The finest insights of the greatest thinkers — that’s what Irving Weiss was after when he started compiling “A Dictionary Of Childhood.”

Weiss had just become a father — he now has four children, all of them grown — and was looking “beyond the limitations of pediatrics and psychology” for guidance and comfort.

As a professor of literature, he turned to the “wise and introspective” minds with whom he was most familiar. For two decades, he has been jotting down their observations, and arranging them under such chapter headings as Adaptability, Discipline, Guilt, Horror, Play, Reading, Suffering, Vanity, and Will.

Some of the authors were parents; all were once children — and thus, Weiss insists, authorities on childhood. “Knowledge of what it means to be a child is universal,” he writes, “as is the responsibility for the continuity of the race.”

Weiss would like to find a publisher for his “Dictionary.” We’re thankful for permission to print these excerpts here.

— Ed.


Influence Of Early Experiences

Biologists do not explain the appearance of man by pointing to protozoa, even though in the remote past the existence of protozoa made humans a little more likely. Rather, scientists point to the entire evolutionary sequence. Similarly, one cannot explain a ten-year-old’s phobia of horses or Prousts’s aestheticism by listing their respective experiences as infants. Each person can be understood only as a coherence of many, many past events.

Jerome Kagan,
The Nature Of The Child (1984)


What alarms one child may enrapture another. Among the ornaments in my mother’s small drawing room of old were two glass candlesticks hung about with dangling prisms, which used to quiver gently at the least disturbance. When the sunbeams traversing the room lit up the marble chimney-shelf on which they stood, I was captivated by the effect; and sometimes took one of the pieces of glass off its hook, and holding it up to my eyes would gaze in rapture at a world of fascinating angles and abysses decked in all the colors of the rainbow. . . . What of Harriet Martineau’s similar experience?

One summer morning, I went into the drawing room, which was not much used in those days, and saw a sight which made me hide my face in a chair, and scream with terror. The drops of the lustres on the mantelpiece, on which the sun was shining, were somehow set in motion, and the prismatic colors danced vehemently on the walls. I thought they were alive — imps of some sort; and I never dared to go into that room alone in the morning, from that time forward.

Walter de la Mare,
Early One Morning (1935)


One is always laughing in wrong places or, worse, as one gets older, one is inclined to belch; it comes from pipe smoking. There is no escape from the ridiculous or from what has been so nice. What has been enjoyed so much so many years ago will lie in wait to crop up again at any time. If you once wet your bed, as I used to, then all your life you will get up in the night. But I cannot think of anything else. I was not left-handed and made to use my right so that I stutter now. I was perhaps unnaturally shy of girls for some time, having no sisters, but that is so with every Englishman judged by European standards. I was perhaps shyer than most Englishmen, but that only made it more fun later when that shyness had worn off. I was lonely — there was not much company of my own age — so that I was not sorry to go to school. These things apart, I can’t think of anything else, although we are warned that what happened in those days, like the wilder wild animals, lies in wait, in ambush for when one has grown up. So they say, but it never does.

Henry Green,
Pack My Bag (1940)


[My French teacher] taught me a story about a boy who was alone in the house and wanted to nibble on something. “Paul était seul à la maison,” [“Paul was home alone”] was how it began. I soon knew the story by heart and recited it to my parents. The boy suffered all manner of misfortunes in his nibblings, and I recited the story as dramatically as possible. My parents seemed very amused — before long they were laughing their heads off. . . .

The scene was repeated several times: when guests came, I was cajoled into reciting my Paul story, and instead of refusing I agreed each time, hoping to conquer my tormenting spirits. But it always ended in the same way, except that some of them got used to chorusing the story along with me, thereby forcing me to keep on to the end in case I started crying too early and felt like stopping. No one ever explained to me what was so funny; since then, laughter has remained a riddle for me, which I have thought about a great deal; it is still an unsolved riddle for me, even today.

Elias Canetti,
The Tongue Set Free (1977)


[During a tonsillectomy performed without anesthesia in 1910.]

Those moments of utter loneliness, in which I was abandoned by my parents, in the clutches of a hostile and malign power, filled me with a kind of cosmic terror. It was as if I had fallen through a manhole, into a dark underground world of archaic brutality. Thenceforth I never lost my awareness of the existence of that second universe into which one might be transported, without warning, from one moment to the other. The world had become ambiguous, invested with a double meaning; events moved on two different planes at the same time — a visible and an invisible one — like a ship which carries its passengers on its sunny decks, while its keel plows through the dark phantom world beneath.

