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    At School with Charlotte: How Authority Behaves

    July 23, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    Chapter one of School Education revealed that one of Charlotte’s goals is to “restore Authority to its ancient place as an ultimate fact,” and that capital-A is not an accident. God created hierarchy and delegated a certain amount of authority to those of us upon the earth (some of us more than others), and, at the end of the day, our submission to authority reflects our submission to Authority, if you know what I mean.

    Learning how to wear our authority as parents and parent-teachers is oh so important, which is why Charlotte Mason spends an entire chapter discussing it.

    Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.

    Ephesians 6:1

    Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.

    Ephesians 5:22

    Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

    Colossians 3:18

    Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.

    Colossians 3:22-24

    And so on and so forth.

    In respecting the hierarchy, we respect the One who (1) made it and (2) is the ultimate Authority over all.

    Naturally, if Charlotte is on a mission to do something huge like restoring Authority, she’s going to have to tell her readers exactly what that looks like, and that, my friends, is what she does in chapter two.

    But first she tells us what misguided authority — what she calls autocracy — looks like so that we have something to compare it to:

    Authority is not uneasy; captious, harsh and indulgent by turns. This is the action of autocracy, which is self-sustained as it is self-derived, and is impatient and resentful, on the watch for transgressions, and swift to take offence. Autocracy has a drastic penal code … It has too many commandments….

    Hm. My mothering has looked like that more than once.

    But I digress.

    Authority, on the other hand, has a whole list of details, which we’ll divide into neat little bullet points, just for fun:

    • 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.”
    • God-given authority is a stewardship for which we are accountable. Therefore, we do not have the ability to negotiate where we please:

      They have no authority to allow 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.

    • Wise authority manages to balance the necessary diligence with “showing mercy with cheerfulness:”

      [T]imely clemency, timely yielding, is a great secret of strong government.

    • Wise authority 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 smooth and peaceful days in the home. This obedience is prompt and involuntary because it is a habit, which saves the child from the effort of decision.
    • Wise authority spares the child from having to make many decisions.
    • When new rules and situations arise, proper authority, on the one hand, makes sure the child obeys “for this is right,” rather than “because I said so,” and on the other hand manages to explain the reason why whenever appropriate, but in a way which does not jeopardize the child’s respect for said authority.
    • Wise authority is alert and has a good amount of foresight.

      It is well to prepare for trying efforts: ‘We shall have time to finish this chapter before the clock strikes seven’; or, ‘we shall be able to get in one more round before bedtime.’ Nobody knows better than the wise mother the importance of giving a child time to collect himself for a decisive moment … A little forethought is necessary to arrange that occupations do come to an end at the right moment; that bedtime does not arrive in the middle of a chapter, or at the most exciting moment of a game.

      In our house, my husband is known for saying “come to a stopping point soon” or something like that, so that the game or the book or whatever has fair warning before it must be terminated or closed or what have you. (We learned this the hard way.)

      I might add here that wise authority also recognizes signs. I made a major mistake this week while visiting with family. I chose to ignore that my two littles were getting tired. The result was that, rather than ending on a pleasant note, I escorted a screaming three-year-old to my car. I knew better, but I was enjoying myself and I didn’t practice the necessary self-denial.

      Lesson learned!

    • True authority knows from whence (or from Whom, rather) it derives its power. Because of this, she perseveres in habit training:

      Let us not despise the day of small things nor grow weary in well-doing; if we have trained our children from their earliest years to prompt mechanical obedience, well and good; we reap our reward.

      And authority is, ultimately, rooted and established in love:

      Authority is that aspect of love which parents present to their children; parents know it is love, because to them it means continual self-denial, self-repression, self-sacrifice: children recognize it as love, because to them it means quiet rest and gaiety of heart. Perhaps the best aid to the maintenance of authority in the home is for those in authority to ask themselves daily that question which was presumptuously put to our Lord — “Who gave Thee this authority?”

    I like that. I think that next time I am worn down from training an almost-two-year-old and a three-year-old at the same time (when we had babies a year-and-a-half apart, I am glad I didn’t realize some of the implications!) I will do two things: remind myself of the teaching of Scripture, that I musn’t grow weary in doing good, and also remind myself from Whom my authority is derived, that I might not squander my stewardship.

    Authority and Democracy

    I am realizing more and more that the principles of democracy tend to taint our minds in other areas. Don’t get me wrong — I am a big fan (as long as it is a democratic republic of which we speak). The problem is in trying to run other institutions (the family, the Church, the school, and so on) as a democracy. The form is quite inappropriate, to be sure. Ideally, we would have the proper form for each sphere of life.

    Last night, we were reading a bit more from David McCullough’s 1776, where I learned that this thought is nothing new. During the War for Independence, a driving force and passion was that the colonists had outgrown the whole idea of a monarchy. They were a democratic society and expected the attending respect from their King. They were democratic to the core, and this jeopardized the war! McCullough quotes Joseph Reed, General Washington’s personal aide, on whom he greatly relied:

    To attempt to introduce discipline and subordination into a new army must always be a work of much difficulty … but where the principles of democracy so universally prevail, where so great an equality and so thorough a leveling spirit predominates, either no discipline can be established, or he who attempts it must become odious and detestable, a position which no one will choose.

    David Hicks talks about a similar situation when he discusses a “democratic classroom model” in Norms and Nobility. The point of Hicks’ reasoning is that the hierarchical structure where it is fitting — in the home and school, for example — will actually reinforce healthy democracy in the public square. Since we live in a democracy (Charlotte didn’t — at least, not quite), we need to keep in mind that retaining a sort of benevolent, respectful dictatorship (for lack of a better word) at home actually reinforces freedom. Hicks explained that it served as a dialectic — in this case, a sort of contrast of opposites which, rather than tearing each other down, actually reinforced each other.

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  • Reply Sarah March 29, 2021 at 5:46 am

    Stumbled across this on Pinterest today. Excellent points and exactly what I need to hear. I’ve got a very reasonable, sensible young lady but have fallen into the trap of giving her far too many choices. These quotations and explanations give me a starting point for taking back my parental authority.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 29, 2021 at 9:38 am

      Ah! I’m so glad it was helpful. Healthy authority provides a child with so much stability. It’s a beautiful thing. ♥

  • Reply Sarah November 12, 2018 at 5:26 pm

    Very well put and I appreciate seeing another parent who recognizes her responsibility given by God as the authority he has placed His children under! It gives me great joy to read what you wrote!!

  • Reply Carlie Armstrong August 28, 2018 at 10:22 pm

    Wow. This is so good. Lots of Charlotte quotes to back up your ideas, lots of good sound logic, several revelatory points. Exactly what I needed tonight. Thank you so much.

  • Reply Authoritarian vs. Authoritative | Topsy Turvy Toile March 4, 2016 at 9:50 am

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