Children — a Family Scene
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1854
"As I was saying . . ."
"Miss Jones wore a white figured satin . . ."
"With short sleeves . . ."
"Looped up with a small rosebud . . ."
"I say! mother! mother!"
The child now caught hold of her mother's arm, and shook it violently, in her effort to gain the attention she desired, while her voice, which at first was low, had become loud and impatient. Mrs. Elder, no longer able to continue her conversation about how Miss Jones appeared at the ball — turned angrily toward little Mary, whose importunities had sadly annoyed her, and, seizing her by the arm, took her to the door and thrust her roughly from the room, without any inquiry as to what she wanted. The child screamed for a while at the door, and then went crying upstairs.
"Do what you will," said Mrs. Elder fretfully to Mrs. Peters, "you cannot teach children manners. I've talked to Mary a hundred times about interrupting me when I'm engaged in conversation with anyone."
"It's line upon line and precept upon precept," remarked Mrs. Peters. "Children are children, and we mustn't expect too much from them."
"But I see other people's children sit down quietly and behave themselves when there is company."
"All children are not alike," said Mrs. Peters. Some are more restless and impetuous than others. We have to consult their dispositions, and pay regard thereto — or it will be impossible to manage them rightly. I find a great difference among my own children. Some are orderly, and others disorderly. Some have a strong sense of propriety, and others no sense of propriety at all."
"It's a great responsibility; is it not, Mrs. Peters?"
"It makes me really unhappy. I am sometimes tempted to wish them all in heaven; and then I would be sure they were well off and well taken care of. Some people appear to get along with their children so easy. I don't know how it is. I simply can't."
Mrs. Peters could have given her friend a useful hint or two on the subject of managing children, if she had felt that she dared to do so. But she knew Mrs. Elder to be exceedingly sensitive, and therefore she thought it best not to say anything that might offend her.
There was a quiet-looking old gentleman in the room where the two ladies sat conversing. He had a book in his hand, and seemed to be reading; though, in fact, he was observing all that was said and done. He had not designed to do this, but the interruption of little Mary threw his mind off his book, and his thoughts entered a new element. This person was a brother of Mrs. Elder, and had recently become settled in her family. He was a bachelor.
After Mrs. Peters had retired, Mrs. Elder sat down to her work-table in the same room where she had received her company, and resumed her sewing operations, which the call had suspended. She had not been thus engaged long, before Mary came back into the room, looking sad enough. Instead of going to her mother; she went up to the old gentleman, and looking into his face with her yet tearful eyes, said —
"What, dear?" was returned in a kind voice.
"Something sticks my neck. Won't you see what it is?"
Uncle William laid down his book, and, turning down the neck of Mary's frock, found that the point of a pin was fretting her body. There was at least a dozen little scratches, and an inflamed spot the size of a dollar.
"Poor child!" he said, tenderly, as he removed the pin. "There now! It feels better, doesn't it?"
"Yes, it feels better; thank you, dear uncle!" and Mary put up her sweet lips and kissed him. The old gentleman was doubly repaid for his trouble. Mary ran lightly away, and he resumed his book.
In about ten minutes, the child opened the door and came in pulling the flour-box, to which she had tied a string, along the floor, and marking the progress she made by a track of white meal.
"You little torment!" exclaimed the mother, springing up, and jerking the string and box angrily from Mary's hand. "It is too bad! you know well enough that you had no business to touch this. Just see what a condition the floor is in! Oh dear! Shall I never teach the child anything?"
Mrs. Elder took the flour-box back out into the kitchen, and gave the cook a sound scolding for permitting the child to have it. When she got back, Mary had her work-basket on the floor, rummaging through it for buttons and spools of cotton.
"Now just see that!" she exclaimed again. "There now!" And little Mary's ears buzzed for half an hour afterwards from the sound slap she received.
After the child was thrust from the room, Mrs. Elder said, fretfully, "I'm out of all heart! I never saw such children. They seem ever bent on doing something wrong. Hark! what's that?"
