In a newsletter recently, I mentioned that I’m going to go through Charlotte Mason‘s principles. I started with principles 1 and 2 a couple of months ago, and now I’m finally moving on. I struggle a little bit with writing about these principles because there is just so much to them! Discerning what bits of Charlotte Mason’s wisdom to include in a relatively short blog post is a huge challenge! But I want this to be helpful for you, so today I’m digging into just half of Charlotte Mason’s third principle: authority.
Authority is Natural, Necessary, and Fundamental
The first two chapters of School Education address authority. I’m going to use passages from them, but I encourage you to hop on over to Ambleside Online and read them on your own. There is so much goodness in her insights that I will not be able to do justice to.
We know that authority is natural, because it brings order to our world. We have laws and offices that are meant to keep our world from spinning into absolute chaos. Charlotte Mason describes how fundamental authority is:
Authority and Docility, Fundamental principles.––One of the first efforts of this reconstructive thought, which is building us once more a temple for our spirits, a house not made with hands, is to restore Authority to its ancient place as an ultimate fact, no more to be accounted for than is the principle of gravitation, and as binding and universal in the moral world as is that other principle in the natural. Fitting in to that of authority, as the ball fits the socket to make a working joint, is the other universal and elemental principle of Docility, and upon these two hang all possibilities of law and order, government and progress, among men. Mr. Benjamin Kidd, in his Social Evolution, has done much for the recognition of these two fundamental principles. Why a football team should obey its captain, an army its commanding officer; why a street crowd should stand in awe of two or three policemen; why property should be respected, when it is the many who want and the few who have; why, in a word, there should be rule and not anarchy in the world––these are the sorts of questions Mr. Kidd sets himself to answer. He turns to Reason for her reply, and she has none to give. Her favourite argument is that the appeal to self-interest is final; that we do, individually and collectively, whatever is shown to be for our advantage. But when that company went down in the ‘Royal George,’ standing at ‘Attention!’ because that was the word of command; when the Six Hundred rode ‘into the valley of death’ because
“Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die,
––the subtlest reasoning can find no other motive than the single and simple one of authority acting upon docility. These men had been told to do these things, and, therefore, they did them. That is all. And that they did well, we know; our own heart is the witness. We speak of such deeds as acts of heroism, but it is well to notice that these splendid displays of human nature at its best resolve themselves for the most part into acts of obedience to the word of authority. The abuse of authority gives us the slave and the despot, but slavery and despotism could not exist except that they are founded upon elemental principles in human nature. We all have it in us to serve or to rule as occasion demands. To dream of liberty, in the sense of every man his own sole governor, is as futile as to dream of a world in which apples do not necessarily drop from the tree, but may fly off at a tangent in any direction. (School Education, pages 9-10)
The common debate, “Can you have morality without God?” was going strong even in Charlotte Mason’s time. Authority is necessary. But if we understand we are under God’s authority, then the “reason why” we obey is much clearer.
Authority Is In the Office
Our authority over our children is not because we are super amazing people who have paid enough dues to now call the shots in our families. No, we are in authority over our children because God has made us parents. Authority is not in us as persons, but in our role as parents. The same is true with any leadership position.
Authority, vested in the Office.––It is by these countercurrents, so to speak, of mind forces that we have been taught to rectify our notion of authority. Easily within living memory we were upon dangerous ground. We believed that authority was vested in persons, that arbitrary action became such persons, that slavish obedience was good for the others. This theory of government we derived from our religion; we believed in the ‘divine right’ of kings and of parents because we believed that the very will of God was an arbitrary will. But we have been taught better; we know now that authority is vested in the office and not in the person; that the moment it is treated as a personal attribute it is forfeited. We know that a person in authority is a person authorised; and that he who is authorised is underauthority. The person under authority holds and fulfils a trust; in so far as he asserts himself; governs upon the impulse of his own will, he ceases to be authoritative and authorised, and becomes arbitrary and autocratic. It is autocracy and arbitrary rule which must be enforced, at all points, by a penal code; hence the confusion of thought which exists as to the connection between authority and punishment. The despot rules by terror; he punishes right and left to uphold his unauthorised sway. The person who is vested with authority, on the contrary, requires no rigours of the law to bolster him up, because authority is behind him; and, before him, the corresponding principle of docility. (School Education, pages 11-12)
Because of this, we must be very careful with our position of authority. We are guided by an absolute right and wrong from God’s law, so our authority over our children should reflect that. We are not to abuse our positions by exasperating our children with too many meaningless rules.
Charlotte Mason tells us that authority-
is neither harsh nor indulgent. She is gentle and easy to be entreated in all matters immaterial, just because she is immovable in matters of real importance; for these, there is always a fixed principle. It does not, for example, rest with parents and teachers to dally with questions affecting either the health or the duty of their children. They have no authority to allow to children in indulgences––in too many sweetmeats, for example––or in habits which are prejudicial to health; nor to let them off from any plain duty of obedience, courtesy, reverence, or work. Authority is alert; she knows all that is going on and is aware of tendencies. She fulfils the apostolic precept––”He that ruleth (let him do it), with diligence.” But she is strong enough to fulfil that other precept also, “He that showeth mercy (let him do it), with cheerfulness”; timely clemency, timely yielding, is a great secret of strong government It sometimes happens that children, and not their parents, have right on their side: a claim may be made or an injunction resisted, and the children are in opposition to parent or teacher. It is well for the latter to get the habit of swiftly and imperceptibly reviewing the situation; possibly, the children may be in the right, and the parent may gather up his wits in time to yield the point graciously and send the little rebels away in a glow of love and loyalty.” (School Education, page 17)
What Does This Mean for the Early Years?
I think Charlotte Mason’s third principle is especially relevant to the early years. When our children are young, it’s important to establish our authority in our homes. We don’t do this in a “because I said so” sort of way. Instead, we teach our children that there is right, and there is wrong. We teach them that we, as well as they, are under God’s authority. When they struggle to understand why we give them rules and boundaries, we gently explain to them that God has entrusted us with their care, and we must obey his will for our office as parents.
If we are a parent under Divine Authority, then we becoming the other types of parents that Charlotte Mason mentioned:
The Authoritarian Parent
This is a “because I said so” parent. With the exception of a few rebellious children, most kids knew to obey immediately with no questions asked. Charlotte Mason described these parents as loving, but that this is how they had been raised and continued to raise their children along the same lines.
Early in the century, authority was everything in the government of the home, and the docility of the children went without saying, that is, always excepting the few rebellious spirits. (School Education, page 6).
The Arbitrary Parent
This type of parent is often driven by the thought that there is no God to establish a definite right and wrong. It is up to each person to decide what is right or wrong. Because of this, they often don’t have rules for their children, but let their children figure out what they view as right or wrong.
From the dethronement of the divine, follows the dethronement of all human authority, whether it be of kings and their deputies over nations, or of parents over families. (School Education, page 6)
As I strive, with God’s help, to become a better parent, I find it’s also helpful to keep in mind what kind of parent I don’t want to be. It’s so easy for the pendulum to swing too far to one side. But finding the balance of parenting under God’s authority will bring our families so much peace.
Soon, (like, sooner than the next two months!) I’ll write about the second part of this principle: obedience.