Children - How To Create Interest
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
YOU are now to take up a systematic course of training with your child. Do you realize what this means? It is not merely that you are to train the mind, but that you are to form a life, and the training of the mind is but one element in this important task. If there is one statement which mature men and women have made to me more than any other, it is that at the formative period of their lives their parents had not given them the attention which if it had been given would have materially altered the whole course of their lives.
Let me at the outset of this course suggest to you one or two important facts which have come to me out of thirty years' experience. The first is that you do not need to be a highly educated person with a host of college degrees to do this work and do it well. What you do need is that you shall have a constant desire to see this thing accomplished and take it up steadily, a little at a time, but persistently. Your own maturity, the mere experience of years, will give you sufficient lead to keep far in advance of the child, and you will be learning all the time. And in these volumes you have immediate access to the necessary materials for your work. So do not bewail your own lack of ability. Just take hold with the child and keep at it and without attempting too much at once, let your standard grow with your experience and with your own advancement.
The second fact I wish to impress upon you is this : Let the child join you in the search for what you do not know at first hand. The best kind of teaching is learning with the child. When you are looking up something, just let the child look with you, if that is possible. And when not possible, show the child just how you went about finding it.
The third fact is just this: Jot down every day or every few days the things you have been doing and so keep a kind of record. That will be useful to you, both as showing your own progress and the child's progress, and will make a pleasant exhibit of the kinds of knowledge you have been acquiring, and most of all, it will furnish you with the matter out of which your discussion of these facts and interests will grow.
For you must keep in mind that the thing you must excite in the child first of all is curiosity. The evidence of this curiosity is a question. That opens the gate to knowledge. If a child asks you why lobsters don't grow on trees, or why men walk upright when other animals walk on all-fours, you can see readily that certain basic ideas about lobsters and trees are not comprehended. You have your opportunity made at once by means of the question. The more questions you can get your child to ask, the better your evidence that he is growing mentally. The more questions you can lead him to ask, the better teacher you are. The more questions you and he work out together, the better the form of knowledge you both get.
Every question is a sign of interest. Interest is curiosity brought to the stage where it wants to know, and that interest exists in every child under even very slight guidance. The one thing that makes your maturity so valuable is that you can guide him to ask you about what you want him to know about. Many times I have taken a child who wanted to know about balloons, let us say, and so guided him that in the end of the talk he wanted to know about onions or beets. Sometimes he started with shoestrings and wound up with roses.. I always used to test myself by proving to myself that I could guide him around to the things I wanted him to know rather than the first thing at hand which provoked the original question. That is a valuable thing to do for your own sake, and for his sake as well.
You must be the guide to the thought and you must plant the seed-thought. This matter of seed-thoughts is of very great fascination when once you get the habit of planting them. Take an article from any volume which is suited to the capacity of the child, a poem, a story, a descriptive article, or something about science. Read it to him and with him. Occasionally stop and dwell on some of the words. Sometimes re-read a sentence that has a specially interesting fact or that has a specially interesting sound. You will find many such. Pause and note the unusual words. Discuss them a little. Raise some question about them or about the fact contained, their resemblance or their dissimilarity or their relation to anything of which the child has had previous knowledge, or of which it has previously heard. Note what response you get. If none, try again. Get out of your own life an experience that tallies with it or that contradicts it. No matter what the connection is, tell something out of your own life which has something to do with it. Then your own story will be called for at once.
In this manner you gradually induce the habit of not merely absorbing the things you offer, but of talking them over. Just remember that there was a time in the history of the world when all the knowledge in the world had to be transmitted in this way. There were no books, and each generation had to be taught all that the previous generation knew by the oral or talking method.
You will, of course, supplement and prepare the way for all this by the way you will surround your child with the things which call for explanation. If you place books in the room, sooner or later the books will call for attention, handling, and explanation. The same is true of pictures. The same is true of simple art objects. Taste is developed in this manner much more than by formal instruction. Choice of color and arrangement of even the simplest room has a great deal to do with these matters. And because you like taste in the outer world, so you must help the inner world of the mind to correspond with it. These two worlds must be kept in touch with each other constantly, and you must arouse the interest through both channels. A very famous man once told me that he thought his whole life had been altered by the picture of a huge eye which was painted on the wall of the little country church where he attended. He said it seemed to follow him all through life.
Variety stimulates interest and contrasts lead to questions. You must be the responsible guide to the things which ennoble and which uplift. A very excellent device for this sort of thing is to place the objects in a room in different positions and ask why one is preferred to another. It always seemed to me a rather important thing to have the objects a child saw on first awakening in the morning of rather special interest. I often changed pictures on the wall or placed a pretty vase or other decoration, in the summer time a bunch of flowers, where the awaking child saw it when the eyes first opened, and got a little thrill of surprise or pleasure when it looked around. You would be pleased yourself to awake tomorrow morning and find a lovely bunch of roses by your bedside. It takes only a little care and not much time to think of these things.
These things lie at the base of character building, which is after all your main object. What a sound character does, and the point in which it differs from an unsound one, is that it chooses the best things rather than others. It is not merely a question of choosing something good. Most parents would not consciously choose anything bad. But where we often fail is that we do not choose the best. The good is often, it is said, the enemy of the best. You must choose the best you can, and by thinking a little about it you can give at least your best thought, and that is all any of us can do.
