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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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The Mind of a Child and the Teaching of Religion

by the Rev. J. Kelman, Jun. M.A.
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 341-353


"To give reasons for morality, showing a boy or girl that it will pay, that it will get them on well in the world, etc., is to lend to morality the interest of selfishness. But that is not the proper interest of morality. It has a solemn interest of its own, the awful interest of 'must' and 'ought,' which is the interest of a fate, a necessity, a doom. Consequently, the enforcement of morality should be deliberate, clear, authoritative, final. Small politenesses need to be backed by reasons; great moral principles, never. To obey moral laws in order to gain selfish ends is 'to shoot wild-fowl with diamonds, to knock down fruit with a sceptre.'"


Religious teaching is a branch of education with opportunities, advantages, and difficulties of its own. It is not our present business to discuss these, but rather to insist that it is a branch of education, and therefore a thing to be taken seriously, and, as far as possible, scientifically. It is a work sometimes taken up by Christian people who have no real interest in the mind of a child, and who have never made a study of how it may be interested. To interest children with a view to educating them is the ideal we shall now consider.

Our subject restricts us, in the first place, to the question of interest. The need for this, apart from any other thing, or rather in order to all other things that can be done for children, is paramount. We are apt to forget or undervalue the importance of being interesting. When grown-up people set children to read, and expect them to appreciate, their own favourite books; and, still more, when they use the Bible in punishment, giving a bad boy "a chapter to learn," they are enlisting all the force of the young mind against religion. And it is to be feared that some of our prayers and lessons, if we only knew, simply mean nothing whatever to those who hear them, as is proved too plainly by the discipline needed to keep the class quiet, or the mechanical and stupid questions that sometimes grieve the teacher.

Of course, a certain part of our teaching is, and must be, uninteresting to the children, especially the learning of the Catechism, and perhaps some of the Psalms or verses. A teacher may, indeed, so explain these as to hold the attention of his pupils. But I rather think it is the explanation that is interesting in such cases more than the thing explained. Theological definitions, and expressions of adult experience are not, and cannot be, brought within the child's world. They belong to a world he has not entered yet.

So it would seem that it is not the best plan to try to make this part of the work interesting. We set our children to learn these,--and long may we continue to do so!--not for their childhood but for their after years. All we need to concern ourselves about in this part is, that the words be learned accurately. The meaning will come into them when it is needed. Meanwhile, we should pass on from this pure memory-work generally and concentrate on the interest in the "lesson." The most significant fact in connection with modern developments of the science of education, is its close connection with psychology. It is now many years since [Jean Paul Friedrich] Richter wrote Levana, but that wonderful book is only now being fully appreciated. Later works, among which may be noted particularly Bernard Perez's First Three Years of Childhood, may be said to regard education as an applied psychology. [*When this paper was written, Professor Sally's well known work on the subject had not been published..]

Psychology is the science of the human mind, and the principle which is more and more fully being established is, that the knowledge of the child's mind is the foundation of all right education. The only accurate way of knowing a child's mind is by the study of its development. Accordingly, scientific educationalists begin with infancy, or even with the study of mind in savages and lower animals. They do this that they may see intelligence not formed, but forming, believing that "the only opening by which you can see truly into the mind of the child is from behind." And they are agreed that the characteristics which are most influential in a soul, and which the teacher will find most important, are those which appear earliest; that first impressions are strongest, most formative, and most lasting; that a "circumnavigator of the world gains less culture from all nations taken together than he did from his nurse."

Of course, few of us are in a position to make a technical study of any considerable extent along these lines. There is, indeed, a good deal of delightful literature within the reach of all. But every teacher should, at least, take this point of view for his work, and endeavour to realize, at least from observation, something of the make of the minds he is educating, that he may be able to reach and hold them. It is as essay in this direction that the following thoughts are given, for which much acknowledgment is due to the two books mentioned above.

One by one, as intelligence awakens, ideas come into the empty mind of a child and occupy its spaces. For a long time, the child goes on gathering ideas into his empty storehouse. There is plenty of room for them; they do not as yet crowd each other nor conflict. And while this is so, the child is in what has been called a state of "psychic inertia," and is implicitly trustful. He is taking things as they come. It has not dawned upon him that there is anything else to do. What he is told he believes instantly; what he is bidden (unless it be unpleasant) he does mechanically.

