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Ch. 9: Other People's Children


"Where is thy brother Abel?"


We will suppose, for the sake of argument, that the rights of our own children are secured; but though such security betokens an admirable state of affairs, it does not cover the whole ground; there are always the "other people's children." The still small voice is forever saying, "Where is thy brother Abel?"

There are many matters to be settled with regard to this brother Abel, and we differ considerably as to the exact degree of our responsibility towards him. Some people believe in giving him the full privileges of brotherhood, in sharing alike with him in every particular, and others insist that he is no brother of theirs at all. Let the nationalists and socialists, and all the other reformers, decide this vexed question as best they can, particularly with regard to the "grown-up" Abels. Meanwhile, there are a few sweet and wholesome services we can render to the brother Abels who are not big enough to be nationalists and socialists, nor strong enough to fight for their own rights.

Among these kindly offices to be rendered, these practical agencies for making Abel a happy, self-helpful, and consequently a better little brother, we may surely count the free kindergarten.

My mind convinces me that the kindergarten idea is true; not a perfect thing as yet, but something on the road to perfection, something full of vitality and power to grow; and my heart tells me that there is no more beautiful or encouraging work in the universe than this of taking hold of the unclaimed babies and giving them a bit of motherliness to remember. The Free Kindergarten is the mother of the motherless, the father of the fatherless; it is the great clean broom that sweeps the streets of its parentless or worse than parentless children, to the increased comfort of the children, and to the prodigious advantage of the street.

We are very much interested in the cleaning of city streets, and well we may be; but up to this day a larger number of men and women have concerned themselves actively about sweeping them of dust and dirt than of sweeping them free of these children. If dirt is misplaced matter, then what do you call a child who sits eternally on the curbstones and in the gutters of our tenement-house districts?

I believe that since the great Teacher of humanity spoke those simple words of eternal tenderness that voiced the mother side of the divine nature,--"Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not,"--I believe that nothing more heartfelt, more effectual, has come ringing down to us through the centuries than Froebel's inspired and inspiring call, "Come! let us live with the children!"

This work pays, in the best and the highest sense as well as the most practical.

It is true, the kindergartner has the child in her care but three or four hours a day; it is true, in most instances, that the home influences are all against her; it is true that the very people for whom she is working do not always appreciate her efforts; it is true that in many cases the child has been "born wrong," and to accomplish any radical reform she ought to have begun with his grandfather; it is true she makes failures now and then, and has to leave the sorry task seemingly unperformed, giving into the mighty hand of One who bringeth order out of chaos that which her finite strength has failed to compass. She hears discouraging words sometimes, but they do not make a profound impression, when she sees the weary yet beautiful days go by, bringing with them hourly rewards greater than speech can testify!

She sees homes changing slowly but surely under her quiet influence, and that of those home missionaries, the children themselves; she gets love in full measure where she least expected so radiant a flower to bloom; she receives gratitude from some parents far beyond what she is conscious of deserving; she sees the ancient and respectable dirt-devil being driven from many of the homes where he has reigned supreme for years; she sees brutal punishments giving place to sweeter methods and kinder treatment; and she is too happy and too grateful, for these and more encouragements, to be disheartened by any cynical dissertations on the determination of the world to go wrong and the impossibility of preventing it.

It is easier, in my opinion, to raise money for, and interest the general man or woman in, the free kindergarten than in any other single charity. It is always comparatively easy to convince people of a truth, but it is much easier to convince them of some truths than of others. If you wish to found a library, build a hospital, establish a diet-kitchen, open a bureau for woman's work, you are obliged to argue more or less; but if you want money for neglected children, you have generally only to state the case. Everybody agrees in the obvious propositions, "An ounce of prevention"--"As the twig is bent"--"The child is father to the man"--"Train up a child"--"A stitch in time"--"Prevention is better than cure"--"Where the lambs go the flocks will follow"--"It is easier to form than to reform," and so on ad infinitum--proverbs multiply. The advantages of preventive work are so palpable that as soon as you broach the matter you ought to find your case proved and judgment awarded to the plaintiff, before you open your lips to plead.

The whole matter is crystal clear; for happily, where the protection of children is concerned, there is not any free-trade side to the argument. We need the public kindergarten educationally as the vestibule to our school work. We need it as a philanthropic agent, leading the child gently into right habits of thought, speech, and action from the beginning. We need it to help in the absorption and amalgamation of our foreign element; for the social training, the opportunity for co÷peration, and the purely republican form of government in the kindergarten make it of great value in the development of the citizen-virtues, as well as those of the individual.

I cannot help thinking that if this side of Froebel's educational idea were more insisted on throughout our common school system, we should be making better citizens and no worse scholars.

If we believe in the kindergarten, if we wish it to become a part of our educational system, we have only to let that belief--that desire--crystallize into action; but we must not leave it for somebody else to do.

It is clearly every mother's business and father's business,--spinsters and bachelors are not exempt, for they know not in what hour they may be snatched from sweet liberty, and delivered into sweeter slavery. It is a lawyer's business, for though it will make the world better, it will not do it soon enough to lessen litigation in his time. It is surely the doctor's business, and the minister's, and that of the business man. It is in fact everybody's business.

The beauty of this kindergarten subject is its kaleidoscopic character; it presents, like all truth, so many sides that you can give every one that which he likes or is fitted to receive. Take the aggressively self-made man who thinks our general scheme of education unprofitable,--show him the kindergarten plan of manual training. He rubs his hands. "Ah! that's common sense," he says. "I don't believe in your colleges--I never went to college; you may count on me."

