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    Books & Reading, Educational Philosophy, Mother's Education

    Charlotte Mason and the Formation of Character

    March 12, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne evening this week found me restlessly browsing my bookshelves. My husband was working on his sermon for Sunday, and I was trying {valiantly!} not to interrupt, harass  or otherwise distract him. I eyed my Philosophy of Education shelf, and looking back at me was a volume of Charlotte Mason’s that I’ve been meaning to pick up for years: Formation of Character: Shaping the child’s personality {volume 5}.

    I figured this could keep me out of trouble, so I decided to read it.

    Some initial reflections on Charlotte Mason's fifth, lesser-read volume. It's excellent!

    About forty-ish pages in, I began to question Ms. Mason a bit. I found myself wondering if this was biblical, if it was a proper response to obvious sin, and so on. The description of “shaping the child’s personality” sounded a bit like baptized behaviorism, and the cause was not helped when the training of a dog was given as an example of the method.


    However, comma.

    I have heard good things about Ms. Mason’s habit training from admirable people, so I read on, and I am quite glad that I did. I am now a quarter of the way through the volume, and I’m ready to share a few reflections from my reading so far:

    • There is a difference between an individual instance of sin and a habit that is sinful. Mason relates habitual behaviors to channels through which water is continuously running. Let’s say, for instance, that a boy tells a lie. He may not know for sure that this is wrong. Or, alternately, he may suspect that this is wrong, but only be convinced when his mother reprimands him for the behavior and instructs him never to do it again. However, if his mother instead does nothing {because he is so young and “doesn’t know better”} or giggles {because the falsehoods of the young are so obvious and often amusing}, he may be encouraged to tell tales again.If a child lies over and over, day after day, at some point he leaves off making a decision to lie and instead has a habit of lying. This habit is part of his character. That is why, on the one hand, we can have a boy who told a lie and, on the other hand, we can have a certified liar. When the lying becomes a habit, it can be said to be part of his character.

      Mason’s methods in this volume, therefore, are not addressing individual deliberate acts of sin. Rather, she is addressing habits which come so natural to the child that they flow effortlessly like water through a channel.

    • How much easier would life be if we parents prevented sinful habits in the first place! This is what struck me over and over as Mason relayed examples of boys throwing tantrums, teenage girls sulking, young girls allowing their minds to wander instead of training their attention upon a subject. Mason herself wrote:

      “[W]hat have you two excellent parents been about to defer until the child is budding into womanhood this cure which should have been achieved in her infancy? Surely, seventeen years ago at least, you must have seen indications of the failing, which must needs be shown up now, to the poor girl’s discredit.”


      “[I]f you had done the work in her childhood, a month or two would have effected it, and the child herself would have been unconscious of effort.”

      “How sorry I am. Do tell me what I should have done.”

      “The tendency was there, we will allow; but you should never have allowed the habit of this sort of feeling to be set up.”

      When my firstborn was a toddler, I was well under the influence of the modern parenting magazine, which assured me that his tantrums were nothing other than a quest for attention and that, if I simply ignored him and denied him his audience, they would fade into the past. My son was going through, it was said, a stage.


      To my chagrin, I didn’t read any other advice until a couple years later, when I had to spend months breaking him of his terrible habit. What could have been cleared up easily in his toddlerhood took much painful effort to do in his preschool years.

    • There is hope for children with bad habits. This is music to every parent’s ears! Can children really be reformed? Mason gives us a resounding “yes,” if only we will put our hands to the plow and not look back. Within Christianity, there is a general sentiment which seems to have been present in Mason’s time and continues to this day that says that we must simply pray to God for mercy in these instances and hope He sends us help. This is true in the case of sin, but Mason drew the “boundary-line between flesh and spirit” in a different place than some people. {I haven’t yet decided whether or not I agree with her, so don’t shoot the messenger here, okay?} She writes:

      [E]very fault of disposition and temper, though it may have begun in error of the spirit in ourselves or in some ancestor, by the time it becomes a fault of character is a failing of the flesh, and is to be dealt with as such — that is, by appropriate treatment.

      What Mason believed is that once habit becomes part of the character, it also becomes physically part of the brain. The mind and body travel the same water channel daily, so to speak. This means that part of the cure must also be physical, and not unlike digging a new channel, a new channel that flows in such a way that the character brings more glory to God because it better reflects His nature.

      So far, I have appreciated not just the proactivity of this method, but also its gentleness. The position taken by the parent {as well as other members of the household} is not one of condemnation, but one of extending grace and encouragement. The child, parents, and other household members are all on the same team, trying to beat the bad habit. It is a very uplifting approach, to be sure, and seems quite fitting an approach with Christian children, who are not merely our children, but our fellow heirs with Christ.

    To the extent that any of us have ever felt baffled or beaten down by a child’s habits, I think this book may offer hope. I’ll share more of my reflections as I go along.

    We are currently underway changing a habit of our third child that is morally neutral. We are eliminating thumb-sucking. My mental cut-off for thumb-sucking has always been three, especially if you read the research on its impact on malocclusion. So, the night after her third birthday party, we talked to her about her teeth. She agreed that she did not want “yucky teeth.” And once she was on board, we wrapped tape around both thumbs, not so much to keep her from sucking them so much as to remind her not to suck them. She cried a bit on one particularly difficult day. Slowly but surely, however, her thumb has become less of a draw to her. Now she does not “run” to it for comfort when she falls or is sad, and so the habit seems to be almost broken.

    I feel my eyes are beginning to open as to the potential for this approach to be used with other, more challenging bad habits.


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  • Reply mtwiss March 20, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    We have had success with 6 of our 7 children in eliminating thumb or dummy (pacifier) sucking by the age of 3 by using a combination of habit training and positive peer (sibling) pressure.

    Your post has encouraged me to think about how we can apply this more vigorously to other areas where bad habits are overshadowing right habits. Thanks for a great post, Brandy.

    In Him

    Meredith in Aus
    BTW, our 7th is only 15mths. We hope to have success with him too, although it sure gets harder for parents to be consistent with the “baby.”

  • Reply mtwiss March 20, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts March 14, 2010 at 4:20 am

    I will have to look out for the Andrew Murray book. Sounds like something which would help build better prayer habits…

  • Reply The Wintons March 13, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Thanks, Brandy. Loved this post.

  • Reply GretchenJoanna March 13, 2010 at 5:11 am

    One of the first books I read about childraising was Andrew Murray’s *Raising Your Children for Christ,* which was almost entirely a 30-day devotional emphasizing the need for prayer and setting an example, on the part of the parents. But there was a very brief introduction by someone else, and a key point was this very important one about what a favor you do for your child if you guide him in good habits.

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