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'But, now to get to the real reason for my letter--are you overwhelmed to get four pages, dear aunt? We need your help regarding Katie. Her father and I are at our wits' end, and we'd be most grateful to enlist your wisdom and kind heart. I'm afraid we've been building up trouble for ourselves and our little girl. I can't deny that natural tendencies are charming in all young things--it's so cute to see a toddler doing what comes naturally, that it's easy to forget that, if Nature is left to herself, she produces waste, although it may be lovely waste. I'm so afraid that our little Katie's life will be a wasted life.
'But, I won't keep on speculating. Let me tell you what happened yesterday. Yesterday was typical, her days are all the same. Then you'll see what the problem is and hopefully be able to help.
'Imagine three children at the table, busy with their copywork. Before even a single line is finished, Katie looks up.
''Oh, Mama, can I write s-h-e-l-l for the next word? Shell is a much nicer word than k-n-o-w, and I'm so tired of that word.'
'How much have you done so far?'
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''I've written know three whole times, Mama, and I really can't do it any more! But I think I could do s-h-e-l-l. Shell is such a pretty word.'
'Soon it's time for reading practice, but Katie can't focus on her reading. She can't even spell the words. Yes, I know--we're not supposed to do spelling during a reading lesson. The problem is, all during the lesson, Katie is distracted by a dirty sparrow at the top of a poplar tree, so she reads, 'w-i-t-h, bird!' When we do addition, one short line of problems is a hopeless and impossibly overwhelming task for poor Katie. The last one she did was, 'Five plus three is nineteen!' even though she's already learned how to add. She gets through half of a scale in her piano practice, and then her attention is on everyone and everything except her piano lesson. After only three stitches while hemming her dress, her idle fingers roll up the hem, or fold the dress into a dozen different shapes. Or I might be in the middle of a thrilling talk on history: 'So the Black Prince--' when she interrupts, 'Mama, are we going to the beach this year? My pail is all ready, except the handle, but I can't find the shovel anywhere.'
'And this is how it is all the time--Katie just barely manages her lessons somehow, but it's tiring for us and her, and I doubt she actually learns much of anything, except for a few bright flashes. But you wouldn't believe what a quick mind she has! After dawdling and idling through an entire lesson, she'll surpass the rest of us in a leap at the last minute, so that she manages to avoid being thought of as slow or ignorant.
'Katie's dawdling habits, her restless desire for a change in whatever she's doing, her constantly wandering thoughts cause a lot of friction, and it ruins our school days, which is a pity since I want the children to enjoy their lessons. Do you know what she said to me yesterday in the most
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innocent, charming way? 'There are so many more interesting things than lessons. Don't you think so, Mama?' You know, my dear aunt, I can just see you putting your finger on those words, innocent, charming way, and thinking, even if you don't say it, about sin being nurtured by allowing things. That's it, isn't it? It's true, it's our own fault. Those flitting, sprightly ways of Katie's were so cute--until we decided it was time to start her with some real work. Then we realized that we should have started training her when she was a baby. Yet,
'Please be a dear, kind aunt, and don't scold us, but help us to do better. You'll probably ask, Does Katie stay with anything? Does she stick with any of the 'many more interesting things than lessons'? Well, unfortunately, our little girl is as unstable as water in those things, too. The worst part of it is that she'll be chomping at the bit to do something, and then, just when you think she's settled in with it for a good half hour of pleasant playing, she's flitting off to something else like a butterfly. She can quote the poem, 'How doth the little busy bee,' but when I tell her that she's nothing like a busy bee, but more like a foolish, aimless butterfly darting around, I'm afraid she likes it, and is more drawn to butterflies as if they were her kindred spirits, and having the free fun and good times that she wishes she could have all the time. Please come visit; you need to see Katie to understand how erratic she is.
''Oh, Mama, please can I wash my doll this afternoon? I'm so unhappy with poor Peggy, I think she must like to be dirty!'
