Reading To And With Children
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THERE is no greater aid to the love of good literature than familiarity with the best that has been written in the course of the world's development; and unlike many of the good things of life, there is nothing so well within the reach of even the humblest men and women. In this generation, the spread of the printed word has been such as to make it possible to find books in households where formerly they were never seen. There are innumerable aids to the reading of good literature which were never dreamed of by our grandfathers, collections of classics adapted to the needs of all groups of people, libraries where standard works may be found, and all the other machinery with which we have attempted to build up an intellectual background for our daily life.
To the average parent, therefore, the difficulty lies not so much in finding the material which he needs for the task of helping his children into the larger appreciation, as in selecting that which is most useful for his purpose. The purpose itself is a simple oneóby home training to develop in the child an acquaintance with and liking for the best in literature. And as the instrument of this, nothing is of mare importance than reading to the Raising Children, and helping them to read by themselves.
For it is by reading aloud to the child so young that it cannot hold the book for itself that a sense of literature is maintained. Every parent and teacher has noticed how readily children lend themselves to the magic and mystery of a lovely voice that speaks aloud the perfect cadences of beautiful prose, and still more how they respond to the witchery of verse. This response is especially significant in that it has no necessary relation to the child's understanding of the meaning of the selection. I can well remember the shock of delight with which I came upon a bit of verse which carried a persistent refrain, and how, although I was certain I had never before read the poem, I could hear my mother's voice repeating the lines. When I took the poem to her, she had no recollection of having ever seen it, but as she read it, everything confirmed my remembrance. Then she explained my insistence with the suggestion, "It is very likely that it is something I read to you when you were a baby that I have forgotten about. I used to read so many things to you then."
It is on such slender foundations that the love of literature may be built. A child first learns to love the sound of words. The most elementary form of this is shown in the child who, because he likes the sound of some word or phrase, will repeat it constantly with relish and gusto, though without real under-standing of its meaning. I remember a group of children who used to listen with the closest attention for the recurring phrase, "Then at the sound of the harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of music," in the story of the three children of Israel in the burning, fiery furnace. They had only the vaguest notions about the instruments in question, and cared less; but the words delighted them.
The reading aloud cannot begin too early. Without thought of what they are doing, many mothers begin this process when they sing to their children fragments of old songs, and so lull them to rest. It is nothing to regret if the child goes to sleep under the process. While it is very young, this is perhaps best. For the sound of gentle words becomes linked with the relaxation and security of the twilight hour.
As the child grows older, the content of the words becomes of greater importance, for the awakening intelligence demands explanation of terms which are not self-evident, and asks some connection with its own existence, or that of its play-fellows. Yet even here the charm of faintly understood rhythms and ideas is a potent force in developing that most elusive and valuable gift, an appreciation of literary style. A distinguished poet of our own time has spoken of the sense of poetry which he felt even through the translation of the sole recorded fragment of one of the Greek lyrists, "I am a servant of the god of war, and I practice the lovely art of the Muses." In the same way the minds of children grasp and retain the charm of phrases like this, though the content is not comprehended.
Hence it comes about that it is never too soon to begin the reading aloud in the family circle, or during those moments when the child, weary after its play, seeks a different kind of interest.