Get the exclusive (almost) Weekly Digest.

    Educational Philosophy

    At School with Charlotte: Masterly Inactivity…in Action

    July 28, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    So now that Charlotte has told us what masterly inactivity is, she gives us plenty of application. She doesn’t claim to be exhaustive, but she definitely gets us thinking. As a reminder, our inactivity is one of wisdom and prudence, not neglect. We always know what is going on. We always provide authority. This is so important, because there is a fine line she is asking us to walk, and it seems quite easy to end up simply allowing the children to indulge their foolish inclinations, which is not Charlotte’s intent.

    Charlotte Mason gives us many examples of what her concept of masterly inactivity looks like in practice.

    After reading all of this, I can only tell you that Charlotte seems out to correct the Supermom — the overachieving, overprotective, and/or controlling mother who believes that she has the right to dominate her children into living good lives as adults. This is the mother, Charlotte says, who can’t ignore anything, and who interrupts play at critical moments in order to remind Johnny to tie his shoes.

    Can I just say that I bought into some of these modern pressures when my oldest was tiny? I tried to tell him how to play, or invent all of his play for him, and so on. It was exhausting, for starters. It was also totally freeing when I finally figured out that, for all of my efforts, I wasn’t doing him any favors, and I would do well to remove myself and let him figure a lot of things out on his own.

    While still being there to catch him when he needed it, of course.

    But enough about me and my repentance.

    What does masterly inactivity look like in action?

    Free in Play

    The best place to start in regard to play is to discuss what play is not. Play is not when Mommy organizes a game for the children. Charlotte is not against games, and I’d say, after reading some of her other writings, she would agree that games of various sorts have their place, but she still believed that games are not play.

    By play, Charlotte means what we today tend to refer to as imaginative play. This is where the children think up — on their own — the building of a fort or a castle. This is where the children build great episodes in their minds, often drawing on stories they have heard or read, and thrust themselves into said episodes, acting them out, alone or with their siblings and friends.

    Do you remember pretending as a child? I do. I adored imagining things. I could fly, you know. Among other super powers, of course. Children are capable of building an entire world in their minds, and living in them for hours at a time … if let alone. You know what ruins it? “Johnny, straighten your shirt … put your jacket back on because it is cold outside …” And so on and so forth. Sayeth Charlotte:

    Think what it must mean to a general in command of his forces to be told by some intruder into the play-world to tie his shoe-strings!

    What if the children have built a play-world of which Mother disapproves? Perhaps it is cruel? Unvirtuous in some way? Unmannerly? I think Charlotte would have the mother hesitate to intervene at the time.

    How they play, as well as how they act, reveals what they have been taught, how they have been trained, and how effective we have been. Charlotte would have us subtly examine their play for signs of what they need to be taught in the future, rather than intervening every time.

    I am sure there are exceptions to this, so let’s not get all crazy about it. Charlotte is talking about parents acting on principles, not rules.

    Okay, so what about mother inventing these games with the children? I am sure a bit of this is harmless, but Charlotte tells the mother who is working hard to keep her children occupied to beware:

    No doubt they enjoy these games which are made for them, but there is a serious danger. In this matter the child who goes too much on crutches never learns to walk; he who is most played with by his elders has little power of inventing plays for himself; and so he misses that education which comes to him when allowed to go his own way …

    I have heard some mothers tell me that their children are just not capable of entertaining themselves. I had a child I thought was a little like that. I am a firm believer in playing with such children less, letting them get painfully bored, while also making sure they are filled up with great stories as fodder for their minds, and turning off all the crutches in their lives: battery-powered toys, electronic games, computers, television, and movies. None of these things are outright evil, but they impact the mind’s ability, and if the mind is showing signs of weakness, we need to remove the things which are keeping it from getting its proper workout.

    Initiative in Work

    Yes, we give orders, do we not? We plan their school days, and tell them exactly what to do — what to read, what to copy in their copybooks, and so on. Charlotte is in favor of this; she is not an unschooler by any stretch of imagination. But Charlotte also believes in free time, and work in which the children have a choice, in which they can invent their own occupations.

    Charlotte gives the example of children planning and publishing a school magazine together. The teachers gave them free-reign. The children prescribed their own work, choosing poetry or prose or essays as they wished.

    The children’s thought was stimulated, and they felt they had it in them to say much about a doll’s ball, Peter, the school cat, or whatever other subject struck their fancy.

    Again, we see that Charlotte is keeping the mother or headmistress from smothering the child, from controlling too much, directing the child to the point of making him weak.

