When Miss H was about 15 months old, I took her to a restaurant to have breakfast with a friend. I have to tell you- Miss H has always been an excellent restaurant patron. In general, she just has a sweet disposition (of course, she has her moments, too!) This particular morning, I ordered a bowl of fruit for my little toddler. When she caught sight of the juicy berries that were delivered to her, she shook with excitement. She reached out in front of her, and caught the edge of the porcelain ramekin, sending red and blue berries flying through the air. The bowl crashed to the ground and shattered into hundreds of pieces. The fellow restaurant-goers fell silent. I fell to my knees, and quickly scooped up the berries and shattered bowl. Then the server came over to help. Flustered, I tried to explain what happened. “It’s okay.” He said. “You can’t control kids all of the time.” Did he just call my sweet daughter out of control? This bothered me then, but it wasn’t until I kept learning about Charlotte Mason (I was about a year into my journey at this point) that I figured out why. It’s because of Charlotte Mason’s 4th principle.
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Charlotte Mason’s Fourth Principle
Before explaining this connecting that probably seems a little nebulous at this point, I need to back up to the previous principle in Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. Charlotte Mason’s third principle comes with a “but.” It says that authority and obedience are natural and necessary, but…her thought is completed with this, her fourth principle:
These principles (authority and obedience) are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, which must 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.”
This principle is challenging. Some of the things that she says not to do are culturally normal ways of parenting. I think that all of these encroachments that Charlotte Mason mentioned in this principle fall under the category of manipulation. One definition of manipulate is:
handle or control (a tool, mechanism, etc.), typically in a skillful manner.
We cannot, in healthy relationships, control other people. We can control ourselves, but we can’t control others.
Out of Control Kids
Yes, my daughter was out of control that fruit-ramekin day. And she’s out of control this very minute. As a matter of fact, so is my son, and the sweet little one that will join us in a couple of months. My children are out of my control, at least. As a Christian, it is not hard for me to understand that control is an illusion. God is in control, and I am not. But for some reason, this is a harder concept to grasp when it comes to parenting. I am not in control of my children. Yes I can guide them. I can teach them by giving them a positive example and inspiring them with ideas. Habit training is incredibly important! But the thought that I can control them, make them do what I want, does not coincide with the beliefs that the Holy Spirit is the divine teacher, that God is in control, or that children are born persons. When I write about Charlotte Mason’s fifth principle, I’ll get into what she said we can do to help children grow in maturity and understanding. But since we are discussing the fourth principle, I want to talk about “encroachments:” the things that Charlotte Mason said we should not do to our children.
Encroachments on a Child’s Personality
Fear- If you don’t do this, I’ll….
For the action of fear as a governing motive we cannot do better than read again our David Copperfield (a great educational treatise) and study ‘Mr. Creakle’ in detail for terrorism in the schoolroom and ‘Mr. Murdstone’ for the same vice in the home. But,––is it through the influence of Dickens?––fear is no longer the acknowledged basis of school discipline; we have methods more subtle than the mere terrors of the law. Towards a Philosophy of Education, pages 81-82
Mr. Creakle and Mr. Murdstone– two abusive characters in the Charles Dicken’s classic, David Copperfield. Charlotte Mason says we’ve moved away from this abusive fear as a parenting norm. But I see the more subtle versions of fear alive and well in parenting today. The exhausted mom in the store grabs her wandering child’s arm and says, “You DO NOT run away from me!” Me, another exhausted mom, clenches her teeth and says in an angry voice, “Don’t talk to your mother that way!” Not to mention the cultural cliches that we tend to laugh at, but are full of fearful threats:
- I brought you into this world, I can take you out of it!
- I’ll give you something to cry about!
- You better not do that, or you’ll be sorry!
These fearful threats and actions create fear bonds. Fear bonds are unhealthy bonds within a relationship that are built around fear and not love. According to NextReformation.com, fear bonds occur when someone bonds with another in order to avoid negative or harmful effects. That is not the kind of parent I want to be! Shouting, threatening, and physical aggression create fear bonds.
