Read CHAPTER V : ACQUAINTANCE. of Practical Education‚ Volume I, free online book, by Maria Edgeworth, on

“The charming little dears!” exclaims a civil acquaintance, the moment the children are introduced.  “Won’t you come to me, love?” At this question, perhaps, the bashful child backs towards its nurse, or its mother; but in vain.  Rejected at this trying crisis by its natural protectors, it is pushed forward into the middle of the circle, and all prospect of retreat being cut off, the victorious stranger seizes upon her little victim, whom she seats, without a struggle, upon her lap.  To win the affections of her captive, the lady begins by a direct appeal to personal vanity:  “Who curls this pretty hair of yours, my dear?  Won’t you let me look at your nice new red shoes?  What shall I give you for that fine colour in your cheeks?  Let us see what we can find in my pocket!”

Amongst the pocket bribes, the lady never fails to select the most useless trinkets; the child would make a better choice; for, if there should appear a pocket-book, which may be drawn up by a ribbon from its slip case, a screen that would unfold gradually into a green star, a pocket-fan, or a tooth-pick case with a spring lock, the child would seize upon these with delight; but the moment its attention is fixed, it is interrupted by the officious exclamation of, “Oh, let me do that for you, love!  Let me open that for you, you’ll break your sweet little nails.  Ha! there is a looking-glass; whose pretty face is that? but we don’t love people for being pretty, you know; (mamma says I must not tell you you are pretty) but we love little girls for being good, and I am sure you look as if you were never naughty.  I am sure you don’t know what it is to be naughty; will you give me one kiss? and will you hold out your pretty little hand for some sugar-plums?  Mamma shakes her head, but mamma will not be angry, though mamma can refuse you nothing, I’ll answer for it.  Who spoils you?  Whose favourite are you?  Who do you love best in the world?  And will you love me?  And will you come and live with me?  Shall I carry you away with me in the coach to-night?  Oh! but I’m afraid I should eat you up, and then what would mamma say to us both?”

To stop this torrent of nonsense, the child’s mother, perhaps, ventures to interfere with, “My dear, I’m afraid you’ll be troublesome.”  But this produces only vehement assertions of the contrary.  “The dear little creature can never be troublesome to any body.”  Wo be to the child who implicitly believes this assertion! frequent rebuffs from his friends must be endured before this errour will be thoroughly rectified:  this will not tend to make those friends more agreeable, or more beloved.  That childish love, which varies from hour to hour, is scarcely worth consideration; it cannot be an object of competition to any reasonable person; but in early education nothing must be thought beneath our attention.  A child does not retain much affection, it is true, for every casual visiter by whom he is flattered and caressed.  The individuals are here to-day and gone to-morrow; variety prevents the impression from sinking into the mind, it may be said; but the general impression remains, though each particular stroke is not seen.  Young children, who are much caressed in company, are less intent than others upon pleasing those they live with, and they are also less independent in their occupations and pleasures.  Those who govern such pupils have not sufficient power over them, because they have not the means of giving pleasure; because their praise or blame is frequently counteracted by applause of visiters.  That unbroken course of experience, which is necessary for the success of a regular plan of education, cannot be preserved.  Every body may have observed the effect, which the extraordinary notice of strangers produces upon children.  After the day is over, and the company has left the house, there is a cold blank; a melancholy silence.  The children then sink into themselves, and feel the mortifying change in their situation.  They look with dislike upon everything around them; yawn with ennui, or fidget with fretfulness, till on the first check which they meet with, their secret discontent bursts forth into a storm.  Resistance, caprice, and peevishness, are not borne with patience by a governess, though they are submitted to with smiles by the complaisant visiter.  In the same day, the same conduct produces totally different consequences.  Experience, it is said, makes fools wise; but such experience as this, makes wise children fools.

Why is this farce of civility, which disgusts all parties, continually repeated between visiters and children?  Visiters would willingly be excused from the trouble of flattering and spoiling them; but such is the spell of custom, that no one dares to break it, even when every one feels that it is absurd.

