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XLIII. the humor of children.

That is a surprising remark lately made by one who is usually a very acute observer, Mr. C. D. Warner, to the effect that children under twelve have commonly no sense of humor. No doubt these young things vary, like their elders, in temperament. Some of them are, from the cradle, as devoid of all capacity for fun as a travelling Englishman; but if there is one quality which I should attribute, in normal cases, to very young children, it is the sense of humor. You presuppose it inevitably in your very first elementary game with your baby, when you alternately hide your face and show it, with the cry “Peep-bo!” The child knows perfectly well that you are not in two places at once; the sense of surprise is what tickles; and very soon it catches the trick itself, and enjoys the humor of pretending to be in one place and presently bobbing up in another. One of the most familiar expressions in the eye of a child, I should say, is the twinkle of humor; and every parent knows that one of the best ways of overcoming a fit of anger or distress is to appeal [218] to this instinct. Fancy Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain postponing the development of humor until twelve ears old! Their mothers — from whom they perhaps inherited the gift-knew better.

Of course many of the droll sayings we quote from children are not droll to those who said them; but there are more which are so, and we can distinguish them by watching for the twinkle. The little girl who rebelled against the bathing-tub, and said, indignantly, to her mother, “Don't wash me; wash 'at baby,” pointing to the naked child in Knaus's Madonna on the wall, evidently enjoyed the flavor of her own remark. She knew that the proposed scapegoat of her punishment was but a flat surface, for she had often examined it with eye and finger, but the humor of the defiance pleased her very soul. Again, where the mistakes and whims of very young children are not humorous to themselves at the time, they usually become so very soon after. Any child of five will be entertained by your narrative of what it said and did at two or three years, nor will it miss a single good point in the retrospect. In a family of children, all under twelve, each will commonly appreciate the unconscious drolleries of the next younger; Susy quotes what Prudy has said, and Prudy again ,cites with delight the unexpected remarks of Dotty Dimple. How does this happen unless children have humor in themselves? If there [219] is any faculty not transferable at second-hand it is this. No maternal assurances that a thing is amusing will ever make it such to a child, unless the child has a sense of humor.

The games of young children, and, above all, their play with dolls, are a scene of genuine humor from the beginning. The doll is not merely loved and kissed, but is rebuked, scolded, put on probation, punished; a child will do this alone, or two or three will do it together, and with a zest which certainly comes by nature, not by instruction. You might as well say that there is no instinct in the way a kitten plays with its first mouse as to deny the instinct of humor to the child when she first “makes believe” that her doll Arabella is naughty. No matter how red Arabella's checks are, how flossy her hair, how blue her winking eyes, she is liable at any moment to be dethroned from power and put in the darkest of dark closets for a purely imaginary sin; while plain Jane, armless, legless, and featureless, is enthroned in her stead. The doll really appeals to the child's whole nature, not merely to the affectional part of it; land a doll's house with no sense of humor brought to bear on it would be a blighted home. It was in the full appreciation of what she said that a little girl remarked to me, many years ago, holding up a doll of her own sex whose legs had wholly vanished, “See! he's broke both his [220] legs short off; he has to walk on his drawers.” There was no denying the extent of the catastrophe; it was on a par with that of the historic Witherington in one version of the old ballad of “Chevy chase :”

Of Witherington I needs must speak,
As one in doleful dumps;
For when his legs were smitten off
He fought upon his stumps.

But the peculiarity was that the child herself, perhaps five years old, evidently felt all the grotesqueness of her own conception.

Again, if children have no sense of humor, whence comes their admitted dramatic aptitude? So far as I have seen, this gift is far more universally distributed among children than among their elders, as any one can test by alternately getting up little dramatic performances in the younger and older circles of a large family connection. Perhaps the greater unconsciousness of children may have something to do with it, yet it really seems as if, apart from this, the imitative power were more flexible in early youth than later, as is well known to be the case with the organs of language. Nothing is more marvellous to me than the manner in which these young creatures will create for themselves, or with the very slightest aid from others, the proper tone or expression belonging to an emotion they never have experienced. [221] The favorite play of the most petted children is often that of a family with a scolding mother; and how admirably do they in turn enact a character which they have never even seen! I remember to have officiated in the humble capacity of stage-manager, long since, when two little girls of six represented the successive tableaux of a pretty German book, describing the day's friendship of two children. One picture represented a quarrel, the playmates pulling at a doll which each desires. The little performers got into a great frolic just before the curtain went up; there was not a moment to tutor them; but in the very instant, as the curtain rose, both faces passed into a look of childish anger that was absolutely startling. They were peculiarly amiable children, and had never had anything but happiness with one another; yet they brought instantaneously into their looks, without a hint from any one, an expression which Janauschek or Ellen Terry might have envied. Such a feat would be impossible to those who had no natural sense of humor.

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