    Letting Them Fail

    Have you ever met a mother who is still rushing her high-school-aged child’s forgotten lunch or homework to school? Writing him excuses for being late when the cause was irresponsibility? Relieving him of responsibility for whatever it is that is troubling him? Well, if not, perhaps you have met the mother who does all of the remembering for him? She reminds him about his lunch, his papers, his jacket, his money, his keys, and so on and so forth until, Charlotte says, the child has no longer any will or strength of his own, but requires prodding for every single event of his life. Charlotte writes:

    We prod them continually and do not let them stand or fall by their own efforts. … What we must guard against in the training of children is the danger of their getting into the habit of being prodded to every duty and every effort.

    When I worked at Biola, I remember my boss saying that many of these students were so spoiled, they needed their mommies and daddies to come along to university and hold their hand, helping them remember to turn in each assignment on time, to properly manage their meal plans, etcetera. The point was that the children had been so handicapped by their parents, they were failing at the beginning of their “adult” life.

    It would be better for boys and girls to suffer the consequences of not doing their work, now and then, than to do it because they are so urged and prodded on all hands that they have no volition in the matter. The more we are prodded the lazier we get, and the less capable of the effort of will which should carry us to, and nearly carry us through, our tasks.

    Much easier to fail in the safety of the home when they are young and resilient, no? Then, they will succeed when they leave home.

    Choosing Their Own Friends

    Here we must begin with a caveat, for it sounds crazy. Children (and the childish) are notorious for choosing poor companions. So what is Charlotte about? Charlotte is about teaching your children well at home before they enter into situations where they might choose their own friends. Children will still make mistakes of course, especially if they are of the less discerning sort, but parents, she suggests, should watch, with a wry smile, while their child struggles a bit with having chosen the wrong friend:

    If Fred has made a companion of Harry Jones, and Harry is not a nice boy, Fred will find the fact out as soon as his mother if he is let alone, and will probably come for advice and help as to the best way of getting out of an intimacy which does not really please him.

    If the child has been reading good books all along, and reading The Good Book all along, he is going to have a sense of what makes a good or bad friend. So here we see Charlotte is not suggesting license, but rather allowing the child to flex his friend-choosing muscles … and fail sometimes.

    I am constantly reminded of how helpful good books are. The other day, a child asked me why so many men were traitors. We had just read an account of Joseph Reed betraying General Washington’s friendship during the War for Independence, and the child was wondering about other betrayals — King Harry breaking his promise to Robin Hood, for instance. Living books are teaching us all of the time, even (or perhaps most especially) when we are very young.

    I am reminded of a set of letters a friend and I are using with our children this coming school year. The elder brother writes to the younger brother:

    From your earliest infancy you have been taught to avoid bad companions, and I hope you see the importance of this more and more.

    It seems logical that if we have neglected training these things in our children “from infancy,” we are going to have trouble in this area, no matter which way we turn. Giving freedom would be equivalent to giving license, but not giving freedom would also bring troubles of its own. Better to train.

    Also: Charlotte allows for Mother and Father to show signs of subtle disapproval, but she likewise fears that an outright home boycott might cement a relationship which would otherwise fade in time. In context, it becomes evident that Charlotte lived in a time where parents were holding opinions about their children’s friends based not on character, but on status. All of that to say, today’s struggles are somewhat different.

    Spending their Pocket-money

    The caveat this time is almost exactly the same as the last section: training ought to have preceded the freedom. Remember, Volume 1: Home Education covered various training of children under the age of nine. So we can assume that these freedoms are being given (for the first time) to children between, say, eight and twelve. So, now, here is the caveat:

    No father who doles out the weekly pocket-money and has never given his children any large thoughts about money — as to how the smallest income is divisible into the share that we give, and the share that we keep, and the share that we save for some object worth possessing, to be had, perhaps, after weeks or months of saving … — such a father cannot expect his children to think of money in any light but as a means to self-indulgence.

    So we give children the freedom, and if they fail, they come to understand these lessons better.

    Charlotte also suggests a slow, making over of a budget. So, for instance, when giving money to a daughter, you first expect her to buy her own gloves, and then other accessories, and so on and so forth, until she is managing her own clothing budget.

    American girls learn to pay for their own clothing by earning the money for it. (Just ask Louisa May Alcott!) My parents had their daughters working and paying for their own clothing before high school graduation, something I think was very good for us.

    We do not give our children pocket-money, but we have occasionally paid them for going above and beyond their normal duties, and they have earned money working for relatives, plus they receive money for birthdays and Christmas. I think we have neglected a lot of training in this area, so this will be something we can aim for this coming year. For our son, we have often discussed his purchases. How can a child identify something worth buying? What is an investment? We have talked about investing in things that will last — buying art supplies to become a better artist, building his own library, supplies for projects he wants to do … rather than buying toys which are designed to be admired and then disposed of.

