16 NOVEMBER 1867, Page 11


ONE of the most puzzling of all psychological problems is the difficulty that " grown-np people" feel in understanding children. They have all been children, and one would think they would all retain some faint recollection of the ideas of childhood sufficient to make them fair, or tolerant, or kindly, or at the least intelligent, in dealing with their babes. They do not, though. We ask any truth-speaking father of a family, that is, of more than -one child, who may happen to read these lines, whether he ever finds his own experience any help in understanding his children under ten, whether he is not compelled to rely on observation alone, whether there is not a hiatus for which he cannot account between his own recollections and his true childhood? He can remember events, or rather he can remember particular incidents, -as far back as four years old, or, in very rare and exceptional cases, three years old ; but he cannot remember at all what he was mentally like, what his governing ideas were, what were his ruling aspirations. Beyond the age of ten or thereabouts—the actual time fluctuating with every individual—he can remember, and the -remembrance helps him to judge his son or to comprehend his daughter, but before that time memory is of no use to him. He has to judge children, like animals, by acute observation,—the reason why there is such immense difference in the results of observation upon children. It is nearly impossible to get two .people to give the same judgment either on children in the abstract, or any particular description of children, or any indivi- dual child, and quiet people have not yet settled the grand pro- position whether children are bad or good, given to evil which requires repression, or given to good which demands -development. If they remembered anything consecutively con- cerning their own childhood they would know, but they do not remember, or rather, to state the truth as far as we know it, they do not remember until they are old—one reason of the singular -authority the very old exercise over the little ones. They are further removed from -them in ideas, habits, and bearing than

the young father and mother, but they understand and rule them better for all that.