It is not unlikely that my subsequent preoccupation with physical violence, terror, and torture derives partly from this experience, and that Dr. Neubauer paved the way for my becoming a chronicler of the more repulsive aspects of our time.

Arthur Koestler,
Arrow In The Blue (1905-1931) (1952)


I hold very stubbornly that a child’s earliest impressions mold its character perhaps more than either heredity or education. I am sure it is true in my case. What first impressed me? An attic, an oak bureau, a lovely face, a bed on the floor. Things have come and gone in my life since then, but they have been powerless to efface those early impressions. I adore pretty faces. I can’t keep away from shops where they sell good old furniture like my bureau. I like plain rooms with low ceilings better than any other room; and for my afternoon siesta, which is one of my institutions, I often choose the floor in preference to bed or sofa.

Ellen Terry,
The Story Of My Life (1908)



I must have been punished in some way for very early sex play, perhaps even as a baby, because I was once sent to bed without my supper, and felt unjustly treated, and I clearly remember saying to myself, “If they do that, then I’ll do this,” and I began to play with myself.

B.F. Skinner,
Particulars Of My Life (1976)


. . . one day Think what it is to be a boy, to grow up to manhood in the belief that without any merit or any exertion of his own, though he may be the most frivolous and empty or the most ignorant and stolid of mankind, by the mere fact of being born a male he is by right the superior of all and every one of an entire half of the human race: including probably some whose real superiority to himself he has daily or hourly occasion to feel; but even if in his whole conduct he habitually follows a woman’s guidance, still, if he is a fool, he thinks that of course she is not, and cannot be, equal in ability and judgement to himself; and if he is not a fool, he does worse — he sees that she is superior to him, and believes that, notwithstanding her superiority, he is entitled to command and she is bound to obey. What must be the effect on his character, of this lesson?

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873),
Essays On Equality, Law, And Education


Nothing in the sexual education of the child is so difficult for it to absorb as the fact of the parents’ intercourse: overhearing it, worrying about it, coming upon its traces, or possibly actually observing it and then misapprehending its nature as a sadistic or anal act, and finally arguing bitterly with playmates as to whether such a thing exists at all, by what bodily aperture it is effected, and whether one’s own parents could conceivably do anything of the kind.

Gershon Legman,
Rationale Of The Dirty Joke (1968)


Little girls, we are told, we like to think, dream in the day of the babies they will have and, when they know about husbands, of his eyes, the color of his hair. Boys think of sexual gratification long before they know what it is all about and before what doglike instinct they may already have can physically be gratified. They are like dogs; but girls have dolls, and what forgotten tenderness is it which leads boys when very small to go to bed with teddy bears? But we, a year or two past puberty, no dolls for us — above all, no thoughts of children — imagined women as one dreams now at one’s desk of a far country unvisited with all its mystery of latitude and place. If, as now, it is in spring we wonder how far on the season is, whether the leaves are out and how far on this or that blossom over the first flowering shrubs the names of which we do not know. But we wondered then ecstatically what it would be like and, not being able to avoid this wonder, as we can now dismiss things we have not seen, we fell back again and more to feeling everything was pointless.

Henry Green,
Pack My Bag (1940)



. . . One day my mother indistinctly said something to me to which I supposed the proper answer was “no,” and in my usual way I said “no” — supposing that I was meeting her wishes. Not understanding me, and supposing that I refused her request, she immediately, and to me rather sharply — for her custom was to speak kindly to me — said, “What! Won’t you?”

. . . My father was called in, and my refusal stated. I was again asked if I would do what my mother required, and I said firmly “no,” and I then felt the whip every time after I refused when asked if I would yield and do what was required. I said “no” every time I was so asked, and at length said quietly but firmly, “You may kill me, but I will not do it” — and this decided the contest. There was no attempt ever afterward to correct me; but this difference was soon made up on both sides, and I continued to be the favorite I had always been.

From my own feelings, which I well remember when a child, I am convinced that very often punishment is not only useless, but very pernicious, and injurious to the punisher and punished.

