Most children tend to say, at some point, “I can’t wait to grow up, because then I can do anything I want!” Miss H said this for the first time recently, and the universality of this incorrect thought struck me.
We long for freedom, and the ability to make our own choices, but the truth is we are bound by authority. We are bound by God’s authority, His natural laws, and the laws of the land. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to eat ice cream 24 hours a day and not have the consequences of a rumbling belly and a tightening belt? But God’s natural laws prevent this.
It seems to me that the most troubled adults are the ones that have never veered away from that childhood fallacy. No, you can’t do anything you want. You may have to do things that you don’t want to do to support your family, keep up your health, and follow God’s authority. Charlotte Mason’s third principle addresses both authority and obedience. These two go hand in hand.
Obedience gets a bad rap these days. Some people think we shouldn’t expect children to obey. Are we disrespecting children as persons by telling them what to do? Will we damage a child’s ability to think for himself if he’s given orders? These arguments are not new. Charlotte Mason described the similar thoughts of society in her time!
*Updated June 2019
This is part 2 of my post on Charlotte Mason’s third principle. This post centers around obedience, the necessary co-star of authority. (You can read the post that focuses on authority here.)
The idea that parents shouldn’t expect children to obey is from the world. As a Christian, I know that it’s important from God’s Word.
Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, that your days may be prolonged and that it may go well with you on the land which the LORD your God gives you.” Deuteronomy 5:16
This is a command with a blessing tied to it! Charlotte Mason says that we must not let our children sin. We should teach them the difference between right and wrong, and also teach them positive habits, so that they can avoid sin. This seems especially important when it comes to obedience. We want to be extremely careful with what we ask our children to do.
This verse from Colossians concisely sums up Charlotte Mason’s views on authority and obedience:
Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they will not become discouraged…” Colossians 3:20 (Emphasis mine.)
Part of encouraging obedience is being wise in our authority. I’m going to explore these aspects briefly. Charlotte Mason spoke a lot about them probably because it’s a difficult balance to strike!
Obedience is Natural and Necessary
Charlotte Mason often refers to the ability to obey as ‘docility.’
The principle in us which brings us into subjection to authority is docility, teachableness, and that also is universal. If the man in the pride of his heart decline other authority, he will submit himself slavishly to his ‘star’ or his ‘destiny.’ It would seem that the exercise of docility is natural and necessary as that of reason or imagination; and the two principles of authority and docility act in every life precisely as these two elemental principles which enable the earth to maintain its orbit, the one drawing it towards the sun, the other as constantly driving it into space; between the two, the earth maintains a more or less middle course and the days go on.” Towards a Philosophy of Education, page 69.
These two principles make the world function. Docility is the child of authority: it takes its hand and says, “I trust you.”
If I decide that rules don’t apply to me, and decide not to stop at red lights, I immediately put myself and others in danger. Running red lights throws off the calculated traffic light system. It is a simple, but effective way to keep the little corners of our world functioning. Similarly, teaching children how to take care of their bodies by brushing their teeth or eating healthy foods is natural and necessary. In order to teach them this, we have to give them directions at least until they are capable of brushing their teeth on their own without prompting.
Authority and Obedience Give Ordered Freedom
Children crave “ordered freedom.” They don’t want every detail of their lives dictated for them, but they do like to know that they’re safe within boundaries. This is something I saw over and over again in the classroom. But Charlotte Mason said that proactively establishing boundaries without making children feel like their autonomy is compromised is crucial.
The same two principles work in every child, the one producing ordered life, the other making for rebellion, and the crux in bringing up children is to find the mean which shall keep a child true to his elliptical orbit. The solution offered to-day is freedom in our schools; children may be governed but they must not be aware that they are governed, and, ‘Go as you please,’ must be the apparent rule of their lives, while, ‘Do as your bid,’ is the moving force. The result of an ordered freedom is obtained, that ordered freedom which rules the lives of 999 in 1000 of the citizens of the world; but the drawback to an indirect method of securing this result is that when, ‘Do as you please,’ is substituted for ‘Do as your bid,’ there is dissimulation in the air and children fail to learn that habit of ‘proud subjection and dignified obedience’ which distinguishes great men and noble citizens. No doubt it is pleasing that children should behave naturally, should get up and wander about, should sit still or frolic as they have a mind to, but they, too, must ‘learn obedience’; and it is no small element in their happiness and ours that obedience is both delightful and reposeful.” Towards a Philosophy of Education, page 69
Expecting Children to Obey
When people say that expecting children to obey is disrespectful to the child, they are not picturing Charlotte Mason’s vision for obedience!
If we decide it isn’t important to teach children to obey, (which many people believe is “right” today), I see two alternatives.
- We either entirely stop giving directions
- We give directions without expecting obedience, effectively teaching our children that what we say doesn’t matter
Instead, we should find that balance that allows our children on their “elliptical orbit,” giving them autonomy while guiding them in what is right. Allowing them to do what is wrong sends them onto a different course.
Naughty!’ says the mother, again, when a little hand is thrust into the sugar bowl; and when a pair of roguish eyes seek hers furtively, to measure, as they do unerringly, how far the little pilferer may go. It is very amusing; the mother ‘cannot help laughing’; and the little trespass is allowed to pass: and, what the poor mother has not thought of, an offence, a cause of stumbling, has been cast into the path of her two-year-old child. He has learned already that which is ‘naughty’ may yet be done with some impunity, and he goes on improving his knowledge.” Home Education, pages 14 and 15
If it isn’t practical or possible; if it is exasperating or degrading; if we don’t follow through in seeing that our directions are followed; these things allow our children to sin. We have to be careful here, too, the directions we give our children are developmentally appropriate. Our expectations have to fit in with what’s physically, emotionally, and cognitively possible for children.
Here are the indisputable facts: that the development of children in mind and body follows certain laws; that unless these laws are in some degree conformed to by parents, death is inevitable; that unless they are in a great degree conformed to, and that only when they are completely conformed to, can a perfect maturity be reached. Judge, then, whether all who may one day be parents should not strive with some anxiety to learn what these laws are.” Home Education, pages 3 and 4
I haven’t struck this balance yet. This beautiful ordered freedom would be such a blessing in my home. But I can continue to keep working on it by getting to know each of my children’s needs and establishing a few well-thought-out boundaries before the big issues arise.