The Child and the Imaginative Life

TWENTY years of more or less constant companionship with children have made me realize that their widely differing natures are not easy to understand, and that generalizations about their training and growth are not likely to be of practical value; but so many years of wonderful friendship make me watch each new child with the interest one feels in the wellknown characters of a familiar story. The child life repeats itself, only with the changes that come from changed conditions and surroundings. There seems, however, to be one continuing influence on the children I have known in two periods of ten years. That influence in each child is his imaginative life.

Before the child’s mind is strong enough to meet and grapple with the facts of life, the most real facts to him are what he calls “make believe.” This phrase is suggestive because while the word “make” here means imagination, the word “believe” stands for what he thinks is real. Any one who goes back to the time when he was a child can bear witness to the reality of this imaginative life. To most people who have had a real childhood, not cramped by overwork, physical or mental, or starved by sordidness, or filled with an intellectuality beyond their years, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are not far afield, the children of Mr. Kenneth Grahame’s Golden Age are real people, and Peter Pan is more than a delightful play. Lewis Carroll and Mr. Grahame and Mr. Barrie have all told the truth, because, with real children, things are always being “made believe” just a little different from what they actually are. Playing house in a figtree where your roof is made by broad leaves, and where wide branches make your floor, your successive stories, your easy stairways; playing ship on a sofa or in an invalid’s chair; playing street-cars with chairs for horses, and quarreling as to which child should be conductor and which driver,— but that was before the days of electricity; playing that you are a horse eating hay in your stall, — “a real horse, you know,” as a child said to me last summer; playing wild animals in the most gruesome places until you are paralyzed with terror and afraid of yourself in the dark; “making believe” in every instance that you are grown up or different from what you really are, — that is a wonderfully rich life. You can be anything you like; for once you are not hemmed in by facts. Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses is full of these happy days, of shadows and dreams and unseen playmates, of the most real thoughts of real children. There could hardly be a more perfect description of the return of a child from the imaginative to the real life than his poem, “My Kingdom”: —

Down by a shining water well
I found a very little dell,
No higher than my head.
The heather and the gorse about
In summer bloom were coming out,
Some yellow and some red.
I called the little pool a sea ;
The little hills were big to me,
For I am very small.
I made a boat, I made a town,
I searched the caverns up and down,
And named them one and all.
And all about was mine, I said,
The little sparrows overhead,
The little minnows too.
This was the world and I was king ;
For me the bees came by to sing,
For me the swallows flew.
I played there were no deeper seas,
Nor any wider plains than these,
Nor other kings than me.
At last I heard my mother call
Out from the house at evenfall,
To call me home to tea.
And I must rise and leave my dell,
And leave my dimpled water well,
And leave my heather blooms.
Alas ! and as my home I neared,
How very big my nurse appeared,
How great and cool the rooms !

One might multiply instances endlessly to show how children naturally turn away from the actual to the things they cannot see with the physical eye or hear with the physical ear or touch with their hands; how children in their play turn away from the facts of life. But the boy grows to the age when facts begin to interest him, — when his imagination takes the direction of investigation; he builds a boat and sails it, or he takes to pieces his mechanical toy to “see the wheels go round;” but with the children of whom Stevenson and I have been thinking, the age of fact does not come first.

The age of fact comes early to many children in these days when scientific discovery and the accumulation of fortunes make luxuries common even in simple homes. The conditions of modern life do not leave children long in a state of imaginative simplicity. Everything comes too easily; toys and amusements still more unimaginative are multiplied; the tangible things in life are ever present; the very development of the child, his dancing lessons, his riding lessons, his outing classes filling every afternoon, give him little time to fall back on his own resources, to direct even his own play, much less to think for himself; and the eager, questioning child who would once have been satisfied to be told that some questions have no answers, is told to-day that perhaps, not now, but some day, science will give him his answer, and science becomes the measure of his life; fact becomes his end; he must hold the stars in his hands. And this questioning child of the age when imagination is taking the form of scientific investigation and discovery is not different in nature from the child of a less complicated age, but he is different because of his bringing up. Usually he is studied from a pyschological point of view; he is the most important person in the family, far more important than his father or grandfather who had no one to study them psychologically, no one to wonder what attitude of mind was represented by this or that spontaneous action of theirs; who were simply given certain elemental principles of right and wrong and made to follow them with little questioning of authority, when the twentieth-century child is likely to be reasoned with, apologized to, allowed to follow the line of his own development, even if that self-development leads a child to say with perfect unconsciousness of any disrespect, “Mother, how can you be so silly?”