Robert Owen,
The Life Of Robert Owen (1857)


The refined punishments of the spiritual mode are usually much more indecent and dangerous than a good smack. The pained but resigned disapprobation of a mother is usually a very bad thing, much worse than the father’s shouts of rage. And sendings to bed, and no dessert for a week, and so on, are crueller and meaner than a bang on the head. When a parent gives a boy a beating, there is a living passionate interchange. But in these refined punishments, the parent suffers nothing and the child is deadened. The bullying of the refined, benevolent spiritual will is simply vitriol to the soul. Yet parents administer it with all the righteousness of virtue and good intention, sparing themselves perfectly.

D.H. Lawrence,
Fantasia Of The Unconscious (1921)


. . . Our parents seldom or never punished us, and never, unless we went too far in our domestic dissensions or tricks, even chided us. This, I am convinced, is the right attitude for parents to observe, modestly to admit that nature is wiser than they are, and to let their little ones follow, as far as possible, the bent of their own minds. It is the attitude of the sensible hen toward her ducklings, when she has had frequent experience of their incongruous ways, and is satisfied that they know best what is good for them; though, of course, their ways seem peculiar to her, and she can never entirely sympathize with their fancy for going into water.

W.H. Hudson,
Far Away And Long Ago (1918)


The child who is acutely anxious about punishment is no longer sure what he really did. When anxiety is too great, it often forces him to believe he did right when he did wrong, as it sometimes forces him to think he did wrong when he didn’t. This inner confusion about what actually happened is much more destructive than the degrading character of punishment; that, by comparison, does only minor damage.

Bruno Bettelheim,
The Informed Heart (1960)


“Do you beat your children, my dear?” asked grandmother, significantly raising her eyebrows, and emphasizing the word beat.

“Oh, my dear aunt,” answered the princess in a kind voice, casting a rapid glance upon papa, “I know your opinion in regard to this matter, but permit me to disagree with you, in this only: however much I have thought, or read, or consulted about the question, my experience has brought me to the conviction that it is necessary to act upon children through fear. . . . And what is it, I ask you, children fear more than the rod?”

“Yes, that is very nice, my dear,” said grandmother, folding my poem and replacing it under the box, as if she did not regard the princess, after these words, worthy of hearing such a production. “That is very nice, only, please, tell me, what refined feelings can you after that expect of your children?”

Leo Tolstoy,
Childhood (1852)


Mary admitted things, without confessing; that is, she admitted wrongdoing on the basis of having thought it out and taken her chances, which probably always wasn’t the case; and she seldom repented. There is scarcely any accounting for these things, but the truth about Mary is that she seemed to have been born with a  bias against the emotional treatment of what might be called moral problems. Yes, she had taken off her shoes and stockings and gone wading in the branch, when Mother said not, but Mother had simply said the water was too cold, and when Mary felt of it it was as warm as ever it was when the children were allowed to go wading; if she was to be punished for it, she ’sposed she’d have to stand it.

Mary Austin,
Earth Horizon (1932)


But punishment of children comes under the heading of adult interference with life itself. Facing the question frankly and openly we have to grant that most punishing stems from the irritation of adults simply because childhood is not young adulthood; children and grown-ups are in many ways antagonistic in their interests.

A.S. Neill,
The Free Child (1953)



I cannot help thinking that I was in those days very much what I am now. My life, from as far back as I can remember, was never lived wholly in the open. I mean that it had its private side, that there were things I saw, felt, heard, and kept to myself. There were thoughts I kept to myself, too; and, above all, dreams. Not deliberately, I dare say, but because I had not yet words in which to put them. If you stand quite still in an ancient house, you will hear, even in broad daylight, strange sounds and murmurings. And so it was with me. I came, on my mother’s side, of very old, perhaps too old a stock, one that had reached its prime four hundred years ago, and there were whisperings and promptings which when I was quite alone reached me out of the past. Very early I perceived that one’s mind was swarming with ghosts; very early I became convinced that one had thoughts that were not one’s own thoughts, that one remembered things one had never been told. . . .

Forrest Reid,
Apostate (1926)


. . . One seemed to live in a condition of almost suspended animation, a kind of underwater existence, for my mental world had for me something of the dim, green twilight which the physical world must have presented, I thought, in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. It was a dream world; but it was the actual world of school that one seemed to be dreaming half-awake, and always with the feeling that one was just about fully to wake up. I wanted to wake up and, at the same time, was half-afraid of doing so. Now at the age of nearly eighty I am doubtful whether I ever have.

