I mentioned yesterday that I have a summer study program for myself (and, by extension, for our educational program here on the microhomestead). This is the beginning of many reflections on what I’ve read. Last night, I sat with a pile of books in my lap, trying to decide which one called to me. Home Education: Training and Educating Children Under Nine was the winner for the evening. As much as I wanted to start reading School Education (because Home Education is a reread for me — I first read it in 2005 or 2006), I really think that it is kindergarten that is going to be the biggest challenge for me, for a variety of reasons I won’t get into today. Naturally, this means I should read Home Education first, so that I have the rest of the summer to chew on the ideas.
If you read enough Charlotte Mason, you begin to realize that there are foundational underlying principles which she repeats as a constant refrain, sort of like the chorus in a hymn. Sure, the verses are beautiful, but it’s the chorus which holds it all together.
One of these underlying principles is that of habit training. It has taken me years to wrap my mind around this. I don’t know why I’ve been so dense; it’s almost like I didn’t have any categories for the concept the first few times I encountered it. (This, incidentally, is a good argument for rereading important books.) I remember a couple years ago when the Simply Charlotte Mason blog was talking about the concept of laying down the rails — I read and reread, and felt no closer to grasping it.
You know what helped? Reading Volume V: Character Formation! (If 350-plus pages can’t help, nothing can.)
Mason said that habit is ten natures. This means that though the natural man may be inclined to be a certain way, the building of good habits can overpower nature — in other words, habit is ten times as strong.
In the very beginning of Volume I: Home Education, Mason starts in on habits. Children with bad habits (which are a default — untrained children fall into their natural habits by simply following their natures) are not easy to educate, are they? Can you imagine trying to teach a child something, and he immediately throws a fit because he has decided he isn’t interested in learning it?
So Mason encourages us to take a child’s faults seriously, if for no other reason than for what they may become as the faults bind themselves to the child’s character. By “seriously,” she means dealing with them the very first time they appear. We are not to let an incident of stealing turn a child into a thief, an incident of a child telling Mommy “no” turn into a problem with authority, nor an incident of tantrum turn a child into a tyrant. The children are not yet these things — why tempt them to become them?
We had a few faults that we let slide in early years with our two older children. We paid dearly when we realized we had a four-year-old, to give one example, who had to be broken of tantrums. How many mothers might benefit from reading Mason while pregnant with a first child! She writes:
[W]hat happy days for herself and her children would the mother secure if she would keep watch at the place of the letting out of waters! If the mother settle it in her own mind that the child never does wrong without being aware of his wrong-doing, she will see that he is not too young to have his fault corrected or prevented. Deal with a child on his first offence, and a grieved look is enough to convict the little transgressor; but let him go on until a habit of wrong-doing is formed, and the cure is a slow one; then the mother has no chance until she has formed in him a contrary habit of well-doing. To laugh at ugly tempers and let them pass because the child is small, is to sow the wind.
We are often tempted to put off correction, to say that we will deal with such things tomorrow. Children, we are told, outgrow lying, stealing, and defiance. (What they outgrow is doing these things in socially unacceptable ways.) The battle, my friends, is more easily won today than tomorrow, this year than two years hence. I say this as a mother who had two separate tantrums thrown by two different children today. As hard as it is to hold my ground with a 21-month-old screaming (in public!), I know from experience that I don’t want to fight that battle in three years. I have done it before, and I know that procrastinating on child training is the harder road to travel.
I also know that dealing with it young means enjoying the latter half of the toddler years. Well trained children are a pleasure to be around. The home they live in is not perfect (for we are all still sinners, are we not?), but peace lives there with them. Scripture tells us that this is so:
All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. (Hebrews 12:11)
One last thought.
These are agrarian images. Words like “yield” and “fruit” imply that something — a seed and water — preceded the crop that is ready for harvest. Children are fertile soil. The reason that Charlotte Mason was so wise is that she believed God — she knew that mankind is born with a conscience, and this the gift of God. When children are little, it is as if planting season has arrived. In this stage, will grow without much interruption from weeds or birds. The sooner we plant, the sooner we harvest.
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