Children are born persons.
They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.”
Charlotte Mason’s first and second principles seem pretty straightforward. When I first learned about them, they seemed obvious to me. Children are born persons- they seem plenty valued, today. They are born neither good nor bad– I’ve never heard a mom say that their child was born “bad!”
But these two principles, which are closely related, mean much more than what I first assumed. The more I read Charlotte Mason’s works, the more I can recognize the ideas of each principle scattered about like little seeds. I chose to discuss these two principles together because the second describes the nature of persons.
Ideas to Support These Principles
I know this post will just brush the surface of this topic: there is so much depth and richness in Charlotte Mason’s wisdom! These ideas stood out to me as benig especially important during the early years.
Children are born with intellectual power, moral sense, and spiritual perception
As a matter of fact, we do not realise children, we underestimate them; in the divine words, we ‘despise’ them, with the best intentions in the world, because we confound the maturity of their frames, and their absolute ignorance as to the relations of things, with spiritual impotence: whereas the fact probably is, that never is intellectual power so keen, the moral sense so strong, spiritual perception so piercing, as in those days of childhood which we regard with a supercilious, if kindly, smile.” Parents and children, chapter 24
My first reaction to Charlotte Mason’s claim that children are despised was, ‘Not now! Children are definitely not hated in our society!” But throughout her volumes, her meaning for the word “despise” is:
‘Despise: to have a low opinion of, to undervalue’–thus the dictionary; and, as a matter of fact, however much we may delight in them, we grown-up people have far too low an opinion of children. Home Education, page 17
But Charlotte Mason points out the beauty and value of children. Though they don’t know much from their beginning, they’re intellectually powerful; they may be physically weak, but they’re morally strong; though they are viewed as spiritually incompetent, their ability to perceive spiritual things is striking. These views of children were uncommon during her day.
(Related: Masterly Inactivity)
We shouldn’t lower expectations because they are children
Now one of the secrets of power in dealing with our fellow-beings is, to understand that human nature does that which it is expected to do and is that which it is expected to be.” Parents and Children chapter 23
The phrases, “She’s just a child,” or “He’s only three!” are dangerous thoughts. When we view children as persons, we hold them to real-life expectations. We have probably all encountered a hitting three-year-old whose parent justifies the behavior by her age. If it is wrong for an adult to hit or hurt others, then it is also wrong for a child to hit or hurt others. He or she might need practice with the habit of gentleness, or reminders when hands start getting angry, but the expectations should hold.
If the mother settle it in her own mind that the child never does wrong without being aware of his wrong-doing, she will see that he is not too young to have his fault corrected or prevented. Deal with a child on his first offence, and a grieved look is enough to convict the little transgressor; but let him go on until a habit of wrong-doing is formed, and the cure is a slow one; then the mother has no chance until she has formed in him a contrary habit of well-doing. To laugh at ugly tempers and let them pass because the child is small, is to sow the wind.” Home Education, page 19
This passage from Home Education reinforces the need for setting high expectations. It also touches upon another one of her principles: education is a discipline. I’ll get into that one another time!
Relatively, giving children work that is very beneath their abilities is an encroachment on their personhood. Adults feel insulted when their intelligence is underestimated, so why wouldn’t it be the same with children? We need to set reasonable expectations for children’s academics, behavior, morality, and spirituality.
(Related: How to Help Your Child Form Positive Habits)
Children Are Ignorant
This is how we find children–with intelligence more acute, logic more keen, observing powers more alert, moral sensibilities more quick, love and faith and hope more abounding; in fact, in all points like as we are, only much more so; but absolutely ignorant of the world and its belongings, of us and our ways, and, above all, of how to control and direct and manifest the infinite possibilities with which they are born.” Parents and Children, Chapter 23
This might seem like a strange passage to include while explaining the principle that humans are born persons! I think it’s important because it shows a different perspective on the aspects of a child that are sometimes looked down upon. When young children do something that is generally seen as “bad,” it is usually because of two reasons:
- The child doesn’t know that it’s wrong (ignorance)
- The child is weak (does not know how to control, direct, and manifest their infinite possibilities)
This is where I think Charlotte Mason’s second principle becomes entwined with her first. Children aren’t born bad: hoping to do ill and frustrate people. Occasionally, these behaviors do happen out of defiance. But treating an ignorant or weak child as a defiant one will inevitably damage the critical relationship that exists between parents and children.
Trust that Children Can Learn on their Own
And the Intellectual Life.–Almost as bad is the way the child’s intellectual life may be wrecked at its outset by a round of dreary, dawdling lessons in which definite progress is the last thing made or expected, and which, so far from educating in any true sense, stultify his wits in a way he never gets over. Many a little girl, especially, leaves the home schoolroom with a distaste for all manner of learning, an aversion to mental effort, which lasts her lifetime, and that is why she grows up to read little but trashy novels, and to talk all day about her clothes.” Home Education, page 16
We insult children by giving them boring lessons, shoving little bits and pieces of information at them, and expecting them to enjoy it. Then, to top it all off, we dare say something as insulting as, “Learning is fun!” Children love learning, but this principle suggests that children are capable of learning on their own.
As Charlotte Mason said:
“Self-education is the only possible education; the rest is mere veneer laid on the surface of a child’s nature.”
I think this is especially important for the early years. A young child is always learning! We don’t have to spoon-feed them little bits of facts. Actually, I think the attempt to make learning “fun” does quite the opposite (see my post, The Case Against the Pinterest Preschool.) We have to trust our child’s natural ability and desire to learn.
Education, like faith, is the evidence of things not seen. We must begin with the notion that the business of the body is to grow; and it grows upon food, which food is composed of living cells, each a perfect life in itself. In like manner, though all analogies are misleading and inadequate, the only fit sustenance for the mind is ideas, and an idea too, like the single cell of cellular tissue, appears to go through the stages and functions of a life. We receive it with appetite and some stir of interest. It appears to feed in a curious way. We hear of a new patent cure for the mind or the body, of the new thought of some poet, the new notion of a school of painters; we take in, accept, the idea and for days after every book we read, every person we talk with brings food to the newly entertained notion. ‘Not proven,’ will be the verdict of the casual reader; but if he watch the behaviour of his own mind towards any of the ideas ‘in the air,’ he will find that some such process as I have described takes place; and this process must be considered carefully in the education of children. We may not take things casually as we have done. Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science; but it is the ideas we must give, clothed upon with facts as they occur, and must leave the child to deal with these as he chooses.” Towards a Philosophy of Education, pages 39- 40
Imagine what a delightful childhood our little ones would have if we respected these aspects of personhood right from the start!