The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Some Thoughts on Reading with Our Children.

By Dr. Alexendar Whyte.
Volume 15, Number 1, 1904, pg. 536-540

[Alexander Whyte, 1836-1921, "was widely acknowledged to be the greatest Scottish preacher of his day." He was married and had eight children; some were still young enough to be living at home when this was written.]

In thinking over my subject, I have been led to take it up in a somewhat experimental and autobiographical way. At the same time, I shall do my best to be like Bishop Butler in this respect, at any rate, of whom one of his biographers says that Butler was sufficiently personal in his books without being too much egotistical. I do not pretend that I have found out the very best way of reading with my children; but I can say, with some good conscience, that I have given a good deal of thought, and time, and expense, to that matter, and I am still doing so. I therefore invite you to confer with me on this most important subject: and, after I have told you some of my ways of reading with my children, you will tell me some of your ways: how you manage, and how you succeed.

(1) And, first, as to some of our ways of reading the best of books at our family worship. We read in the Holy Scriptures every morning and every evening. We all have our own Bible, and we all bring our own Bible with us when the bell rings. And, then, these words of Moses, the man of God, always rise up before my mind as we all meet in my study: these words, "Hear O Israel, these things which I command thee this day shall be in thine heart. And thou shalt teach them diligently to thy children. Thou shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thine house, and on thy gates." Ezra the scribe is my example also at our family worship: "So he read in the Book in the law of the Lord distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading." And Thomas Boston, one of the old evangelical parish ministers of Scotland, has made a great impression on my mind in this same matter of family worship. The readers of Boston's Diary will come continually on such entries as these: "Got good at the exercises"; "Was refreshed and revived at the exercise"; "Came away from the exercise strengthened and set up for my day's work"; "Was sent away from the exercise to an hour of midnight prayer," and so on. "The Exercise," you must know, is an old Puritan and Presbyterian expression for family worship, and Boston's "exercise" was made such a continual blessing both to himself and to his household because he honestly prepared himself for the exercise. Boston never rang the worship bell, morning nor night, till he had read the Scripture passage to himself, and had prepared little questions out of it to put to his children, and to his servants, not forgetting his occasional guests. He prepared little explanations also; as also his family altar prayer out of the psalm that was sung, and out of the Scripture that was read. And this Ezra-like habit of Boston's was so fruitful and so famous that his fellow ministers used to plot how to spend a night under Boston's roof so as to be with him at this family worship. An imitator of Boston, and old class fellow of mine, once wrote me a letter on this matter which began in this way: "Dear Friend -- My last boy is in Christ, and he came to his Saviour at our family worship."

Of late at our own family worship we have been reading the Book of Proverbs in the morning, and the Book of Psalms in the evening. And the Proverbs have yielded us, morning after morning, both entertainment and edification. Most mornings we just read one proverb, and we found one proverb not quite enough to carry away with us. Not every proverb by any means: but one looked out beforehand, and proper to our little party. "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not to thine own understanding. In all they ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct thy steps." And then the beautiful passage in praise of wisdom in the third chapter. And then, compared with that, the magnificent Logos passage in the eighth chapter. Then, another morning, and just as the sun was rising, we read and thought about this: "The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more to the perfect day." "Ponder the path of thy feet," another morning. The ant and the sluggard's garden another morning. And the morning when we came on this; "Righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to any people," I told them that I used to see that text printed at the top of the first page of the Northern Warder of Dundee, a weekly newspaper for which I had to pay threepence every Thursday morning when I was a boy. And that, if nothing else, made them attend to the text. "A soft answer turneth away wrath." "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine." "A wise son maketh a glad father." "How much better it is to get wisdom than gold; and to get understanding is more to be chosen than silver." I well remember the few minutes' talk we had on xvii. 3: "The fining pot is for silver, and the furnace for gold." And on xviii. 24: "A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother." "Train up a child in the way he should go," gave us occasion to consult in the margin, where we found it translated in this way: "Catechise a child." And that led us to Theophilus and his catechism in Luke i. 4: and to Prudence and her catechising of Christian's boys, till she was able to pay this praise to their proud mother: "You are to be commended for thus bringing up your children." Speaking of the margin, it would ill become me not to make thankful acknowledgment of the help we get, literally every morning, from those Bible scholars who made the margins for us, as also drew out the contents at the head of every chapter.

