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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    When Things Go Wrong: Using CM to Troubleshoot

    January 31, 2013 by Brandy Vencel

    [W]e are limited to three educational instruments — the atmosphere of environment,
    the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas.
    The P.N.E.U. Motto is: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.”

    This past week, our CM reading group discussed the above, which is Charlotte Mason’s fifth principle of her philosophy of education. She says we are limited to these three. That’s it. There’s nothing else, because she believed everything else was a form of manipulation, or it was preying upon the child’s sinful tendencies. If we bribe them, we appeal to their greed; if we hold up prizes, we appeal to their avarice; if we threaten them, we appeal to their fears, and so on.

    Now, whether or not you entirely agree with her, stay with me, because that’s not the direction I’m going.

    When I read this quote, our morning Circle Time had begun falling apart (again). I have jokingly referred to it as the “best and worst time of our day,” and there’s truth in that. It’s sort of like that Longfellow poem about the girl with the curl:

    When she was good,
    She was very good indeed,
    But when she was bad she was horrid.

    Yep. Circle Time is like that. When it is good, it is almost magical. When it’s bad, I sort of want to throw something, or at least throw in the towel.

    When Things Go Wrong

    I think that because it can be so good, I am more sensitive when things go wrong. I want that goodness, and I want it every day, in the way that I want good food and clean air and pure water. I want it to be as much a habit as the necessary things we have come to expect, a crowning of our daily lives.

    But it doesn’t always work out that way.

    Recently, my seven-year-old daughter kindly taught my four-year-old son how to fake burp. He has decided that Circle Time is the best time to practice his new talent. No matter how funny you do or do not think this is, I’m sure you can understand that it is emphatically not funny the five thousandth time, and during prayer at that!

    Everything sort of declines from there. People stop paying attention out of silliness, and suddenly our wonderful time is chaos.

    I was irritated by this, and grumbling about it inside of myself when I sat down to study up for our reading group.

    We are limited to three educational instruments…

    What if?

    It was like a light bulb turned on in my brain.

    What if we used these instruments as mental categories when we were pondering what to do about the problem areas in our days?

    Problems of Atmosphere

    If we read chapter 6 of Charlotte Mason’s sixth volume, we see that by “atmosphere,” she doesn’t mean a contrived environment, where everything is tailored to make life wonderfully cushy and perfect for children. She simply means a realistic, wholesome feeling that is infused into the very air of the house. Atmosphere is the intangibles as well as the tangibles, the smile on Mother’s face when she greets you in the morning as well as the habit of sitting down to breakfast as a family. The child is taught as much by his conveniences as his inconveniences — she specifically mentions adapting himself to others, such as when he must be quiet for the sake of the baby, or put away his toys because Grandmother is coming.

    In For the Children’s Sake, Susan Schaeffer Macaulay includes:

    • The child is accepted for who he is
    • His mind is not looked down upon
    • He shares his interests
    • Friendship
    • Security
    • Creativity
    • Not judgmental
    • ALL are under God’s authority
    • Enjoying knowledge (i.e., the parents/teachers are enjoying it also, not just the children)
    • Not artificial
    • Freedom within structure
    • Friendly
    • Purposeful
    • Relaxed
    • Not cooped up or organized too long

    These are some aspects of good homeschool atmosphere.

    Some of the examples given at our reading group, when we discussed this, were fascinating to me. I think especially of my friend, who was able to have a contagious interest in something. Her son, who was not initially interested, became so because she was interested.

    When it comes to my current Circle Time difficulties, I think that our main problem is not atmosphere, but there is a resulting atmosphere problem that I need to control. First, there is the silliness. I am not against silliness, but it is tearing down our Circle Time habits, and once it appears, it is like a weed with a long taproot, almost impossible to get rid of, at least for that day.

    But second, there is me. I start to violate the above list, becoming unfriendly, tense, and generally unpleasant to be around. It is something I need to guard against.

    Problems of Habit

    Habits are things we don’t actually make decisions about. Miss Mason likens them to train tracks. We run along the rails, as it were.

    Macaulay tells us that habits can be things like:

    • Paying attention or concentrating
    • Noncommunication
    • Failure or discouragement
    • Truthfulness
    • Self-control
    • Unselfishness

    Of course, there are far, far more habits than these. These are just the beginning of the list we can build.

    Macaulay also considers the daily rhythm or schedule a habit — and I noted when I read this that there have been times in the past where I’ve “solved” problems by moving the routine around so that it better fits our current needs.

    When I think about using these categories of atmosphere, habit, and life to troubleshoot, I am struck by the idea that habit is where our problem lies. We had a habit of good Circle Time behavior. We are losing it, and if I don’t get it under control soon, we will have a habit of bad Circle Time behavior.

