My Dear Daughter:—When I was a young girl, I well remember that my parents judged who were and who were not desirable and proper associates for their children, chiefly by reference to the parents and family of our young companions. It was taken for granted that the children of good, honorable, Christian people, who strove to train their children to obedience and a conscientious life, would be suitable companions for us; and this criterion in nearly every instance proved to be a true one. In only one instance, indeed, did it fail; and I well remember the shock it gave a whole circle of young people, when a young companion, the son of an eminent clergyman, was sent home on account of his language and conduct after one week's visit among friends, when it had been expected by all that he would stay two or three months.
But in these days this criterion of family and parentage is insufficient; for, sad as it may seem, the children of really excellent parents are often so derelict in duty, so lacking in conscientiousness, so idle and aimless and frivolous that their companionship should be dreaded for susceptible young people especially for young girls. One thing is very certain: that in these days young people, when out of sight of their parents, often act and talk in a way which they certainly would not do in their parents' presence. And that is truly a distressing fear which often comes to the hearts of excellent and faithful parents, that the conduct of their children when out of their sight and restraint may be totally at variance with all they have been taught in regard to right and proper conduct.
Now all people, old or young, are influenced in conduct somewhat by their associates and friends; but young people especially are susceptible to the influence of example. And it is a painful but well known fact that young people are much more easily and quickly influenced by bad example than by good. One frivolous, vain, forward, pert young girl, coming for a season into association with a company of young people, may in a few short weeks make her impress on the manners and conversation of the whole of them. Her slang expressions will be adopted; her loud manners and eccentricities of dress will be imitated; her frivolity and dislike for any of the serious duties of life will prove contagious.
For you, and for any young girl, I would consider dangerous and harmful intimate association with:
1. The young girl who, either from circumstances or natural disposition, does not compel herself, or is not compelled to do something—to study her lessons and take some useful share in every-day duties. "Nothing to do is worse than nothing to eat," said a great man, Thomas Carlyle; and observing parents or teachers know this to be especially true of young people. It makes no difference that they don't want to do anything or to exert themselves. The very absence of exertion makes them weak and indisposed to effort. It is a lamentable lack at the present time among a large proportion of the daughters of comfortable and refined homes, that they have small physical strength and no qualities of endurance at all. They are "all tired out" if they sweep and dust or do housework for an hour or two, or take a half-mile walk on an errand, or sew continuously for an hour. Very likely they will want to lie down and rest an hour after such exertion. This is all the result of unexercised muscles and mental indolence. That mother was quite right, who, when her boarding-school daughter complained that it made her arms ache to sweep, replied: "Well, you must sweep till it doesn't make them ache." Mind and body both grow strong through exercise. Unexercised muscles, of course, will be weak and flabby and tire easily. But the young girl whom it tires to work is most likely on the qui vive about some folly or other nearly all the time. Lack of healthful mental and bodily occupation and stimulus will almost certainly produce a craving for unhealthy excitement. Such a girl is apt to be constantly planning for mere pleasure and to have "a good time." And, oh! what an unsatisfying, unworthy aim in life is this, and how pernicious in its effects! Pleasure and "a good time" are all very well, but unless they are partaken of sparingly they produce a mental effect similar to that which the constant use of desserts and sweetmeats, instead of plain substantial food, would produce in the physical system. Association with the idle and the mere pleasure-seeker is therefore to be guarded against, for their influence cannot but be harmful.
2. Although perfection is not to be expected in any companion or associate, yet there are certain defects of character which are so grave that parents cannot afford to encourage their children in associating with those who exhibit these in a marked degree. Untruthfulness; the habit of gossiping about friends or acquaintances or divulging family privacies; sullenness and moroseness under reproof; rebellious and disrespectful expressions and conduct toward parents and teachers; indifference to the good opinion of sensible people, as shown by unusual and startling conduct in public places; all such things mark the undesirable associate for young girls. But there are young girls against whom none of these complaints could be made, who are undesirable companions because they are wholly absorbed in love of dress and display and desire to be admired and noticed. It is generally among this class that we find young girls who prefer to an altogether unreasonable and unbecoming extent, the society of young men to the society of their own sex. It is among these that we find the young lady who does not know how to prevent undue familiarity in the conduct of young men; who will tolerate without disapprobation or protest, rude conduct on the part of young men. This over-eagerness for their society, and easy toleration of too familiar conduct and conversation, young men, who are quick discerners in such matters, are very apt to take advantage of. Only the best and most high-principled among them will refrain from doing so.
I have spoken of the influence that a frivolous, vain, selfish companion will be sure to exercise over those with whom she is intimately associated. For you, as for any young girl, I would seek to prevent such associations. On the other hand, I should rejoice to see you form friendships with good, high-minded, intelligent, gentle-mannered girls of your own age, and should hope that you would mutually emulate and stimulate each other in all worthy aims and ambitions. Such friendships, however, are seldom hastily formed. The gushing and violent attachments that sometimes spring up between young girls are sure to be of mushroom growth and duration, unless there is genuine character and merit in both. During the period of the continuance of such friendships, a great deal of "selfishness for two" is often developed and manifested. Very often when young people are visiting together their attentions to each other seem to make them forget their duties and the attentions due to other people. Here is one of the best tests of the true character of a young girl: her conduct in the house where she is a visitor. If she is truly well-mannered and kind-hearted she will certainly be on her guard to conform to the hours and habits of the household where she is a guest; she will avoid making any demands upon the time of her friend that would cause that friend to neglect her daily duties or put to inconvenience the other members of the family. She will divide her attentions with all the members of the family, having special regard for the very young or the very old. She will, above all things, be prompt and punctual at meal-time. Her own tact and judgment will enable her to judge how much assistance she should offer, if any, to the friends she visits—a matter which must always be determined by circumstances. In some families and under some circumstances it might be a breach of decorum and an act of officiousness on the part of a visitor to make any offer of assistance in the matter of the daily household arrangements. In other families and under other circumstances it might be an act of the kindest and best politeness to undertake every day during her visit a portion of the daily home-duties. That which a young girl who is a visitor in any family should first of all observe, is the wishes and convenience of the older people of the household. If the friend she is visiting should show too much disposition to make everything about the house bend to the occasion of the visit, the visitor should deprecate this, both by word and example. Every mother of young daughters knows the difference between visitors who are thoughtful and deferential and helpful, and those whose overweening interest in self and selfish plans makes them oblivious to the convenience and wishes and preferences of their hostess and other members of the family.
If one wished thoroughly to understand the character of any young girl, no better test could be applied than to invite her to a three weeks' family visit. By daily observation one could then learn how near in character and disposition, in habits and manners, she approached that beautiful ideal of the poet Lowell which I wish every young girl might constantly strive to imitate and attain to: