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    Educational Philosophy

    Lessons from Charlotte: Moral Habits

    June 19, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    It was a bit odd reading this portion, especially the part about obedience. It was an almost complete echo of the parenting class that Si and I recently took. Now, I’m not saying that our instructor had read Mason’s volumes — that, I highly doubt. But it seems that wisdom comes from many places, and I love it when I hear the same thing at church, in a book, and when I’m out. The ideas seem to become clearer in my mind when this occurs.

    Lessons from Charlotte: Moral Habits

    Charlotte bemoans the fact that she is spending so few pages on moral habits, but she desires to only touch upon the most basic, and yet the most abused or forgotten or taken unseriously by the parents she meets. So she chooses four:

    1. Obedience
    2. Truthfulness
    3. Reverence
    4. Temper

    I think that today we’d call reverence, respect, and temper, attitude.

    Let’s go through these in order, spending the most time on the first two, since that is what Charlotte herself did.


    Here, Mason appeals not to convenience, or even any benefits to education, but to Divine Law itself. Obedience is the whole duty of the child. And how do we know this? Simple. The Epistles give a single command to children: obey your parents {see Ephesians 6:1 and Colossians 3:20}. Because we are giving our children a distinctly Christian education {the paideia of God}, we are ourselves upon our honor as parents–it is not our right to pick and choose whether or not our children are permitted to disregard this command. Mason writes:

    [E]very other duty of the child is fulfilled as a matter of obedience to his parents. Not only so: obedience is the whole duty of man; obedience to conscience, to law, to Divine direction.

    This is God’s law for the children, and as their parents it is our duty to help them fulfill it. Mason takes this very seriously, and it is interesting to me because I felt the old debates about being “strict” or “lenient” fade away as I read her words. Charlotte puts all of this in a whole new category.

    Because this is God’s law for Covenant children, we do not have the right to dispense with it as parents when we are tired or inconvenienced by it:

    [The parent] is the appointed agent to train the child up to the intelligent obedience of the self-compelling, law-abiding human being, he will see that he has no right to forego the obedience of his child, and that every act of disobedience in the child is a direct condemnation of the parent.

    What I have always despised about this sort of talk was that this appears, at first glance, to pit parents and children against each other, to make adversaries out of them. When I think of mothering and fathering as a form of discipleship {for that is what it is}, an adversarial relationship doesn’t quite fit. Authoritative? Yes. But definitely of a different dynamic than authoritarian.

    Mason says the part of the problem in this discussion lies in motives:

    [The parent] will see that the motive to the child’s obedience is not the arbitrary one of, “do this, or that, because I have said so,’ but the motive of the apostolic injunction, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”

    “Because I say so” is authoritarian. “For this is right” is authoritative.

    Charlotte differentiates between the habit of obedience in authoritarian families and the habit of obedience that is motivated by what is right. In fact, all of Charlotte’s habits are supposed to be a strengthening of the will. When a child is being defiant, says Charlotte, he is not expressing a strength of will. On the contrary, the child at that point is weak, completely under the control of his own passions. When a child begins to learn to deny his own momentary fits of emotion, or the flittering off of his thoughts, he is building a strength of will that will serve him all of his days.

    Charlotte says of authoritarian families:

    [I]n these cases, there is no gradual training of the child in the habit of obedience; no gradual enlisting of his will on the side of sweet service and a free-will offering of submission to the highest law: the poor children are simply bullied into submission to the will, that is, the wilfulness, of another; not at all, ‘for it is right‘ ; only because it is convenient.

    I find inside myself a deep desire to guard against poor motives.

    The question now becomes: how is this habit of obedience formed?

    Charlotte first takes the naturally easy route: expect obedience from the child’s earliest days:

    There is no need to rate the child, or threaten him, or use any manner of violence, because the parent is invested with authority which the child intuitively recognises. It is enough to say, ‘Do this,’ in a quiet authoritative tone, and expect it to be done. The mother often enough loses her hold over her children because they detect in the tone of her voice that she does not expect them to obey her behests; she does not think enough of her position; has not sufficient confidence in her own authority. The mother’s great stronghold is in the habit of obedience. If she begin by requiring that her children always obey her, why, they will always do so as a matter of course; but let them once get the thin end of the wedge in, let them discover that they can do otherwise than obey, and a woeful struggle begins, which commonly ends in the children doing that which is right in their own eyes.

