When we are asked if we like children, we are used to saying that it depends upon the child; that we like some children, just as we like some grown persons, and others we don’t like, or like less. That is true, but it isn’t the whole truth, for children as children do appeal to most of us in a way that grown-ups don’t. We feel towards all children something of paternal solicitude. An instinct prompts us to protect the young, and in most of us it is stronger than our nerves, our tempers, or our fears. The pains and distresses that befall children and which we can’t help, we don’t want to know about. When grown-ups die, it is the common lot, and we don’t grieve unless we have personal reasons. But a child’s death that seems uncalled for hurts us. When a child is lost, we search the newspapers till we read that it has been found. When a child is stolen, the news excites the whole country. Of course we love children; our own best; other folk’s children too; preferring those who are most lovable, but more or less solicitous about all.
To people who have children of their own, other children are relatively interesting as members of the generation to which their children belong. They offer useful means of comparison. What I know of Johnny Green and William Carter, coevals of my Jonas, helps me to determine whether at this period of his development Jonas is getting in fair measure what ought to be coming to him. I compare his scholarship with theirs, his height, weight, and physical stability, his energy, his manners, and his character. I trust I am not inordinately ambitious for Jonas, but I want him to have his due, and I know he won’t get it unless somehow he can manage to demonstrate that it is his. If William Carter is able and industrious enough to lead the class, Jonas and I don’t propose to grudge him that distinction. If Johnny Green can outwrestle his fellows, Jonas in a cheerful spirit will contribute a fall to his list of victories. But so far as any influence of mine with Jonas can effect it, they shall both work faithfully for their distinction. That leaders should lead, that superior parts should gain superior rewards, is essential to progress. The competition that develops leadership, discernment, resolution, and other precious qualities is perfectly healthy, and ought to be sweet-tempered and wholesome.
To make the best of one’s self is to show appreciation of the handiwork of one’s Maker. If William’s best is better than Jonas’s, it will help Jonas by stimulating his efforts; and Jonas, in turn, if he crowds William hard, will keep him well up to his pace. This is one of the great services that other folk’s children do us. They help us get out of our children what is in them. We could hardly do it without them. A Ruskin may grow up solitary and leave a great name. We can be thankful for what he gave the world and yet suspect that with wiser rearing he would have given it still more.
From “Other People’s Children,” which appeared in the December 1901 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 166-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.