'So I go through a lot of trouble to find and fill a little tub,
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get the soap, and cover Katie with a big apron. She sits down to begin the job, very pleased with herself, to wash her dirty Peggy, but before the doll is even undressed, a new idea pops into Katie's head, and off she goes to clean out her dollhouse, deaf to all coaxing about the 'nice hot, soapy water' and 'poor dirty Peggy.'
'I'm afraid she's just as inconstant about her affections as she is with her play. She's a loving little soul, always adoring somebody. First it'll be her father, then Juno the dog, then me, then brother Hugh. Her warm little kisses, soft embracing arms, nestling head, are wonderful, both to us and the dog. But, unfortunately, Katie's adoring attention is like a toy you have to take turns with. The next day, it's always someone else's turn because she only has room to love one at a time. If we could get you to come and visit, you'd be Katie's favorite all day long, and we, even her doll Peggy, would be left out in the cold. But don't flatter yourself--it wouldn't last. I don't think any of Katie's attachments has ever lasted more than two days.
'If it's true that a parent's most important job is to train character in their children, then we've failed Katie. She's six years old and she has the same ability to apply herself, to pay attention, to make herself do the things she should, or even to want to do the right thing, as she did when she was six months old! We're getting very distressed by it. My husband feels strongly that parents should labor as much at developing character in their children as Hindu goldsmiths labor to create a vase. He feels that character is the one thing that God calls us to develop. And what have we done for Katie? We've turned out a 'nice enough animal,' and we're glad and thankful for that, but that's all we've done. The
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child is as aimless and impulsive as a wild colt. Please help us, dear aunt. Consider this issue of our little girl. If you can pinpoint the source of the problem, then send us a few suggestions to guide us, and we'll be eternally grateful.'
'And now, what about my poor little great-niece? You have a list of accusations against her, but it would be interesting and amusing and just like the free, natural world of fairyland if it weren't for all the tendencies that we talk about these days, but fail to guard against. We bring up our children in a carefree, happy-go-lucky way, yet all the time we use big words to talk gravely about the momentous importance of each and every influence they're exposed to. It's quite true--Katie's charming, challenging ways will result in her growing up to be like fifty percent of young women you see around. They chat casually about all different subjects, but if you question them, they don't really know anything about any one of them. They're ready to take on anything, but they don't follow through and finish anything. This week, such-and-such is their favorite friend. Next week, it's someone else. Even their interests and favorite hobbies come and go because there's always something novel and useful to be learned, such as how to set tiles or play the banjo. Yet, all the while, one has to admit that this very fickleness has its own kind of charm as long as youth lasts and the girl can disarm you with bright smiles and cute, graceful mannerisms. But youth doesn't last, and the poor girl who started life flitting like a butterfly, ends up like a grub, chained to the ground by tasks she never learned how to do. And that's assuming that she's a girl with some conscience. If not, then she dances through life as she pleases--
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and any children she has, husband, or household, have to take their chances. One young man I know recently remarked, 'What a giddy old grandmother the Peterfields have!' There's no mystery about 'giddy old grandmothers' or their futures.
'You're probably thinking, 'a long-winded old great-aunt is just as bad as a giddy old grandmother!' I know I've presumed greatly, but it's Katie who's been on my mind all this time, and you're right, you really do need to get her under control.
'First of all, regarding her lessons: you need to help her to develop the ability to pay attention. It should have been done a long time ago, but better late than never. Now that I've been thinking about it, I blame myself for not noticing Katie's problem sooner. You're probably saying, 'But if she has no ability to pay attention, how can we give it to her? It's her personality; a natural defect.' I don't believe it one bit! Attention isn't a separate, isolated faculty of the mind, although if it were a faculty, it would be worth more than all the other so-called faculties put together. One thing is true, at any rate: no amount of talent or genius is much good without the ability to focus the attention. It's this ability that makes men and women successful in life. (I'm talking like a book, but, as you know, none of what I'm saying is my own original ideas. These are things that Professor Weissall has said.)