We have been led into these remarks, remarks which will seem to many people to be uttered as completely in vacuo as the first paragraph in a Times' leader, by Mr. liacdonald's effort to describe minutely an old-fashioned child. We dare say he thinks his new novel, Guild Court, is about something else, and that reviewers ought to discuss his account of love and lovers ; how Thomas, defaulting clerk, was redeemed by his love for Lucy—kissable person of good instincts —and all that7but the real object upon which he has spent his genius—and it is genius, and how the deuce he conceals it from a Dissenting congregation we cannot imagine !—is the portraiture of two children, Mettle Kitely, an " old-fashioned " child, as nurses with brains would say ; and Poppie Nobody, a' child of the streets, with nothing in her but nature, left as un- trimmed as her curls, which on one celebrated occasion,—Mr. Macdonald is an atrocious realist, whom every woman ought to scold,—took two hours in cleaning. With Poppie we have very little to do. People who really know the street life, Lord Shaftes- bury, for example, might find fault with her, but to us her por- trait appears as nearly perfect as anything we are att all likely to see—a genuine Murillo, with a fresh glaze. But Mattie is not so perfect, by any means. We suppose Mr. Macdonald sketched her from some child whom he knew very well, else why did he intro- duce her, but as a type-child of the kind she seems to us defective, wanting in reality and truth. She is to be, as we understand her, an "old-fashioned child," and so she is in a way, and a very charming little priggish pet besides, for whom fathers may well be grateful to Mr. Macdonald,—mothers will prick him with their breast- pins,—but somehow she is not of the real sort. The original may have been like her, but then she was an original, an excep- tional person, differing altogether from the regular genus. The true old-fashioned child, is before all things not an actress, and Mattie is, whether Mr. Macdonald knows it or not, an actress. She is the daughter of a small bookseller somewhere or other in the Strand, with a big head and a pale face, and a habit of think- ing, and a tendency to unpleasant reverie about a Being whom she calls Syne, and who, besides persecuting her at times, explains most things she does not like. All that is very well, par- ticularly if we allow that Mattie, though located in London, is essentially a Highland child, taught from the breast to believe all manner of dreams, and accustomed to treat the Devil as an impertinent and wicked, but yet familiar friend. He is in the loch according to Highlanders, children being liable to go too near ; and behind the fern on the mountain, children being apt to wander upwards—vide Geoffry Hamlyn's Australian ex- periences passina, —and under the ryestacks, which are just light enough for children to disturb them in an inconvenient light- someness of heart. So far Mattie is well, but she poses. She does Princess, and is called Princess with her own full consent, while the true old-fashioned child would fume under the title as marking something in her different from other people, like any less flatter- ing nickname. That kind of child does not act, but is infinitely real, striving through her association with her elders, always or almost always the root of old-fashionedness, to be, and not to seem to be, "a grown-up person." All children, it is true, act a little, just as dogs and pet birds act a little. When Mattie, jealous of a friend who has been taken up by a great pro- tector and favourite of hers, goes away bridling, we all catch the genuine expression of childlike feeling. So does the big retriever bridle under the same provocation, and so does the cockatoo, or better still as an illustration, the only bird which really seems human—the raven—but neither retriever, nor cockatoo, nor raven poses for more than a minute, and Mattie does pose, habitually, and at all times. Old-fashioned children think as she does, and get big heads, and grow pale, and recover in the country, where the chickens, and the cows, and the grass make them natural again ; but they do not play parts, and Mattie is always unconsciously playing a part— that of a grown-up person. She calls her father, for example. always "Mr. Kitely," which is acting, while the true childish in- stinct of that kind of being would be to call him by his Christian name, as a half-comic assertion of equality with "grown-ups." "Susan," says a child of the kind, in one of Punch's best recent sketches, to thehousemaid, " /rang. Please take mamma away; she is very cross anddisagreeable ;" and we all know that is natural, but Mr. Macdonald's Mettle would have said, "Please take me away ; I am getting impertinent,"—which is good fun, too, but not of the sort that occurs to children. Mattie has a great friend, a cobbler, and as people cannot, she says, have two fathers, she calls him "Mother," a touch of the most pathetic comedy, but not real, nevertheless. True Mettle would have called her cobbling friend little father, or big father, or out-o'-doors father, or any other sort of father, rather than have lost sight of the reality of things. For the true secret of old-fashionedness in children, if we under- stand it at all—and Mr. Macdonald is quite as likely to understand it as we are—is premature realism, an over early desire to see and to speak of things exactly as they are, and not to yield to "child- ishness." Other children accept what comes; they are always reflect- ing on the explanation of its coming. Such children, for example, have a trick of "talking like grown-up people" which strikes every- body. It is set down very naturally to imitation, but it is not, we suspect, imitation, but a desperate effort to express an idea as cor- rectly as grown-up people do, to use words which, as such children see, are instantly understood, instead of the words which come first. They think it accurate to talk like that, to plead for sweetmeats in long words, and to give orders with the precise sententiousness of their elders. In so doing they are striving to be, not acting, not consistently playing a part, as 3rattie clearly is in acting for weeks the head of the house. So far from losing in after life their pecu- liarities, as they would do if they were acting, they are usually more true at this time to their real nature than in after life they will be. Goethe, perhaps among all great men the one of whom other men know most, was as a child old-fashioned, reflective, given to odd utterances, gravely considerate as to what he would and would not do, liked and did not like. As a young man he was utterly different—an impressionable, natural, pleasure-seeking man ; but the child-nature came back on him with age, and Goethe at sixty-five was Goethe at six plus the necessary development of brain. Manhood was with him the evanescent stage, not child- hood, and so it is, we suspect, with all old-fashioned children. Mettle would have shaken off her slough, have shed her mental skin, not have grown under it. The difference comes out most perfectly, perhaps, in Mattie's religious utterances. "She was not three years old when she asked her mother, a sweet, thoughtful woman, in many ways superior to her husband, though not intellectually his equal, 'Who made the tree in Wood Street ?' Her mother answered, of course, God made it, my pet ;' for by instinct, she never spoke of her God without using some term of endearment to her child. Mattie answered, I would like it better if a man made it '—a cry after the humanity of God—a longing in the heart of the three years' child for the Messiah of God." No doubt some children have occasionally strange religious lights, ideas utterly inexplicable upon any theory of the absorption of ideas from without ; but then they are not old-fashioned, but exceptional children. The true old-fashioned child is realistic, sceptically remarks about the tree, "I don't believe it. Did you see him ?" "Mamma," said a little one of that kind in our hearing one day, "have angels wings ?" "Oh, certainly !" says mamma, full of ideas derived from pictures, "they have wings." "Then what did they want a ladder for to get down to Jacob ?" was the unexpected reply, under which mamma found it quite time for her questioner to go to bed. "If you do that," said a nurse to a child, not long since—and she ought to have been whipped for say- ing it—" Bogey will get you, and what will you do then ?" "Tell the policeman," said the Londoner of seven, serenely confident in his country's institutions, and entirely indifferent to anything he could not see there and then. Such a child has no ready-made little theory of life to which she refers everything, as Mettle refers it to utility, or rather efficiency, but shows her old-fashionedness by her effort to invent sufficient explanations for the phenomena of the day. Mettle, for example, goes to the Zoological Gardens, and after crying over the seal's large brown eyes, by no means a likely display of emotion, visits the ratels, the quaint little beasts with cloaks on their backs, who, as Mr. Macdonald says, "be- lieve in somersaults—that the main object of life is to run round and round, doing the same thing with dedency and order—that is, turning heels over head every time they arrive at a certain spot." These somersaults are, perhaps, the most unintelligible actions per- . formed by any animals ; but this is Mattie's comment :—" They don't make anything of it. They're no further on at night than they were in the morning. I hate roundabouts! Poor little things !" The true child of that sort would have reflected for a week, but she would have found a reason for the eccentric motion, even if it were only one we heard a child utter. He meditated on the ratels all day, and at last, when everybody else had forgotten them, shouted, It propos of nothing, "It's the fleas," an entirely false explanation, but justified to his mind by his knowledge of little dogs. Mattie's mind, to use big words, is essentially constructive, while the regular old-fashioned child is, we take it, essentially analytic, occupied not with an effort to make appearances har- monize, but to find out, in some cases by reflection, in others by incessant questioning, what appearances really mean.

And yet, when all is said, Mr. Macdonald may be right, for no man recollects his childhood, children write no autobiographies — Dr. John Brown's Marjory was scarcely a child—and no man's thoughts about children can ever be more than the conclusions of an experience as limited as the conclusions of an ethnologist would be if he had only studied one clan.