There was the crash of something falling over head, followed by a loud scream.
Uncle William and Mrs. Elder both started from the room and ran upstairs. Here they found Henry, a boy two years older than Mary, who was between three and four, lying on the carpet with a bureau drawer upon him, which he had accidentally pulled out upon himself. He was more frightened than hurt, by a great deal.
"Now just look at that!" ejaculated the outraged mother when the cause of alarm became apparent. "Just look at that, will you? Isn't it beyond all endurance! Haven't I told you a hundred times not to go near my drawers, ha? No wonder that you'd been half killed! There, march out of the room as quick as you can go." And she seized Henry by the arm with a strong grip, and fairly threw him, in her anger, from the chamber.
While she was yet storming, fretting, and fuming over the drawer, Uncle William retired from the room and went downstairs again. On entering the room he had left but a few minutes before, he found Mary at her mother's work-basket again, notwithstanding the slap she had received only a short time before for the same fault.
"Mary," said Uncle William to the child, in a calm, earnest, yet kind voice.
The child took its hands from the basket and came up to her uncle.
"Mary, didn't your mother tell you not to go to her basket?"
"Yes, sir," replied Mary, looking steadily into her uncle's face.
"Then why did you go?"
"I don't know."
"It was very wrong." Uncle William spoke seriously, and the child's face assumed a serious expression.
"Will you do it any more?"
"No, sir." Mary shrank close to her uncle, and her reply was in a whisper.
"Be sure and not forget, Mary. Mother sews with her spools of cotton, and uses her scissors to make little Mary frocks and aprons, and if Mary takes anything out of her work-basket, she can't do her sewing good. Will you remember?"
"Now don't forget."
"And just see, Mary, how you have soiled the carpet with the flour-box! Didn't you know the flour would come out and be scattered all over the floor?"
"But now you know it."
"You won't get the flour-box any more?"
While this conversation was going on, Mrs. Elder came down, still feeling much agitated. After Uncle William had said what he considered enough to Mary, he took up his book and commenced reading. The child stood leaning against him for five or ten minutes, and then ran out of the room.
"How long do you suppose she will remember what you have said?" remarked Mrs. Elder, with a lightness of tone that showed her contempt for all such measures of reform.
"Much longer than she will remember your slap on the ear," was the blunt reply.
"I doubt it. Words make no impression on children."
"Harsh words make very little impression, I admit. For these close up, instead of entering the avenues to the mind. Kind words, and reasons for things — go a great way even with children. How long did Mary remember and profit by your raving, and slap on the ear into the bargain? Not over ten minutes; for when I came downstairs, she had both hands into your basket again."
"The little scamp! It's well for her that I did not catch her at it!"
"It is well indeed, Sarah, for you would, by your angry and unjust punishment, have done the little creature a serious injury. Did you ever explain to her the use of your work-basket and the various things in it, and make her comprehend how necessary it was to you to have every thing in order there, just as you placed it?"
"Gracious, William! Do you think I haven't something else to do besides wasting time in explaining to children the use of everything in my work-basket? What good would it do, I wonder?"
"It would do a great deal of good, Sarah, you may rely upon it, and be a great saving of time into the bargain; for if you made your children properly comprehend the use of everything around them, and how their meddling with certain things was wrong, because it would incommode you — you would find them far less disposed than now to put their hands into wrong places. Try it."
"Nonsense! I have been trying all my life to make them understand that they were not to meddle with things that didn't belong to them! And what good has it done?"
"Very little, I must own; for I never saw children who had less regard to what their mother says, than yours have."
This touched Mrs. Elder a little. She didn't mind sounding off upon the defects of her children, but was ready to stand up in their defense whenever anyone else found fault with them.
"I reckon they are not the worst children in the world," she replied, rather warmly.
