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“We live in a redeemed world, and infinite grace and help from above attend every rightly directed effort in the training of the children; but I do not see much ground for hoping that divine grace will step in as a substitute for any and every power we choose to leave unused or misdirected. In the physical world, we do not expect miracles to make up for our neglect of the use of means.” – Charlotte Mason, Home Education

Once I was practicing the alphabet out loud with my three-year-old, encouraging him to supply the next letter, when my six-year-old, whose reading abilities greatly surpass alphabet recitation, kept chiming in with the answer without giving her little brother a chance. Finally becoming exasperated after the fourth or fifth time of chiding her for her interruptions, I warned about a potential consequence if the selfish behaviour was repeated. She promised me earnestly that she would stop now and would not do it anymore. I began again, singing the letters and stopping for my son to chime in with “G,” when my daughter blurted out the answer yet again. Immediately she clapped her hands over her mouth and burst into tears, following with, “I’m so sorry mom! I didn’t mean to! It just came out. I don’t even know how it happened! I honestly did not even want to do that!” My quick retort was, “I know exactly how it happened. You did the wrong thing so many times it became a habit.”

Such an illustration of human behaviour gets at the heart of 19th century educational pioneer Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of child education as laid out in her book Home Education (1886). The theory that repeated thoughts and actions are like tracks in the mind for behaviour to ride smoothly along conceives education as a battle of will vs habit, habit usually winning out because it requires the least effort.  Exerting the will, which means compelling the mind to go in a direction it is not used to going or does not feel like going (more or less the same thing), is much more challenging. It means stopping a train already hurtling down a nicely laid track. Not impossible, but extremely difficult – especially for children, who are still learning self-control. Children naturally possess very weak wills (“strong-willed” is really a misnomer). This is why they throw tantrums, stubbornly defy parents, give in easily to temptation and repeat forbidden actions again and again. When I call my three-year-old to go to bed, and he just sprawls on the floor as if he is powerless to even budge, I know what is going on in his little mind: the will to obey his parents is trying to overwhelm his desire to keep playing with his all-absorbing trucks and failing miserably. (This is why pleasant bedtime routines are so helpful – they are rails of habit set down that the child’s mind can run along every evening.)

Returning to my first example with the interrupting child, we can become accustomed to any bad behaviour so that our will is reduced to nothing – and a habit is established, making us, essentially, slaves to our sin. The moment when my daughter’s intention was the purest, when she willed herself to do good and stop interrupting, habit prevailed over will. To bypass the will completely and set children on good rails of habit from the very beginning (because good habits can persist as firmly as bad ones), particularly at an age when their wills are predisposed work against them, is the great foundation of Charlotte Mason’s educational approach. One might rightly ask how a person is really responsible or culpable for their actions, including their sin, when she is only repeating the script set down before her by parents or teachers. The reality is, however, that when my daughter’s habit overwhelmed her will, she actually became agentless, powerless over her “sin” (one could probably have a theological debate about whether at that point it was actually sin, if intentions were innocent; in any case, habits can rule us, and the end goal of a good education is to become master of one’s self).  Habits are inevitable. We are truly creatures of habit; all of our thoughts and behaviours will run in one way or another. There is no neutral or stopping ground or mental state because our thoughts constantly run, Mason writes. It is in our very biology. And so the question is not, will we develop habits, but in which direction will they run? Toward good or evil? Toward godliness or ways of the “flesh”? Towards improvement or degeneration? We must set a course out for ourselves, if only to save ourselves in the future from our tendency to waywardness. Children are no exception to this; in fact, this is the great calling and vocation of parents, Mason urges, and such an endeavour is not to be undertaken without great consideration.

To complement what may seem a rigid training of children in “the direction they should go,” Mason does not suggest that we force children into habits or ways of life or thinking, but rather gently nudge them (through the atmosphere we create, the habits we ourselves keep, quality literature, the planting of stimulating ideas in their mind, and immersion in nature, which is the direct and continual handiwork of God through which they can commune with him) and let them commandeer their own train, which they are more than capable of doing, for they were bestowed at birth with all the capabilities they require by the Creator. From parents, children need moral training and guidance – which tracks to set down. How much easier a future life will a child enjoy who is trained into good habits! She will not even have to choose the right, because it will become so natural to her. And when a novel temptation does arise, trust of doing right, which has always served her well in the past, will make it difficult to change tracks and choose the wrong. And, by this time, her will has become a well-toned muscle that is much easier to exert than if it had never been properly exercised.