It is perhaps not unnatural that the growth of fortunes should bring the facts of life early before the minds of children, and that, as a result, there should be a tendency towards materialism in even a child’s point of view. Not long ago I heard two girls of six and seven talking on a country road. They were children whose parents were amply able to give them whatever they thought best for them to have. The first child said, “ How can we make some money ? I tell you what, Mary, we must sell your radishes as soon as they are ripe.” Mary answered sadly, “I wish Aunt Susan were here; she buys radishes like the dickens.” Now these children at this early age were discontented with their weekly allowance, and finding that they could not get more from their parents, decided to sell to the neighbors; and their parents, wishing them to develop themselves and to learn by experience, did not prevent their doing so. I have seen these children trying to sell a small bunch of nasturtiums in a neighborhood where nasturtiums were plentiful and where nobody could possibly want to buy them. If, therefore, they induced any one to buy their nasturtiums, they would merely be taking the money as a gift, and the form of selling would be a farce. Were not these children getting a false idea of making money honestly ? Children brought up in the presence of too many things naturally drift into thinking about getting and gaining instead of giving, and in the instance cited the desire to get and gain was at the expense of a clear understanding of the truth.

The use of the word “truth” brings me to the trait that parents usually think of as the first to be developed in children. I say “developed” because the truth can hardly be taught to children. A sense of truth is a habit of mind, and much of the untruthfulness which is called a moral fault comes really from a failure to see straight. So often, when a person does something which, to use a very expressive piece of slang, is not “on the square,” the cause can be traced to that person’s failure to look at things on a level, an incapacity to see things in their real relation to each other. Facts may be isolated, but principles grow out of facts related. It is the constructive power of the imagination that makes this relation plain, — the best illustration of which is the development of science. Of course the first thing a child has to be taught is to see an object and to express in one single word the truth concerning that object. The object may be himself. Tennyson expresses it in this way: —

The baby new to earth and sky,
What time his tender palm is pressed
Against the circle of the breast,
Has never thought that this is I;
But as he grows he gathers much
And learns the use of I and me,
And finds I am not what I see,
And other than the things I touch.

This is the way the child begins to see things in their relation, and gradually he learns that truth is likely to be relative rather than absolute — the whole truth, that is the truth in its relation to other things, may be different from the truth as a separate fact; and furthermore he learns that a fact in itself entirely true, if told out of its relation to other facts, may misrepresent the case. He learns all this, however, through the imaginative faculty; he comes through imagination into a fuller understanding of the truth. This aspect of the imagination, however, does not go beyond the bounds of fact, but merely brings related facts together. An uncontrolled imagination, on the other hand, may never see the fact as it is, but out of all proportion to the truth. Allowing the imagination to be unbridled brings about a fallacious habit of thought, and after a while the child becomes a grown person without any sense of truth. There are a great many people who from habit have become like that tribe of Cæsar who are remembered because “what they wished they believed.” The child has to learn from the first to look at things squarely just as they are, to think 2X2 =4, just 4, no more, no less; but all children who are quick at figures are not quick in this sense of fact in everyday life. The difficulty seems to be to know how to teach a child to think squarely. Parents and teachers are likely to go to one extreme or the other; either they are so literal-minded that from inheritance or training the child never gets beyond 2X2=4 in his entire conception of truth; he never has a chance to look beyond mere facts, facts of history perhaps, or of science, or of everyday life, but thought of as facts isolated and unrelated; or else the parents, more loosely imaginative, teach the children so little of hard fact and accuracy of thinking, and allow them to grow up with so much of hazy indefiniteness in their habit of mind, that they are without the very foundation of truth. The types of the schoolman and the mystic are not confined to the middle ages or the schools of philosophy. It seems to me that a regulated imagination ought to mean just a sane understanding of the truth. This does not mean “ the fine frenzy” of the poet, the sense that can perceive “ the light that never was on sea or land.” That gift belongs to rare natures and is a higher development of the imaginative life; but I do not believe that any one can have a healthy conception of the truth of any situation in life without using the faculty of imagination. As an instance where lack of imagination really hinders a perception of truth, one of my eight-year-old friends does not like to say “Thank you,” or “Please.” His parents, belonging to the literal-minded type of which I spoke, will not insist upon manners which go against real feelings. According to their theory, the child who is developing naturally must express what he feels and nothing else; any other course is insincerity. It seems to me that this is a plain case where the literal fact is not the whole truth. The surly feeling on the child’s part is wrong from the bottom, and is the point to attack. The child has to become accustomed to use his imagination so as to put himself in the place of the person doing him the favor for which “Thank you” is the natural response. The only way to teach a child the meaning of such a human feeling is to bring him up with the constant habit of doing for others. When by experience he has learned the satisfaction that such service brings, he will not be slow about saying “ Thank you,” or “ Please; ” he will be able to imagine how the other person feels, and what is called “ manners ” then becomes the expression of his actual feeling. Teaching manners to children has always seemed to me only just one of the obvious ways of teaching them self-control, because it is important to realize that the line is very fine between what is often called sincerity and what really is want of self-control. Merely as a matter of expediency, the farsightedness of the kindness that spares a person’s feelings at the expense of truth may always be questioned; but even children can learn that selfishness expressed in a frankness that is brutal must not be confounded with sincerity. When there is any danger of this being the state of a young child’s mind, it is high time to teach him to put himself into the other person’s place; then good manners become only another illustration of what is meant by using the imagination to get a conception of the whole truth.