Children, who are thought to be clever, are often produced to entertain company; they fill up the time, and relieve the circle from that embarrassing silence, which proceeds from the having nothing to say.  Boys, who are thus brought forward at six or seven years old, and encouraged to say what are called smart things, seldom, as they grow up, have really good understandings.  Children, who, like the fools in former times, are permitted to say every thing, now and then blurt out those simple truths which politeness conceals:  this entertains people, but, in fact, it is a sort of naïveté, which may exist without any great talent for observation, and without any powers of reasoning.  Every thing in our manners, in the customs of the world, is new to children, and the relations of apparently dissimilar things, strike them immediately from their novelty.  Children are often witty, without knowing it, or rather without intending it; but as they grow older, the same kind of wit does not please; the same objects do not appear in the same point of view; and boys, who have been the delight of a whole house at seven or eight years old, for the smart things they could say, sink into stupidity and despondency at thirteen or fourteen.  “Un nom trop fameaux, est un fardeau très pesant,” said a celebrated wit.

Plain, sober sense, does not entertain common visiters, and children whose minds are occupied, and who are not ambitious of exhibiting themselves for the entertainment of the company, will not in general please.  So much the better; they will escape many dangers; not only the dangers of flattery, but also the dangers of nonsense.  Few people know how to converse with children; they talk to them of things that are above, or below, their understandings; if they argue with them, they do not reason fairly; they silence them with sentiment, or with authority; or else they baffle them by wit, or by unintelligible terms.  They often attempt to try their capacities with quibbles and silly puzzles.  Children, who are expert at answering these, have rarely been well educated:  the extreme simplicity of sensible children, will surprise those who have not been accustomed to it, and many will be provoked by their inaptitude to understand the common-place wit of conversation.

“How many sticks go to a rook’s nest?” said a gentleman to a boy of seven years old; he looked very grave, and having pondered upon the question for some minutes, answered, “I do not know what you mean by the word go.”  Fortunately for the boy, the gentleman who asked the question, was not a captious querist; he perceived the good sense of this answer; he perceived that the boy had exactly hit upon the ambiguous word which was puzzling to the understanding, and he saw that this showed more capacity than could have been shown by the parrying of a thousand witticisms.  We have seen S ­, a remarkably intelligent boy of nine years old, stand with the most puzzled face imaginable, considering for a long half hour the common quibble of “There was a carpenter who made a door; he made it too large; he cut it and cut it, and he cut it too little; he cut it again, and it fitted.”  S ­ showed very little satisfaction, when he at length discovered the double meaning of the words “too little;” but simply said, “I did not know you meant that the carpenter cut too little off the door.”

“Which has most legs, a horse or no horse?” “A horse has more legs than no horse,” replies the unwary child.  “But,” continues the witty sophist, “a horse, surely, has but four legs; did you ever see a horse with five legs?” “Never,” says the child; “no horse has five legs.”  “Oh, ho!” exclaims the entrapper, “I have you now!  No horse has five legs, you say; then you must acknowledge that no horse has more legs than a horse.  Therefore, when I asked you which has most legs, a horse or no horse, your answer, you see, should have been, no horse.”

The famous dilemma of “you have what you have not lost; you have not lost horns; then you have horns;” is much in the same style of reasoning.  Children may readily be taught to chop logic, and to parry their adversaries technically in this contest of false wit; but this will not improve their understandings, though it may, to superficial judges, give them the appearance of great quickness of intellect.  We should not, even in jest, talk of nonsense to children, or suffer them even to hear inaccurate language.  If confused answers be given to their questions, they will soon be content with a confused notion of things; they will be satisfied with bad reasoning, if they are not taught to distinguish it scrupulously from what is good, and to reject it steadily.  Half the expressions current in conversation, have merely a nominal value; they represent no ideas, and they pass merely by common courtesy:  but the language of every person of sense has sterling value; it cheats and puzzles nobody; and even when it is addressed to children, it is made intelligible.  No common acquaintance, who talks to a child merely for its own amusement, selects his expressions with any care; what becomes of the child afterwards, is no part of his concern; he does not consider the advantage of clear explanations to the understanding, nor would he be at the pains of explaining any thing thoroughly, even if he were able to do so.  And how few people are able to explain distinctly, even when they most wish to make themselves understood!

The following conversation passed between a learned doctor (formerly) of the Sorbonne, and a boy of seven years old.

