A Muddy Principle Made Clearer

I think Charlotte Mason hid an alternate version of one of her principles in Home Education—and it’s that tricky one!

Have you ever been taken aback by Charlotte Mason’s second principle? You know, the one that says, “Children are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil?” I have long lamented the unfortunate wording that distracts readers into thinking it is a theological declaration, because that is not what Charlotte Mason was talking about. As much as twenty years ago, I tried to explain that this principle is about formation of a child’s character, and the responsibility of a parent (and to a lesser extent, teachers) to labor actively in that cause.

When I wrote In Vital Harmony , I was able to go into even greater depth, and reworded the second principle as an addendum to the first principle in this way: “Children are born persons whose character must be nurtured.”

I’ve been doing a very close read of Home Education lately, and I ran across a sentence that I think really sheds some light on this principle. If the second principle has been problematic for you, I suggest penciling this in place of what is there in your own copy.

The child is born, doubtless, with the tendencies which should shape his future; but every tendency has its branch roads, its good or evil outcome; and to put the child on the right track for the fulfillment of the possibilities inherent in him, is the vocation of the parent.

You can see all the familiar words that appear in the principle—born, possibilities, good, evil—but in this sentence, Charlotte Mason has made her purpose for saying these things much plainer. Yes, the child is born with tendencies, and yes, even a “good” tendency may come to an evil conclusion. Every tendency has its branch roads!  But the child need not be a slave to those tendencies if his parents recognize their “vocation”—Charlotte Mason means it is a duty inherent in parenthood—to “put the child on the right track.” You’ll even find, if you look at the context on page 109 in Home Education, that there is a direct reference to counteracting “heredity” (as I discussed in the article linked above).

From this picture we get that phrase “laying down the rails,” which refers to the formation of habits, both mental and moral, that shape a child’s inborn nature into character.

You see there is no reference here to sin, or to a child’s eternal state. These ideas about tendencies are mentioned in the principles to remind parents of their own duty and calling. That’s why the second principle is there in the first place. I suppose we all wish Charlotte Mason had worded it better, but if you write this sentence out on a sticky note and paste it into your principles, it will remind you.

And to end on a completely different note—

I have been reading and studying Charlotte Mason’s volumes for over twenty years. I never read a volume without discovering something new or making a new connection, as I did here. No matter how well you know this philosophy, it will repay you to pick up a volume you’ve read before—maybe even more than once—and read it again. I was in the middle of Parents and Children when I got distracted and went back to Home Education, so I guess I’ll be getting back to that next.