    I often struggle with the child who wants to give everything in the piggy bank away. Charlotte would tell me that I am supposed to give that child freedom, while keeping up the training that will form monetary habits and inclinations.

    Freedom to Form Opinions

    When I read this, I was reminded of my parents, and what a wonderful balance they kept when I was growing up. On the one hand, I come from a long line of opinionated people. On the other hand, I don’t recall ever feeling “forced” to agree, though I was exposed to a lot of persuasive material. My father, for instance, didn’t tell me that global warming was a farce and I mustn’t pay my “science” teachers any heed (even though he likely believed just that). Instead, he handed me Dixy Lee Ray’s brilliant book, Trashing the Planet, and discussed it with me afterwards.

    I am reminded, again, of Socrates and his gentle questioning. We want the children to form Good opinions, but we sometimes forget that opinions are formed rather than commanded, and that too many children inadvertently leave the nest unprepared for opposition. In Volume V: Formation of Character, Mason references what I believe was an early sort of apologetic text, and she yearned for parents to give their children the sorts of books which deal with the hard questions. Mason, obviously, was writing before we had well-developed apologetics for various issues. We today are blessed by a broad variety of resources which we can offer to our children, to read through and think about on their own, or, perhaps even better, to debate as a family.

    In regard to civics, Charlotte suggested that we fire the children with patriotism and the duties of citizenship rather than partisanship. What wonderful insight!

    The End

    We’ve come to the end of chapter four, though I’m sure we could think of more application. Mothers today seem to fall into one of two categories — either overbearing and controlling on the one hand, or negligent and uninvolved on the other. I, for one, have struggled with the former, and then often overcorrected to the latter, which resulted in sibling squabbles because there was no Authority behind my uninvolvement. I pray that I am moving into that sort of maturity in which my inactivity is that of a confident, serene, masterly mother, who is willing to allow her children to learn under the tutorship of Nature and Natural Law.

    Want to Go Deep With Masterly Inactivity?

    Masterly Inactivity: Charlotte Mason's Secret to Successfully Leading Your Homeschool

    The talk Brandy’s been giving (you already own the video version if you purchased the Leading Well retreat in 2017) is now available in the Afterthoughts Shop. Try masterly inactivity! It’s not a hack — it’s a way of life. ♥

    Click here to grab your copy!

    Get the (almost) weekly digest!

    Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

    Powered by ConvertKit


  • Reply 31 Days of Charlotte Mason: Masterly Inactivity | Afterthoughts August 28, 2019 at 10:49 am

    […] Masterly Inactivity…in Action (28 July […]

  • Reply Amy Marie November 7, 2015 at 3:27 am

    This is FANTASTIC, Brandy! Thank you! The part about “remembering” for the children has been on my mind the past few weeks as I picked up books, coats, and shoes that we had at various locations. I’ve started a few ideas and this is spurring me on to stop this bad habit of MINE by not letting them feel the “pain” of forgetting their things all the time!

    I really love how you addressed that if we are training them and reading them these good books from their earliest days, then we are able to let them more freely make those choices while we stand by in the “wings” so to speak, rather than the micromanaging type approach. Such good food for thought!

  • Reply Andrea July 31, 2010 at 2:32 am

    Thank you so much for your commentary on this tricky subject! Somehow I found your blog sight through Ambleside. I was wanting some clarification on Masterly Inactivity, so your posts were very very helpful. My only question is how do I think up the right kinds of questions in order to aid them in coming up with the answer, or at least getting them to think without giving away the answer! Thank you again so much! Andrea Greene

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts July 29, 2010 at 11:12 pm


    Lucky you, doing it all along! I was TOTALLY swayed by the parenting magazines, I was. I am glad the Lord revealed to me a different way before my children were very old. 🙂

  • Reply Pam July 29, 2010 at 2:46 am

    Yay! Love it. Thanks.
    I’ve been thinking about masterly inactivity lots lately. I’ve done it all along, but sometimes the old comparing game comes in and I become completely discouraged because I am not sitting on the floor playing with my kids all the day.(which the parenting magazines tell me a good mother should do, and in abundance.) Then, I get out my lovely CM book and find that those parenting magazines have it all wrong. My children are horses, they are soldiers, ballerinas, ladies attending a ball (fully dressed). Baby brother is King Fu Fu and they dance with him, short as he is! They are cashiers selling stuff with homemade money, and they are dressing dolls, while boys blast rows of army guys and sneak around as spies. My cushions are scattered, and I find myself in the midst of WW1 at times, while typing on this computer. Yes, I am listening and cherishing my children. I am a privileged sort of mom..I get to be there and they have forgotten I’m there!

  • Leave a Reply