Reading To Children
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
WHEN one is old enough and wise enough to look backward over the path of his days, he begins to discern the truth that to all the richest gifts of life the home has made its indispensable contribution. It is a joy to become thus able to trace the thread of our experience back to its beginning—to find written in the achievement of today the history whose outline was forecast in childhood—to know that the father's industry or heroism has made our endeavor possible, and that the mother's sacrifice brings to us through all the after years continuous blessing.
When we can thus read our lives backward, we long to ex-press our gratitude to those who have thus blessed us. "Now our eyes are open and we see," we cry. Too often the tardy vision finds us so late that those who should have heard our thanksgiving are beyond our ken. Then we can only say—" To those who follow us, shall like gifts descend"—because we have freely received we must freely give.
Something like this thought possesses the mother who calls her child to her knee to listen to the story from the Book. She may not guess as she reads Or tells, the infinite value of her teaching. She may not dream that the story she recites so simply to her eager brood is opening the gate to the paths of literature, and making the later understanding and appreciation possible. She may not guess that this is the one time when such teaching can be done—that if it were omitted the imagination which should drink at the springs of youth would shrivel and fail.
Happily, she does not need to know; her mother instinct is true. She answers to the repeated petition for the "Story" as generously as she gives bread to her Raising Children, though never guessing that the one is as indispensable as the other.
Life shows us that the stories which are heard at the mother's knee are an essential part of our heritage. The child who is deprived of this possession will always and always miss the charm of literature, the joy of poetry, the swift imagination which enables us to share in that which is foreign to our intimate experiences. Except as this appreciation is assured in childhood, it is never won.
When Mr. Stead wrote so charmingly of the gifts which Tennyson had brought to us, he deplored the fact that in his youth he was too poor to buy a copy of Tennyson and necessarily read only the books which could be bought with his limited savings. He could get a penny copy of Shakespeare, so he pored over its pages and as a child he sat at the feet of the master. It was not until he was grown that he could begin to read Tennyson, and the love which could have its root in childhood only was never a part of the allegiance which he rendered to the poet.
A teacher was once reading to a class of little children Long-fellow's "Boy's Song," "A boy's will is the wind's will—And the thoughts of the youth are long, long thoughts." She read two stanzas and then said—"But you would not understand the rest of it." "Oh! read it to us," the children said; "we love the sound of it, whether we understand it or not." In his introduction to "Child Life in Prose," Whittier appeals for this privilege for the children—the listening to the music of the great psalms and hymns. The children love the sound of them as they love the roll of the organ, and they must learn early to listen to this music.
A tiny, prattling child of three was tripping back and forth across the floor, her sunny hair flying in the wind, repeating aloud to herself the stories she had been hearing. Her mother sitting at her work heard the child as she repeated over and over "And the ogres and the dragons," "And the ogres and the dragons," "And the power and the glory," "And the power and the glory." There was no irreverence in her childish prattle : the mystery of the story-world moved her as much as the mystery of the solemn words which she heard repeated every morning ; and they were linked because of the mystery and its accompanying reverence. She loved the sound of the stories, even when she did not understand, and in her baby heart was conscious of reaching out into the world beyond her childish experience.
Tell the stories over to the children ; yes, over and over again ; tell the ones that they love and ask for; trust them to discern their own need. And do not forget to read and re-read the Bible stories that in their simple, majestic movement carry our thought and imagination not only into the far past, but forward into the things eternal. The simple truths that have always been the realities of life are told in these experiences of a simple people; they belong to childhood and they can come only through the ministry of the wise, true-hearted mother who discerns and interprets to her children the meaning of life.
And as you tell the story to your Raising Children, know that you are handing on the treasure which your mother poured forth for you in those childhood days when her life was spent in your service. The precious memories which were stored for you in those story-filled twilight hours will descend by true inheritance to your children and your children's Raising Children, and with them blessings far beyond your measuring, for the assured harvest will be a hundredfold.