'Attention is no more than the ability to focus your mind on whatever you're doing at the moment. As far as the mind is concerned, bigger matters are better, and great minds do great things. But have you ever known a person with a great mind, whose friends considered him a real genius, yet never really accomplished anything? It's because he lacked the ability to 'turn on' all of his brilliant mind, you might say. He's unable to bring all of his mind to the subject
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at hand. 'Even Katie?' Yes, Katie needs to get this ability to 'turn on.' She needs to learn to give her mind fully to addition and reading, and even to sewing hems. Go slowly, a little at a time, a little today, a little tomorrow. First of all, her lessons should be made interesting. Don't let her muddle through a page of reading, spelling every third word and then waiting until you tell her what the word is. Do less so that every day brings mastery of a few new words, as well as keeping up with the old ones.
'Don't let any lesson last more than ten minutes, and insist, with brisk, bright determination, that you have her full, undivided concentrated attention, eye, ear and mind, for the whole ten minutes. Don't allow even a moment of dawdling during lessons.
'Don't give her rows and rows of addition problems yet. Use dominoes or manipulatives designed for that purpose, the point being to add or subtract the dots or cubes in a twinkling. You'll find that all three children can work together at this, just like they can with reading, and they'll find it as fun and exciting as a game. Katie will be enthusiastic during this, and will do her work cheerfully, which is what you want. Try not to single her out and make her responsible for too much. It's a heavy and tiring task for even the bravest of us, and she'll be overwhelmed, like a person whose back becomes bent, if you don't teach her to carry her burden lightly, in the same way that an Eastern woman carries her pitcher.
'Also, vary the lessons. Work the mind, then the hands, then the legs, then do a song. In every lesson, Katie and your other two children should carry away a satisfying sense of,
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Don't allow any weary dawdling over the same old stale work. Yes, all of that work does need to be kept up, but in such a way that it's more like an exciting game rather than a tedious day's lesson. There should be a distinct difference that the children can recognize.
'Until you try it, you have no idea how a 'now or never' attitude towards a lesson can spark the attention of even the most impulsive child. Human nature is such that, if you have all day to drag through a task, it will probably take all day. But when something has to be done now, you get it done. But there's another side effect besides better, more alert attention. I once heard a wise man say that, if he had to choose, he'd rather his child learn the meaning of 'should' than inherit a fortune. This is where you'll be able to exert some moral pressure on Katie. Every lesson should have its own time, and no other time should be made available for it. The sense that time is precious and that a wasted lesson means the loss of ten minutes that you can never get back needs to be impressed on her.
'Let your children know your own natural disappointment about losing those opportune moments, and make sure they feel the loss by taking away one of the things they were looking forward to that day. It's tragic to let a child dawdle through a day without suffering any penalty for it. Notice that I'm talking about all the children, not just Katie, because it's always easier to behave when those around you are behaving, too. Besides, whatever's good for her will be just as good for all three of them.
'But you had other complaints. You said that poor Katie doesn't stick to any of her games and she isn't constant in any of her affections. If she develops the habit of attending to her lessons, that might help her to stick to her play. You can also encourage her by saying things like, 'What? Your doll's tea party is over already? That's not the way real grown-up ladies
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have tea. They sit and chat for a long time. Why don't you see if you can make your tea party last for twenty minutes?' Katie's failure to stay on task just might be helped with a bit of gentle ridicule, although ridicule is a weapon that should be used with caution. Some children resent being laughed at, and others enjoy it too much for it to have the desired effect. But if it's used tactfully, I think it can be good for both children and adults to see the comical side of their behavior.
'I think we make a mistake by not holding up certain virtues for our children to admire. Praise Katie for every thing she completes, even if it's only building a house out of cards. Being steady in work is the first step towards being steady in affection. This is another case where praise for being constant might help, in addition to a bit of good-humored family teasing--but not about her loves, since they're perfectly legitimate, whether her love is showered on a kitten or a little friend. I mean teasing about her discarded loves. Let Katie and your other children grow up to take pride in how constant they are to each of their friends.
'I meant to just offer a few tactful suggestions, and look what I've done--I've sent you a sermon! That's what happens when a woman gets on her hobby horse--nobody knows when she'll get off again!'