Love- If you loved me, you’d…
Picking up where the last passage left off:
Love is one of these. The person of winning personality attracts his pupils (or hers) who will do anything for his sake and are fond and eager in all their ways, docile to that point where personality is submerged, and they live on the smiles, perish on the averted looks, of the adored teacher. Parents look on with a smile and think that all is well; but 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. This sort of encroachment upon the love of children offers as a motive, ‘do this for my sake’; wrong is to be avoided lest it grieve the teacher, good is to be done to pleasure him; for this end a boy learns his lessons, behaves properly, shows good will, produces a whole catalogue of schoolboy virtues and yet his character is being undermined.” Towards a Philosophy of Education, pages 81-82
Our relationship with our children is very important. But if we use that relationship as a carrot over their heads, this becomes manipulative. Children should find motivation in doing what’s right because it’s right, not because they know their parents want them to. This type of relationship does not allow the child to think for themselves, make their own decisions, or even display their God-given personality. The challenging thing about this “encroachment” is that when discussing habit training, Charlotte Mason said that a “grievous look” can nip a bad habit in the bud. Maybe the difference between this grievous look, and the one mentioned about is that it is not tied to an overt or implied, “If you loved me, you’d….”
Suggestion- You should do this because….
‘Suggestion’ goes to work more subtly. The teacher has mastered the gamut of motives which play upon human nature and every suggestion is aimed at one or other of these. He may not use the nursery suggestions of lollipops or bogies but he does in reality employ these if expressed in more spiritual values, suggestions subtly applied to the idiosyncrasies of a given child. ‘Suggestion’ is too subtle to be illustrated with advantage: Dr. Stephen Paget holds that it should be used only as a surgeon uses an anesthetic, but it is an instrument easy to handle, and unconsidered suggestion plays on a child’s mind as the winds on a weathercock. “Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel” is the unfortunate child’s doom; for how is it possible for stability of mind and character to evolve under a continual play of changing suggestions? But this it will be said is true of the unconsidered suggestion. What of a carefully laid train, all leading in the same direction, to produce perseverance frankness, courage, any other excellent virtue? The child is even worse off in such a case. That particular virtue becomes detestable; no other virtue is inviting; and he is acquiring no strength to stand alone but waits in all his doings for promptings from without. Perhaps the gravest danger attending this practice is that every suggestion received lays the person open to the next and the next. A due respect for the personality of children and a dread of making them incompetent to conduct their own lives will make us chary of employing a means so dangerous, no matter how good the immediate end.” Towards a Philosophy of Education, pages 82-83
This encroachment is a little more difficult to understand, especially since she doesn’t give an explanation. We know:
- It’s subtle
- Makes it difficult for “stability of mind and character to evolve”
- Makes virtue destable
- Is a “prompting from without”
- Children become dependent on suggestion
Charlotte Mason said she wouldn’t give an example of this, so I hope you don’t mind if I attempt to. I believe that suggestion looks like rewards, as Charlotte Mason alluded to with the lollies. But I also believe it can just be a more subtle manipulation, like, “Don’t you want to clean your room like your sister?” Or, “Don’t you want to have a good job when you grow up?” Concerning more spiritual values, as Charlotte Mason mentioned, I think this looks like, “God is watching everything you do- you’d better be good!”