And then when we came to the splendid eulogium on the virtuous woman, they were all quite willing to learn it by heart as soon as I had pointed out some of its exquisite literary beauties, and had told them that the best commentator in all the world has called that chapter a "looking glass" for all good wives and mothers to dress themselves before it, and looking into it. We did not make up many mornings with the Book of Ecclesiastes. But we discovered there the first original of John Bunyan's "Vanity Fair," as also of Thackeray's masterpiece of the same name. And no man, nor woman, nor child, with any instinct for English style -- to speak of nothing else -- could let the Preacher's last chapter pass by without committing it to a lifelong memory: the almond tree flourishing, the grasshopper becoming a burden, the silver cord loosed, the golden bowl broken, the pitcher broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern. And now, by a plebiscite of the whole house, taken for me by one of my happy boys, we have begun the story of little Samuel, and his happy mother, and his so early apprenticeship under old Eli at Shiloh.

In the evening, when the older people in the house are in a more devotional mood of mind, we just take one verse at present out of the Hundred and Nineteenth Psalm. Just one ring each night out of that "chest of gold rings," as Matthew Henry calls it. To the older worshippers in our little sanctuary, that ancient chest has been a rich resort, first of meditation, and then of prayer, for the past weeks and months. On Sabbath afternoons, when I can manage it, I try to have an hour with all my children in some book of their own choosing. In this way we have gone though The Pilgrim's Progress: not as yet a hundred times, like Spurgeon, but several times, and to our every-increasing delight and edification, till we have all learned to exclaim with Ned Bratts in Robert Browning's ballad: --

      "Methinks in this God speaks,
      No tinker hath such powers!"

(2) Our holiday readings together have always been an immense delight to me. I look back to those holiday readings of ours, now in this part of the country, and now in that, with more satisfaction and thankfulness than I can well tell you. And I look forward to our approaching holidays with great expectation. If I am not wearying you, this is what we do, and how we do it.

I select some genuine English classic for each returning summer. I get copies of the most attractive editions of our selected classic, and I put their own copy into the hands of each one of my children. And I get my stationer to prepare as many neat and tasteful and attractive little notebooks as I have children. The notebooks are cut and lettered down the margin so as to make the entry of our notes methodical, and correct, and easy to be recovered when they are wanted. Our notebooks for several years past are now before me, and I find them labelled in gold letters to this effect: "St. Quay, 1900, Milton"; "Inverdruie, 1901, Homer"; "Balmacara, 1902, Caesar and some of his contemporaries"; "Bonskeid, 1903, Quintilian, and his Education of an Orator." And the notebook for 1904 is in the stationer's hands at this moment, with instructions to stamp on its cover this motto in gold: "The Makers of Scotland." For "Caesar and his contemporaries" we read Thomas North's Plutarch, that never-to-be-enough praised English classic; and for "The Makers of Scotland" we are intending to read Sheriff Charles Guthrie's edition of John Knox's monumental History of the Reformation, Mr. Taylor Innes's John Knox, and some other things on Knox, if we have time. All this costs a little money, I admit. But, then, on what better end can money be spent than in training my children into habits of scholarship and of intelligence that will accompany them, and will enrich them, and will be a blessing to them, all their after days?

(3) Another thing: I make a point of calling their attention, according to their years, to the best things that appear in the daily and weekly papers. To the young ones I point out any anecdote, or story, or other illustration of their school lessons, or of our home readings. And to the older ones I point out the best articles in The Athenaum, and The Spectator, and The Speaker, and The Pilot, alas! now no more, and other high-class journals; as also in the monthlies and the quarterlies. Just the other day, out of a single copy of The Scotsman, one of my boys cut an excellent column on ants and their ways, and put it among his memoranda to be read this summer. And out of the same issue he cut an article on John Knox, and placed it in an envelope on my desk, for preservation against my classwork next session on "The Makers of Scotland." And this scholarly little habit lays up well-kept stores of the best things we read in the papers of the day: things that, but for this methodical habit, would all be forgotten as soon as they are read, or remembered only to torture the indolent reader to remember when and where he read something on such and such a subject; something that he has clean forgotten, and cannot now, at any cost, recover.

(4) And then, with all that, I often remind my children, amid the multitude of their books, of Jacob Behmen, an old friend of mine, who used to say that he had no books; but, then, to make up for that want, he had himself. And they will always remember what they copied out last summer about Brutus out of Seneca--how that Brutus never read a book but in order to make himself a better man.

Typed by Monica Cooper, Sept. 2023; Proofread by LNL, Sept. 2023