Where, one might ask, is divine grace and the Holy Spirit in such a philosophy of behaviour? Mason addresses this exact objection. The Holy Spirit is actually another major pillar in her beliefs about education. The Holy Spirit, in fact, enables every good thought or deed, and is the agent in all learning, no matter the subject – even arithmetic – for God is the source of all knowledge and any gain in knowledge is a step out of the shadows and toward God. I think it is at this point where many lose their grasp of the point Mason is driving at because we live in such a sacred/secular, spiritual/matter, and even, mind/body divide, a division which has increased enormously in the latter half of the twentieth century and which did not exist so sharply in Mason’s time. For the Holy Spirit does not just work in the spiritual realm, but in the material world also. The Holy Spirit makes the grass grow and the flowers bloom and the laws of the universe hold together and the neurons in the brain fire – the ones that fire to enable us to speak and think and move us to repentance or forgiveness. There is no realm where the Holy Spirit does not move and work (interesting to consider that the Holy Spirit manifested himself as physical matter in the form of bird); no place where he is limited or forbidden. In fact, it would be impossible for him to affect our spirits and not our bodies, because our bodies are the physical incarnation of our spirits – they are actually the way given to us in which we can encounter another person’s spirit  – by seeing and interacting with their body. But the Spirit works on, or works most smoothly on, rails that parents lay down for their children (otherwise the lessons poorly-brought up children will be forced to learn as adults will be very hard). He also works in the minds of parents, inspiring them and guiding them to as they train their children. The Holy Spirit will sanctify one way or another, either by the easy instruction of the parents or by fire and trial later. These are the very laws that God has interwoven into his creation and which govern all of human behaviour. Proverbs especially teaches about the consequences of various tracks of behaviour and their inevitable destinations; in fact, the Bible only allows for two tracks – the way of righteousness or the way of destruction.

This leads to the third pillar of Mason’s educational philosophy, the first being, the observation of children’s behaviour regarding wills and habits (I’ve already offered my own children as examples), and the second, the role of the Holy Spirit in learning.  The third pillar is science. Now, all conservative, Bible-believing Christians reading this are likely cringing. For why would we want science to have anything to do with our children today? The science of our day teaches that God does not exist, humans were not created, our identities have no relation to our physical bodies, babies in the womb are not persons, sex should be divorced from relationship, it is natural for adolescents to rebel against parents, and on and on, all ideas which directly contradict biblical teachings. I’m glad to have doctors to prescribe medicine and engineers to build roads but when it comes to the realm of child psychology, development and behaviour, I would rather “science” as we know it today didn’t touch my children with a ten-foot pole. A reasonable objection.

But the science of today pushes all these anti-Christian beliefs precisely because it is premised on a mind/body divide (a schizophrenia lucidly explained in Christian cultural critic Nancy Pearcey’s book Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions About Life and Sexuality). We twenty-first century Christians struggle to defend our beliefs against such science because we don’t understand the true nature of the issue because we too ascribe, unwittingly, to a secular/sacred and mind/body divide, which Mason did not. Mason looks at the ways in which the mind and body work together – in fact, the way they are inseparable. Habits of the mind become written on the very biology of the body because of the way the neurons in our brains and the nervous system work. One can observe this when playing an instrument skillfully or writing a letter. You don’t have to figure out or remember which keys represent which notes or how to form the letter “A” when you play the piano or write, because these habits were drilled deep into your brain and into the muscles in your hand long ago until they became part of your very biology – more specifically, your unconscious, and now your conscious mind (where your will resides) is freed from the effort. Anyone who has ever learned a piano piece thoroughly, especially by heart, has experienced that uncanny state where you look down and observe your fingers flying across the keys as if in the third person, or as if you are looking at someone else’s hands, or as if to wonder, who is playing this piece? How can I be playing this piece while thinking about playing it but not actually thinking about how to play it? Another bizarre example of the conscious and unconscious levels of the mind is one that many mothers have noticed, which is completely tuning out while reading aloud a boring picture book to their children, to the point where upon completion of the book they realize they have no idea what they just read. (I’m pretty sure I read Paw Patrol Saves Valentine’s Day out loud four or five times without having any idea what it was about because I was thinking about something entirely different the whole time.)

