Can I make a confession? I want to be a helicopter mom. I want to know that my children are safe and that they’re treated justly and they’re being polite. This is an urge that I fight every day. My natural instinct is to be a helicopter mom, but I’m not. Instead, I practice what Charlotte Mason called “masterly inactivity.”
We ought to do so much for our children, and are able to do so much for them, that we begin to think everything rests with us and that we should never intermit for a moment our conscious action on the young minds and hearts about us. Our endeavours become fussy and restless. We are too much with our children, ‘late and soon.’ We try to dominate them too much, even when we fail to govern, and we are unable to perceive that wise and purposeful letting alone is the best part of education. But this form of error arises from a defect of our qualities. We may take heart. We have the qualities, and all that is wanted is adjustment; to this we must give our time and attention.” Charlotte Mason, School Education
This is the opposite of helicopter parenting, isn’t it? We have so much to do for our children, that constant intervening becomes a habit. But Charlotte Mason calls for “wise and purposeful letting alone.” Notice she didn’t say, “accidental and negligent.” This is a very intentional shift in our thinking that allows children to play, discover, learn, and process without our intervention.
It indicates the power to act, the desire to act, and the insight and self-restraint which forbid action. But there is, from our point of view at any rate, a further idea conveyed in ‘masterly inactivity.’ The mastery is not over ourselves only; there is also a sense of authority, which our children should be as much aware of when it is inactive as when they are doing our bidding. The sense of authority is the sine quâ non of the parental relationship, and I am not sure that without that our activities or our inactivity will produce any great results. School Education
Our relationship with our children is important to the effectiveness of masterly inactivity. I picture a child who doesn’t often experience discipline being let alone to play or explore. They sure won’t learn boundaries on their own! I wrote about Charlotte Mason’s views of authority here.
Masterly inactivity allows a child to learn on their own, without our intervention.
What Does Masterly Inactivity Look Like?
This idea is so multi-faceted. Isn’t it almost impossible to describe exactly how a famous artist recreates the scene, or how the prima ballerina perfects her own unique style? Each situation requires a “masterly” evaluation of whether or not to answer questions, intervene, or let the child alone. This is just a brief overview of what I’ve experience of masterly inactivity.
- Not answering questions immediately (often called “wait time” in education today.
- Asking children what they think before giving them an answer.
- Allowing time for your child to solve his or her own problems.
- Asking questions to guide a child towards a solution to a problem.
- Asking open ended questions rather than closed-ended questions
- Standing back while your child explores.
- Not interrupting when your child is playing happily by themselves.
- Allowing your child to discover their physical limits through playing, climbing, and other physical activities. (I posted a Charlotte Mason quote about climbing on Instagram that explains this!)
- Instead of lecturing, presenting your child with ideas that inspire.
- Being aware that the Holy Spirit is the teacher of all knowledge.
What it Doesn’t Look Like
These things are inactivity, but they aren’t masterly!
- Refusing to help a child, even when they become frustrated (stress interferes with learning).
- Not supervising children.
- Allowing children to put themselves in harm’s way.
- Being apathetic to a child’s education.
I think our automatic reaction when we see our children struggle is to jump in and fix it. But intentionally standing back and allowing them to learn on their own ensures that we won’t have to follow our children to college.