The character of the family reading will affect that of the talk; but considering how little parents see of young people once entered on their school career, it is worth while to say a few words of the table-talk which affords parents their best opportunity of influencing the opinions of the young. Every one is agreed that animated table-talk is a condition
of health. No one excuses the churlish temper which allows a member of a family to sit down absorbed in his own reflections, and with hardly a word for his neighbours. But conversation at table is something more than a means of amusement and refreshment. The career of many a young person has turned upon some chance remark made at the home table. Do but watch the eagerness with which the young catch up every remark made by their elders on public affairs, books, men, and you will see they are really trying to construct a chart to steer by; they want to know what to do, it is true, but they also want to know what to think about everything.
Parents sometimes forget that it is their duty to give their children grounds for sound opinions upon many questions which concern us as human beings and as citizens; and then they are scandalised when the young folk air audacious views picked up from some advanced light of their own age and standing. But they will have views; the right to have and to hold an opinion is one of those points on which the youth makes a stand.
A few parents are unjust in this matter. It is not only the right, but the duty of the growing intelligence to consider the facts that come before it, and to form conclusions; and the assumption that parents have a right to think for their children, and pass on their own views unmodified upon literature and art, manners and morals, is exceedingly trying to the young; the headstrong resent it openly, the easy-going avoid discussion, and take their own way. But, it is said, the young are in no condition to form sound opinions; they have neither the knowledge nor the experience which should guide them. That is true, and they
know it, and hang on the lips of their elders for what may help them to adjust their views of life. Here is the opportunity of parents: the young people will not take ready-make opinions, therefore suppress yours; put the facts before them in the fairest, fullest light, and leave them to their own conclusions. The more you withhold your opinions, the more anxious they are to get at them. People are, for them, sharply divided into good and bad; actions are vicious or virtuous; events come as blessings or misfortunes. They have not arrived at the “years that bring the philosophic mind”; they are inclined to be severe, and have no notion of a middle view.
Now, this period in the life of a boy or girl, when he or she feels the necessity of having an opinion upon every subject under the sun, is a critical one—a turning-point, for better or worse, in the lives of many young people, and for this reason; they will find somewhere the confidant who is to mould their opinions for them. Many a mother can put her finger on the moment when her boy or girl came under the influence of So-and-so, and took to giddy or godless courses. The culture of judgment in the crude mind of the youth is one of the most delicate tasks imposed on the parent. He must not be arbitrary, as we have seen. He must not be negligent. He must not be didactic; the young cannot stand preaching. He should be liberal, gentle, just, inclined to take large kindly views, to praise rather than to blame, but uncompromising on questions of principle, quick to put his finger on the blot, ready to forgive, but not to excuse; and, at the same time, ready to allow virtues to the man who exhibits one vice.
This last is important; the young, with their sharp
demarcations, when they find themselves in his company, discover that the devil is not so black as he was painted, and, forthwith, conclude that he is a very good fellow, and that bad things said of him are mere slanders. This is the natural history of half the ruinous companionships young people form. If, on the contrary, they come forth armed with this sort of opinion,—“So-and-so is a forward girl; she is really honest and good-natured, but her lawlessness makes her an undesirable companion,”—the case is altered; the girl has had fair play; and no further drawings are felt towards her companionship.
Allowing that it rests with the parents to give their children grounds for sound opinions on men and movements, books and events, when are they to get opportunity for this sort of culture? Whenever they fall into talk with, or in the presence of, their children; but especially at table—other opportunities come by chance, but this is to be relied on. I was once spending an evening in company with a wise and learned man, and had much delightful talk until he unfortunately said, “I jotted down so-and-so as a subject of conversation”; that spoiled it. But, indeed, it is very well worth while for parents to lay themselves out for conversation with their children, and to store up from day to day a few subjects of general interest, only they must not reveal the “jotting down.” If the parents come to table with preoccupied minds, the young people either remain silent, or get the talk into their own hands; in which case, it is either the “shop” of school and playground, or the
“Who danced with whom, and who is like to wed,”
of a more advanced age.
This is the opportunity to keep the young people informed upon the topics of the day,—who has made a weighty speech; who has written a book, what its merits and defects; what wars and rumours of wars are there; who has painted a good picture, and what are the characteristics of his style. The Times newspaper and a good weekly or monthly review will furnish material for talk every day in the week. The father who opens the talk need not be afraid he will have to sustain a monologue; indeed, he had better avoid prosing; and nothing is more delightful than the eager way the children toss the ball to and fro. They want to know the inns and outs of everything, recollect something which illustrates the point, and inevitably corner the thing talked about for investigation—is it “right,” or “wrong,” “good,” or “bad”; while the parents display their tact in leading their children to form just opinions without laying down the law for them. The boys and girls are engaged with the past, both in their school-work and their home reading, and any effort to bring them abreast of the times is gratifying to them; and it has a vivifying effect on their studies.