Doctor. So, Sir, I see you are very advanced already in your studies.  You are quite expert at Latin.  Pray, Sir, allow me to ask you; I suppose you have heard of Tully’s Offices?

Boy. Tully’s Offices!  No, Sir.

Doctor. No matter.  You can, I will venture to say, solve me the following question.  It is not very difficult, but it has puzzled some abler casuists, I can tell you, though, than you or I; but if you will lend me your attention for a few moments, I flatter myself I shall make myself intelligible to you.

The boy began to stiffen at this exordium, but he fixed himself in an attitude of anxious attention, and the doctor, after having taken two pinches of snuff, proceeded: 

“In the Island of Rhodes, there was once, formerly, a great scarcity of provisions, a famine quite; and some merchants fitted out ten ships to relieve the Rhodians; and one of the merchants got into port sooner than the others; and he took advantage of this circumstance to sell his goods at an exorbitant rate, finding himself in possession of the market.  The Rhodians did not know that the other ships laden with provisions were to be in the next day; and they, of course, paid this merchant whatsoever price he thought proper to demand.  Now the question is, in morality, whether did he act the part of an honest man in this business by the Rhodians?  Or should he not rather have informed them of the nine ships which were expected to come with provisions to the market the ensuing day?”

The boy was silent, and did not appear to comprehend the story or the question in the least.  In telling his story, the doctor of the Sorbonne unluckily pronounced the words ship and ships in such a manner, that the child all along mistook them for sheep and sheeps; and this mistake threw every thing into confusion.  Besides this, a number of terms were made use of which were quite new to the boy.  Getting into port ­being in possession of the market ­selling goods at an exorbitant rate; together with the whole mystery of buying and selling, were as new to him, and appeared to him as difficult to be understood, as the most abstract metaphysics.  He did not even know what was meant by the ships being expected in the next day; and “acting the part of an honest man,” was to him an unusual mode of expression.  The young casuist made no hand of this case of conscience; when at last he attempted an answer, he only exposed himself to the contempt of the learned doctor.  When he was desired to repeat the story, he made a strange jumble about some people who wanted to get some sheep, and about one man who got in his sheep before the other nine sheep; but he did not know how or why it was wrong in him not to tell of the other sheep.  Nor could he imagine why the Rhodians could not get sheep without this man.  He had never had any idea of a famine.  This boy’s father, unwilling that he should retire to rest with his intellects in this state of confusion, as soon as the doctor had taken leave, told the story to the child in different words, to try whether it was the words or the ideas that puzzled him.

“In the AEgean sea, which you saw the other day in the map, there is an Island, which is called the Island of Rhodes.  In telling my story, I take the opportunity to fix a point in geography in your memory.  In the AEgean sea there is an Island which is called the Island of Rhodes.  There was once a famine in this Island, that is to say, the people had not food enough to live upon, and they were afraid that they should be starved to death.  Now, some merchants, who lived on the continent of Greece, filled ten ships with provisions, and they sailed in these vessels for the Island of Rhodes.  It happened that one of these ships got to the Island sooner than any of the others.  It was evening, and the captain of this ship knew that the others could not arrive until the morning.  Now the people of Rhodes, being extremely hungry, were very eager to buy the provisions which this merchant had brought to sell; and they were ready to give a great deal more money for provisions than they would have done if they had not been almost starved.  There was not half a sufficient quantity of food in this one ship, to supply all the people who wanted food; and therefore those who had money, and who knew that the merchant wanted as much money as he could get in exchange for his provisions, offered to give him a large price, the price which he asked for them.  Had these people known that nine other ships full of provisions would arrive in the morning, they would not have been ready to give so much money for food, because they would not have been so much afraid of being starved; and they would have known, that, in exchange for their money, they could have a greater quantity of food the next day.  The merchant, however, did not tell them that any ships were expected to arrive, and he consequently got a great deal more of their money for his provisions, than he would have done, if he had told them the fact which he knew, and which they did not know.  Do you think that he did right or wrong?”