These examples illustrate how the conscious and unconscious levels of the mind work. This division of the mind may at times seem strange or uncanny, but the reality is that the unconscious mind is a great aid to us. Without the unconscious mind, playing the piano and writing a letter would be utterly laborious. We can’t even conceive of such an existence. If we can’t drill habits deep into our mind until they become second nature, how could we improve at or even learn anything? How could we even be sanctified? Good habits make for an easy life indeed. And the Holy Spirit enables all these processes from the inspiration or motivation to begin a new skill, the attention required to learn it, the discipline required to sustain it through practice, and the pleasure enjoyed from the successful fruit of one’s efforts. None of these endeavours exist solely in either the spiritual or material realm; even inspiration, which is a feeling, releases chemicals and hormones in the brain. The Holy Spirit is Lord of all and working in every system in our bodies. We might as well call this sanctification because it is really the overcoming of our sin nature, which tends in a downward spiral towards laziness and impulsiveness, or, the path of least resistance – the giving into temptation, rather than the mastery of one’s impulses and desires (the “flesh”). When explained this way, it is easy to see how Mason’s theory of education encompasses the “whole person,” a phrase often used when referring to her ideas. The end of education is not to “instill information” or “get a job” or any other kind of utilitarian, demeaning, narrow-minded or lowball goal. Indeed, for Mason, “academic” education cannot be separated from growing as a person – growing in godliness.

So how does one go about educating a child with such a theory of human behaviour? How do you establish firm habits in a child without force? How do you set them on the road toward God – which, in Masons’ view includes everything from kindness, thankfulness, cleanliness, orderliness, knowledge of the world, history, great ideas, creation and so on? The key is in training their attention, which Mason writes is the mark of true genius. What is attention, but focusing the mind at will? Some things are easy to focus our attention on, but that which is more difficult should be encouraged gently, over time, in a smooth and attractive manner. Such a training can begin when the child is a toddler, as the mother encourages the young child to stop and carefully notice a flower he might normally pass by – the number and texture of the petals and leaves and the width of the stem and so on. When it is time for lessons to begin at age seven, the mother keeps the lessons short and engaging, so that the will does not become set stubbornly against them from tediousness or over-difficulty. History is taught to the young child with exciting stories of heroes and faraway places so that the mind is lured down a track of learning and knowledge. When it comes to arithmetic and handwriting, these physical labours must be done briefly but with full attention to exactness. In all of these endeavours, the child is required to focus their full attention on the subject so that it permeates into the unconscious. The distracted child will recall nothing – and will learn to love nothing, for if education is also for the soul then what is the good of a mumbled or half-remembered Bible passage or poem?  The reward for full attention to a lesson is always complete leisure, thus motivating the child to focus her full attention the next time. As the child gradually practices focusing in longer and longer durations, what she is really doing is exercising mastery over her own will, which is the suppression of impulse, contrariness and laziness. The more the attention is focused, the easier it becomes, and learning becomes second nature. The student emerges from school not just stuffed with head knowledge, but the master of her own will, her own self. This is true agency.

It is vital to note that Mason’s “luring” of children to their studies is absolutely not with gimmicks, bribes and what we today call “edutainment.” Such methods she famously calls “twaddle,” and they are downright dishonest and offensive to persons as created in the image of God. There is no point on which I agree more with Charlotte Mason than this one, and it is this idea that especially drew me to her writings. I had already long felt this way before I even had children, never mind entertained the thought of homeschooling them. Mason urges parents and teachers to give children the real thing, which she calls “living ideas” and “living books.” Give them real history, real literature, the real Bible, real art, real music, real nature, real art supplies and so on. Children don’t need things dumbed or watered down; they can handle big ideas. Books, materials and music don’t need to be overly silly and nonsensical, filled with drivel and blather (“junk food” for the mind). Children don’t need to be “tricked” into learning.