"I would be sorry if they were. But they are not the best either, by a long way, although naturally as good children as are seen anywhere. It is your bad management that is spoiling them."
"Frankly, Sarah, I am compelled to affirm that it is. I have been in your house, now, for three or four months, and must say that I am surprised that your children are as good as they are. Don't be angry! Don't be fretted with me, as you are with everything in them that doesn't please you. I am old enough to hear reason, as well as to talk reason. Let us go back to a point on which I wished to fix your attention, but from which we digressed. In trying to correct Mary's habit of rummaging in your work-basket, you slapped her ear, and stormed at her in a most unmotherly way. Did it do any good? No; for in ten minutes she was at the same work again. For this I talked to her kindly, and endeavoured to make her sensible that it was wrong to disturb your basket."
"And much good it will do!" Mrs. Elder did not feel very amiable.
"We shall see," said Uncle William, in his calm way. "Now I propose that we both go out of this room, and let Mary come into it, and be here alone for half an hour. My word for it — she won't touch your work-basket."
"And my word for it, she goes to it the first thing."
"Notwithstanding you slapped her ear for the same fault so recently?"
"Yes, and notwithstanding you reasoned with her, and talked to her so softly but a few moments ago."
"Very well. The experiment is worth making, not to see who is right, but to see if a gentler mode of government than the one you have adopted, will not be much better for your children. I am sure that it will."
As proposed, the mother and Uncle William left the room, and Mary was allowed to go into it and remain there alone for half an hour. Long before this time had expired, Mrs. Elder's agitated feelings had cooled off, and been followed by a more sober and reflective state of mind. At the end of the proposed period, Uncle William came down, and joining his sister, said —
"Now, Sarah, let us go and see what Mary has been doing; but before we enter the room, let me beg of you not to show angry displeasure, nor to speak a harsh or loud word to Mary, no matter what she may have been about; for it will do no good, but harm. You have tried it long enough, and its ill effects call upon you to make a new experiment."
Mrs. Elder, who was in a better state than she was half an hour before, readily agreed to this. They then went together into the room. As they entered, Mary looked up at them from the floor where she was, sitting, her face bright with smiles at seeing them.
"You little . . . "
Uncle William grasped quickly the hand of his sister to remind her that she was not to speak harshly to Mary, no matter what she was doing, and was thus able to check the storm of angry reproof that was about to break upon the head of the child, who had been up to the book-case and taken therefrom, two rows of books, with which she was playing on the floor.
"What are you doing, dear?" asked Uncle William, kindly.
"Building a house," replied the child, the smiles that the sudden change in the mother's countenance had driven from her face, coming back and lighting up her beautiful young brow. "See here what a pretty house I have, uncle! And here is the fence, and these are trees."
"So it is, a very pretty house," replied the uncle, while the mother could scarcely repress her indignation at the outrage Mary had committed upon the bookcase.
The uncle glanced toward the table, upon which the, work-basket remained undisturbed. He then sat down, and said — "Come here, my love."
Mary got up and ran quickly to him.
"You didn't touch mother's work-basket?" he said.
"No, sir," replied Mary.
Mary thought a moment, and then said — "You told me not to do it anymore."
"Because if I take the cotton and scissors, mother can't make aprons and frocks for Mary."
"And if you go into her work-basket, you disturb everything and make her a great deal of trouble. You won't do it any more?"
"No, sir!" And the child shook her head earnestly.
"Didn't you know that it was also wrong to take the books out of the bookcase? It not only hurts the books, but throws the room and the bookcase into disorder."
"I wanted to build a house," said Mary.
"But books are to read, not to build houses with."
"Won't you ask papa to buy me a box of blocks, like Hetty Green's, to build houses with?"
"I'll buy them for you myself the next time I go out," replied Uncle William.
"Oh, will you?" And Mary clapped her hands joyfully together.
"But you must never disturb the books in the bookcase any more."
"No, sir," replied the child, earnestly.