While this receptive condition lasts,--and it lasts more or less until the change come which makes the child into an adult,--the impressions received are strong and intense. It has been pointed out, for example, that a sentry on the battlefield feels the cold of a cold night far less than a baby feels a much smaller amount of cold. The sentry has many thoughts to divert his attention, while the baby has few thoughts, and the sensations he has are, consequently, stronger. This whole period is "the seed time for ideas," and the teacher's first business is to see that right ones enter, and that the wrong ones are kept away. I wish we could sufficiently realize the pathos and the importance of this time of childhood. The child is, as it were, lonely in his thinly-peopled world of ideas. He is eager for new ones, and he utterly and unquestioningly gives himself up to you in trust. You have his mind and soul in your hands. Whatever you do to it, it will bear something of that with it to the grave. Here we are met by a fact in the very make of human nature which is of the first importance. That fact is that certain things are naturally more interesting and vivid to children than others, some of these naturally vivid things being bad, and some good. The growing mind is perpetually under the play of these vivid things which impress it, and from the impressions thus naturally received, it is building up its world of ideas. Now, our task is to educate the growing mind into religious culture by making right ideas interesting to it, and wrong ones uninteresting. But this cannot be done without taking these natural lines of interesting into consideration. The interest of children must be directed from within, by ease, as it were, standing among their natural interests, leading some of them forward into clearer vividness, and others back into indistinctness. A well known preacher is reported to have said in a sermon to parents: "Tell your children that if they want to go to heaven, they must be natural." The saying is relevant here and memorable. Besides imparting new ideas to children, our still more urgent task is to render interesting what is heavenly of thought and character within them. The secret of education has been learned when a child regards the best ideas, not as good things imposed upon him from without, but as the natural favourites of his life within. First of all, then, we have to deal with bad things which are naturally interesting. One of the most vivid natural phenomena of the mind is the morbid fascination which anything horrible, repulsive, or gruesome has for children. Fear is said to be the earliest of the passions to show itself, a fact whose explanation probably lies far back in heredity. The fascination is powerful and terrible accordingly. Looking back into our childhood, most of us picture, with a distinctness that would be priceless if its light fell on sweet memories, this and that thing that terrified us. A dream of some dear one being killed, the furious roar of a nursery chimney when it was on fire, a bad face looking through a window--some such instances will suggest themselves to all.

Much use was formerly made of this source of interest in religious teaching, and teachers will always find it easy to interest children so. It is a temptation, perhaps, to take a quick way of enforcing truth. It seems reasonable to say that if you tell children some horrible thing about sin or some tragic story about the death or punishment of sinners, it will frighten them from the sin. As a matter of fact, it will not do so any more than public executions deterred criminals from crime. The horrible image will be much more vivid than the thought of the sin, and it will live on in memory quite apart from the moral it was meant to teach. We have all known children who lay in bed for many a dreadful hour haunted by some picture of a devil they had seen, perhaps in an old-fashioned religious book; but which of us can point to any child who was kept from any sin by such means? Frightful thoughts and images can do no good of any kind to children. Their power is a survival of hereditary evils and not a legitimate means of education, and our duty with regard to them is to keep them out of children's way.