Such an approach to education – that children need to be tricked (which our schools and books are so awash with today) – presupposes several untrue things. Firstly, it presupposes that children don’t or can’t naturally love to learn. Secondly, it presupposes that the subjects to be learnt are too boring. If such things were true, then learning would indeed have to be forced, or tricked through edutainment. The problem with the first presupposition, that children don’t or can’t naturally love to learn, is actually theological. It implies that God has given us no inborn capability or means to move toward him. Certainly we battle our sin nature, which pulls us down, but has God not set eternity in the hearts of men? Did not Augustine say that the soul’s appetite is for God? It may take a guide (the parent) to awaken the appetite for God, but the capability is latent and can be fanned into flame and sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit. We do nothing without divine power, but that divine power is ready and able to lead any mind toward Himself. It does not require gimmicks. The second presupposition, that subjects are just too tedious, does not trust in or believe that the richness of real knowledge nourishes the soul and mind in a way that good food nourishes the body. Edutainment itself, which is really bait-and-switch – look at this flashy thing and when it is taken away the knowledge will “stick” (all the while making a useless association – like Bible characters and vegetables) – is actually dishonest and insulting to the intelligence of children. It presupposes that children are not even really whole persons because they have no soul with an appetite for higher things. Such a vision of education is utterly dreary. Children can and do love to listen to classical music, read classic literature, learn about the great heroes and events of history, recite beautiful poetry and take joy in exploring nature. I have seen it in my own home.  Mason also points out that even if children do not love something at first, they will naturally learn to love what is continually set before them. Susan Wise Bauer, in The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Guide to Education at Home, says it another way: familiarity breeds appreciation. Begin with a small selection of interesting classical music and repeat it until the foreign becomes recognizable.  It is also a warning that children will love whatever is set before them – even junk. We live in a culture awash with junk for children, from trashy television shows to worthless books to narcissistic clothing slogans, and there has never been a time more necessary for parents to be overly intentional about cultivating their children’s minds and hearts to love what is higher and better.

Some might still feel that Mason’s method of habit-training is perfectionist and strict, with little room for grace. I have a hard time disagreeing with that and it is a point of tension I have with Mason. She uses phrases such as “perfect obedience,” a guaranteed setup for feelings of failure in any parent. But I think her statement, “The question is not – how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education – but how much does he care?”,  shows her desire to not just educate the whole person, but refigure “education” as nurture and cultivation. Knowledge is useless to a person if they do not have principles. I feel this statement is especially relevant to subjects like sex education for teenagers today. What does it matter if they know everything about sex but care nothing about it? What does it matter if they know all the scientific facts about every transmittable disease and contraceptive method and yet view physical intimacy as sacredly as going through a drive-through, when in reality it is a gift of God and meant for holy purposes? Indeed, there is no subject of learning in which we cannot move either toward or away from God.

There are a few other points of disagreement I have with Mason. Sight reading, which she heartily endorses, has been a dismal failure in the public schools. Her approach to math, I believe, is mediocre when compared to Asian-style conceptual math, an excellent discussion of which can be found in Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics: Teachers’ Understanding of Fundamental Mathematics in China and the United States by Liping Ma. Mason also believed in evolution (although many Christians during her time apparently did), and basically concedes in the chapter on Bible lessons that the Fall of man in the garden of Eden may have been a symbolic event only. Indeed, it would have to be if the evolution of man were true, as literal death could not precede the Fall, when death is supposed to have entered the world. Evolution also remains a thorn in Mason’s ideas for me because is her “habits of the mind,” which are written on our biology to the point where we become changed (the child becomes a hunchback because he slouches too much, she says), an explanation of how the human species evolves? The ape came to walk upright because he got into the habit of straightening his spine? Perhaps I am way off the rails here in my speculations regarding Mason’s ideas but I think it is important to note that there does exist today an equivalent of Mason’s theory of the body, and that is neuroscience and the phenomenon of neuroplasticity. More and more scientists are beginning to perceive that genetics cannot explain the rapid onset of various conditions and diseases of the body and mind peculiar to our decade. There is also rising awareness of the effect of pornography on the brain and body and the total destruction of attention spans from overuse cell phones and tablets. There is definitely relevancy to Mason’s ideas, though they be over one hundred years old.  Ironically, at the end of her life, Mason actually almost reneged on her theory of habits, writing that, “Science has done nothing to confirm the ‘rut’ theory [that repeated behaviours and thoughts cut grooves in our brains, which then determine future behaviours and thoughts] all these years…. I think that all I have written is still true but I would emphasize habit and so on less.” I think the advent of neuroscience would dispute that; neuroscience is the medicine of the future, in my opinion.

