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The Sensibility Of The Child

( Originally Published 1916 )

"THE heart knoweth its own bitterness," but seems to be unaware that others have troubles of their own. This is especially true in our dealings with children. We take it for granted that what is childish is trivial, and what is trivial is not serious. But the troubles of a child are just as serious—to the child—as the worries of a statesman are—to the statesman.

Our understanding of children, and our sympathy, show themselves in our attitude toward the trifles that make up the substance of a child's emotional life. When Towser found Ida's rag doll and shook it and tore it, Ida was nearly beside herself. Mother felt that the little girl needed consolation and earnestly tried to help the child. But she blundered miserably. She pointed out the beauty and the other merits of the large china doll, contrasting her virtues with the homeliness of the mutilated rag doll. She promised to buy Ida another doll, a prettier one, a larger one. But mother did not understand. It was the suffering of the rag doll that troubled Ida, not the loss of an indifferent plaything. This the mother did not understand.

The death of a pet animal is a more intimate loss to the child than most adults can appreciate. In Carl Ewald's charming little book, My Little Boy, the child sees in every group of factory chimneys that they pass on the train, the place where his friend Jean, the dog, is buried. An elderly gentleman in the coach tries to explain that this is not the same factory ; but the father understands better. It is the mystery of death and the loss of Jean that trouble the child, and he is continuously reminded of these things. The father wisely ignores the really trifling fact that one locality is confused with another, and sympathizes with his little boy in his deep grief.

Sadie and her parents were to go to the sea-shore when school closed. But best of all, a favorite teacher was to go by the same train. When the time of departure arrived, mother calmly informed the child that they had changed their plans, and would go tomorrow. But is Miss Jones going tomorrow, too? No, she goes as originally planned, and will not be on our train. Sadie was dreadfully disappointed, and neither father nor mother could understand why a child that was usually so sensible should weep nearly half a day and far into the night for such slight cause. Besides, had she not been seeing Miss Jones every day for a whole year? We are too apt to assume that slight details in our arrangements mean no more to the children than they do to us.

A little more thought given to the fact that events have meaning to children, would doubtless make us more careful in a hundred little things. We wound the sensibilities of the children more through our thoughtlessness than through cruelty and indifference.

Children are almost without exception sensitive to sarcasm—and that until they are well along in years. Whatever justification one's ingenuity may find for using sarcasm with adults, there is absolutely none for addressing it to children. A child seldom understands sarcasm on the intellectual side, and seldom fails to be hurt by it.

Wise people know that in matters of taste there is no disputing. But how many parents are wise enough to refrain from making disparaging remarks about the friends of their children? A child's friend is a matter of taste, a matter of admirations and aspirations. No doubt your taste is superior to your child's; neither can there be any doubt that when your child reaches your present age his taste will be better than it is now. To cast any reflections upon the other child is to wound your own child's pride and self-esteem in a way that is hardly ever warranted. Even if the choice of a play-mate is entirely bad—which would be a very rare case, indeed—your task is to develop your child's standards, and not to tear away the friend upon whom the heart is for the time being set.

To make disparaging comments upon people in general is likely to hurt the child's sensibilities in a way that is quite unnecessary, and certainly undesirable. Unkind remarks about acquaintances, made in the prescience of children, will at first hurt them. In time, howsoever, this procedure will probably make the children cynical. If they lose their faith in human nature with the advancing years, if they lose their feeling of reverence, to what extent are these losses due to the stinging and cynical conversation that they hear at home?

Another source of needless wounds to children is ridicule directed against their games or other activities.

How silly it would be for a business man or a society woman to sit on the floor and roll a ball against the wall and catch it on its return ! But how sensible it is for a little girl or boy to do just that! The silly thing is for grown up people to gage the activities of children in terms of their own maturer judgment, wider experience and trained, not to say sophisticated, tastes. The child's game is the game for him, here and now. If you know a better game for him, teach it to him, play it with him ; but do not kill the joy of all play by laughing at what is after all a good enough activity—since the child finds in it satisfaction.

No intelligent parent would willingly hurt a child by means of false accusations, or even by insinuations. Aside from the unnecessary suffering this may cause at the time, we must recognize how easy it is for the child to assume the attitude expressed by the saying, " I've got the name, I may as well have the game."

Parents can afford to make great sacrifices for the sake of retaining the confidence and companionship of their children. One of the essential means to this end is the patient effort to understand the effect of seeming trifles upon the feelings of the child. We should seek to avoid unnecessary suffering that is just as real and just as acute, for all it is childish. We are certainly anxious to avoid the resentment and the estrangement that must follow repeated heartbreaks and misunderstandings. And we must consider, finally, how much of the callousness and indifference we find among men and women is the direct result of the constant bruising that their feelings suffered during childhood.

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