The words putting one’s self into another person’s place bring me to another trait of character dependent on the faculty of imagination. In a little country church I once heard an old-fashioned preacher say that if he were one of the fairy godmothers at a christening he would make sure of one gift for the princess, — imagination in the form of sympathy. Then he went on to show how, of all the ways in which the imaginative life expresses itself, the most practically useful for every human being in everyday life — no matter what his calling — is the power of feeling with others. Feeling for people does not mean the same thing, but the gift is there when one man is able to put himself into the place of another, when, in imagination, he can feel in the life of another what he has never known by actual experience in his own life. The Wise Man of history asked for this gift when he prayed for “a wise and understanding heart ... to discern judgment.” He saw the whole truth when he recognized the fact that without “understanding” every judgment is “ignorant.” The worldly, materialistic Solomon, with his provisions for one day of “ thirty measures of fine flour, ten fat oxen out of the pasture and an hundred sheep, besides harts and gazelles and roe-bucks and fatted fowls,” felt his limitations in the imaginative life when he tried to understand the truth in its relation to other people; he did not wish to render ignorant judgments. He showed what use he made of his understanding heart when he ordered the sword to be brought so that he might render his historic judgment in favor of the true mother. It is surprising in what different aspects of life the “understanding heart” or its absence is felt. This is the trait that makes one man of business more valuable than another when, by quickly puting himself in the place of the other person, he can deal with men of temperaments and conditions entirely different from his own; it is the gift of the physician who knows how to bring back the courage and hopefulness that his patient is losing ; and, though widely different in degree, it is the same in kind as the power that made Fra Angelico just once put into his painting of Mary and the Child Jesus, in “The Flight into Egypt,” the feeling of the real mother; just the same sympathy that Chaucer had with Constance when she says to her baby, —

“ Pees, litel sone, I wol do thee non harm.”
With that hir kerchef of hir heed she breyde,
And over his litel yën she it leyde ;
And in hir arm she lulleth it ful faste,
And in-to heven hir yën up she caste.

Here are instances in which men have put themselves, in imagination, into situations in which they could never have been; and by sympathy they have been able to express the truth in relation to the other person. It is the human trait that is essential in every philosophy that has lived. It is precisely this same power of imagination which made it possible for Christ to understand experiences that he never had, and to take other people’s points of view without losing his own. This trait in his character has made men come irresistibly under an influence, lifted so far above the common dull literal-mindedness, that people have described his nature by the expression, “the divinity of Christ,” a phrase that, accepted too literally or too symbolically, has divided Christendom. With the growth of the imaginative life such separation must disappear.