Another thing naturally vivid to children is pain. Most children are prone to a sentimental interest in whatever is sad. Probably we have all known young children who were fascinated by the most melancholy stories and even poems. Pet Marjorie [Marjory Fleming, who kept a diary until her death at eight years old] was the Genius of an element of sorry that is in all little people. This has proved a temptation to teachers apparently almost irresistible. Most of our children's hymns--and these are often the favourites--are about death and the happy land that is "far, far away." Now, it is easy to trade on this. Nothing is more cheap than to make children cry with touching stories, and, upon rare occasions, it is permissible. But it is well to remember, as Richter tells us, that we owe it to the children that they shall have a joyous childhood. We know not how much sorrow may be waiting them in the years to come. It is a debt which nothing can cancel that they shall have gladness when they can. And Richter also reminds us that to trade upon their childish tenderness is to interest them at the cost of their hearts. The sensitiveness of children, if it be abused, will soon lead to hardening; and the eyes that wept in babyhood over imaginary sorrows, will have fewer tears of sympathy afterwards for real ones. The sentimental side of child-nature should be checked rather than encouraged--never checked by chiding it, still less by mocking, but by giving it little occasion. No teacher should try for it, and, when it comes, it should always be turned into some practical channel. Sentiment of this sort should, in every instance, be guided so as to find outlet in doing something for some actual sufferer. Children's tears and tender compassions are far too sacred to be used as mere expedients for keeping a class attentive. There is another thing that is, in some cases, only too interesting naturally for children. That is impure and sensual thoughts. It goes without saying that the interest of these is the fascination of the serpent, and that the teacher's duty is rigorously to suppress them. This can be done best by simplicity, and by not encouraging curiosity with the impression that something interesting is being concealed. It is a good rule to tell no lies in answer to awkward questions, but it is even a better rule to throw around such subjects no glamour of unholy mystery.

These are all bad things whose interest is natural and strong, but, happily, there are good things whose interest is naturally as great. There is in children a delight in joy as strong as their delight in sorry, and exhaustless hero-worship and a power of admiration as strong as the fascination of the ghastly. We can all recall charming instances of this. There is a familiar story of a child who asked if, when he went to heaven, he would sometimes get a holiday to go down and play with the little devils! but along with that, there always recurs to me a little wistful face and hand pointing out to her mother some long, white fleecy clouds that were floating in the sky. "What are these?" she asked; and on being told that they were clouds, she looked disappointed, and said, "I thought they were the shadows of the angels." Many of the original ideas of children, like Plato's, "dwell in heaven."

The drawback is, that it takes some trouble to get at the beautiful ideas of a child's mind, and to impart it to beautiful ideas so as to make them interesting, while the vulgar and horrible and bad is gaudy and catches the eye easily. Even Dante has succeeded in getting many more readers for his Inferno than for his Paradise. But to take this fact for guide is, to say the least, a lazy man's way of interesting children. A little thought and study will reveal ways of making the fair side of life attractive. Before discussing these, I wish to insist on the fact that it can be done. Selfish and animal though many of a child's instincts are, yet a divine spirit dwells within the house of clay. It is our glory as teachers to set the spirit free. It is the ideal self--and all children are idealists, each along some line. Find out the particular heroic side of life which the child is born to admire, be at pains to catch exactly some aspect of it, and describe it; and the ideal self will break through all the flesh-bonds and leap upwards to it in enthusiastic interest. That is how to raise children above the earth. When they see some ideal of their own lifted up from the earth, they will be drawn after it. They rebel against the evil that is in them and long after the good. And if the whole of any teacher's work results only in giving one living idea to a child--in calling out the ideal self of him--that work is a thousand times repaid. If he can succeed in making courage, or self-sacrifice, or honour, or gentleness, or, better still, the Son of God, in Whom the fulness of all these dwells, permanently interesting to a child, he has not failed in his life-work. "A man," says Richter, "may be governed through his whole life by one divine in age of his childhood." In this work, the teacher can only be the guide, never the creator. The child must idealize for himself; he must be his own poet, his own idealist. From out the multitude of his own ideas some one or other is ever brightening into an ideal for him. The lamplighter, the engine-driver, the doll's house, the new frock--one or other of the ideas is certain to be set upon the throne, and to receive unbounded homage for the time. It is for us to select, and so to present images of things that are pure and lovely and of good report; so to illuminate the walls of the chambers of his daily thought with healthy, manly, and fair images, that these will catch his interest, and some of them will become his ideals.

But how may this be done? The answer is given by the fact that "interesting" here means "vivid." Whatever a child is vividly impressed by will interest him. Of course the most vivid things are concrete things--things that are material and that appeal to the sense. Children's bodies are complete and perfect long before their minds are. All their mental experiences come to them first through sense, and their senses are strong upon them. The first beginnings of intelligence are all sense-impressions, such as hunger, or heat, or cold; and these, which have so long a start in life, retain their vividness all through youth.