    This goes back to Charlotte’s general principles on the forming of habits. It is always easier to start out doing it the right way with the baby in the very beginning. To give a personal example, I see a huge difference between our first two children and our last two children, and I am convinced that part of this is due to the fact that we studied up and perfected our parenting philosophy before our third child was born. While the two older children — most especially the oldest — had to be untaught {a prolonged, exhausting process} — the others have been trained from the outset.

    Mason is a bit optimistic, in my opinion. The children who have been expected to obey from their earliest days still require discipline. Expectations do not perfection make! It is true, however, that the earlier we start, the more consistent we are, the less discipline overall we will need to exercise.

    Charlotte sounds strict. She really does. She is much stricter than I have been. However, in reading her words, I am persuaded that my family would likely benefit from increased strictness when it comes to matters of obedience:

    It is in little matters that the mother is worsted. ‘Bedtime, Willie!’ ‘Oh, mamma, just let me finish this’ ; and the mother yields, forgetting that the case in point is of no consequence; the thing that matters is that the child should be daily confirming a habit of obedience by the unbroken repetition of the acts of obedience.


    To avoid these displays of willfulness, the mother will insist from the first on an obedience which is prompt, cheerful, and lasting–save for lapses of memory on the child’s part. Tardy, unwilling, occasional obedience is hardly worth the having; and it is greatly easier to give the child the habit of perfect obedience by never allowing him in anything else …

    How many times have I allowed this sort of thing, only to find the next day inexplicably difficult and full of discipline? I don’t think I had really seen that I was undermining myself by not requiring happy, prompt obedience in these instances.

    One thing we talked about in the aforementioned parenting class was watching our words as parents. It is easy to approach the above situation and defend the child — the things he is interested are important, right? I would say that, yes, they are. But this doesn’t have to conflict with obedience. What if we mother’s took obedience so seriously that we watched our mouths? That we looked at our children before calling them to a task? What if we first saw that Johnny was engaged in an extravagant building project, and reminded him a half-hour beforehand that bedtime was coming and he’d be expected to retire? We can respect our children’s interests and activities without getting them out of the habit of obedience.

    Charlotte expresses a similar line of thought when she writes:

    To secure this habit of obedience, the mother must exercise great self-restraint; she must never command which she does not intend to see carried out to the full.

    In our parenting class, our instructor pointed out that many of us had brought in one-year-olds, told them to “say hi!” upon entering the room, and then not required obedience to the command. The point was not that these toddlers should be disciplined for disobedience, but that we parents knew they could not do what we asked. We were unwittingly training them to think that not every instruction issued from our mouths was to be taken seriously.

    The point here is a lot like copywork. Don’t ask a child who can only write a perfect line of letters to write an entire perfect sentence, and then be frustrated that he didn’t do it correctly. Likewise, we must keep the commands we give our children within their sphere of ability.

    {That was my official repentance from asking my toddler to greet everyone when I know he won’t do it and that I also have no power to make him do otherwise!}

    Lastly, Charlotte does not want to lead us into placing burdens upon our children:

    [S]he must not lay upon her children burdens, grievous to be borne, of command heaped upon command.

    … The children who are trained to perfect obedience may be trusted with a good deal of liberty: they receive a few directions which they know they must not disobey; and for the rest, they are left to learn how to direct their own actions, even at the cost of some small mishaps; and are not pestered with a perpetual fire of ‘Do this,’ and ‘Don’t do that!’


    I don’t know about you, but sometime between the ages of three and five, my children started lying. I fully anticipate my current toddler will tell a few lies of his own before leaving his preschool years. Charlotte tells us that lies have three sources: “carelessness in ascertaining the truth, carelessness in stating the truth, and a deliberate intention to deceive.” She tells us that all three must be taken seriously. In our home, “carelessness in ascertaining the truth” can often be seen in accusing someone of doing something {even though the accuser didn’t see them do it} because it seemed like something the accused would do. Perhaps the accused had even committed just such a crime before, and everybody knew it.

    The first time this happened, our day providentially included a scheduled catechism lesson concerning the tenth commandment, in which it is forbidden to bear false witness. God was gracious and offered me the exact wisdom I needed to deal with the situation.

    In teenagers, bearing false witness is often seen as speculation as to the motives behind the actions of others, yet another thing to guard against.

