In a letter on some remark about children in my first book a most kind and able woman wrote to me as follows: 'The only point on which I do not quite agree with you is where you say you cannot judge of a child's character before twelve. When I look back to my early childhood I can see how exactly I and my brothers and sisters were as little children what we are to-day. What I do think is that, from about twelve to twenty-two or three, or even twenty-eight, a certain deflection takes place; but as one fully develops, one returns to what one was as a little child. I know that I am to-day far more like what I was at seven years old than what I was at sixteen. The child is father to the man, not to the youth. Of course you must be keen enough to read the child's character. Children are such mysterious things that few grown-up people, even those who are keen readers of adult character, can understand them.'
So far as I understand what is called 'the New Education,' it does not mean knowledge-teaching at all, but the developing and fostering the good qualities that are born in a child, and so keeping under the evil propensities which are equally born in it. In fact, to make grow and develop what is actually there in the best way you can; not try to cram in, as into an empty sack, what you think ought to be there.
Some years ago the 'Pall Mall Gazette' used, from time to time, to contain charming original articles on various subjects. Among my cuttings I find the following, so true to child life that I think it will rejoice everyone who cares to understand children. This study is really only just beginning to be approached, as it should be, with the humility that belongs to great ignorance and non-understanding:
'It has often been remarked that one half of the world does not know how the other half lives, but it is curious enough that this should be the fact about a half of the world who share our homes, who occupy our thoughts and who possess our hearts, perhaps, more entirely than do any other earthly objects.
'The world in which our children really move and live is as remote and unvisited by us as the animal kingdom itself, and it is only now and then that a chance glimpse into the working of their minds makes us realise the gulf that separates us. They can come to us, but we cannot go to them; nor are they, indeed, without that touch of contempt for us and our affairs which might naturally be considered the exclusive privilege of the elder and stronger beings. "Don't disturb poor father; he is reading his papers," is a sort of counterpart to "Oh, let them play; they are doing no harm." When we cast a reminiscent glance over our own childhood we realise how solitary were its hopes and its occupations, shared at most by one of our own age - a sister, a brother, or a friend. The elders appear from time to time as the di exmachinâ of our existence, for redress or for deliverance. We remember them as teachers, as purveyors of pleasure, often as separators of companions and terminators of delights, but rarely as sharers in our most exquisite amusements. "What will mother say?" had about it a half-gleeful anticipation of disapproval, seldom destined to be unfulfilled; and that not because of any severity on the part of the parent, but from a radical want of sympathy with the first principles of enjoyment. Wet, dirt, fatigue, a very little danger, late hours - all were in themselves positive pleasures, and with some this flavour lingers till far on in life; but as a rule you cannot depend upon a grown-up person not really preferring to be warm and dull and dry, to any discomforts you can offer him.
'Then what a strange twilight reigns in children's minds! What dim mysterious associations of words and phrases lost to us through the garish light of grammar or of a clear and positive orthography! Now and then across the years comes a memory of difficulties never guessed at by anyone but ourselves. How surprising it was to hear of people with broken arms or legs, which members nevertheless were not visibly severed from their persons nor lying on the floor, as in the more rational world of dolldom! And what mysterious and terrible fate did "being killed on the spot" signify? What spot? or, rather, which spot? for we invariably referred it to some bodily blemish of our own.
'Holy Writ, of course, offered countless problems to the imagination, and so did the services of the Church. The collects were fraught with a meaning their authors never dreamed of. "The ills which the devil Orman worketh against us" referred, we knew well enough, to the deadly practices of some bottled Jinn or Efreet; and one companion has since confessed that the Pontius Pilate alluded to by the congregation every Sunday was for him the Bonchurch pilot, strayed into strange company no doubt, but one with whom he had established friendly relations during the week. "Keep thy servant from consumptions sins," we said devoutly, for doubtless a consumptions sin was connected remotely with the store-room.
'What confusion must have reigned in the mind of the white-robed infant we once heard murmuring at his mother's knee the following invocation:
Tiger, tiger, burning bright,
Through the darkness, be thou near me!
And how fortunate that prayer is not always directly answered! The words our children use are generally direct and picturesque, coined with a view to their expressive value. We know few terms more felicitous than "a sash-pain," by which a child (the sex is evident) was in the habit of alluding to one of the ills to which flesh is heir. A "rocking-bed" is a better name than a hammock, and a "worm pool" is evidently the Early Saxon rendering of a whirl-pool, or why should you be in danger of being sucked down by it? A "poor wheeler" delicately suggests the moral inferiority of square cabs to hansoms. What can be better than a child's definition of drawing: "First you think about something, and then you draw a line round your think"?