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Children Learn What They Live

In Poems on 29 December 2013 at 4:06 am

Dorothy L LawIn 2014 it will be 60 years since the poem “Children Learn what they Live” appeared in the Torrance Herald, a local newspaper (tell the kids what a local newspaper is).   The author, Dorothy Louise Law, a “counselor, lecturer, instructor in family life education,” wrote an advice column in the paper.

Growing up, I used to pause before a small paper posted our refrigerator.  The title was “Children Learn What They Live.”   Never wondering who wrote it or how it got there, I used to ponder some of its logical propositions.  (Much later I found out that my mother really liked this poem and had put it there.)  Though some of them did not quite compute to my young mind, I was fascinated by the structure of the poem and the notion of learning from the atmosphere.  And whether, we could not in fact learn the opposite?  Once we were aware of these influences, could we not overcome them?

Apparently this poem has appeared in several versions since 1954 when it appeared in the Torrance Herald.  Here is the excerpt of this version that appears in the New York Times obituary for Dorothy Law Nolte:

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.

But do not despair, the poem seems to say. It continues:

If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.

I think the one I read ended with “learns to find love in the world.”  It is interesting to see some of the early editions of this poem, before it became, to use the New York Times’ description, “ubiquitous.”  Along with the rest of the local happenings, advertisements for pillows and the chance to “Eat with Charley,” here you can see that from 1954 to 1955 the author, or the editor of the Torrence Herald saw fit to introduce line breaks.  Initially using the singular child and pronoun he; she later rewrote it using children and they in each line, just as she had in the title.

The Guardian reports that while she eventually copyrighted it she allowed free use of it.   Kind of like copyleft.  Duen Hsi Yen notes that reference librarian and columnist Charles Anderson suggested in his Summer 1990 RQ column that

“If this were written today, the gender-specific terms might be revised. The thought would be equally clear if it were phrased, ‘If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.'”

The librarian in me couldn’t resist tracking this down so even though the journal has changed names and is not even on the American Library Association website, thanks to the struggle of Aaron Swartz, it is available through JSTOR here.

Charles Anderson, "The Exchange," in RQ, Summer 1990, p. 490.

Charles Anderson, “The Exchange,” in RQ, Summer 1990, p. 490.

And now, having beaten around the bush with this bit of archival digression let us consider a question.   Today, as a parent, the implied reader of the advice column in which this series of propositions appears, can I still honor the child in me who first read these lines with a sense of puzzlement?   A sense of puzzlement that I will not go so far as to call doubt, for I did not know whom or how to doubt.  The lines appeared in print, in an era before printers, at an age when I regarded the printed word and authors with awe.  Yet the words gave me pause.  A pause that contained within it the seeds of resistance   Did the two pieces of the puzzle – the two halves of the sentence –  follow in lockstep, or could I break through?  Was my character, my ability to be patient, confident, or find love in the world, really predicted by others’ behavior?  I thought not! 

For further musings on the implied reader, see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “The Burden of English” in Orientalism and the Post-Colonial Predicament.  South Asia.  Accessed online on January 3, 2014.

See also:  Following

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  1. […] my meditation on the implied reader of the if-then statements proposed in Dorothy Law’s poem Children Learn What They Live, I recognized that the doubt I encountered as a child, peering into the gap between the apparently […]

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