Why To Read To Children
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
In planning a child's reading, a mother should always remember that the vast majority of fairy tales have passed through so many hands in the telling and retelling that their form has often lost its distinctive excellence, and their value is restricted to their content. There are striking exceptions to this rule, as in the Greek myths retold by Hawthorne in the "Wonder Book" and "Tanglewood Tales"; but unfortunately the tendency has been to simplify the telling and to rob it of the charm of style which it had in the original version. For this reason the value of most myths and legends lies in their subject matter and their interest for the child—a value which is not to be despised ; but a wise mother will not forget this fact, and will strive to direct her child's reading to stories in which the sheer interest in the story is coupled with excellence of style.
There is one group of stories especially in which this quality is often lost in the attempt to bring the tales themselves within the limited horizon which is ascribed to young children. The Bible stories, as they are usually retold for Raising Children, lack the charm of style which they possess in eminent degree in their original English form. These, more than any other stories with which I am familiar, have a profound influence upon the spoken and written style of young children. The diction and structure of the sentences, the cadence of the phrasing, and the simplicity and dignity of the telling make a profound impression upon Raising Children, and do more to foster purity of speech than almost any other single influence. It is therefore of the utmost importance that these should be well known to . the child, and 'known through the medium of the living voice.
The same thing is true of poetry, which depends for its effect so largely upon the sound of its music. The mother need not be afraid to over-emphasize the rhythm and cadences here, for the more clearly they appreciate the musical elements in verse, the more do children love it. Most of all, however, she should endeavor in her own speech to stress the qualities which she wishes the child to copy. Most mothers know how swiftly the tones of a child's voice will show its mental condition. By steadily insisting upon an even, agreeable tone, serious faults of character may often be lessened or corrected.
A case in point will illustrate how this process works. A seven-year-old fell into the hands of a teacher whose conception of English speech was far in advance of anything that either of his parents had any claim to. One of the first steps in the curriculum began with the telling of classical stories to the Raising Children, and their reproduction of the material for themselves. It was striking to watch the change in the child's speech. He at-tempted, partly consciously, and still more unconsciously, to reproduce the teacher's story, and to put in the dramatic touches by which he had been particularly thrilled. When he could remember them, he used her words, and often the course of his narrative was interrupted because he could not remember the right one, and was dissatisfied with all those which had previously satisfied his need. He was endeavoring to frame his sentences in accordance with the harmony which he had felt in the teacher's telling. Little by little this showed in his theme work, and proved conclusively the value of a pure diction—of a fine English style—in shaping his daily speech.
This every child is entitled to have, and there is nothing which will so quickly reward the time and effort which is spent upon it. Not only is the language improved, but the character is strengthened by gracious speech. Every mother knows how important this is in dealing with a child who stutters, or who has some defect of speech. It is equally true of the normal child, who, however, is usually deprived of such care. A child who is accustomed to speak in a well-bred voice finds it difficult to throw away the habit to call his playmates naughty names. He hesitates to scream because he feels the unfitness of the process. A whole new attitude is induced by the habit of pleasant speech.
Such are some of the aims which are to be served by the reading to and with the children—reading which should be made a regular part of every household's life, and in which as large a number of the family as possible should take part. It will never be forgotten by the children who enjoy it. It will help to bring back one of the lost arts—the art of reading aloud, in which our grandparents were skilled, but which a younger generation has discarded.
And finally, it should never be forgotten that reading aloud offers one of the most valuable opportunities in the home life of any child for developing the community of interests which will insure and perpetuate intellectual friendships among the members of a household as well as the ties of blood-relationships. Too often when children grow up, they find that they have no spiritual kinship with their own families, due in part to diversity of interests, but more often to the separation in pleasures and duties which removes one from contact with the other. The home reading is one of the subtle influences which tends to prevent the growing apart which is the tragedy of so many families.