Thus, our first necessity is to be concrete in speaking to our children. Take them as they are and utilize this characteristic of their intelligence, avoiding all abstract words--every word ending in "ness," or "tion," or "ism," and the rest of the like properties of the grammars, is useless to them. Do not expect them to be interested in an idea, religious or otherwise, about what cannot be seen, or heard, or handled. Yield to this, and help them to picture to themselves the invisible in what material shapes are most natural and clear. Especially, lead their mind and imagination to the supreme concrete revelation of the Invisible God, which He made when "the Word became flesh." Jesus Christ is God's great concession to the demands of sense. Children, old and young both, can know Him best there--led to Him through sense and imagination, which are the ministers of faith.

Another commonplace, which nevertheless needs emphatic mention, is that things distant, invisible, or unfamiliar, are not naturally interesting to children. The child's world is thinly peopled, but corresponding to the scantiness of his ideas is the vividness of those he has. Whatever a child recognizes as a thing he has had experience of, at once appeals to him as real and is naturally interesting. Everyday things, such as chairs, tables, fire, toys, or food, are invaluable to a teacher, and there is a great art in rightly using them for interest. Introduce such images into your descriptions of lives and scenes unknown to him, and you will make him feel himself at home in the region to which you have led his thought. No greater master of this art could be quoted than Robert Louis Stevenson. "The Land of Counterpane," and "The Little Land," in his Child's Garden of Verses, are masterpieces in the art of making the unfamiliar vivid by the help of the familiar. Sports and exercises are, of course, always interesting, and they are always á propos. Riding, jumping, swimming, even walking--in all of them, there is the whole law and the gospel if, like St. Paul, you know how to find these there. Speak to them of houses and all the works of men's hands, that so the streets may have meaning and intelligence to reveal to them. Especially, enlist Nature in your service, with her living creatures, plant and animal. What child can resist the eloquence of O.W. Holmes' "wooden preachers"--the trees? And where will you find a better ally for imparting any sort of truth than your dog, if you have one and are human enough to see the human nature that is in him? The immense popularity of Uncle Remus bears witness to the truth of this, and an acquantance with his inimitable Ber Rabbit will greatly help the teacher. A famous preacher to children introduced one of his well-known sermons with this sentence: "My dear children, did you ever see a hen?" It was a stroke of real genius. By these means, the far off scenes and even the lofty truths of the Bible may be made to reproduce themselves among the furniture of home. The Fitzroy pictures have achieved this result in a remarkable degree, notable that one entitled The Story of the Cradle, where, kneeling beside the infant Christ; the artist has introduced a little London crossing-sweeper with his rags and his broom. [The Fitzroy Pictures refers to posters or lithographs produced by the Fitzroy Picture Society, "a group of artists dedicated to producing boldly coloured prints that could be sold cheaply to liven up the walls of public institutions such as schools and hospitals." The Fitzroy Picture Society was founded in the 1890s by A.H. Mackmurdo (1851-1943), Heywood Sumner, and a handful of other artists associate with the arts and crafts movement. Miss Mason recommended their work as particularly suited to decorating the nursery in volume 1, pg 309. The Picture Society was described thus on pg 28 in volume 1 of "The Studio: An Illustrated Magazine of Fine Art and Applied Art" (published in 1893, found at Googlebooks): "In these days of cheap colour-printing it has long been a matter for regret, that the few pictures published in large size for the adornment of schoolrooms or similar purposes, were, as a rule, of the ordinary German style, and not peculiarly good at that. The Fitzroy Picture Society, therefore, in issuing a series after originals by Messrs. Selwyn Image, Heywood Sumner, and C. W. Whall, are not merely attempting for almost the first time to produce at a low cost large pictures which are decorative as well as pictorial; but are doing it in a way that leaves little chance of successful rivalry." The Lesson of the Cradle seems to have been done by Christopher W. Whall.]

