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Life With Children

There is a good deal of the life of boys and girls which passes when they are with other boys and girls, and involves some difficulties with a great many pleasures, all its own. It is generally taken for granted that if the children are by themselves, all will go well. And if you boys and girls did but know it, many very complimentary things are said about you in this very matter. "Children do understand each other so well." "Children get along so well with each other." "I feel quite relieved when the children find some companions." This sort of thing is said behind the children's backs at the very moment when the same children, quite strangers to each other, are wishing that they were at home themselves, or at least that these sudden new companions were.

There is a well-studied picture of this mixed-up life of boys and girls with other boys and girls who are quite strangers to them in the end of Miss Edgeworth's "Sequel to Frank,"--a book which I cannot get the young people to read as much as I wish they would. And I do not at this moment remember any other sketch of it in fiction quite so well managed, with so little overstatement, and with so much real good sense which children may remember to advantage.

Of course, in the first place, you are to do as you would be done by. But, when you have said this, a question is still involved, for you do not know for a moment how you would be done by; or if you do know, you know simply that you would like to be let off from the company of these new-found friends. "If I did as I would be done by," said Clara, "I should turn round and walk to the other end of the piazza, and I should leave the whole party of these strange girls alone. I was having a very good time without them, and I dare say they would have a better time without me. But papa brought me to them, and said their father was in college with him, and that he wanted that we should know each other. So I could not do, in that case, exactly as I would be done by without displeasing papa, and that would not be doing to him at all as I would be done by."

The English of all this is, my dear Clara, that in that particular exigency on the piazza at Newbury you had a nice book, and you would have been glad to be left alone; nay, at the bottom of your heart, you would be glad to be left alone a good deal of your life. But you do not want to be left alone all your life. And if your father had taken you to Old Point Comfort for a month, instead of Newbury, and you were as much a stranger to the ways there as this shy Lucy Percival is to our Northern ways at Newbury, you would be very much obliged to any nice Virginian girl who swallowed down her dislike of Yankees in general, and came and welcomed you as prettily as, in fact, you did the Percivals when your father brought you to them. The doing as you would be done by requires a study of all the conditions, not of the mere outside accident of the moment.

The direction familiarly given is that we should meet strangers half-way. But I do not find that this wholly answers. These strangers may be represented by globules of quicksilver, or, indeed, of water, on a marble table. Suppose you pour out two little globules of quicksilver at each of two points /. ./ like these two. Suppose you make the globules just so large that they meet half-way, thus, /OO/. At the points where they touch they only touch. It even seems as if there were a little repulsion, so that they shrink away from each other. But, if you will enlarge one of the drops never so little, so that it shall meet the other a very little beyond half-way, why, the two will gladly run together into one, and will even forget that they ever have been parted. That is the true rule for meeting strangers. Meet them a little bit more than half-way. You will find in life that the people who do this are the cheerful people, and happy, who get the most out of society, and, indeed, are everywhere prized and loved. All this is worth saying in a book published in Boston, because New-Englanders inherit a great deal of the English shyness,--which the French call "mauvaise honte," or "bad shame,"--and they need to be cautious particularly to meet strangers a little more than half-way. Boston people, in particular, are said to suffer from the habits of "distance" or "reserve."

"But I am sure I do not know what to say to them," says Robert, who with a good deal of difficulty has been made to read this paper thus far. My dear Bob, have I said that you must talk to them? I knew you pretended that you could not talk to people, though yesterday, when I was trying to get my nap in the hammock, I certainly heard a great deal of rattle from somebody who was fixing his boat with Clem Waters in the woodhouse. But I have never supposed that you were to sit in agreeable conversation about the weather, or the opera, with these strange boys and girls. Nobody but prigs would do that, and I am glad to say you are not a prig. But if you were turned in on two or three boys as Clara was on the Percival girls, a good thing to say would be, "Would you like to go in swimming?" or "How would you like to see us clean our fish?" or "I am going up to set snares for rabbits; how would you like to go?" Give them a piece of yourself. That is what I mean by meeting more than half-way. Frankly, honorably, without unfair reserve,--which is to say, like a gentleman,--share with these strangers some part of your own life which makes you happy. Clara, there, will do the same thing. She will take these girls to ride, or she will teach them how to play "copack," or she will tell them about her play of the "Sleeping Beauty," and enlist some of them to take parts. This is what I mean by meeting people more than half-way.

