March 14, 1857

14 March 1857


Entered according Act of Congress in the year 1855, by ROBERT BONNER, in the Clerk's Office of the District Court for the Southern District of New York.


I have before me a simple but imploring letter from a little child, begging me "to write her a composition." I could number scores of such, which I have received. I allude to it for the sake of calling the attention of parents and teachers to this cruel bugbear of childhood, with which I can fully sympathize, although it never had terrors for me. The Multiplication Table was the rock on which I was scholastically wrecked; my total inability to ascertain "if John had ten apples, and Thomas took away three, how many John would have left," having often caused me to wish that all the Johns in creation were——well, never mind that, now. I have learned to like Johns since!

But to return to the subject. Just so long as themes like "The Nature of Evil," or "Hydrostatios," or "Moral Science," and kindred subjects, are given out to poor bewildered children, to bite their nails and grit their teeth over, while the ink dries on the nib of their upheld pens, just so long will "composition day" dawn on them full of terrors. Such themes are bad enough, but when you add the order to write three pages at a mark, you simply invite them to diffuse and unmeaning repetitions, as subversive of good habits of composition, as the command is tyrannical, stupid, and ridiculous. You also tempt to duplicity, for a child cowered in this way has strong temptations to pass off for its own what is the product of the brains of another; and this of itself, as a matter of principle, should receive serious consideration at the hands of these child-tormentors. A child should never be allowed, much less compelled, to write words without ideas. Never be guilty of such a piece of stupidity as to return a child's composition to him with the remark, "It is very good, but it is too short." If he has said all he has to say, what more would you have?—what more can you get, but repetition? Tell him to stop when he gets through, if it is at the end of the first line—a lesson which many an adult has yet to learn.

In the first place, give a child no theme above his comprehension and capacity; or, better still, allow him to make his own selection, and always consider one line, intelligibly and concisely expressed, better than pages of wordy bombast. In this way only can he be taught to write well, sincerely, and fluently. Nature teaches you this: The little bird at first takes but short flights to the nearest twig or tree. Bye and bye, as his strength and confidence grow, they are voluntarily and pleasurably lengthened, till at least you can scarce follow him, as he pierces the clouds. This forcing Nature—pushing the little fledgling rudely out of the nest, can result only in total incapacity, or, at best, but crippled flights. In the name of the children, I enter my earnest protest against it, and beg teachers and parents to think of and remedy this evil.

Source Text:

Fanny Fern, "A Word to Parents and Teachers," The New-York Ledger (14 March 1857): 4

To cite this project:

Fanny Fern, "A Word to Parents and Teachers," Fanny Fern in The New York Ledger, Ed. Kevin McMullen (2018)