These methods, it will be noticed, involve a constant reference to the senses. Almost any of the senses will be of use, but some may be more effectively utilized than others. Sound may help to interest, but only in children naturally musical will sound call forth ideas freely. In the case of most children, sound will help more by accent than by sweetness or melody. Speaking should be brightly and carefully done, with lively and flexible intonation, and strong fall of emphasis on important words. The voice and accent in which you teach is well worthy of study and pains.

The sense of smell is a greater force in life than most of us think. "A noseless man is devoid of sentiment," says Rudyard Kipling, and it is an undoubted fact that scents, bad or good, are closely connected with memory, and will recall a past impression so vividly as to become, in some instances, "a presence rather than a scent." If you can associate a beautiful thought in a child's mind with the scent of a familar flower, you may set that thought coming suddenly on him now and then through the long years to come.

But colour is our greatest help. Children think in pictures: their "imagination is an inward seeing rather than hearing." And colour is far more vivid and impressive to the eye than form or outline. All the ideas of children are coloured. There is a quaint volume called The Coloured Bible for the Young, whose wild studies in black and green, etc., are apt to excite the ridicule of adult readers; but it fascinates the children's eyes. Viollet le Duc used to tell how, when he was a child, he was carried into the cathedral of Notre Dame. The organ was playing, and a flood of colours was pouring in upon him through the great stained glass window. The child, gazing at the window, was so filled with its lights that he thought the sound came from it, each note being a separate colour.

Accordingly, colour all your descriptions. Two lines of the old ballad poetry with its "green, green, grass" and "milk-white foam" will tell a story better than pages of uncoloured description. This is one of the reasons why Jesus the Carpenter of Nazareth [by Robert Bird] is so successful a book with children. It is full of colour, sparkling with the reds, and whites, and blues, and yellows, and greens of landscape and clothing.

So far we have referred mainly to the ideas in children's minds, which may be so dealt with as to build up about them an interesting and pure world of knowledge and of thought. There is, however, another great department of education that concerning the stimulating and directing of their moral and mental activities. Here the work is perhaps easier, and less needs to be said. Children are great egoists, and are naturally interested in all that they feel and do and think. The teacher's task is to direct these strong interests to right issues in character and in thought.

The natural instincts and passions are all vividly interesting and the interest of each should be utilized. Take, as examples, three of those which are earliest and strongest, and, at the same time, dangerous, and apt, if unguided, to be disastrous: anger, envy, and impatience. Often these, and other like them, are chances of education thrown away. They are not set within a child simply that he may have the discipline of suppressing them. They may be cultivated to noble purpose. If you can so describe a sin, a meanness, a cruelty, as to make a child thoroughly angry about it, you have done him a great service. If you can get a child to wish with all his heart that he were the one who had done some brave or honourable deed, you may transform an envious little soul into a true knight of the Holy Ghost. And impatience may lend an interest to the dullest of subjects. One can remember the feverish excitement produced by a gift wrapped up in many coverings, which have to be torn off one after another. Such suspense may be easily created. It is wised often "to convert a special object into a riddle, and so make it attractive." Questions that will require a little thought are as easily asked as questions that can be answered by "Yes" or "No." In telling a story, or explaining a truth already familiar, it may, for instance, be advisable to omit the names, and let it be understood that, when the story is told, the children will have the chance of guessing whom it is about. Thus instead of attention flagging at the outset, because the children think they know all about the thing, suspense will sustain interest, and childish impatience will have become an instrument of education.

This has already led us in the direction of mental processes. Indeed, the whole subject of interest is but the "obverse" of attention; and all that has been stated might have come under that heading. It is much to attract the attention of a child, but to hold that attention sustained and steady is far more. This is the hardest demand we can make on young humanity. The attention of a child is naturally scattered. Quick, sudden, unaccountable as the movements of the limbs, are the changes of his attention. His mind cannot help wandering. Among all the many records of juvenile insanity, it is said that there never has been known a case of monomania.