But all this imagination in the form of sympathy seems to belong to grown people. Solomon’s “understanding heart” came with maturity; Fra Angelico was an ascetic; Chaucer was a man of the world.

One might naturally ask, What has all this to do with children? The only answer must be that such a gift as sympathy, if not developed in childhood, can never become a part of a person’s nature. The most selfish, unloving, unsympathetic children I have seen are those who are brought up by unimaginative parents, never made to have obligations of respect for others or taught to make opportunities for serving others, never having heard of putting themselves into the place of another. It is not uncommon to hear a child say, when told not to do something disagreeable to another child, “Why, I should n’t mind if anybody did that to me.” I think a child has to be trained from the beginning to see things from another person’s point of view. That is the only way to teach unselfishness; he must learn that all children do not feel as he does, or like the same things, or mind the same things; and that sort of difference in feeling has to be looked out for in play unless people are willing to have children who will grow up unable to go beyond their sense of fact, who never can see the truth except in its relation to themselves. I believe that, next to a sense of truth, without which sympathy degenerates into sentimentalism, a faculty of understanding human beings and feeling with them is the power most important for any child or man to have, for his own usefulness.

There is another trait that is more lost among the growing young Americans I see than almost any of the big qualities that go to make nobility of character, — a trait belonging to the imaginative life perhaps even more directly than a large sense of truth and sympathy; and it seems to be dependent on both. This trait is reverence. I hardly know how to begin to talk about reverence; it does not belong to the unrest of the age of motor cars; it is not marked in the child who with utmost geniality, says, “Hello!” to every older person he meets; it is seldom a companion to any sort of familiarity; it does not flourish where there is little or no aloofness in each man’s life; it is not the result of leveling in places where, as Professor Münsterberg says, nature did not mean equality to exist, as in the relation between parent and child; it does not come from making everybody equal to everybody else; and yet it seems to be one of the silent laws of nature. Reverence does not seem to thrive in the presence of too many tangible things. The word is usually applied to the feeling men have for something they recognize as higher than themselves: reverence for laws and institutions and places set apart by their sacredness; reverence in the presence of the great forces of nature which represent a hidden power behind. The word “respect” is probably what St. Paul meant when he spoke of “in honor preferring one another,” this being the feeling that ought to exist between equals. I think the word “reverence” is associated less with the patent facts than with the hidden forces of life. The modern American child has little occasion to feel reverence; he is left too little alone; he lives so constantly among things and so little among thoughts; his day is too full of facts. There is school, where all his nervous energy is strained to respond to the training of his eye, ear, and hand. The goal of the school is passing college entrance examinations. The necessary drill in facts leaves little time for thoughts, and at home the father, engrossed in his business, and the mother, in her clubs and philanthropy, are too busy to think. The child who used to have his mother for a companion, who used to learn all the stock of children’s stories from her, has in these days an outing-class teacher, young, athletic, buoyant, in every way estimable, but not the child’s mother. In many cases she would not know how to take him out and be interesting to him, because the power of winning children comes from the faculty of attention, taking the mind away from all other things and “stretching it” to their interests. The woman who can do this, by becoming a child with children, wins them irresistibly. It is just the same power she uses, however unconsciously, when she holds her own in the society of men. It takes time, and even if the mother knew how to give herself up in this way to her children, in many instances she would not have time. She has to run schools to train the immigrant in the industries of this country, or she has to serve on a playground committee, or on the board of the Good Government Association, or attend the meetings of the Woman’s Trades Union League. Now any of these objects if attended to must take the mother away from the children. To do any piece of work, the mind has to be on that work, and when the mothers are engrossed in these philanthropic matters, they cannot concentrate their thoughts on the biggest job of all, the work nearer home and far less commonplace, of learning to understand their own children. And in the mean time the children have their dancing classes, their riding lessons, their outing classes, to keep them busy. Little time is left them to play without direction. Because the parents are so anxious to develop the children, self-development in its truest sense is hampered. The child constantly in the presence of things grows up to feel that he sees everything; he grows up without any sense of wonder; his questions are almost all answered by facts. What facts ? I have said that the facts of science, so far as he can grasp them, become the measure of the child’s thought; but then he has to be told that science is constantly making new discoveries which modify what only yesterday was taught as truth. It is easy to see that an immature mind might not feel any particular reverence for mere law as law, even laws of nature, when he learns that these laws are subject to change. The one essential element in anything that is to inspire reverence is some sort of stability, — not physical stability, but something in thought that is steadfast and immovable as “the everlasting hills.” And yet the modern child, no matter how ignorant the parents, grows up in an atmosphere strongly tinged with the influence of positive knowledge as a final explanation of life. A child is not mature enough to realize that the laws of nature do not change ; it is only that we learn more about them ; his mind is hardly prepared to be let into the mysteries of these laws of which science is only the reverent formulation.