One of the reasons for my mental twilight was, I am sure, that I wanted to use my mind, but practically nothing was done to help one to do so — indeed, for the most part, one was discouraged from doing so.

Leonard Woolf
Sowing: An Autobiography Of The Years 1880-1904 (1960)


Because I had found it hard to attend to anything less interesting than my thoughts, I was difficult to teach.

William Butler Yeats,
Reveries Over Childhood And Youth (1916)


There came upon me by degrees . . . a sense of being burdened with a task whose nature I could not define except by saying, “I must think.” What I was to think about I did not know; and when, obeying this command, I fell silent and absent-minded in company, or sought solitude in order to think without interruption, I could not have said, and still cannot say, what it was that I actually thought. There were no particular questions that I asked myself; there were no special subjects upon which I directed my mind; there was only a formless and aimless intellectual disturbance, as if I were wrestling with a fog.

R.G. Collingwood,
An Autobiography (1939)



The solitude of the child is more secret than the solitude of a man. It is often late in life that we discover our childhood and adolescent solitudes in their depths. In the last quarter of life one understands the solitudes of the first quarter by reflecting the solitude of old age off the forgotten solitudes of childhood. . . . The child knows a natural reverie of solitude, a reverie which must not be confused with that of the sulking child. In his happy solitudes, the dreaming child knows the cosmic reverie which unites us to the world.

Gaston Bachelard,
The Poetics Of Reverie (1968)


Solitude is a deep need. Complete inner solitude. To be alone with yourself for hours at a time, with nobody else around, is an ultimate goal. To be all alone, the way a child is alone.

Rainer Maria Rilke,
Briefe an Einer Junger Dichter,
Briefe der 23 December 1903



My parents were playing cards; I sat apart, a perfect stranger; my father asked me to take a hand, or at least to look on; I made some sort of excuse. What is the meaning of these refusals, oft repeated since my childhood? Such invitations opened the door to social, even, to an extent, public life; everything required of me I should have done, if not’ well at least in middling fashion; even card-playing would probably not have bored me overmuch — yet I refused. . . . A few evenings later I actually did join in, to the extent of keeping score for my mother. But it begot no intimacy, or whatever trace there was of it was smothered under weariness, boredom, and regret for the wasted time. It would always have been thus. I have seldom, very seldom, crossed this borderland between loneliness and fellowship. I have even been settled there longer than in loneliness itself. What a fine bustling place was Robinson Crusoe’s island in comparison!

Franz Kafka,
I Am A Memory Come Alive (1921)


About this early habit of drawing, we have his own words recorded by a friend, an artist, who, talking to him of David Copperfield and his neglected childhood, remarked in passing that he himself never remembered feeling unhappy when he was left alone. “Ah,” said Edward, “that was because you could draw. It was the same with me. I was always drawing. Unmothered, with a sad papa, without sister or brother, always alone, I was never unhappy, because I was always drawing.”

Georgiana Burne-Jones,
Memories Of Edward Burne-Jones (1906)


He felt horribly lonely. There was not one thing so wicked as he in all the world, and he knew it. He folded his arms and began to cry — not aloud; he sobbed without making any sound, and his tears made scorched marks where they fell. He could not pray; he had prayed night and day for so many months; and tonight he could not pray. When he left off crying, he held his aching head with his brown hands. If one might have gone up to him and touched him kindly; poor, ugly little thing! Perhaps his heart was almost broken. . . .

There are some of us who in after years say to Fate, “Now deal us your hardest blow, give us what you will; but let us never again suffer as we suffered when we were children.”

The barb in the arrow of childhood’s suffering is this — its intense loneliness, its intense ignorance.

Olive Schreiner,
The Story Of An African Farm (1883)



I think that getting used to being alone early in life is of immense value. It teaches you to some extent to get along without others. It also teaches you to love people all the more. In any case, there is in children a fundamental indifference that has rarely been described. Perhaps an awareness of this indifference embarrasses people; I don’t know. But it strikes me when I look at children: they live in a world of their own. . . . Around [the child] are grown-ups whose identity is not always very clear. Someone says, this is your father, his name is “papa.” (But what is a father to a child?) And this is your mother, and this is the maid or the cook or the postman. All of these people are “grown-ups” who have some importance in the child’s life but who at the same time are not very closely connected to him. He has a personal life that these people don’t touch.

