Charlotte Mason’s First Principle, applied
I am in a local book club, studying Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles using the study guide by Brandy Vencel. I’ve done this study in an online group before, but there’s something different and more personal in a local group that includes people who know your kids and family.
Last month’s meeting was on Principle 1: Children are born persons, and one of the extra readings linked to in the study guide is a post I wrote in 2013: Classically Charlotte: Children Are Born Persons. When I was first working through these principles, and applying them, my kids were all little, so my thoughts of personhood were tied to the diaper and toddler and phonics seasons.
Now I’m teaching phonics to my youngest, and those little phonics-learners I had at the time are in middle school and high school. Time is an ever-rolling stream.
And so this principle – and also my memory of applying it years ago – struck me in a new way in this season, as principles are wont to do.
Turns out, despite all evidence and feeling to the contrary, even middle school boys are born persons, not only toddlers and preschoolers. Seeing the personhood and personality in the younger years is eye-opening, vital, and amusing. We are enchanted by their enthusiasm and delighted by their personal touches to their learning.
So what happens to our enchantment, our delight, our principles, when they hit the skeptical, assertive, reserved, slacking stage? PS – a few children (xSTJs, most likely) will not go through this stage in the same way nor cause great fear, disappointment, and concern for their homeschool mother. But most will. So hold on.
When the enthusiasm wanes, when the work is sloppy and argued over, when the feet are dragging and the arguments take more time than any lesson – combined – remember: This is a person.
And that’s why these struggles are happening.
Just as we embrace the delight and curiosity of our young children, so we must embrace this more challenging season. Because although the young child is a person, he is not an adult; adulthood arises out of challenges. He is becoming his own person, not your person. Let it happen.
Of course middle school boys are not without their joys, their enthusiasm, and their curiosity, but as they grow, their joys and hobbies are more individual and less tied to what we, as their mothers, are directing and intending.
What has happened to all your joy?
The enthusiasm of our young children energizes us. When they delight in poems, birds, stories, and singing, we take a deep breath and are relieved. This education thing we’re trying is working.
Then things get patchy. The 12-year-old puts on a stoic face, shuffles in the back of the group, leans away at the table. He argues about doing his assignments, or reading that book, or doing so much math. He pokes at his siblings or shirks his work. He argues, and argues, and argues.
I had four younger brothers and Cindy, mother of 8 boys, talked about this. So when it hit, I quickly realized and remembered, “Oh yeah, this is a thing.” Even (or especially?) as an oldest daughter, twelve was the year I was worst to my mom.
Here’s what’s going on under the surface, though: they are testing this all out for themselves. Perhaps a little like Descartes, they want to go back and erase all their previous assumptions and affections and build it over again to find the truth, to find their balance in a rocky emotional, hormonal roller coaster.
They lose their bearings, and they won’t just accept yours anymore. They will find their own, thankyouverymuch.
And that is a good thing. We want them to own their learning, own their process, own their affections and not simply adopt ours unthinkingly. This is the messy process by which they are doing just that. Hold on through the roller coaster, through the storm; it will pass.
Yes, your sweet little boy is often not to be found in this phase, but that’s the trade off we make for raising up men. Console yourself: he is gearing up for manhood, which is scary and uncomfortable and unmanageable. And, of course, you will not understand – he’s right.
Shrug that accusation off and tell him he’s right, but he still has to do his work.
So when the joy is gone, do we just march along without it?
Sometimes that is necessary. We want them to be prepared for real life, and doing what must be done regardless of how they feel about it.
But we, as the mothers, must remember that we – and especially our sons – will not find joy in returning to how things were before.
Charlotte Mason says this as she considers and develops her first principle:
Life is a continual progress to a child. He does not go over old things in old ways; his joy is to go on. The immensity of his powers brings its own terrors.
Read that again slowly, and think of your middle schooler, not your nine-year-old.
If we, like him, are terrified at the immensity – or the intensity – of his powers, including his emotions, we are tempted to try to pull him back, return to the good ol’ snuggle-on-the-couch days. That is actually an escalation, not a service.
His joy is to go on.
Has he lost hope that he will ever finish this book? Ever understand this math concept? He wants to progress and thinks he never will. I think we can all relate to that feeling.
Are we trying to keep them boys? His joy is to go on. He knows manhood is around the corner, and he doesn’t know how or when exactly or even what – but he knows he’s different and there’s no going back. He knows he can’t continue on in the same way, so he’s awkward, fearful, and uncertain.
Different children will express this transition differently. Our duty as mothers is not to wish them toddlers or little boys again – especially ever to express that to them. Then we are part of the threat, not the help. Our duty is to stand by them, hold them accountable, and treat them with respect – the respect that says, “Yes, you don’t like this, but it is your work and you will do it.”
Charlotte Mason again:
It is when the little boy is able to stop all these and restrain himself with quivering lip that his will comes into play; for he has a conscience, too.
A conscience is part of personhood. A will is part of personhood. Charlotte Mason reminds us that giving in to petty desires and selfish tempers is the sign of a weak will, not a strong one. A strong will is the will that chooses self-control – that takes the greatest strength.
So we read this example and again picture our toddler-boy.
But read it again picturing your twelve-year-old.
It is the same. The argument is different. The pitch is different.
We feel more equipped to withstand the toddler tantrum, but just like the toddler needs to learn to exercise self-control and restrain his emotional outburst, so now again must that same toddler at twelve.
The toddler is crossing over from infancy to childhood, learning to walk and eat for himself, and it’s scary new ground. He throws fits as he tries to figure out his new position in life. Likewise, the twelve-year-old is crossing over from childhood into adulthood. Give him the confidence and assurance that you will let him cross that bar. He will not surely die.
As it takes a toddler many outbursts, many training sessions, many times of repetition to learn emotional and physical self-control, so it is for our adolescents.
During this time, they are working on their self-control muscles. It causes soreness. It takes training – but training like a coach. Stick with it. Help them overcome their own drama. Draw the line and hold it as they test it again and again. The fruit will come. If they learn this lesson in middle school, high school is a joy again.
If, however, they learn in middle school that they can get their way with us, or at least get their own way on the sly without being caught or having to face serious consequences, high school at home will be nigh impossible.
Our goal, Charlotte Mason reminds us, is not that we bend them to our will and again win a power struggle of instant obedience, but that they learn the difficult skill of reigning in their emotions, their mouth, their strength.
It is their practice; they must do the work. It is their work just as much as learning history or math is their work. We can’t do it for them, and we can’t force it. It might take a year or more.
And as they practice, we realize we also need practice. Their outbursts are too easily matched by our own. Instead of modeling calm self-control and self-possession and duty-performance, we lose it just as quickly as they do. Perhaps our anger at their excuses is so quick because we are guilty of our own excuses.
We all have that inner toddler who tantrums when she doesn’t get a cookie. We also all have that inner twelve-year-old who tries to get out of her work with justifying logic.
As we parent our children, we realize every step of the way that we ourselves need parenting.
And we, as well as our children, do have a Parent who continues to help us grow and progress on: God is our Father, and He works in us. It’s sanctification, it’s the joy of continual progress – though not without its messy phases.
You do not have to be the controlling, perfect parent for your children. They also have the same Father you do, who works in their heart. We do not.
God helps us in our weakness, and that ‘us’ includes our children.
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