Classically Charlotte: The nature of children

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Previously, in this series:

Charlotte Mason, classical educator
Principle #1: Children are born persons

Charlotte Mason’s second principle of education is perhaps stated poorly. Because of this statement, many (myself, for a time, included) write her off as a Victorian sentimental heretic. Her second principle states

Children are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.

However, she is speaking here – as her development of the principle makes clear if she is given time to defend herself by her own words – not of salvation or of moral righteousness, but of the very real tension between our being made in the image of God (good) and our inherent sinful nature (bad). Her arguments as she develops this point clearly assume a sinful nature and sinful tendencies that must be counteracted. What she is also arguing against, however, is the notion in her day that heredity, genes, predetermine a child’s moral and mental abilities.

Given, however, that others have already aptly dealt with the theological hang-ups this principle might produce, I will move on, assuming Miss Mason’s orthodoxy and dealing with her own commentary on and application of this principle. If you are uncertain of the theological aspects of this principle, I encourage you to read Brandy’s post “Charlotte Mason, Total Depravity, and the Divine Image” and Cindy’s post, “Here is Wisdom,” and Linda Fay’s article, “Thoughts on ‘Good and Bad’ Children.”

Principle of Education #2: Children are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.

charlotte mason classical education

Miss Mason’s primary point with this principle is that no child starts out, due to genetics or birth, unable to be reached by, touched by, helped by good and proper instruction and habit training. Regardless of parentage or class, a child comes to the table with a mind and soul no less human than anyone else’s. Perhaps these days we might add that those with learning disabilities and such struggles also are yet human souls who should not be given up on as hopeless.

Children are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil; therefore, our duty is to encourage the good traits and discourage the bad.

It is our business to know of what parts and passions a child is made up, to discern the dangers that present themselves, and still more the possibilities of free-going in delightful paths. However disappointing, even forbidding, the failings of a child, we may be quite sure that in every case the opposite tendency is there and we must bring the wit to give it play.

ruled by his passions

This principle requires us to observe our children and know and understand their frame, their temptations, their weaknesses, and their strengths. And, making that observation, we are not to give in to pessimism and believe that this fearful child will always be defined by her fearfulness or this angry child be always hampered by his anger. We make those observations that we might help steer them from their individual weaknesses and temptations and might also cultivate and grow the virtues we hope to see in them.

We must hold the tension that our children have both the divine image and a sinful nature. We should not be defeated and resigned when the child’s sinful tendencies are evident. We should welcome those times as teachable, mentoring times, difficult though they are. And we should not rest easy if a child is easy-going and good at flying under the radar and staying out of trouble. That does not make the child “good” (I know because I was good at flying under the radar, and I was not nearly so good as I thought I was).

it behoves us teachers to get a bird’s eye view of the human nature which is present in every child. Everybody knows that hunger, thirst, rest, chastity are those natural endowments of the body by means of which it grows and functions; but in every child there are tendencies to greediness, restlessness, sloth, impurity, any one of which by allowance may ruin the child and the man that he will be.

When we see these tendencies it does not mean that the child is a lost cause, forever a slave to his appetites and vices, and beyond help. It does not mean that the only tactic left to us to external force, that we cannot touch his heart and turn his appetites toward the good and true.

Our goal is not outward conformity, but a growth of the affections toward what is good and true and beautiful so that those strong fleshly appetites have less and less appeal and strength. And all children need that, regardless of their outward appearances, regardless of their temperaments or personalities.

Children are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil; therefore, we must teach our children to control their minds as well as their bodies.