In the presence of so much fact and so little imagination, the effect of a reverent belief in a power behind law is scarcely felt. The parents, too, so much under the influence of things, have such cramped imaginations that it is not surprising when the form of belief known as faith is no longer theirs to pass on to the children as a tradition; and without that faith, I do not see on what ground they can hope to teach children respect for their fellow-men, which seems to be strong among those people who hold to the belief that man is made in an image higher than himself, — hence his selfrespect and his respect for others. What I have been trying to say has been clearly illustrated by a modern educator who, in speaking of the Jewish influence on religion, cited reverence as the trait in the Jew that had made his religion fit to become the basis of modern thought. The Hebrew God was not a force of nature or a personified quality represented in tangible or heroic form, but rather a hidden power, although a real personality, whose striking qualities were aloofness and mystery. Yet to the Hebrew his God was the strongest force in his everyday life, and the soul of man was recognized as akin to his Maker in such a way that every man had his personal rights, his apartness, his separation, his individuality. Out of this apartness grow self-respect and respect for others. The people who are going so far from this old doctrine of apartness, who have grown too sophisticated, and too self-satisfied ever to wonder what is at the end of the rainbow or beyond the mountains, “in the land that is very far off,” cannot, as an Irish writer has recently said, inspire poets; and their children, brought up so close to fact that even they cannot wonder, must be wanting in reverence, without which they can never understand the real value of any truth.

But when a sympathetic understanding of the truth of a great principle does fill a man with reverence for something that he feels is higher than himself, this principle is likely to influence the man’s life. Sometimes the principle is love of country or of fellow men or of some individual, or it may be religion; whatever the subject of the allegiance, the moment it becomes a law of life to which the person in question is obedient, another trait is developed which is the direct outgrowth of the sense of truth, sympathy, and reverence. This trait is loyalty: according to its derivation, obedience to law. In its fine flower loyalty comes with maturity; but on the other hand, from its very nature, it is a quality that can never belong to the man, if it was never known to the child.

To any children brought up in the atmosphere of such stories as the “Round Table” legends or Scott’s novels or poetry, the word loyalty does not have to be explained. A train of pages, squires, knights, and nobles, honoring their king, makes a vivid picture full of the life and color that glow in Abbey’s frescoes of the Holy Grail. The days of chivalry and romance are full of illustrations of loyalty; so that to the keen, imaginative sense of a child, loyalty, of all the traits I have mentioned, is the one he would probably understand with the least explanation. Children love stories, and there are just as many stories of loyalty as there are heroes, martyrs, and saints in history, — men who first grasped the idea of allegiance to some large truth, having recognized this truth in its relation, and by sympathetic understanding have entered into the spirit of this truth, to hold it sacred and, if necessary, die for it. The nation brought up to revere its heroes and to value the traditions and customs and institutions that have not become outworn with time, must be a people with whom the imaginative life is strong, because literal-minded people rid themselves of the fetters of their customs and traditions, crying out for a liberty that is manifest. The more imaginative people value the symbolism of their customs and traditions and institutions, and often revere the thing signified after the usefulness of the symbol seems to have passed away. The nation or the institution that has the power to make people see farther than the law, the mere shadow of the truth behind, is bound to have loyal supporters, because such a nation or institution is more than a bare fact in the life of the people; it must be something that stands for the truth as they see it, — a living truth growing with the needs of changing conditions.

This trait of loyalty to friends, to country, to religion, is not common enough to pass as unnoticed as some of the other qualities I have named, which are accepted more as matter-of-course virtues. The reason loyalty is so striking a trait is not because people are often unfaithful in their allegiance to what they believe to be true and right, but rather because it is a rare gift when a nature intense enough to care deeply for any great cause, can care sanely and reasonably. Many people who are called “loyal” are obedient merely to the law as a fact, not to the truth behind the law of which the law is only the symbol. Such mistaken loyalty is not loyalty at all, but bigotry. Real loyalty is faithfulness to the thing signified in any great principle or institution or relation. Such faithfulness could never mean shutting one’s eyes to the truth on any occasion when truth is violated or not faced. Loyalty seems to me to be a trait that would become a part of children’s nature with the growth of the imagination. Of all the traits I have mentioned it would appeal most to a child’s mind, illustrated as it is in the picturesque pages of history; and it is the trait that can be most readily learned by example. When loyalty is not cramped by bigotry or any other form of narrowness, it is the biggest of traits, because it includes so many others; it means a sense of truth and sympathy and reverence united with faithfulness; and since it is one of the expressions of the imaginative life that belongs to a child by right, it is easy to see why it could hardly come with maturity, like such qualities as tranquillity and serenity. For the child’s own happiness then, let him add to his sense of truth, his sympathy, his reverence, a loyalty that is a rarer trait because it comes from a higher imaginative life.

In trying to illustrate what I mean by bringing children up in an unimaginative way, I have not told the whole story of child life as it is now. The parents are not all gone who are doing their utmost to keep from their homes the undue influence of “things.” There are still “treehouses” and “unseen playmates” and wild animals far more real than pets. Not very long ago a small boy, now a sophomore in Harvard College, made Sunday hideous at home by engaging with another boy in the fight between the Philistines and Israelites, in which he played the part of David to a smaller Goliath. Any one living with real children sees every day equally imaginative games. I believe there never was a time when more thought and care were given to the training of children, and some of the most earnest, anxious mothers I know are those actively engaged in philanthropic work. Sometimes the present age is spoken of as “irreligious,” and what I have written may seem like such a charge against many modern parents. On the contrary, whoever really thinks must feel the increased and growing earnestness of this early twentieth century. When any one charges the period with “irreligion,” he must mean lack of imagination in the spiritual sense of the word. People are casting aside certain customs the meaning of which they have lost, but they are not forgetting the righteousness to which these customs bind them. And yet this literal-minded search for truth which does away with symbols is telling on some of the children who are growing up now without all of the imaginative advantages under which their parents grew up, and against some of which a matterof-fact age may revolt. Some of these children seem to be growing up without a background. Such young people always make me think of the Englishman who wondered how Americans can bear to live in a land without castles. I wonder whether Mr. Maxfield Parrish has the same thing in mind when he fills his illustrations with real children, giving them a background of dreams not less real.

I can readily understand that if any one has read so far what I have written about the child and the imaginative life, the natural comment may be, “How easy it is to be critical when one has not had the experience of success or failure in the training of children! ” I admit the justice of this criticism, only answering that those who are engrossed in any undertaking of importance are too much interested in the piece of work to be able to stand off and look from a distance to get their bearings. It is the old story of the lookers-on seeing the game. It was not the football players but the spectators who saw the need of “ the new rules,” and could speak strongly enough to have them carried into effect. What I have written, as a spectator, is a plea for children to be given their rights. Their greatest gift and source of happiness is the imaginative life, in their play as they make it, in literature as they learn it, in nature as they love it. From want of use imagination in children often seems cramped; and if I were asked the remedy, I should say just this: The surest way in which parents and teachers can keep children brought up among so many tangible things and facts from losing their birthright of imagination is not by intellectual theorizing upon the nature of children or of a particular child, fitting the child to the theory, but by a reverent belief in the imaginative life as the most real part of a child’s thought and that which most nearly touches his idea of religion; and in regulating the daily life of children to remember “the scribe instructed unto the kingdom of heaven ” who was likened unto “ a man that is an house-holder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.” The new things, the discoveries of science, the enlightenment of civilization, — the facts, necessary to be taught, but to be learned in their relation to larger truth; and in teaching these great facts to children to bear in mind the “old ” part of the “ treasure” suggested in King Lear’s words to Cordelia, “We’ll take on us the mystery of things as if we were God’s spies.”