Another issue I have with Mason is that she herself never had children and so never experienced parenthood for herself and how utterly difficult it can be to train children in good habits. Every parent has experienced the phenomonen that children are much more likely to control their impulses and put on their best side with other authority figures and teachers, and save their worst behaviour for their parents at home. Recently, at a church luncheon where my children sat amazingly still and quiet and miraculously didn’t complain about the food, a senior woman at our table said to me afterward, “I just want to commend you on how well your children behave. You have done so well with them. I live with my grandchildren and our house is a zoo most of the time.” Part of me had to smile at her naivety, as she has obviously never seen what goes on in our home (we have our own monkey house), but part of me felt terribly for her daughter or daughter-in-law who has now to live with the unrealistic expecations of her mother or mother-in-law after seeing some children behave well in one particular kind of environment. I have heard many parents observe that their kids, who behave like angels all day at school, according to teacher reports, come home and erupt with emotion and grumpiness. Repressing emotions all day can become like a kind of taxing performance and can apparently take its toll on a person. The home is a place of unconditional love. Children intuitively know that no matter how bad they behave, their parents will still love them; what’s more, they seem to need a place like that. Don’t we all? I feel like Mason does somewhat allude to the different expectations of disparate environments when she contrasts the kindergarten and the “nursery” (home), and criticizes the kindergarten for being an artificial environment that doesn’t truly train children in meaningful habits. The nursery, however, is reality, and the habits that are formed there matter more. That, I have to agree with. She is very careful to distinguish between sincere habits, which improve a person and are pleasing to God, and those which are just for show. Still, the total repression of negative emotions which she advocates is troubling to me as I believe it to be unhealthy from a psychological point of view. Repressing impulses and behaviour is one thing, but repressing emotion is another; however, she seems to believe the former requires the latter. I think there is a good case to be made for healthily acknowledging and experiencing the full range of one’s emotions, while still controlling the impulse to act upon them.

Lastly, I take issue with Mason’s disregard for the classical method, which she calls a method drawing from a poisoned source (the Greeks). However, her repeated citing of Coleridge and Wordsworth belies her own Romantic influences, a movement which was not Christian in its origins either. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the father of Romanticism, had very radical ideas about children and the “state of nature” which are difficult to reconcile with biblical Christianity. They are difficult to reconcile even with her own belief that children must not be left to their “nature,” which in my understanding is the opposite of Rousseau’s philosophy, a total rejection of institution and even parental authority. However, Charlotte Mason has a whole series of books that I have not read, and I look forward to reading more of her writings and perhaps receiving further explanation of many of her ideas. There is no doubt she is an extremely intelligent educational theorist and her ideas are definitely worth sifting through. They certainly reign superior to the typical approach to education embraced generally today. If there was ever a time when we needed to train up a generation of children in healthy habits and focused attentions spans, that time is now.


“It is because of the possibilities of ruin and loss which lie about every human life that I am pressing upon parents the duty of saving their children by the means put into their hands. Perhaps it is not too much to say, that ninety-nine out of a hundred lost lives lie at the door of parents who took no pains to deliver them from sloth, from sensual appetites, from willfulness, no pains to fortify them with the habits of a good life.” – Charlotte Mason


Related Posts

Hints on Child-Training by H. Clay Trumbull – An American from the Victorian era writes about training children in good habits.

My Story: A Victorian Healing – A personal testimony of the role of the unconscious mind in chronic pain, and how I have a Victorian doctor to thank for my healing. 

Should Adults Feel Embarrassed Reading YA Novels?


Recommended Reads

Hints on Child-Training by H. Clay Trumbull – An American from the Victorian era writes about training children in good habits.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey – Contemporary discussion of how to change your habits as an adult.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman – The dumbing down of our culture, the disappearance of literacy and the rise of junk culture.

Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions About Life and Sexuality by Nancy Pearcey – An easily understandable discussion of the mind-body division that pervades our culture.

The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain by Dr. John Sarno – You can heal your chronic pain and other symptoms by understanding how the unconscious mind works.

When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress by Gabor Mate- The repression of negative emotion can lead to bodily illness.

The Holy Spirit by Arthur W. Pink – Comprehensive discussion of how the Holy Spirit works.