“We can’t make a child hear God’s voice, but maybe we can place the child in the place where we know he takes walks.”
I can still remember hearing this spoken at the ChildlightUSA Conference (now Charlotte Mason Institute) in 2012 during a lecture given by Art Middlekauff. What a beautiful idea—that through his own creation, God could speak directly to my children, without my mediation. Having just been introduced to Mason and her philosophy, these were the parts of a CM education that were keeping me up nights, anxious to begin and embrace a new way of life and learning with my children.
It’s funny, though, what an introduction to Charlotte Mason will do to a person. Or, maybe it’s just me. In 2012 when I started my “paradigm shift,” and the reordering of the life of my family, I’m not sure I began with a realistic perspective on what it really looked like to make such a transition. I wanted it all. And I wanted to know it all. And do it all. This year. This term. This week. Never mind that I was retraining myself and my children; never mind that I hadn’t even read through an entire volume of Mason’s writings; never mind everything I knew about the process of change, about forming new habits was all new—for some reason, when it came to aspiring toward a CM life, I thought of it like flipping a switch.
Rewind to 1996 . . .
It was late August, I was eighteen, my parents had just dropped me off at University – out of state – and I didn’t know a single soul. Suddenly, I felt like I had parachuted into a relationship vacuum. I didn’t even know my roommate. Of course this story isn’t unique, and it’s fairly predictable. Time went on, I made friends, we spent time together, and lifelong relationships that hadn’t previously existed took root and grew. Now, eighteen years later, there are people in my life that I can’t imagine not being there: friends I’ve laughed and prayed and grown with. I’ve even ended up marrying one of them!
And really we all have these stories, right? These stories that are connections being built over time. We’ve learned that there isn’t any substitute for all that goes into the building of a deep relationship. We can’t rush it or force it or even control it. All we can do is nurture it, through slow and careful and intentional decisions about how we spend our time.
One of Mason’s (1954, p. xxx) twenty principles addresses the idea of relationships as they relate to the education of a child:
12. “Education is the Science of Relations;” that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of—
“Those first-born affinities
That fit our new existence to existing things.”
Jump back to 2012 . . .
I was beginning my first term of homeschooling, and it was my first time applying Mason’s philosophy and methods in the context of my family. I was ready to flip the switch.
One of the things I was anticipating most was how wonderful it would be to have my children feel a deep connection to nature. Mason’s (1953) thoughts on nature and children were so beautiful and inspiring to me as I began reading through Home Education that summer in 2012, in preparation for our first year:
“Children are born naturalists, with a bent inherited, perhaps, from an unknown ancestor; but every child has a natural interest in the living things about him which it is the business of his parents to encourage . . . .” (p. 58)
“It would be well if all we persons in authority, parents and all who act for parents, could make up our minds that there is no sort of knowledge to be got in these early years so valuable to children as that which they get for themselves of the world they live in. Let them once get in touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life. We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.” (p. 61)
We live in the city, and our yard is small and fairly manicured. I really wanted a place that was ours that had a feeling of being a little bit magical; somewhere close by that we could visit often and be well acquainted with. I found it a few blocks from our house, on the shores of Lake Winnebago, under a 150 year old oak tree. That place spoke to me and I knew it was meant to be ours. So, we started going there, and I waited for the “naturalist” inside each of my kids to come out. But things didn’t unfold as I expected. My kids wanted to visit the playground, not the shoreline. They wanted a jungle gym to climb and explore, not rocks and an oak tree. They seemed ready to leave as soon as we arrived. “Mom, what are we supposed to do here?”
I remember that feeling of dutifully taking my kids to this spot—this oak tree—and thinking I must be doing something wrong. Why didn’t they want to be out in nature? Didn’t they know we were doing Charlotte Mason around here? Didn’t they know that THIS was science? That THIS was a place I was hoping they would learn to hear the voice of God? I felt like a failure.
You know what, though? I’m so glad we kept going. We kept . . . on . . . going. Even when it was cold. Even when they asked for the playground instead. Even when I didn’t feel like it. And it wasn’t until this year that it happened. It took TWO years. But this was the year they started ASKING to go to “our oak tree.” My kids have become completely engrossed in the relationship they now have with this place. The rocks along the shoreline have become like a second home to them, where they play and discover tiny treasures. They’re familiar with the birds that frequent this spot along the water, and the little creatures that crawl and buzz and scurry around. And they know our oak tree—the shape of its branches and how they hang low over the water. They know when it lets go of its leaves, and when its first buds begin to appear. They know the size of its acorns and the texture of its bark. They know that we can’t quite encircle the trunk of our tree when we’re all holding hands; maybe when baby Ruby can stand later this year, we’ll be able to. It’s their relationship with this place that’s fueling their desire to know and explore and observe. It’s become a part of all of us, in different and unique ways.
I’m not sure why I ever thought that the science of relations Mason speaks about would function any differently with a place than with a person. I’m not sure why, during those visits to our oak tree in the beginning, it never occurred to me that the lack of enthusiasm and interest I was seeing from my kids was the result of not knowing this place. These past few years have reminded me that the same is true about ALL relationships—whether with people, places, ideas or things. They take time. Lots of time. And the “results” I want to see aren’t ever going to be immediate. So much of life is like that, isn’t it?
So as Mason educators, who believe in the necessity and beauty of an education that’s about relationships – let’s be realistic about allowing them time to develop. Let’s try not to get overly discouraged when our kids don’t want to go on a nature walk (yet), don’t want to read those thick books (yet), don’t have more to offer for a narration (yet), don’t care to listen to that composer (yet). Let’s keep filling our days with intentional decisions to spend our time on things worthy of knowing more deeply. We’re all still becoming the people we’re meant to be, and that “becoming” is a process that’s profoundly affected by our relationships with people and places and ideas. I’m so thankful to know that these can all grow deeper and more meaningful with the passing of time.
Mason, C. M. (1954). An essay towards a philosophy of education: A liberal education for all. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, LTD.
Mason, C. M. (1953). Home and school education: The training and education of children over nine. Oxford: The Scrivener Press.
© 2014 by Amy Fiedler