    Carelessness in stating the truth is a falsehood I am often guilty of: hyperbole. There were a million birds on the beach. We’re invited to a party and everyone is going to be there. I must have seen a hundred frogs last night. And so on. This is careless speech, and I am guilty of it! Thankfully, my husband corrects me.

    Beyond exaggeration, Charlotte also includes here children who tell tales — who embellish a true story with false details. These children are showing signs of thinking truth to be insufficient or unattractive, and so they dress it up with decorations furnished by their imaginations. While writing fiction is fine, and making up stories and plays and games is fine, these children need to have a mother who

    must strip the tale of everything over and above the naked truth…

    We all tend to take deliberate deception seriously, but if we do not take the other two types of lies seriously, we allow truth to become somewhat tarnished in our children’s minds.


    This is defined as:

    reverence, consideration for others, respect for persons and property

    Mason says that these are the “distinguishing marks of a refined nature.” This is difficult to teach, I think, in our disposable world. Children, in watching us throw away so much junk, often decide that reverence for property is optional — “Can’t we just buy another?” This is an issue my husband and I have labored hard at, and are still laboring hard at. Before we go to someone’s house: be careful with other people’s toys, if someone says no please listen, yada yada … before we go inside.

    Consideration for others is basic manners, is it not?

    And I am still trying to figure out how to teach reverence in a world where worship music is rock and roll.

    And I don’t even dislike rock and roll.



    Charlotte distinguishes between tendency and temper. The tendency is the child’s nature. I have a child who was born more grumpy and orderly, a child who was born to dawdle and encourage, and so on. We all see tendencies, both good and bad, in our children. Tendencies are inborn. The temper, says Charlotte, can be trained:

    The root of the evil is not that these people were born sullen, or peevish, or envious — that might have been mended; but that they were permitted to grow up in these dispositions.

    We learned in our parenting class to require cheerfulness of our children. It has been very interesting to watch this magically work its way through our home. When a child is grumpy, they are to retire to their rooms until they have a cheerful heart. Period. They aren’t even really scolded for it; they just aren’t allowed to spread their misery around.

    Our three-year-old, who often cried for an hour after waking from her nap, now comes out of her room with a smile on her face in the afternoons {we told her to stay in her room until her heart was happy, that she didn’t have to come out until she was ready}. Our 21-month-old got his first lessons in this today when he, who is usually happy, has his first truly foul mood while waiting {or not waiting, as the case may be} for dinner.

    Worked like a charm.

    I need to write our teachers another thank-you note, I suppose.

    I used to despair of certain children being cheerful, or certain children “growing out of” some or other flaw. Now, I am much more optimistic. I aspire to this:

    … to send their child into the world blest with an even, happy temper, inclined to make the best of things, to look on the bright side, to impute the best and kindest motives to others, and to make no extravagant claims on his own account …

    In young children, Mason suggests that from the earliest days, we change the child’s thoughts. We mustn’t allow children to dwell on their grudges and injuries:

    Remembering that every envious, murmuring, discontented thought leaves a track in the very substance of the child’s brain for such thoughts to run in again and again — that this track, this rut, so to speak, is ever widening and deepening with the traffic in ugly thoughts — the mother’s care is to hinder at the outset the formation of any such track. She sees into her child’s soul — see the evil temper in the act of rising: now is her opportunity.

    One last thought: because Charlotte insists that we keep children in their natural environment in their early years — mostly outside, in meadows and fields, collecting bugs and frogs and strengthening their legs and arms through vigorous play — I think that it is much easier to help them be cheerful than if they are raised mostly indoors with long lists of do-not-touches and please-sit-stills.

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  • Reply At School with Charlotte: How Authority Behaves | Afterthoughts September 1, 2019 at 6:57 pm

    […] has trained the child in habits of “mechanical obedience.” The merits of this were loudly proclaimed in Volume 1: Home Education. Suffice it to say here that we are creatures of habit, and building good habits will make for […]

  • Reply Natalia K September 7, 2017 at 8:38 pm

    This is so good. Wish I’d read it years ago when you originally published it years ago. Have been working on re-training the older kids (and myself) and it is HARD. Would love more tips on that one. And I love the distinction between authoritarian and authoritative and that between “because I said so” and “because it is right.”

  • Reply Melissa June 23, 2010 at 10:30 am

    This is wonderful! But oh so much ground to retread…

    1 Corinthians 15:58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

    By His Grace

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