Mrs. Elder felt rebuked. To hide what was too plainly exhibited in her countenance, she stooped to the floor and commenced taking up the books and replacing them in the bookcase.
"Now go up into my room, Mary, and wait there until I come. I want to tell you something."
The child went singing upstairs as happy as she could be.
"You see, Sarah, that kind words are more effective than harsh names with children. Mary didn't touch your work-basket."
"But she went to the bookcase, which was just as bad. Children must be in some mischief."
"Not so bad, Sarah; for she had been made to comprehend why it was wrong to go to your basket, but not so of the bookcase."
"I'm sure I've scolded her about taking down the books fifty times, and still, every chance she can get, she's at them again."
"You may have scolded her; but scolding a child — and making it comprehend its error, are two things. Scolding darkens the mind by arousing evil passions, instead of enlightening it with clear perceptions of right and wrong. No child is ever improved by scolding, but always injured."
"There are few children who are not injured, then. I would like to see a mother get along with a parcel of children without scolding them."
"It is a sad truth, as you say, that there are but few children who are not injured by scolding. No cause is so active for evil among children, as their mother's impatience, which shows itself from the first, and acts upon them through the whole period in which their minds are taking impressions and hardening into permanent forms. Like you, Sarah, our own mother had but little patience among her children, and you can look back and remember, as well as I, many instances in which this impatience led her into hasty and ill-judged acts and expressions that did us harm rather than good."
"It's an easy thing to talk, William. An easy thing to say — Have patience."
"I know it is, Sarah; and a very hard thing to compel ourselves to have patience. But, if a mother's love for her children is not strong enough to induce her to govern herself for their sakes — then who shall seek their good? Who will make any sacrifice for them?"
"Are you not afraid to trust Mary up in your room?" said Mrs. Elder, recollecting at the moment that Mary was alone there for a longer time than she felt to be prudent.
"No. She will not trouble anything."
"I'd be afraid to trust her. She's a thoughtless, impulsive child, and might do some damage."
"No danger. She understands perfectly what may be and what may not be touched in my room, and so do all the children in the house. I wouldn't be afraid to leave them all there for an hour."
"You'd be afraid afterwards, I guess, if you were to try the experiment."
"I am willing to try it."
"You are welcome."
"Henry! Frank!" Uncle William went to the door and called the children.
Two boys came romping into the room.
"Boys," he said, "Mary is up in my room, and I want you to go up and stay with her until I come."
Away scampered the little fellows as merry as crickets.
"They'll make sad work in your room, brother; and if they do, you mustn't blame me for it."
"Oh, no, I shall not blame you, nor scold them, but endeavour to apply some corrective that will make them think, and determine never to do so again. However, I am pretty well satisfied that nothing will be disturbed."
In less than an hour, Mrs. Elder and her brother went up to see what the children were about. They found them seated on the floor, with two or three loose packs of plain cards about them, out of which they were forming various figures, by laying them together upon the floor.
"Why, children! How could you take your uncle's cards?" said Mrs. Elder reprovingly.
"He lets us play with them, mother," replied the oldest boy, turning to his uncle with an appealing look.
"You haven't touched anything else?" said Uncle William.
"No, sir, nothing else. We found Mary playing with the cards when we came up, and we've been playing with them ever since. You don't care, do you, Uncle William?"
"No; for I've told you, you remember, that you might play with the cards whenever you wanted to."
"Can't we play with them longer, Uncle William?" asked Mary.
"Yes, my dear, you can play with them as long as you choose."
Mrs. Elder and her brother turned away and went downstairs.
"I don't know how it is, William, that they behave themselves so well in your room, and act like so many young scamps in every other part of the house."
