Parents are persons, too

I have written about this before—that parents are persons—but my current reading in Home Education recently underscored how strongly Charlotte Mason felt about this. Not only do  parents have the liberty to work out principles of child-rearing for themselves, but that liberty provides a healthier atmosphere than any adherence to a mechanical system.

If you want to read what I was reading, you’ll find these quotes between pages 185 and 192, or read the whole section that begins on page 178.

Miss Mason reminds us that

So far as education is a science, the truth of even ten—much more, a hundred—years ago is not the whole truth of today.

It’s important to keep this in mind. It’s not that the “truth of a hundred years ago” is no longer the truth, that it was wrong, but it was, perhaps, incomplete—not the “whole truth.” The science aspect of education means that we are constantly learning, or we should be, more about the way that the mind works and how children learn best. Some things never change, but some things do—and good educational practices do not neglect to take new findings into consideration.

The topic immediately at hand is Froebel’s kindergarten, and Miss Mason tells us that

Froebel gathered diffused thought and practice into a system.

His was quite a complete system, with prescribed games and activities that made use of all the senses to teach properties—big and small, hard and soft. Color, number, rhythm, imagination—nothing is really left to chance in a Froebelian kindergarten. Miss Mason tries not to be too critical—she has a high regard for Froebel in many ways—but she does say:

And yet I enter a caveat.

And that caveat is this: “It is a doubtful boon to a person to have conditions too carefully adapted to his needs.” Miss Mason goes on to deprecate the hot-house environment a kindergarten might be.

Everything is directed, expected, suggested. No other personality out of book, picture, or song, no, not even that of Nature herself, can get at the children without the mediation of the teacher. No room is left for spontaneity or personal initiation on their part.

Her argument is that a healthier environment will happen at home, with a mother who allows everyday life to be her child’s teacher, under her own watchful eye. And that, even if it is a little more chaotic:

The home-nursery is by no means such a scene of peace, but I venture to think it a better growing-place.

Now, Charlotte Mason has been talking here about the education of very young children, but the central point around which all her arguments turn is the first principle: Children are born persons. All the good things that might be said about the kindergarten and its games are not enough to excuse it for violating personhood.

I am inclined to question whether, in the interest of carrying out a system, the charming Kindergartnerin [kindergarten teacher] is not in danger sometimes of greatly undervaluing the intelligence of her children.

And so I go back to my spin-off principle—parents are persons, too. What does that imply for us as we seek out ways and means of educating our children? If Charlotte Mason were among us today, I think she would proffer the same warning regarding her own educational methods as she did for Froebel:

There is always the danger that a method, a bona fide method, should degenerate into a mere system. The Kindergarten Method, for instance, deserves the name, as having been conceived and perfected by large-hearted educators to aid the many sided evolution of the living, growing, most complex human being; but what a miserable wooden system does it become in the hands of ignorant practitioners! (Home Education, p. 9)

We ought to take this as a warning to ourselves regarding Charlotte Mason and her own methods. These, too, were conceived and perfected by a large-hearted educator. These, too, serve to aid the living growth of a complex human being. But. These, too, are at risk of degenerating into “a miserable wooden system,” especially if we try to “do all the things” without a solid understanding of the principles that underlie the practices.

Even with Charlotte Mason’s lovely methods, this is sadly possible. Living books and nature study and picture study and handicrafts and music and drill and all the things that go into a “Charlotte Mason” education are not magically exempt from deteriorating into a mechanical exercise of going through the motions. I have heard many a dedicated-but-weary CM mama lament, “we’ve just been checking off the boxes.” (Come to think of it, I have been that mama myself on occasion.) They knew the principles well enough to know that when the living joy and wonder weren’t present, the mechanical exercise of  going through the motions wasn’t satisfying.

Parents are persons, too. We need to adapt, to take some initiative and correct this danger when we see it. First, we have to make sure we understand a few basic principles well—and all twenty of Charlotte Mason’s principles do not carry equal weight, so it’s important to grasp those two or three that are really central to the methods. And then we need to remember that “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.” There must be balance.

I don’t know what you need to do to restore your atmosphere if you’ve lost your joy, but I know you need to do something. Maybe you don’t have the grasp of the principles that you need, and some time to refresh your thoughts about educational principles will restore balance. You might look for a local community or conference to attend, or you can invest in one of the books from this list, or this one, to give you a boost.) Brandy Vencel at Afterthoughts runs a “Charlotte Mason Boot Camp” periodically. (It fills up quickly, so if you’re interested, you’ll want to be on the interest list.)

On the other hand, maybe study’s the last thing you need. Maybe you just need a break—sunshine, the pool, hiking for the joy of it without calling it “nature study.” Maybe you need to work on habits unrelated to school that are causing friction in your days. Messy rooms and heaps of unwashed laundry can steal our joy. Maybe a day—or a week—for a “cleaning vacation” will scour out the gritty corners of the soul as well as the windows, and you and the kids can plan a treat to celebrate a shiny, clean house when it’s all done. Maybe you need more time at the park, a designated quite hour every day, or a nap after too many sleepless nights. Parents are persons, too. Take time to restore your soul.

Charlotte Mason objected to the overly-structured kindergarten because “no room is left for spontaneity or personal initiation on [the children’s] part.” Don’t let Charlotte Mason’s methods become that rigid. There is room for spontaneity and personal initiative in your homeschool. Never mind what the time table or curriculum says if you know that a different book or a different schedule would be best in your home. If you know the principles well, you can adapt them to your own circumstances.

Charlotte Mason says of the children:

The resourcefulness which will enable a family of children to invent their own games and occupations through the length of a summer’s day is worth more in after life than a good deal of knowledge about cubes and hexagons.

And I extend that concept to the homeschooling parent. That resourcefulness that develops from making adaptations, perhaps with a bit of trial and error, will be of more value in the years to come than perfect adherence to a timetable or a book list.  In fact, those personal adaptations—because parents are persons, too—will keep Charlotte Mason’s method effective and fresh, with no danger of degenerating into a “miserable wooden system.”

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass