for herself well, but there is three- and-a-half years’ difference. When talked to he is all affection and promises at once never to do it again, but not five minutes elapses before he is as bad as ever. He goes to a proper boys’ college and loves it, and appears to get on well with his lessons, but will not run about and rough it with the other boys. He likes them, but is afraid of being hurt and knocked over. He eats well, but plays about and will not behave at meals. He also sleeps the clock round, so I do not think there can be much wrong with his health.

He does not care for punishments in the least – in fact I cannot punish him. If I send him up to his bedroom he cries up the stairs, but calmly lies down and goes to sleep. If I deprive him of sweets he says, ‘Oh well, I shall be a good boy and have some to-morrow’. He cries very easily at the least thing. I should also be grateful for suggestions for useful and instructive toys for both children. They have engines and horses and cuddly toys, but seem tired of them all.” 


I wonder if the whole trouble with your little boy doesn’t perhaps spring from the fact that you have thought of the problem too exclusively in terms of training and not enough in terms of friendly co-operation? I don’t feel sure that this is the source of the trouble, but I do rather get the impression from the way you put the problem that it perhaps may be so. That is to say, from very early days the boy has perhaps had chiefly the sense that grown-ups were people who said, “You must obey”, “You must do this”, “You must not do that”, “You must be kind”, and so on, and never had the chance to find out that they could be chums and friends who understood the point of view of a child of two or three or four years. For instance, with regard to the question of his behaviour to his little sister, when a bigger boy hits and pushes in that way it is very disturbing and very exasperating, but I do seriously wonder whether there has not been too much effort to instil a protective attitude into him, to talk, or scold, or reproach him into feeling tender towards her. If I am wrong in thinking this I am sure you will forgive me, as, of course, I can only be of use if I say quite frankly what my impression is.

Susan Isaacs with children at The Malting House School

When a child does feel jealous and hostile to a younger child in this way it really never is any use to make them promise to be better, as such promises cannot be kept unless they spring from a real feeling of affection inside. I should therefore be inclined to avoid trying to make the child promise to be kind. I should, of course, do everything I could to prevent his hitting her or knocking her over, and if he did that I should not hesitate to send him to his room in the way you do. But neither should I feel unhappy about his lying down and going to sleep. It is very much more troublesome when a child reacts violently to being sent to his room, either by storms of rage or by hysterical crying. The whole point when he has been unkind to his sister, is to show your disapproval of his behaviour in a way that he can understand without doing anything severe or cruel to him, and being sent to his room has this meaning to him even if he does lie down and go to sleep. Nor can I see anything to be troubled about in what he says when you deprive him of sweets: “I shall be a good boy and have some to-morrow”. It is much better that he should feel this belief in his own power “to be good and have some to-morrow” than that he should fall into despair and misery.

All these “punishments” are most effective when they are just simply clear understandable expressions of our wishes, not so severe that they really plunge the child into unhappiness. But these negative things, taking away sweets and so on, are not really the chief means of educating the child into pleasant social ways. They are only minor and occasional instruments, and the real education comes from the child’s constant experience of grown-ups’ sense and reliability, con- sideration and understanding. In any case, the child has to be allowed time to grow into a sociable and considerate person. I think you will find that if you can be quietly  firm about his unkindness to his little sister without trying to make him feel that he is very bad, and if you can constantly treat him in a way that takes for granted that he will be more sensible and agreeable, he is likely to improve. I wonder whether he doesn’t have some feeling that the little sister is more favoured by you or by his father? It is very important to make sure of even justice and affection.


With regard to his contradiction of such a statement as “It is raining”, the best way to deal with it is not to treat it as a mere contradiction or challenge to authority, but to refer the child to the actual fact under discussion, e.g., to say cheerfully, “Would you like to go and see and tell me whether it is raining or not?” Very often a challenging attitude in a child comes about from the sense that grown-ups always decide everything and never expect a little child to have any voice or ideas of his own. With regard to toys for the two children, you would  find a detailed list of toys for these ages in “Health and Education on the Nursery”, by V. M. Bennett and Susan Isaacs, published by Routledge.

The second letter I have selected, The Nursery School, gives a sharp insight into how Isaacs influenced middle-class parents to view nursery education as an important space for the encouragement of children’s social and intellectual development.  Isaacs’s arguments about the particular needs of two-years in nursery anticipate the development of the key person approach in nursery childcare (Goldschmied and Jackson, 1993).

Letter Two: THE NURSERY SCHOOL

6 JUNE 1934

“Enquiring” writes: “I have only been taking THE NURSERY WORLD for a month or so, and I do not know whether you have yet dealt with the nursery school – its advantages and disadvantages. I should be glad to know your opinions on these schools as a whole. My little daughter is aged one year, ten and a half months, and I have decided to send her daily to a nursery school in the summer. We live in a flat, and shall continue to do so for some years yet; the garden is not a particularly exciting one for a child to play in, and I feel that she will have more scope if she goes to school. She is very active, walked early, talks very little, although always ‘chattering’ in her own way; is a bad and faddy eater – always impatient to get down from her chair and to get on with the next thing in this interesting world; is very independent and insists on feeding herself, and doing other odd jobs. So far we have had no trouble with ‘pot- ting’ or with my leaving her occasionally. For the last six weeks she has been dry from six until getting up time, and asks for the ‘po-po’ regularly during the day, and likes to fetch it herself; she does not mind my leaving her when I have to go out. She will call for ‘Mama’ at bed time, and if she falls down. For the first twelve months of her life I was out a lot and had a nurse for her; and now I look after her myself. I think she would be better away from me at times, as I know my limitations as a ‘perfect mother’! I was nineteen when she was born and had, and still have, a quick temper – sometimes it is just temper, and sometimes it is nerves, as I am very nervous of many things! She is nervous of coalmen, dustmen and any sudden noise, such as a band playing in the street, or a cup breaking in front of her. I took her to a hairdresser’s twice, but she was frantic with fear at the baby electric ‘dryer,’ and I can never take her now.