"It is plain enough, Sarah," replied her brother. "I never scold them, and never push them aside when they come to me, no matter what I'm engaged in doing. I never think a little time taken from other employments thrown away, when devoted to children; and, therefore, I generally hear what they have to say, let them come to me when they will. Sometimes I am engaged in such a way that I must not be interrupted, and then I lock my door. I have explained this to them, and now the children, when they find my door locked, immediately go away. On admitting them into my room at first, I was very careful to tell them that such and such things must on no account be touched, and explain the reason why; at the same time I gave them free permission to play with other things that could sustain no serious injury. Only once or twice has any of them ventured to trespass on forbidden ground. But, instead of scolding, or even administering a reprimand — I forbade the one who had done wrong coming to my room for a certain time. In no case have I had to repeat the interdiction. If I can thus govern them in my room, I am sure you can do it in the whole house, if you go the right way about it."
"You say that you always attend to them when they come to you?" said Mrs. Elder.
"Yes. I try to do so, no matter how much I am engaged."
"If I were to do that, I would be attending to them all the time. I couldn't sit a moment with a visitor, nor say three words to anybody. You saw how it was this morning. The moment I sat down to talk with Mrs. Peters, Mary came and commenced interrupting me at every word, until I was forced to put her from the room."
"Yes, I saw it," replied the brother in a voice that plainly enough betrayed his disapproval of his sister's conduct in that particular instance.
"And you think I ought to have neglected my visitor to attend to an ill-mannered child?"
"I think, when Mary came to you, as she did, that you should have attended to her at once. If you had done so, you would have relieved her from pain, and saved yourself and visitor from a serious annoyance."
"How do you mean?"
"Don't you know what Mary wanted?"
"Is it possible! I thought you learned it when she came to me after Mrs. Peters had left.
"No, I didn't know. What was the matter with her?"
The brother stepped to the door and called for Mary, who presently came running downstairs.
"What do you want, uncle?" said she, as she came up to him and lifted her sparkling blue eyes to his face.
"What were you going to ask your mother to do for you when Mrs. Peters was here this morning?"
"A pin stuck me," replied the child, artlessly. "Don't you remember that you took it out?"
"Yes, so I did. Let me look at the place," and he turned down Mary's frock so that her mother could see the scratched and inflamed spot upon her neck.
"Poor child!" said Mrs. Elder, the tears springing to her eyes as she stooped down and kissed the wounded place.
"Are you playing with the cards yet, dear?" asked Uncle William.
"Do you want to play more?"
"Run along then." And Mary tripped lightly away.
"When the child first spoke to you, Sarah, if you had paused to see what she wanted, all would have been right in a few minutes. Even if her request had been frivolous, by attending to it you would have satisfied her, and been in a much better frame of mind to entertain your friend."
Mrs. Elder was silent. There was conviction in Mary's inflamed neck not to be resisted; and the conviction went to her heart.
"We," said the old gentleman, "who have attained to the age of reason, expect children, who do not reflect, to act with all the propriety of men and women, and that too, without mild and correct instruction as to their duties. Are we not most to blame? They must regard our times, seasons, and conveniences, and we will attend to their ever active needs, when our leisure will best permit us to do so. Is it any wonder, under such a system, that children are troublesome? Would it not be a greater wonder were they otherwise? We must first learn self-government and self-denial — before we can rightly govern children. After that, the task will be an easy one."
Mrs. Elder stayed to hear no more, but, rising abruptly, went up into her chamber to think. When she appeared in her family, her countenance was subdued, and when she spoke, her voice was lower and more earnest. It was remarkable to see how readily her children minded when she spoke to them, and how affectionately they drew around her. Uncle William was delighted. In a few days, however, old habits returned, and then her brother came to her aid, and by timely uttered counsel, gave her new strength. It was wonderful to see what an improvement three months had made, and at the end of a year, no more loving and orderly household could be found. It took much of Mrs. Elder's time, and occupied almost constantly her thoughts; but the result well paid for all.
Thinking that this every-day incident in the history of a friend would appeal strongly to some mother who has not yet learned to govern herself, or properly regard the welfare of her children — we have sketched it hastily, and send it forth in the hope that it may do good.