The child, who now had rather more the expression of intelligence in his countenance, than he had when the same question had been put to him after the former statement of the case, immediately answered, that he “thought the merchant had done wrong, that he should have told the people that more ships were to come in the morning.”  Several different opinions were given afterwards by other children, and grown people who were asked the same question; and what had been an unintelligible story, was rendered, by a little more skill and patience in the art of explanation, an excellent lesson, or rather exercise in reasoning.

It is scarcely possible that a stranger, who sees a child only for a few hours, can guess what he knows, and what he does not know; or that he can perceive the course of his thoughts, which depends upon associations over which he has no command; therefore, when a stranger, let his learning and abilities be what they will, attempts to teach children, he usually puzzles them, and the consequences of the confusion of mind he creates, last sometimes for years:  sometimes it influences their moral, sometimes their scientific reasoning.  “Every body but my friends,” said a little girl of six years old, “tells me I am very pretty.”  From this contradictory evidence, what must the child have inferred?  The perplexity which some young people, almost arrived at the years of discretion, have shown in their first notions of mathematics, has been a matter of astonishment to those who have attempted to teach them:  this perplexity has been at length discovered to arise from their having early confounded in their minds the ideas of a triangle, and an angle.  In the most common modes of expression there are often strange inaccuracies, which do not strike us, because they are familiar to us; but children, who hear them for the first time, detect their absurdity, and are frequently anxious to have such phrases explained.  If they converse much with idle visiters, they will seldom be properly applauded for their precision, and their philosophic curiosity will often be repressed by unmeaning replies.  Children, who have the habit of applying to their parents, or to sensible preceptors, in similar difficulties, will be somewhat better received, and will gain rather more accurate information.  S ­ (nine years old) was in a house where a chimney was on fire; he saw a great bustle, and he heard the servants and people, as they ran backwards and forwards, all exclaim, that “the chimney was on fire.”  After the fire was put out, and when the bustle was over, S ­ said to his father, “What do people mean when they say the chimney is on fire?  What is it that burns?” At this question a silly acquaintance would probably have laughed in the boy’s face; would have expressed astonishment as soon as his visit was over, at such an instance of strange ignorance in a boy of nine years old; or, if civility had prompted any answer, it would perhaps have been, “The chimney’s being on fire, my love, means that the chimney’s on fire!  Every body knows what’s meant by ‘the chimney’s on fire!’ There’s a great deal of smoke, and sparks, and flame, coming out at the top, you know, when the chimney’s on fire.  And it’s extremely dangerous, and would set a house on fire, or perhaps the whole neighbourhood, if it was not put out immediately.  Many dreadful fires, you know, happen in towns, as we hear for ever in the newspaper, by the chimney’s taking fire.  Did you never hear of a chimney’s being on fire before?  You are a very happy young gentleman to have lived to your time of life, and to be still at a loss about such a thing.  What burns?  Why, my dear Sir, the chimney burns; fire burns in the chimney.  To be sure fires are sad accidents; many lives are lost by them every day.  I had a chimney on fire in my drawing room last year.”

Thus would the child’s curiosity have been baffled by a number of words without meaning or connection; on the contrary, when he applied to a father, who was interested in his improvement, his sensible question was listened to with approbation.  He was told, that the chimney’s being on fire, was an inaccurate common expression; that it was the soot in the chimney, not the chimney, that burned; that the soot was sometimes set on fire by sparks of fire, sometimes by flame, which might have been accidentally drawn up the chimney.  Some of the soot which had been set on fire, was shown to him; the nature of burning in general, the manner in which the chimney draws, the meaning of that expression, and many other things connected with the subject, were explained upon this occasion to the inquisitive boy, who was thus encouraged to think and speak accurately, and to apply, in similar difficulties, to the friend who had thus taken the trouble to understand his simple question.  A random answer to a child’s question, does him a real injury; but can we expect, that those who have no interest in education, should have the patience to correct their whole conversation, and to adapt it precisely to the capacity of children?  This would indeed be unreasonable; all we can do, is to keep our pupils out of the way of those who can do them no good, and who may do them a great deal of harm.  We must prefer the permanent advantage of our pupils, to the transient vanity of exhibiting for the amusement of company, their early wit, or “lively nonsense.”  Children should never be introduced for the amusement of the circle; nor yet should they be condemned to sit stock still, holding up their heads and letting their feet dangle from chairs that are too high for them, merely that they may appear what is called well before visiters.  Whenever any conversation is going forward which they can understand, they should be kindly summoned to partake of the pleasures of society; its pains and its follies we may spare them.  The manners of young people will not be injured by this arrangement; they will be at ease in company, because whenever they are introduced into it, they will make a part of it; they will be interested and happy; they will feel a proper confidence in themselves, and they will not be intent upon their courtesies, their frocks, their manner of holding their hands, or turning out their toes, the proper placing of Sir, Madam, or your Ladyship, with all the other innumerable trifles which embarrass the imagination, and consequently the manners, of those who are taught to think that they are to sit still, and behave in company some way differently from what they behave every day in their own family.