We were looking forward to providing her with a companion for her second birthday, but a miscarriage unfortunately took away that hope. Now, however soon a brother or sister arrives, she will be almost three, and I should like have to have companions before then. There are no children here, and getting to any of my friends with babies means a day’s outing and plenty of arrangements beforehand. I do not claim that she is in any way more advanced and intelligent than most children – though naturally I sometimes think so – but looking at her from a detached point of view – if it is ever possible to do that with one’s own children – I can see that she has the makings of a good, and lovable character in her. Do you think it will help or hinder her to go to the nursery school? I can see a lot of advantages for her, but I may have the wrong viewpoint – I am only anxious to help her as much as possible, without being fussy. I should hate to see her changed a great deal, and turned out to a set pattern, while she is still so pliable. What do you think? I might add that she will go to a convent when she is about four and a half – quite a big one – as a day scholar only, and probably a boarding school at about ten years of age. I think your answers to mothers and nannies are most interesting and helpful.”

When one tries to speak about the advantages and disadvantages of the nursery school one always has to ask first of all what the age of the child is who is being considered. Experience shows that the nursery school for the child over three is extremely helpful, always assuming of course that it is a well-run one, with a good attitude on the part of the grown-ups and plenty of the right playthings and methods. With a child under three, however, there is more to be said on the contrary side, and the demands that one makes of the nursery school are more rigorous. Children under three are so dependent on the love and care of a grown-up. They need so much to have constant personal contact with one grown-up with whom they feel secure, that if they go to the nursery school, it must be one that has only a very small group of children of this age, and with plenty of adults to the number of children. I would never send a two-year-old to a nursery school unless there were at least three adults to, say, ten or twelve children of this age. I am, of course, speaking of children who have a good home, not of children whose mothers have in any case to go out to work, or where the home is bad in some other way. I am considering only children such as yours, where the decision has to be made, not out of necessity, but out of choice. If there are enough adults in the group in the nursery school, so that every child can feel there is someone to whom he can turn and with whom he can be constantly in touch as a friendly and helpful person, then two or three hours of a nursery school every day are very helpful, even for the two-year-old. Children of this age do love to play in the company of other little children, provided there is an adult always close in the background; and such play in the company of other children helps gradually to wean a child from this complete dependence on the grown-up. The only child in the home is deprived of this opportunity. The benefits of being with other children for even a part of the day for children of this age are shown in many different ways. For instance, difficulties in feeding often get less or disappear altogether in the nursery school, even with children who have been quite a problem at home. The sight of other little children eating in an unconcerned way with enjoyment is far more helpful to the child who is reluctant to eat than any persuasions or commands that we give them.


The moments of happy play together, with a variety of materials, are a great social education in themselves, as well as a great pleasure. Another advantage of the nursery school is that so many of the things which help the child’s development at this age, for example climbing apparatus, space enough to run round in, large building bricks, and so on, can so much more easily be provided for a group of children than by each mother in her own home. All the little ceremonials of self-helpfulness, such as helping to lay the table for a meal, and to serve it in turn, are much enjoyed by children, even at three years. It is very easy for the nursery school, too, to provide toilet arrangements of the right size – arrangements so that the little children can learn to wash themselves or their dolls’ garments, etc., very easily. I don’t think that the really well run nursery school has any disadvantages even for the two-year-old, but it does need to be not merely well equipped and spaced, but in the hands of sensible women who can adapt the routine to each little child’s need – watching to see, for example, when a child is getting over-tired and settling him down to some quiet occupation in a quiet, friendly way. It is often surprising how children of two to  five will blossom out, both in body and mind, in vigour and friendliness and jolliness, when they have a few hours of each day in companionship with other children in a really well-chosen environment. The answer to your question is thus not an absolute one that the nursery school as such is a good thing, but that the well-run nursery school has very great benefits to offer, even to the child from a good home. Under these conditions there is not the slightest risk that the child will be forced into a uniform pat- tern. That, of course, would be very undesirable even with the older children and quite harmful with the little ones.

Now in the case of your own little girl it does seem to me that she is rather young to go to a nursery school in the summer. If there is a nursery school near you, then the best plan would be to let her have an occasional bout there, but not yet to make any regular arrangement for her to spend the full nursery school day there. You could increase the length of time in the autumn and, if she were perfectly happy and you were satisfied that the methods were good, she could even begin to take up regular school life then. In a well-run group there are ample opportunities for quiet rest and sleep. But I should certainly enquire about all these details before I made any decision.

Other posts I have written about Susan Isaacs