There is a common notion that it is our inalienable right not only to say what we please but to think as we please, that is, we believe that while body is subject to physical laws, while the affections, love and justice, are subject to moral laws, the mind is a chartered libertine. Probably this notion has much to do with our neglect of intellect. We do not perceive that the mind, too, has its tendencies both good and evil and that every inclination towards good is hindered and may be thwarted by a corresponding inclination towards evil; I am not speaking of moral evil but of those intellectual evils which we are slow to define and are careless in dealing with.

happy hearts and happy faces

One of our duties as both parents and educators is to teach our children that it is possible to control and change one’s thoughts and attitudes. Not only is it possible, but it is necessary. We do not and should not accept everything that comes into our heads as inevitable and beyond our control. Something might pop into our minds uninvited, but we can choose whether to entertain that thought or turn it out and slam the door in its face. We should not be at the mercy of our moods. It is very possible to change one’s mood, though it is rarely easy or even appealing to do so when a bad mood seems entrenched.

And, clearly, this admonition must be in the first person plural because it cannot be something we insist our children do if we ourselves are not willing to do it ourselves – first – and model this self-control of one’s thoughts, tone, attitude, and mood.

The thoughts one allows to play in one’s minds are one’s own responsibility. We must first take responsibility of our own and then teach even our little ones to be responsible for their own as well.

Happy hearts and happy faces | Happy play in grassy places | That was how in ancient ages | Children grew to kings and sages.

Children are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil; therefore, we must trust and respect the child’s mind and whet his appetite for knowledge without overusing his other, more ready, appetites.

Does the teacher of a large class always perceive that intellect is enthroned before him in every child, however dull and inattentive may be his outer show?

We must keep in mind what we know to be true about children rather than what appears to be true on the surface of a particular child in a particular moment. Certainly there are times – say, the tenth time in ten minutes you’ve said, “No, what sound does that word start with?” or the tenth day you’ve had to start off a lesson with “Well, what does area mean?” – when to all appearances our children are dull and hopeless and it feels useless to go on trying to teach them.

But in those moments of hopeless despair, we must remember that it is not true. Though he be dull and inattentive in outer show, yet his intellect is alive and well, and we must keep addressing ourselves to that intellect, trusting it is there and will make itself known. And, most importantly, we must not in our frustration make prophetic judgments upon our children that we will live to regret. Beware what you proclaim to your child about himself; beware what names you give your child. Proclaim what you know to be true despite all momentary evidence to the contrary: “No, you do know this. Remember? Calm down, think it through, and you’ll figure it out. Hard work is how you grow.”

summer reading

As the body is provided with its appetites, by undue indulgence of any one of which a man may make shipwreck, but which duly ordered should result in a robust and vigorous frame; so, too, the spiritual part of us is provided with certain caterers whose business it is to secure that kind of nourishment which promotes spiritual or intellectual growth in one or another direction. Perhaps in no part of our educational service do we make more serious blunders than in our use of those desires which act as do the appetites for the body’s service.

Our students have live and active minds, and we should not resort to tricks and bribes when the pull of love and interest is available to us. I’ve written already about this in the series Motivating Without Stickers.

Now it has been demonstrated very fully indeed that the delightfulness of knowledge is sufficient to carry a pupil joyfully and eagerly through his school life and that prizes and places, praise, blame and punishment, are unnecessary insofar as they are used to secure ardent interest and eager work. The love of knowledge is sufficient.

Charlotte Mason is a proponent of classical education.

Once again, this is made plain in her own words:

The only safeguard against fallacies which undermine the strength of the nation morally and economically is a liberal education which affords a wide field for reflection and comparison and abundant data upon which to found sound judgments.

One Response

  1. Kimi
    |

    Thank you so much for this. We are in a season of dullness, and doubt is taking up residence in my head with my oldest son (seems to be a cycle that I haven’t nailed down maybe). I have started predicting his future, and yet there is a part of me that sees so much MORE for his future. After reading this, you remind me that I need to stick with the hope and trust the vision the Lord has for him. Faith, trust and encouragement are what children need during these times. I look forward to reading more of what you glean from CM principals. Sometimes it seems confusing, or blended together when I read through. Probably because I get so motivated I don’t take my time, and just totally want to gobble her stuff up in one meal.