It is a very remarkable fact that often our instincts for what is beautiful are our greatest safeguards in holding to us what is good. That is the reason why the making of a sound taste is so closely related to character. Many a man will not do a base thing because as a gentleman he cannot. This is, of course, not the highest motive. But the main fact is that he does not do the base thing. His attitude toward life and his instincts of an honorable deportment have made him do what is right, even though the moral question was not raised in his mind.
We must get this instinct into children very early. Nobody likes to be constantly preached at. Nobody likes to be morally lectured to day by day. One way, and one of the best ways, to make this unnecessary is to fill the mind with other things than question of behavior, and love for things which are beautiful and worth while on their own account. If you want to spare yourself many anxious moments later in life, on questions of right and wrong, build a barrier against them by making such interests and habits and creating such surroundings that these questions never arise. Years ago it was found that thousands of police arrests were made needless simply by placing more street lamps in dark places. If you place these lamps of taste and culture and love of beauty around the child and by steady direction to them cause them to become a major interest in the life of a child, you have given it one of the strongest barriers against evil which is known.
There used to be an old saying "like begets like." There is a good deal in it. See that you stimulate your own interest while stimulating that of your child. For many years whatever interested me for my own sake made a good rule for interesting my children in the same things. For example, I am interested in painting and sculpture. Some of my best friends are painters and sculptors. Very well; I used to note the new paintings and the new works of the sculptors. Being interested myself, I showed them to my Raising Children, told them about my own friends, and they naturally grew up with that as a permanent interest in their lives. The same thing was true about poetry. Their mother loved plants and knew a great deal about botany, and hence they got the same kind of interest in flowers and gardening. From the habit I have already referred to, they all are interested in interior decorating, and I think this subject ought to be one of the first subjects of discussion in every home. Make the objects in the home interesting. Make the discussion of those objects a first interest. And through these open the gates to the various arts and sciences they suggest or represent.
This is equally true when it comes to the story of human life and action. Geographical matters, or stories of discovery, or adventure, or the dramatization of life-events through biography, open the gates here very widely indeed.. Every week in the year should introduce the name of a great figure to the house-hold. If you stick up on the wall, week by week, one such name—you can easily print it yourself, with a few facts about him. or her—you will be surprised what will happen, because when you compare one great man with another you have started the science of conduct and you have begun the profoundest speculations of which the human mind is capable. There is nothing so interesting as the study of human beings. And if they have had a great history and made a great mark on the history of the world they become specially interesting.
Sometimes you can vary this biographical interest in the world's great figures by choosing some of the stories of the world's famous children. Children love to hear about other Raising Children, and this varies the interest, though, of course, child life in one sphere is often incomprehensible to children in another. But the fairy-lore helps this out because it gives such free range to the imagination. The ordinary life of the children of various nations told in song and story and picture helps here and makes a pleasant diversion. But the main thing you are doing is stimulating the study of human beings as such.
With such a storehouse of matter as is found in these volumes there ought to be a rotation of interests. There should be a Father's Hour, when the father should choose something, read it and explain it and then the mother can start the questions and the rest can take part guided by the start which the mother has given. Then there should be the Mother's Hour, when the mother should take the lead and the questioning be reversed. Then the various children should have their various needs met taking turns and all making themselves for the time being sixyear-olds, ten-year-olds, or whatever the age is. This will develop into a very exciting sport if it is cultivated with only a little care.
Just let yourself go in this matter. Get yourself filled with some topic and then let go and give it to the best of your ability to the children and never mind at the start how well or how ill it seems to be done. The main thing is to get the freedom of manner and approach so that the thing gets zest and genuine interest. For this reason it will be well to attack something that is fresh to you and you and your children can go at it together.
There is another little suggestion that I wish to drop into your mind. On a great highway there are many kinds of vehicles, automobiles that can go sixty miles an hour, some that can go only thirty and some that can go only ten ; then there are carriages and buggies and wagons and carts and perhaps only pushcarts; now the fact is that the road is for them all. You must remember always that not all people, either old or young, think with the same speed, hence you must keep to a fair pace for all concerned. Don't get impatient because what seems so clear to you is not comprehended at once by the rest, especially the children. I have seen parents storm at their children and call them stupid when they were simply matching the speed of their maturity against the slowness of the child's youth. Of course that was obviously unfair and perhaps it was merely the parents' ambition which did it. But we must not forget that it is very easy to think that all others are like ourselves when they are not. So give the little people time to think, make suggestions, give little hints that help to thinking, and generally pave the way so that the little mind begins to work under its own steam, so to speak.
Just keep in mind another thing, that merely to ask questions that cannot be answered does not mean that the person who cannot answer them is stupid. I do not at this moment know how high the Karakoram Mountains are. But I don't care how high they are ; it is not of enough importance that I should know. It is enough that I know where I can find out if I need to know. Keep in mind the difference between stupid questions and useless knowledge, and usable and living knowledge. So when you make your selection of things to read and things to talk about, choose live matter, and something that has vitality, and not merely some odd, queer thing that won't occur again for fifty years. I was once made to appear very foolish once by such a question in. a large company, and I never forgot it. There is a very great difference between living and useless knowledge.
And now, my friends, go to it, for you are about to begin what will prove the most interesting experience and the most useful chapter of your lives. What you sow here will live forever, because day by day you are weaving into the heart, mind, and memory of these children those things which will form the warp and woof of their intellectual and their spiritual life for years to come. And many years after you have joined the majority, your children will love to recall the pleasant hours or the passing intervals of a few minutes, in which you enriched the mind or fertilized the soul and gave the spirit the touches which brightened the way of life and made for an honorable and useful service to mankind and was based on what President Eliot so nobly called "the durable satisfactions of life."