I haven’t posted for a while because I’ve been down a deep, dark rabbit hole of inquiry – pretty much one of my favourite things outside of writing.
One of my guilty pleasures is this podcast called, “At Home”. I’m honestly not sure why I love it so much. The four women who host the podcast are quite different from me. First of all, they are evangelical Christians. Second, they all have multiple school-aged children. Third, they homeschool. I don’t know why I enjoy it, maybe it’s because I have a secret dream to host a podcast someday, or maybe it’s my ever-burning desire to be in a girl-band, or maybe it’s just my love of good conversation with good friends around a kitchen table – but I love listening to these four women. They are strong, they are thoughtful, they are devoted, capable, hard-working moms, and they are friends.
I’ve listened to their ideas and opinions on cleaning products, sibling rivalry, poetry, travel, meal planning and more; but none has sent me off on a new avenue of inquiry quite like their episode on Charlotte Mason.
Charlotte Mason…ahhh where even to start? She was a teacher, a school founder, a homeschool curriculum developer, a writer, an editor, a devout Christian, and an educational philosopher. Oh, and she lived over a hundred years ago, the bulk of her life’s work published between 1890 and 1920.
When I tell my friends that I’ve been fascinated by the writings of this woman, they mostly look at me with trepidation. “Oh dear, what kind of kool-aid has Heather been drinking?” Okay well bear with me while I elucidate exactly what strikes me so about her writing.
- Charlotte Mason believed that children are born persons.
Children are not blank slates upon which we impress different templates. They are born whole beings, with feelings, fears, likes, and dislikes. They deserve respect for their personhood for where they are developmentally just as any other person. This seems like a pretty obvious notion these days – of course children are persons most of us would say – but honestly I’m not so sure that we actually practice that in our parenting and our schools. How often we refer to “the baby”! How quickly we are encouraged to dismiss our child’s cries for us in the night in the interest of “sleep training”. How often we tweet with the hashtag #reasonmykidiscrying that, while making light of the complexities of parenting, does nothing to recognize the child’s opinions or desires as legitimate to them (as ridiculous and as frustrating as they may seem to us). I mean sometimes I have to laugh at the absurdity of toddler emotions or else I’d cry – but on the whole I think I agree with Mason that it’s important to respect my kid’s emotions, as over-the-top as they may be.
2. Charlotte Mason believed that “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.”
By this she meant that children need to be educated in their own natural environment (a positive, loving, curious, and challenging one), with good habits (learning for the sake of satisfying curiosity and doing things “right” as opposed to “regurgitating memorized facts because the teacher said to”) and reading living books to inspire living, breathing ideas for their whole lives.
She wrote, “Our aim in education is to give a full life. We owe it to them to initiate an immense number of interests. Life should be all living, and not merely a tedious passing of time; not all doing or all feeling or all thinking – the strain would be too great – but, all living; that is to say, we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest.”
3. Charlotte Mason believed in teaching living ideas and through living books.
Not all books are created equal. I guess I always kind of knew that – I’ve definitely struggled through some books and raced through others. But I kind of had this notion that if a book was published it must have been vetted and it must be good, right? It doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you read, right? I no longer think this is the case. There is a HUGE difference in quality in children’s (and adult) literature published today. A lot of it has no plot or characters and is mostly designed with bright colours to grab a kid’s attention and entertain, to compete with all the excitement that comes on screens. But there aren’t necessarily any big ideas for them to chew on, to think about. Many books don’t inspire them to learn more, to ask questions, to put themselves in the shoes of another, or develop their focus/attention span.
Living books can be both fiction or non-fiction. They are usually written by one person (as opposed to a committee or publishing team) who has passion for the subject. They don’t talk down to children but use high quality language (not just “see spot run”) that is enchanting to read. They are the books that you probably still have from your childhood gathering dust in the basement. Pull them out! Share them with your kids! They are the books you hugged, the books your mother hugged, the books your grandfather hugged. They taught you facts about the world without you even being aware you were learning.
Charlotte Mason wrote, “They must grow up upon the best. There must never be a period in their lives when they are allowed to read or listen to twaddle or reading-made-easy. There is never a time when they are unequal to worthy thoughts, well put; inspiring tales, well told.” (Vol. 2, p. 263).
Once I cottoned on to the idea of living books, I aimed to only provide DK with the best quality books in our home (although admittedly this is partly for my own sanity – reading Disney’s Cars Best Buddies might actually kill me), as it is my view that as a parent I should expose DK to the best the world has to offer. I was absolutely surprised when I discovered that he has an enormous appetite for reading when the books are actually well written (go figure).
Some of DK’s favourite books right now are:
- Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion
- Motor Goose by Rebecca Colby
- Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems
- Boy + Bot by Ame Dyckman
- I love Bugs! by Emma Dodd
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
- Bears and a Birthday by Shirley Parenteau
- Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans
- The Gingerbread Boy by Paul Galdone
- A House is a House for Me by Mary Ann Hoberman
- The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper
- If you Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff
- Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy Shaw
- Red is Best by Kathy Stinson
- The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
- Winnie the Pooh, by A.A. Milne
He also likes Disney Cars Best Buddies, but just like candy, I don’t read that to him every day because there’s so much out there that is better to feast upon!
4. Charlotte Mason believed in the importance of child’s play, particularly outdoor play.
I would not say I am an outdoorsy person; I’m not a big fan of hiking up mountains, I don’t like swimming in the ocean, I don’t like the greasiness of suncreen on my skin but I burn like bacon without it. However, when DK was born, he would sleep in the stroller as long as it was moving outside, so we went for walks. A lot of walks. I began to need a walk in the fresh air every day just as I needed my coffee. Around this time, I read Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods and I became convicted that the childhood I wanted for DK included time to run freely outside among the plants and the animals that we have lived among for all of humanity and not one hunched over a computer monitor lost in a virtual world.
I want DK to be a child for as long as possible. My childhood was wonderful but I still feel like it was over too quickly. There are so many outside pressures these days, especially in Silicon Valley, to race ahead, read early, to be a code-writing prodigy at 3, to have a leveled-up World of Warcraft character at 4. I don’t want to talk down to him, but I also don’t want him to abandon his childish ways and be too comfortable in the adult world.
I particularly resonated with her philosophy when I read,
“In this time of extraordinary pressure, educational and social, perhaps a mother’s first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet and growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it for the most part spent out in the fresh air.”
Yes. Yes. Let me repeat that: “Perhaps a mother’s first duty is to secure for them a quiet growing time….the waking part of it for the most part spent out in the fresh air.”
DK will have the rest of his childhood once he’s in school to sit inside hunched over a computer screen. He will have the rest of his adulthood to go to work every day and likely sit inside at a desk hunched over a computer screen. So why would I rush it?
The quote above reminds me of one of my early memories. I was about 5 and I had just spent the entire day playing with neighbourhood children in our townhouse courtyard. We had a water fight and I blew my first bubble with Bubbalicious Strawberry bubblegum. The sun was cooling off and kids were going inside for their suppers. I lay outside in a hammock we kids had made from construction fencing thinking, “This was the best day of my life”. I remember never wanting to forget it. It was the best day.
I don’t remember my best day of television. I remember a lot of wonderful days outside playing freely with my friends. I want memories like that for DK too, and because of the high-tech culture we live in with basically any show or game he wants available at the swipe of a finger, we have to be even more diligent with carving away time away from our gadgets.
5. Charlotte Mason believed in short lessons, no grades, and free afternoons.
I am a self-proclaimed school nerd. I loved school. Of the characters I’ve read of in books, I identify the most with Hermione Granger – a bookworm who’s biggest fear is failing her exams. I love learning and I loved the structured box and safety of school. But I wonder if I’d be better at math if I hadn’t been given grades at all, but just left to plug away at it. The thing is about a lot of learning, you either get it, or you don’t. What does it matter if you score 75% on a math test, suggesting you understood 75% of the material before moving on to the next rung on the math ladder? Wouldn’t it be better if we let our kids move at their own pace and understand 100% of it before moving on? If we expected comprehension, then grades wouldn’t matter. Grades suggest an ideal and a contest with others. But learning should be for the sake of learning, not to compare with others.
I also like how Charlotte Mason advocated for short lessons to avoid the mind-wanderings and need to repeat and re-learn when attention drifts. It does seem more efficient if you give 100% of your focus and attention to the subject when you are learning it for a short amount of time than 40% of your focus and attention when learning the subject over a much longer period.
So much of stay at home motherhood seems to be a slog. It’s a lot of sweeping the floor and composting food scraps your kid spat out. It’s dealing with a lot of tears (most of them not mine), it’s changing a lot of diapers. Society these days seems to prize the working mother who can do it all (does she even exist?) and I’ll admit I have struggled with “being just a mom” and not working outside the home. Charlotte Mason’s writings have truly inspired me that it is indeed a high calling. She has lifted up the importance of motherhood, and even though she lived over a hundred years ago, she has showed me that I can do things differently for my kids.