Give the man of esthetic taste an idea of what the kindergarten does in developing the sense of beauty; show him in what way it is a primary art school.

Explain to the musician your feeling about the influence of music; show the physical-culture people that in the kindergarten the body has an equal chance with mind and heart.

Tell the great-hearted man some sad incident related to you by one of your kindergartners, and as soon as he can see through his tears, show him your subscription book.

Give the woman who cannot reason (and there are such) an opportunity to feel. There is more than one way of imbibing truth, fortunately, and the brain is not the only avenue to knowledge.

Finally, take the utter skeptic into the kindergarten and let the children convert him. It commonly is a "him" by the way. The mother-heart of the universe is generally sound on this subject.

But getting money and opening kindergartens are not the only cares of a Kindergarten Association. At least there are other grave responsibilities which no other organization is so well fitted to assume. These are the persistent working upon school boards until they adopt the kindergarten, and, much more delicate and difficult, the protection of its interests after it is adopted; the opening of kindergartens in orphanages and refuges where they prove the most blessed instrumentality for good; the spreading of such clear knowledge and intelligent insight into the kindergarten as shall prevent it from deterioration; the insistence upon kindergartners properly trained by properly qualified training teachers; the gentle mothering and inspiring and helping those kindergartners to realize their fair ideals (for Froebel's method is a growing thing, and she who does not grow with it is a hopeless failure); the proper equipment and furnishing of class-rooms so that the public may have good object-lessons before its eyes; the insistence upon the ultimate ideals of the method as well as upon details and technicalities,--that is, showing people its soul instead of forever rattling its dry bones. And when all is said and done, the heaviest of the work falls upon the kindergartner. That is why I am convinced that we should do everything that sympathy and honor and money can do to exalt the office, so that women of birth, breeding, culture, and genius shall gravitate to it. The kindergartner it is who, living with the children, can make her work an integral part of the neighborhood, the centre of its best life. She it is, often, who must hold husband to wife, and parent to child; she it is after all who must interpret the aims of the Association, and translate its noble theories into practice. (Ay! and there's the rub.) She it is, who must harmonize great ideal principles with real and sometimes sorry conditions. A Kindergarten Association stands for certain things before the community. It is the kindergartner alone who can prove the truth, who can substantiate the argument, who can show the facts. There is no more difficult vocation in the universe, and no more honorable or sacred one. If a kindergartner is looked upon, or paid, or treated as a nursery maid, her ranks will gradually be recruited from that source. The ideal teacher of little children is not born. We have to struggle on as best we can, without her. She would be born if we knew how to conceive her, how to cherish her. She needs the strength of Vulcan and the delicacy of Ariel; she needs a child's heart, a woman's heart, a mother's heart, in one; she needs clear judgment and ready sympathy, strength of will, equal elasticity, keen insight, oversight; the buoyancy of hope, the serenity of faith, the tenderness of patience. "The hope of the world lies in the children." When we are better mothers, when men are better fathers, there will be better children and a better world. The sooner we feel the value of beginnings, the sooner we realize that we can put bunglers and botchers anywhere else better than in nursery, kindergarten, or primary school (there are no three places in the universe so "big with Fate"), the sooner we shall arrive at better results.

I am afraid it is chiefly women's work. Of course men can be useful in many little ways; such as giving money and getting other people to give it, in influencing legislation, interviewing school boards, securing buildings, presiding over meetings, and giving a general air of strength and solidity to the undertaking. But the chief plotting and planning and working out of details must be done by women. The male genius of humanity begets the ideas of which each century has need (at least it is so said, and I have never had the courage to deny it or the time to look it up); but the female genius, I am sure, has to work them out, and "to help is to do the work of the world."

If one can give money, if only a single subscription, let her give it; if she can give time, let her give that; if she has no time for absolute work, perhaps she has time for the right word spoken in due season; failing all else, there is no woman alive, worthy the name, who cannot give a generous heartthrob, a warm hand-clasp, a sunny, helpful smile, a ready tear, to a cause that concerns itself with childhood, as a thank-offering for her own children, a pledge for those the hidden future may bring her, or a consolation for empty arms.

There is always time to do the thing that ought to be, that must be done, and for that matter who shall fix the limit to our powers of helpfulness? It is the unused pump that wheezes. If our bounty be dry, cross, and reluctant, it is because we do not continually summon and draw it out. But if, like the patriarch Jacob's, our well is deep, it cannot be exhausted. While we draw upon it, it draws upon the unspent springs, the hill-sides, the clouds, the air, and the sea; and the great source of power must itself suspend and be bankrupt before ours can fail.

The kindergarten is not for the poor child alone, a charity; neither is it for the rich child alone, a luxury, corrective, or antidote; but the ideas of which it tries to be the expression are the proper atmosphere for every child.

It is a promise of health, happiness, and usefulness to many an unfortunate little waif, whose earthly inheritance is utter blackness, and whose moral blight can be outgrown and succeeded by a development of intelligence and love of virtue.

The child of poverty and vice has still within him, however overlaid by the sins of ancestry, a germ of good that is capable of growth, if reached in time. Let us stretch out a tender strong hand, and touching that poor germ of good lifting its feeble head in a wilderness of evil, help it to live and thrive and grow!


THE END.

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Kate Douglas Wiggin