We have hitherto only spoken of acquaintance who do not attempt or desire to interfere in education, but who only caress and talk nonsense to children with the best intentions possible:  with these, parents will find it comparatively easy to manage; they can contrive to employ children, or send them out to walk; by cool reserve, they can readily discourage such visiters from flattering their children; and by insisting upon becoming a party in all conversations which are addressed to their pupils, they can, in a great measure, prevent the bad effects of inaccurate or imprudent conversation; they can explain to their pupils what was left unintelligible, and they can counteract false associations, either at the moment they perceive them, or at some well-chosen opportunity.  But there is a class of acquaintance with whom it will be more difficult to manage; persons who are, perhaps, on an intimate footing with the family, who are valued for their agreeable talents and estimable qualities; who are, perhaps, persons of general information and good sense, and who may yet never have considered the subject of education; or who, having partially considered it, have formed some peculiar and erroneous opinions.  They will feel themselves entitled to talk upon education as well as upon any other topic; they will hazard, and they will support, opinions; they will be eager to prove the truth of their assertions, or the superiority of their favourite theories.  Out of pure regard for their friends, they will endeavour to bring them over to their own way of thinking in education; and they will by looks, by hints, by inuendoes, unrestrained by the presence of the children, insinuate their advice and their judgment upon every domestic occurrence.  In the heat of debate, people frequently forget that children have eyes and ears, or any portion of understanding; they are not aware of the quickness of that comprehension which is excited by the motives of curiosity and self love.  It is dangerous to let children be present at any arguments, in which the management of their minds is concerned, until they can perfectly understand the whole of the subject:  they will, if they catch but a few words, or a few ideas, imagine, perhaps, that there is something wrong, some hardships, some injustice, practised against them by their friends; yet they will not distinctly know, nor will they, perhaps, explicitly inquire what it is.  They should be sent out of the room before any such arguments are begun; or, if the conversation be abruptly begun before parents can be upon their guard, they may yet, without offending against the common forms of politeness, decline entering into any discussion until their children are withdrawn.  As to any direct attempt practically to interfere with the children’s education, by blame or praise, by presents, by books, or by conversation; these should, and really must, be resolutely and steadily resisted by parents:  this will require some strength of mind.  What can be done without it?  Many people, who are convinced of the danger of the interference of friends and acquaintance in the education of their children, will yet, from the fear of offending, from the dread of being thought singular, submit to the evil.  These persons may be very well received, and very well liked in the world:  they must content themselves with this reward; they must not expect to succeed in education, for strength of mind is absolutely necessary to those who would carry a plan of education into effect.  Without being tied down to any one exclusive plan, and with universal toleration for different modes of moral and intellectual instruction, it may be safely asserted, that the plan which is most steadily pursued, will probably succeed the best.  People who are moved by the advice of all their friends, and who endeavour to adapt their system to every fashionable change in opinion, will inevitably repent of their weak complaisance; they will lose all power over their pupils, and will be forced to abandon the education of their families to chance.

