“You need to get this work done now! Don’t you know that your future is at stake? If you don’t work hard now, you won’t get a scholarship to the best college, then you won’t get the best job at the best place, and you won’t make lots of money. You don’t want to disappoint me, do you? So memorize these multiplication facts, now!” 

A Journey Through Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles: Principle 4

“These principles (ie., authority and docility) are limited by the respect due to the personality of children which may not be encroached upon whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire.”

Throughout Charlotte Mason’s volumes, Mason is highly concerned with the development of character.  From her observations of children, she saw the biggest problem was that they were “incapable of steady effort, because they had no strength of will, no power to make themselves do that which they knew they ought to do.”  As homeschoolers, I think we often see the same problem. The children don’t seem to want to motivate themselves. They don’t have the strength of will to do what they ought to do without reminders and prods and motivation from us. This can be true, not just for children, but for many adults as well. It is comforting to know that Mason saw the same problems and thought long and hard to find a way to help children overcome this fault.

She does this keeping in mind that children are whole people. They have personalities, strengths and weaknesses, and minds capable of great understanding. They are made in the image of God and are to be respected. The personhood of children is not to be undermined or undervalued or encroached upon. It may not be manipulated or coerced. The development of a child’s character as God’s image bearer was of paramount importance to Mason. Children must grow up moral with their affections rightly ordered, and any method employed in the educating of children must not hinder, crush, or maim their character.  It was not worldly success that she saw as the purpose of education, but virtue. This is a classical idea.* Plato said, “Education is teaching our children to desire the right things.” In The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education, Ravi Jain and Kevin Clark call it piety. Mason realized she was educating people. Not computers. Not factories. People.

Knowledge Is Delectable

Not only did Mason have a high view of children, she had a high view of knowledge. “Knowledge is delectable,” she tells us. Knowledge for its own sake should be the motivation. This is God’s world and we are His creatures — we should want to know. It reminds me of the shorter catechism question, ‘What is the chief end of man?”

The answer:

“Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

This means our purpose is to glorify and delight in God. We delight in Him by delighting in His Word. We also enjoy and glorify God by delighting in His Creation and His people—learning from those who have gone before, the good and the bad, so that our character may grow to be more Christlike so that we may glorify Him.

This, of course, does not come easily. But there is much that we as teachers and parents can do, and NOT do, to lead our children toward desiring knowledge for themselves. It is because of her view of children as persons and the high importance she places on the development of their character as well as their intellect, that Mason’s fourth principle of education places limits on the methods appropriate to educating children.

“we act our parts and play in an unlawful way upon motives.” – Vol 6, p81

How Not to Motivate

Mason warns that any means a teacher might employ to compel a child to do what is required of them that draws their affections and motivations away from knowledge itself, is to be avoided. To compel a child to work by fear (fear of you, punishment, or failure), love (so that they would do anything for you like a pathetic little puppydog), undue influence and suggestion (which I would call manipulation), is to compromise their character so that they become, as Mason says, “flaccid.” In other words, weak.

“Bob or mary is losing that growing time which should make a self-dependent, self-ordered person, and is day by day becoming a parasite who can go only as he is carried, the easy prey of fanatic or demagogue.” – Quoted from For The Children’s Sake, p67

You will get willing obedience by utilizing these means, but at the expense of developing a strong character who can think for themselves and will do what they ought because it is the right thing to do. 

Mason identifies four “natural desires” that are good in their place, being neither good nor bad, but when overemphasized or manipulated, also shift a child’s affection away from knowledge itself. These are:

  • Approbation (approval or praise),
  • Emulation (desire to excel),
  •  Avarice (extreme greed for wealth or material gain), and
  • Ambition.

Each is a good servant, but when one is favored at the expense of others, it is to the detriment of the development of the character of a child.

“We have considered the several desires whose function is to stimulate the mind and save us from that vis inertiae which is our besetting danger. Each such desire has its place but the results are disastrous if any one should dominate.” – Vol 6, p88

Approbation

Praising your child is natural for any parent. They do something well and we say, “great job!” There is no harm in this, as long as you do it “in such a way that no one set of motives be called unduly into play to the injury of the child’s character.” It’s about balance. It becomes a problem when children do the work SO that they get praise or approval. It becomes especially problematic when they desire it from the wrong people or for the wrong things. Praise for virtuous behavior such as hard work is more desirous than praise for achievements. One of my daughters qualified to take the DukeTIP this year (this means she placed in the 95th percentile or higher in last year’s standardized test and can take the college entrance SAT along with high schoolers). It is tempting to praise her for high academic abilities. But really, she was born with a keen mind, which she had absolutely no control over. Yes, a Charlotte Mason education of reading living books and narration went a long way to help her to place well, but it is her character qualities of diligence and hard work that are worthy to be praised, more than the achievement itself. I have other daughters who work just as hard and have received the same education, that will not, in all likelihood, qualify for DukeTIP. They were not created with the same academic abilities (more to the point, our current education system tests only a certain kind of ability, but I digress). But they are equally hardworking. When children begin to work for approval, instead of the knowledge itself, it is at the expense of character. Too much praise and of the wrong thing can cause a child to become conceited, which is a definite blight to a person’s character.

Emulation

When high test scores become the goal of education, the child no longer cares what it is he is learning. He crams for the exam to get the marks, only to promptly forget a short time after. Mason was highly critical of the trend she saw in schools of her day where the desire to excel was manipulated by the school system through prizes and rewards to get results.

“Emulation, the desire of excelling, works wonders in the hands of the schoolmaster; and, indeed, this natural desire is an amazing spur to effort, both intellectual and moral…
…In the intellectual field, however, there is danger; and nothing worse could have happened to our schools than the system of marks, prizes, place-taking, by which many of them are practically governed. A boy is so taken up with the desire to forge “ahead that there is no time to think of anything else. What he learns is not interesting to him; he works to get his remove.” – Vol 6. p85

What has a child gained by getting a good score if they don’t care about the knowledge that they scored high in?

Competitive Examinations aren’t helpful because the motivation isn’t knowledge. It is the “getting on”, achieving scholarships and the like. It doesn’t make them a better person.

Avarice

Closely connected with Emulation, is Avarice. When greed for wealth or material gain is played upon as a motivation for children to do their work, then we have a big problem. What happens to the child who works so that they can get good grades so they can get a scholarship, so they can go to the best college and get the best job so they can have lots of money and the best car and live on the best street… You get my point.  Having these things is not the problem. It is the unhealthy desire for them as the motivation for doing what ought to be done that is the problem. Where is the love of learning? Where is the love of doing the right thing because it’s the right thing?  Where is the human?

Ambition

Ambition hardly needs to be discussed. I think most of us know the difference between Ambition as a servant, that keeps us from stagnation, and Ambition as a master, which is an all-consuming tyrant.

Mason does not say that these “natural desires” are bad in and of themselves. They are good servants when in their place. It is when they are out of balance that it can be a detriment to character.

“… because the balance of character is destroyed by the constant stimulation of this one desire at the expense of the rest.” – Vol 2, p221

Mason’s goal is to see children self-dependent and self-ordered, who grow to love what is lovely and pursue what is good for themselves and for its own sake.

The coming principles will address what can be done toward that ideal, but for now, let me suggest that it is through gentle leading, not coercing, that we guide our children to delight in knowledge—because “knowledge is delectable.”

 

If you’d like to join me in studying Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles, get your copy of Start Here and see this post for details

A Journey Through Charlotte Mason 20 Principles Directory

*For more on Education as a virtue, I really like this post by Mystie Winkler.