Marguerite Yourcenar,
With Open Eyes (1980)



. . . Then one day at dinner my great-uncle William Middleton says, “We should not make light of the troubles of children. They are worse than ours, because we can see the end of our trouble and they can never see any end,” and I feel grateful for I know that I am very unhappy and have often said to myself, “When you grow up, never talk as grown-up people do of the happiness of childhood.”

William Butler Yeats.
Autobiography (1938)


This was about all Mademoiselle Marie ever taught me; I am quite sure that I could not tell A from B when I left her school. Yet I cannot look back on those days without a feeling of regret, almost of longing, because I now realize that I was then as happy as a small boy can be, and whatever unhappiness I may have experienced in later years could never be quite the same kind of emotion, with its utter lack of self-consciousness. Above all, I could never again feel happy for the first time: happiness would become more and more something I would crave because I had tasted of it and wanted more; the element of surprise was taken away from it forever. I could no longer stand like a tiny Faustus in a black apron and all of a sudden discover that the old world I happened to be in was a place of inexpressible beauty, that the clouds above my head were as lovely as anything I could see, and that the cool air of an October morning filled one’s heart with a desire to live forever.

Julian Green,
Memories Of Happy Days (1940)


Small children are thought happy, but for most of the time they do not even live consciously — they exist; they drift through sensations as a pantomime fairy passes through colored veils and changing lights.

Joyce Cary,
A House 0f Children (1941)


The only thing for which children are to be envied is their exuberant vitality. This is apt to be mistaken for happiness. For true happiness, however, there must be a certain degree of experience. The ordinary pleasures of childhood are similar to those of a dog when it is given its dinner or taken out for a walk, a behavioristic, tail-wagging business, and, as for childhood being carefree, I know, from my own experience, that black care can sit behind us even on our rocking-horses.

Lord Berners,
First Childhood (1934)


. . . Soon after entering the school at Neudorfl I discovered a book on geometry in [the assistant teacher’s room]. . . . That one can work out forms which are seen purely inwardly, independent of the outer senses, gave me a feeling of deep contentment. I found consolation for the loneliness caused by the many unanswered questions. To be able to grasp something purely spiritual brought me an inner joy. I know that through geometry I first experienced happiness.

Rudolf Steiner,
An Autobiography (1861-72)


. . . I never will believe that our youngest days are our happiest. What a miserable augury for the progress of the race and the destination of the individual, if the more matured and enlightened state is the less happy one! Childhood is only the beautiful and happy time in contemplation and retrospect: to the child it is full of deep sorrows, the meaning of which is unknown. Witness colic and whooping-cough and dread of ghosts, to say nothing of hell and Satan, and an offended Deity in the sky, who was angry when I wanted too much plum-cake. Then the sorrows of older persons, which children see but cannot understand, are worse than all. All this to prove that we are happier now than when we were seven years old, and that we shall be happier when we are forty than we are now, which I call a comfortable doctrine, and one worth trying to believe!

George Eliot
George Eliot’s Life As Related
In Her Letters And Journals


. . . I can remember, at the age of five, being told that childhood was the happiest period of life (a blank lie, in those days). I wept inconsolably, wished I were dead, and wondered how I should endure the boredom of the years to come. It is almost inconceivable, nowadays, that anyone should say such a thing to a child. The child’s life is instinctively prospective: it is always directed toward the things that will become possible later on. This is part of the stimulus to the child’s efforts. To make the child retrospective, to represent the future as worse than the past, is to sap the life of the child at its source.

Bertrand Russell,
Education And The Good Life (1926)


Childhood knows unhappiness through men. In solitude, it can relax its aches. When the human world leaves him in peace, the child feels like the son of the cosmos. And thus, in his solitudes, from the moment he is master of his reveries, the child knows the happiness of dreaming which will later be the happiness of the poets.

Gaston Bachelard,
The Poetics Of Reverie (1968)


A happy childhood can’t be cured. Mine’ll hang around my neck like a rainbow, that’s all, instead of a noose.

Hortense Callisher,
Queenie (1971)