If this difficulty be met by scolding and punishment, silence will be produced, but not interest. If the teacher imitates the child, and flits about unconnectedly from subject to subject, he will produce interest but not education. Yet, a sort of compromise may be come to here. The teaching may be made changeful by breaking it into short pieces. When one piece is finished, break off and appear to start quite a different subject, but lead it back always along its own line to the point you are resolved to impress. A lesson may thus be repeated and pressed home time after time without the loss of interest which is the bane of repetition. Of course, it is evident that this style of teaching involves careful and even elaborate preparation. Another point in this connection will tax the teacher's earnestness even more severely, yet it is worthy of serious consideration. The length of time during which a child will pay attention to any given subject will depend upon the natural make and tendency of his mind.

Each child has his own special and individual line of interest. A good deal of pains may be well spent by every teacher in making himself acquainted with the individual minds under his charge, finding what each is most interested in, and remembering that while instructing them. Every lesson should be carefully planned so as to touch upon the favourite interests of at least some of the children, and sometimes it may be worth while even to continue a line of teaching a little way beyond the point at which it is generally interesting to the whole class.

But, by whatever means attention is to be secured, it is imperative upon the teacher not to give in to the lack of attention, and to become either dull or unconnected and flighty. He is there in order to educate, and that means that certain things are to remain known things as the result of each lesson. The things may have to be few, and they should therefore be well thought out. But no teacher should consent to end a lesson without having taught what he intended to teach.

Besides attention, there are processes of original thinking in a child's mind with which a teacher must deal. Reference has already been made to the starting of such processes by wise questioning. It may be added that sometimes a child's own thought may be stimulated by speaking a little beyond his intelligence. Certainly not often, nor far beyond; but an occasional word or sentence that a child has not understood will sometimes stick to him until he sets about getting at the meaning of it. Most have a curious and well-known delight in long words, and some use, though indeed it must be very cautious and sparing, may be made of this.

Now and then you will find a child in the act of thinking, and get a glimpse into the workings of his mind. Most of our precious child-stories are records of such privileged moments. And they are indeed golden moments for the teacher. Reverence their questions and difficulties, their oddities and mistakes. Never silence them, nor treat them simply as jests and bons mots [witticism]. By all means, take them seriously, and encourage fearlessness of thought. Nothing that a child has thought out for himself is ever really irreverent or trifling, and, by encouragement and sympathy, we may educate him more by one of his own adventures in thinking than by a great deal of other teaching.

Richter makes one striking exception to this rule, which it may be well to leave to the consideration of teachers. His contention is that morality is the one point on which questioning should be suppressed: morality, not conventional etiquette or behaviour. In morality the teacher should be a fate to his pupil. No reasons should be given nor questions allowed; but "It is right" and "It is wrong" should be final. To give reasons for morality, showing a boy or girl that it will pay, that it will get them on well in the world, etc., is to lend to morality the interest of selfishness. But that is not the proper interest of morality. It has a solemn interest of its own, the awful interest of "must" and "ought," which is the interest of a fate, a necessity, a doom. Consequently, the enforcement of morality should be deliberate, clear, authoritative, final. Small politenesses need to be backed by reasons; great moral principles, never. To obey moral laws in order to gain selfish ends is "to shoot wild-fowl with diamonds, to knock down fruit with a sceptre."

One other point must be touched upon, namely, the interest of imitation. Your personality is more vivid to your pupil than your teaching. There is a counter-interest running side by side with the interest you are able to awaken in the subject: he is mainly interested in you.

This has a great deal of teaching for teachers. Anything striking about dress or person, or any little nervous habit of movement in face or hands, may spoil the ablest of lessons. But far more deeply than that does this principle hold. The children are reading their teacher. They are looking into the very depths of his soul and character. Some of them, perhaps, know him better than he knows himself. This leads the teacher solemnly back to his own soul and its own interests. For every man's own interests--the things to which he gives heartiest and most willing attention--these and nothing else are his influence. Too often this is ignored, and people try to make the interests of children and others whom they influence better and purer than their own. It cannot be done, and upon all teachers the responsibility lies of having their own souls such that the interested little souls shall be better for their interest in them. For the atmosphere that a child feels about him in presence of his teacher, and the discoveries he makes in his teacher's soul, are the things which will most strongly fascinate his interest and mould his character.


Proofread June 2011, LNL