Influence- (Implied) Because I’m such a great role model, you should…
Akin to suggestion is influence, which acts not so much by well-directed word or inciting action as by a sort of atmosphere proceeding from the teacher and enveloping the taught. Late in the last century goody-goody books were written about the beauty of influence, the duty of influence, the study of the means of influence, and children were brought up with the notion that to influence other persons consciously was a moral duty. No doubt such influence is inevitable; we must needs affect one another, not so much by what we do or say as by that which we are, and so far influence is natural and wholesome. We imbibe it from persons real and imaginary and we are kept strong and upright by currents and counter-currents of unstudied influence. Supineness before a single, steady, persistent influence is a different matter, and the schoolgirl who idolises her mistress, the boy who worships his master, is deprived of the chance of free and independent living. His personality fails to develop and he goes into the world as a parasitic plant, clinging ever to the support of some stronger character.” Towards a Philosophy of Education, page 83
Similar to love, influence is winning a child’s admiration to get them to do as they are bid. I view this as kind of an arrogant leadership, an implied, “They owe me…”
Undue Play Upon Natural Desires- If you want to have this, you will…
So far we have considered incidental ways of trespassing upon those rights of personality proper to children, but we have more pervasive, if less injurious, ways of stultifying intellectual and moral growth. Our school ethic rests upon, our school discipline is supported by, undue play upon certain natural desires. It is worth while to reflect that the mind also has its appetites, better known as desires. It is as necessary that Mind should be fed, should grow and should produce, as that these things should happen to Body, and just as Body would not take the trouble to feed itself if it never became hungry, so Mind also would not take in that which it needs if it were not that certain Desires require to be satisfied. Therefore schoolmasters do not amiss in basing their practice upon the Desires whose very function appears to be to bring nourishment to Mind. Where we teachers err is in stimulating the wrong Desires to accomplish our end.” Towards a philosophy of Education, pages 83-84
- Approval- “There is the desire of approbation which even an infant shows, he is not happy unless mother or nurse approve of him. Later this same desire helps him to conquer a sum, climb a hill, bring home a good report from school, and all this is grist to the mill, knowledge to the mind; because the persons whose approbation is worth having care that he should learn and know, conquer idleness, and get habits of steady work, so that his mind may be as duly nourished every day as is his body. Alas for the vanity that attends this desire of approbation, that makes the boy more solicitous for the grin of the stable-boy than for the approval of his master! page 84
- Emulation- “It is hard to say what better could be done and yet this deliberate cult of cupidity is disastrous; for there is no doubt that here and there we come upon impoverishment of personality due to enfeebled intellectual life; the boy did not learn to delight in knowledge in his schooldays and the man is shallow in mind and whimsical in judgment.” Towards a Philosophy of Education, page 86
- Power- “Power is good in proportion as it gives opportunities for serving; but it is mischievous in boy or man when the pleasure of ruling, managing, becomes a definite spring of action.” page 87
- Society- “Another desire which may well be made to play into the schoolmaster’s hands is that of society, a desire which has much to do with the making of the naughty boys, idle youths and silly women of our acquaintance.” page 87
- Knowledge- “But so besotted is our educational thought that we believe children regard knowledge rather as repulsive medicine than as inviting food. Hence our dependence on marks and prizes, athletics, alluring presentation, any jam we can devise to disguise the powder.” pages 88-89
One “natural desire” that she doesn’t mention here is used often in homes and schools: food. I doubt throwing pizza parties for achieving certain milestones was a thing in her day 🙂 But how often does that happen now? I am embarrassed to admit that I probably use dessert too often as an incentive in our home!
It’s in the Presentation
Charlotte Mason does talk about natural and relative consequences and natural rewards. Sometimes we allow the natural consequences to run their course, and sometimes we have to apply a relative consequence. In the book, For the Children’s Sake, Susan Shaeffer Macaulay talks about sending a child inside to do chores when he has a problem playing peacefully outside. Instead of saying, “If you are mean to your sister, you have to go do chores!” a gentle explanation of, “Since you’re having a hard time getting along, you can go be helpful inside. Here are some chores for you to do.” One of these natural consequences that Charlotte Mason describes is that a child might get a plum (or the modern day equivalent- a cookie?!) after he or she eats the entire dinner. Again, there’s a difference in giving a plum and saying, “You’d better eat your vegetables or you can’t have a plum!” These rewards and motivations are all around us, and it’s hard to completely avoid them. I find it challenging to completely avoid them in our home! But once again, I find myself soaking in Charlotte Mason’s wisdom and saying, “That makes so much sense!” If you’d like to read about how modern research lines up with this idea, please read my post 7 Reasons to Rethink Sticker Charts and Rewards. The book Love and Logic Magic for Early Childhood aligns well with Charlotte Mason’s vision of discipline for children. It is definitely a valuable resource!