Before he begins to toddle he knows the difference between right and wrong; even a baby in arms will blush at the ‘naughty baby!’ of his nurse; and that strong will of his acts in proportion as he learns the difficult art of obedience; for no one can make a child obey unless he wills to do so, and we all know how small a rebel may make confusion in house or schoolroom.
-Charlotte Mason, Volume VI
Enlisting the will” is one of those nebulous phrases used by Charlotte Mason, and I’ve been persuaded it’s a very powerful concept. It’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve begun to understand it enough to put it into practice. The question is: what does she really mean by this, and what does it look like in practice?
Is enlisting the will more than a pep talk?
I’d answer that in the affirmative, though I think the differences wouldn’t be completely obvious to an outside observer.
My personal opinion is that enlisting the will involves coaching, spiritual counseling, old-fashioned mothering, and teaching all rolled into one.
Before we discuss the practical aspects of enlisting the will, let’s first discuss the goal. Charlotte Mason tells us throughout her work that the goal is to form a sort of mother-child team to tackle the issue at hand. In one of her volumes, she gives the example of a child who needs to learn to close doors when he leaves the room. Every summer, we have a similar problem in our home, though the doors need to be closed not due to draft, but due to flies. The flies here are horrendous, and one door left open might invite twenty to thirty of them indoors, which not only drives me completely insane, but also makes my kitchen an unsanitary environment.
My approach has generally been to scold, nag, threaten, cajole, and so on and so forth.
In case you were wondering, that is not the Charlotte Mason approach. Ha.
The Charlotte Mason approach is to form a team with the child to build a new habit of closing doors. The child is on board with the new habit, and Mother is not an adversary, but rather a helper. She is not nagging, but helping him remember to do what he agreed to do. This changes the whole game from mother-versus-child to team-versus-the problem.
How to Enlist the Will
I cannot tell anyone how to do this in every circumstance, but I can give some general principles that I have gleaned from my reading, as well as what I have learned by trying to practice this in my own home over the past year or two.
Generally, a conversation is to be had. I have learned to pray for opportunities. There is usually a right time and a wrong time for these things. A wrong time is when the child is concentrating on something else, or really, really angry about Mommy’s nagging, etcetera. A right time is, on the other hand, when the child is more receptive to the topic. First thing in the morning, when the child is fresh for the day, sometimes works for me. Likewise, last thing at night, when the child is thinking through the day also works. I have also discovered quiet times here and there throughout the day. We just have to use wisdom.
Now, the whole foundation for having this conversation in the first place is the existence of the conscience. Charlotte was a firm believer that the child was born with a knowledge of good and evil (we are all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, you know). She believed that children know when they are doing wrong. While closing the door is not an objectively moral idea, obeying parents is, and the child who neglects to close the door, when he has been told to do so, knows that he is doing wrong.
So we leverage the conscience in order to have the conversation. I don’t mean that we manipulate, but simply that we acknowledge that it is there. I have had many conversations with children that begin with, “Now, you know that you are really supposed to do X…” Almost without exception, the child’s eyes drop to the floor in shame, or rise to the ceiling because they are uncomfortable. Shooting straight seems to help a lot, and Charlotte’s fifth volume is full of examples using this direct approach.
Enlisting the will does not, by the way, mean that the child is given a choice. We are the mothers. The children were given into our charge by God. And we are in charge. This is why I like the direct approach. It leaves no room for the child to believe he has a choice in the matter, especially once it is phrased as a moral issue.
We can easily say, “You know you are commanded to obey your parents.” To a school-aged child, I often add my reasons, such as, “You know that the door lets in flies, which we then have to spend time killing. You know that flies can make our food dirty and even cause sickness.”
I think the goal of forming that mother-child team is accomplished as the plan of attack is discussed. Our oldest, when we were inspired by Charlotte’s fifth volume, was required to run off his bad attitude. Focus on running until you have outrun the Mean Monster! Remember: the plan usually involves putting a new, good habit in place of an old, bad habit.
In some cases, it is really simple, such as replacing leaving a door open with closing it as he leaves the room. In other cases, it requires a little creativity. Mommy leads the way in hatching the plan, but the child participates a little, too. With older children, I have asked, “How would you like me to remind you? We can have a secret code that only you and I know,” or something like that.
All of this is really putting feet to the idea of repentance. The child has a conscience, one that has experienced conviction, and even moreso since Mommy brought it up in conversation. Now is the time to help the child turn away from one thing and to another thing. Sometimes the conversation will have to happen more than once — such as in the example I gave before regarding piano practice. When my child forgot his commitment to uncomplaining practice, I had to help him remember.
The difference between this and nagging is both qualitative as well as quantitative. Ideally, with the child’s will on board, it will happen less often. But also, nagging is adversarial in nature, while reminders are friendly service gestures which we often offer to each other. When Charlotte explained reminders, they were quite subtle. The mother didn’t say, “You forgot to close the door.” Instead, she said something like, “I said I would remind you,” and in a meek voice at that. The child might even have to figure out what Mommy is talking about and, frankly, that is part of the point. As the child does some of the mental effort, he is flexing his will muscles and learning to will to do right, rather than play the slave to his own passions and impulses.
Get the (almost) weekly digest!
Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.