It will be found impossible to educate a child at home, unless all interference from visiters and acquaintance is precluded.  But it is of yet more consequence, that the members of the family must entirely agree in their sentiments, or at least in the conduct of the children under their care.  Without this there is no hope.  Young people perceive very quickly, whether there is unanimity in their government; they make out an alphabet of looks with unerring precision, and decipher with amazing ingenuity, all that is for their interest to understand.  When children are blamed or punished, they always know pretty well who pities them, who thinks that they are in the wrong, and who thinks that they are in the right; and thus the influence of public opinion is what ultimately governs.  If children find that, when mamma is displeased, grandmamma comforts them, they will console themselves readily under this partial disgrace, and they will suspect others of caprice, instead of ever blaming themselves.  They will feel little confidence in their own experience, or in the assertions of others; they will think that there is always some chance of escape amongst the multitude of laws and law-givers.  No tutor or preceptor can be answerable, or ought to undertake to answer for measures which he does not guide.  Le Sage, with an inimitable mixture of humour and good sense, in the short history of the education of the robbers who supped in that cave in which dame Leonardo officiated, has given many excellent lessons in education.  Captain Rolando’s tutors could never make any thing of him, because, whenever they reprimanded him, he ran to his mother, father, and grandfather, for consolation; and from them constantly received protection in rebellion, and commiseration for the wounds which he had inflicted upon his own hands and face, purposely to excite compassion, and to obtain revenge.

It is obviously impossible, that all the world, the ignorant and the well-informed, the man of genius, the man of fashion, and the man of business, the pedant and the philosopher, should agree in their opinion upon any speculative subject; upon the wide subject of education they will probably differ eternally.  It will, therefore, be thought absurd to require this union of opinion amongst the individuals of a family; but, let there be ever so much difference in their private opinions, they can surely discuss any disputed point at leisure, when children are absent, or they can, in these arguments, converse in French, or in some language which their pupils do not understand.  The same caution should be observed, as we just now recommended, with respect to acquaintance.  It is much better, when any difficulties occur, to send the children at once into any other room, and to tell them that we do so because we have something to say that we do not wish them to hear, than to make false excuses to get rid of their company, or to begin whispering and disputing in their presence.

These precautions are advisable whilst our pupils are young, before they are capable of comprehending arguments of this nature, and whilst their passions are vehemently interested on one side or the other.  As young people grow up, the greater variety of opinions they hear upon all subjects, the better; they will then form the habit of judging for themselves:  whilst they are very young, they have not the means of forming correct judgments upon abstract subjects, nor are these the subjects upon which their judgment can be properly exercised:  upon the subject of education, they cannot be competent judges, because they cannot, till they are nearly educated, have a complete view of the means, or of the end; besides this, no man is allowed to be judge in his own case.

Some parents allow their children a vast deal of liberty whilst they are young, and restrain them by absolute authority when their reason is, or ought to be, a sufficient guide for their conduct.  The contrary practice will make parents much more beloved, and will make children both wiser and happier.  Let no idle visiter, no intrusive, injudicious friend, for one moment interfere to lessen the authority necessary for the purposes of education.  Let no weak jealousy, no unseasonable love of command, restrain young people after they are sufficiently reasonable to judge for themselves.  In the choice of their friends, their acquaintance, in all the great and small affairs of life, let them have liberty in proportion as they acquire reason.  Fathers do not commonly interfere with their sons’ amusements, nor with the choice of their acquaintance, so much as in the regulation of their pecuniary affairs:  but mothers, who have had any considerable share in the education of boys, are apt to make mistakes as to the proper seasons for indulgence and control.  They do not watch the moments when dangerous prejudices and tastes begin to be formed; they do not perceive how the slight conversations of acquaintance operate upon the ever-open ear of childhood; but when the age of passion approaches, and approaches, as it usually does, in storms and tempest, then all their maternal fears are suddenly roused, and their anxiety prompts them to use a thousand injudicious and ineffectual expedients.

A modern princess, who had taken considerable pains in the education of her son, made both herself and him ridiculous by her anxiety upon his introduction into the world.  She travelled about with him from place to place, to make him see every thing worth seeing; but he was not to stir from her presence; she could not bear to have him out of sight or hearing.  In all companies he was chaperoned by his mother.  Was he invited to a ball, she must be invited also, or he could not accept of the invitation:  he must go in the same coach, and return in the same coach with her.  “I should like extremely to dance another dance,” said he one evening to his partner, “but you see I must go; my mother is putting on her cloak.”  The tall young man called for some négus, and had the glass at his lips, when his mamma called out in a shrill voice, through a vista of heads, “Eh!  My son no drink wine!  My son like milk and water!” The son was at this time at years of discretion.