Recently, a young woman I admire very much informed me with a great deal of excitement that she had purchased school curriculum for her son, as a gift for his fourth birthday. Oh my! I thought, but did not say it out loud. The conversation was taking place on the phone (my hearing is not too good), and I was returning a call from her husband, so I just remarked about how time flies and wished her son a happy birthday.
Although I dropped the subject with her, I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit since then. Like so many young parents I observe (and me, when my children were young), my young friend couldn’t wait to get her child started on the business of “real” learning – reading, writing and arithmetic. I remember the excitement of choosing curriculum and organizing a school schedule, as soon as my children turned five (not four!). There are traditions, expectations, and laws that say this is the right way. Walk in it.
Along with this, I’ve been thinking about Charlotte Mason’s seemingly subversive writings on educating young children, particularly these quotes from Home Education:
Tommy should be free to do what he likes with his limbs and his mind through all the hours of the day when he is not sitting up nicely at meals. He should run and jump, leap and tumble, lie on his face watching a worm, or on his back watching the bees in a lime tree. Nature will look after him and give him prompting of desire to know many things; and somebody must tell as he wants to know; and to do many things, and somebody should be handy just to put him in the way; and to be many things, naughtily and good, and somebody should give direction.
A child will have taught himself to paint, paste, cut paper, knit, weave, hammer and saw, make lovely things in clay and sand, build castles with his bricks; possibly, too, will have taught himself to read, write, and do sums, besides acquiring no end of knowledge and notions about the world he lives in, by the time he is six or seven. What I contend for is that he shall do these things because he chooses (provided that the standard of perfection in his small works be kept before him).
And these 6 points she makes about education:
a) That the knowledge most valuable to the child is that which he gets with his own eyes and ears and fingers (under direction) in the open air.
(b) That the claims of the schoolroom should not be allowed to encroach on the child’s right to long hours daily for exercise and investigation.
(c) That the child should be taken daily, if possible, to scenes––moor or meadow, park, common, or shore––where he may find new things to examine, and so add to his store of real knowledge. That the child’s observation should be directed to flower or boulder, bird or tree; that, in fact, he should be employed in gathering the common information which is the basis of scientific knowledge.
(d) That play, vigorous healthful play, is, in its turn, fully as important as lessons, as regards both bodily health and brain-power.
(e) That the child, though under supervision, should be left much to himself––both that he may go to work in his own way on the ideas that he receives, and also that he may be the more open to natural influences.
(f) That the happiness of the child is the condition of his progress; that his lessons should be joyous, and that occasions of friction in the schoolroom are greatly to be deprecated.
Mason believed that parents and teachers should practice what she called “Masterly Inactivity” – the art of keeping in the background, ready with a guiding or restraining hand only when these are badly wanted. Parents are to assume this attitude from the beginning. She went on to point out how much a child learns without formal education in the first two years of life, and how we run the risk of supplanting nature and of depriving her of her space and time to do her own work in her own way in our children.
This is not about giving young children freedom from book work for as long as possible. It is about establishing proper boundaries from the beginning of our relationships with our children. It is about enabling them to start a life-long journey on the right road – one of personal initiative.
There is no habit or power so useful to man or woman as that of personal initiative.
It is about believing in the full personhood of each child and trusting that God has given each of them curiosity, intelligence, and the ability to learn from play, exploration, and trial and error. These abilities are not something they will grow into, but are born with. We are not more equipped to learn than children, but we do have more experience. This is why they need our gentle guidance, but not our condescending attitudes and actions that say they aren’t capable of obtaining real knowledge without our mediation.
Mason believed that putting off formal studies until a child is 6 or 7 gives them more time to grow in the knowledge of these God-given capabilities and the self-confidence and experience needed to carry them through life knowing their questions, ideas, and interests are important.
Most of us are the products of a system of education that has demeaned children and stunted this growth in them. I know I am. Thankfully, through years of reading Mason’s writings, I have grown in a curiosity and confidence I didn’t acquire in my youth. I have grown in a respect for children as whole persons that I didn’t possess when some of my children were young.
If your Charlotte Mason knowledge consists mainly of how she taught subjects, I encourage you to read through A Philosophy of Education. If you have very young children, you may benefit from a small study group that focuses on Home Education. This could be a great help to you as you consider how you will approach your child’s education. And if you are like I was, it may bring some healing and growth to you personally.
Evelyn Hoey is a cofounder and recently retired principal of Charlotte Mason Community School in Detroit, Michigan. Currently, she is nourishing the love of learning and personal initiative she acquired later in life, by taking fine arts classes at Wayne State University.
© 2017 by Evelyn Hoey