It may be that some of the chances of life pitchfork in upon you and your associates a bevy of little children smaller than yourselves, whom you are expected to keep an eye upon. This is a much severer trial of your kindness, and of your good sense also, than the mere introduction to strange boys and girls of your own age. Little children seem very exacting. They are not so to a person who understands how to manage them. But very likely you do not understand, and, whether you do or do not, they require a constant eye. You will find a good deal to the point in Jonas's directions to Rollo, and in Beechnut's directions to those children in Vermont; and perhaps in what Jonas and Beechnut did with the boys and girls who were hovering round them all the time you will find more light than in their directions. Children, particularly little children, are very glad to be directed, and to be kept even at work, if they are in the company of older persons, and think they are working with them. Jonas states it thus: "Boys will do any amount of work if there is somebody to plan for them, and they will like to do it." If there is any undertaking of an afternoon, and you find that there is a body of the younger children who want to be with you who are older, do not make them and yourselves unhappy by rebuking them for "tagging after" you. Of course they tag after you. At their age you were glad of such improving company as yours is. It has made you what you are. Instead of scolding them, then, just avail yourselves of their presence, and make the occasion comfortable to them, by giving them some occupation for their hands. See how cleverly Fanny is managing down on the beach with those four little imps. Fanny really wants to draw, and she has her water-colors, and Edward Holiday has his and is teaching her. And these four children from the hotel have "tagged" down after her. You would say that was too bad, and you would send them home, I am afraid. Fanny has not said any such thing. She has "accepted the position," and made herself queen of it, as she is apt to do. She showed Reginald, first of all, how to make a rainbow of pebbles,--violet pebbles, indigo pebbles, blue pebbles, and so on to red ones. She explained that it had to be quite large so as to give the good effect. In a minute Ellen had the idea and started another, and then little Jo began to help Ellen, and Phil to help Rex. And there those four children have been tramping back and forth over the beach for an hour, bringing and sorting and arranging colored pebbles, while Edward and Fanny have gone on quietly with their drawing.

In short, the great thing with children, as with grown people, is to give them something to do. You can take a child of two years on your knee, while there is reading aloud, so that the company hopes for silence. Well, if you only tell that child to be still, he will be wretched in one minute, and in two will be on the floor and rushing wildly all round the room. But if you will take his little plump hand and "pat a cake" it on yours, or make his little fat fingers into steeples or letters or rabbits, you can keep him quiet without saying a single word for half an hour. At the end of the most tiresome railway journey, when everybody in the car is used up, the children most of all, you can cheer up these poor tired little things who have been riding day and night for six days from Pontchatrain, if you will take out a pair of scissors and cut out cats and dogs and dancing-girls from the newspaper or from the back of a letter, and will teach them how to parade them along on the velvet of the car. Indeed, I am not quite sure but you will entertain yourself as much as any of them.

In any acting of charades, any arrangement of tableaux vivans, or similar amusements, you will always find that the little children are well pleased, and, indeed, are fully satisfied, if they also can be pressed into the service as "slaves" or "soldiers," or, as the procession-makers say, "citizens generally," or what the stage-managers call super-numeraries. They need not be intrusted with "speaking parts"; it is enough for them to know that they are recognized as a part of the company.

I do not think that I enjoy anything more than I do watching a birthday party of children who have known each other at a good Kinder-Garten school like dear Mrs. Heard's. Instead of sitting wearily around the sides of the room, with only such variations as can be rendered by a party of rude boys playing tag up and down the stairs and in the hall, these children, as soon as four of them arrive, begin to play some of the games they have been used to playing at school, or branch off into other games which neither school nor recess has all the appliances for. This is because these children are trained together to associate with each other. The misfortune of most schools is that, to preserve the discipline, the children are trained to have nothing to do with each other, and it is only at recess, or in going and coming, that they get the society which is the great charm and only value of school life. In college, or in any good academy, things are so managed that young men study together when they choose; and there is no better training. In any way you manage it, bring that about. If the master will let you and Rachel sit on the garden steps while you study the Telemachus,--or if you, Robert and Horace, can go up into the belfry and work out the Algebra together, it will be better for the Telemachus, better for the Algebra, and much better for you.


Edward Everett Hale

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