    I need to think through my behavioral expectations for Circle Time and help my children regain the old habits they had, or new ones they might need. I think this is my surest road back to Happy Circle Time.

    Problems of Life

    Education, Miss Mason says, must be life-giving. So just as food and air and water and sunshine and sleep are necessary for a wholesome bodily life, so the mind must be given its due allotment. The mind needs but one thing, according to Mason, and it is ideas. This is the food upon which is grows and thrives.

    To use this for troubleshooting, though, I think we’d have to expand the category to simply mean “life-giving,” for how many of us have tried to settle down to a good, living book, full of wonderful, beautiful ideas, only to have the time spent unsuccessfully because we or the child are too tired. The bodily life is inextricably tied to the life of the mind, which is why, when it came to one of our daughters, the quickest way to educational progress was dietary adjustments and not curricular.

    For this category, I imagine we can ask ourselves these sorts of questions:

    • Is my child getting enough sleep every night?
    • Is my child eating a healthy, balanced diet?
    • Is my child allergic to anything?
    • Is my child exposed to pure water and clean air?
    • Am I offering my child a broad and generous education, full of living ideas? Or am I offering busy work full of information divorced from ideas, things which couldn’t be interesting to anyone for very long?


    It seems like every problem I’ve experienced while homeschooling, every bump in the road, fell into one of these categories. Sometimes the problem was atmosphere. Our family was in the midst of a crisis and the home felt tense. Or I was putting pressure on a child to do something he simply wasn’t ready for. Or someone woke up grumpy and upset everyone else.

    For us, the problem has often been habit. Miss Mason reminds us that if we do not put in place good habits, bad habits will grow up of their own accord. This is why she says that the job of habit is to correct nature. It is assumed that we will run into bad ways without structure. So I need to constantly build and guard our habits — I need to have a habit of habit making, truth be told. I don’t always have that, and we suffer for it.

    And sometimes the problem is that something is no longer giving the child in question life. Something is draining the child. If, for example, I was filling Circle Time with tedious things, devoid of ideas, no amount of good habits or atmosphere could rescue us. Sometimes, a child is trying to have a habit of attention, but they are distracted by their own tiredness from lack of sleep, or that unsettled feeling from food allergies.

    I am going to try and file this away in my mind so that, next time troubles pop up (and they inevitably will), I have some categories to use as I try to get to the bottom of the matter.

    If you want to think more about this idea, I flesh this troubleshooting process out in great detail in the Flourish Charlotte Mason Annual Homeschool Review.

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  • Reply The Use and Misuse of Charlotte Mason's First Principle | Afterthoughts December 30, 2019 at 3:42 pm

    […] we are never, ever to manipulate them. Her principles tell us thatΒ because they are human, we have only three educational tools: atmosphere, discipline, and life β€” the atmosphere of living ideas, the discipline of habit, and […]

  • Reply What CAN I do? | A Golden Sunbeam May 20, 2015 at 7:47 am

    […] Brandy at Afterthoughts said it best in this post. […]

  • Reply windyhillhomeschool February 15, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    well, I see I’m not the only one who thought this was a great post. The one thing in common on our “good” homeschool days is that my own mood is more balanced and I’m less pushy. If only I could flip myself into a good mood on a daily basis! Negative stress in our home most definitely affects school time.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 16, 2013 at 6:36 pm

      I know! Sometimes we mothers need to habit train ourselves more than anything else! πŸ™‚

  • Reply Rebecca Miller February 14, 2013 at 2:18 am

    I have not read all of the comments, but I think this post is a very good tool. I never thought to categorize the common problems we face. Well done Brandy. Do you think that another category for trouble shooting could be the presentation of living ideas? For example, the material itself is too far above the students ability to take anything from the text? Just a thought.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 14, 2013 at 3:42 am

      Absolutely! That is really what *she* means by “life” and I expanded the category to include a couple things that give life to the body, rather than just what give life to the mind.

  • Reply walking February 13, 2013 at 3:45 am

    This post is something every parent of special needs children should read, too! πŸ™‚

  • Reply shellatte February 3, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    Great! I think this applies to more than just education, but life with kiddos as well. I am having a heck of a time with disrespectful talking to me from my 5 year old. I am going to save this article and really consider it in my life with him. Thank you!

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 5, 2013 at 1:11 am

      I think you are right that we can apply this elsewhere. I know that though disrespect is a sin, it can also become a habit, where the child isn’t actually choosing to say certain things but is rather saying them out of habit.

      I suppose that, to some extent, that is what repentance is, right? Breaking bad habits…by the grace of God. πŸ™‚

  • Reply amy in peru February 3, 2013 at 2:59 am

    yep. all the accolades for this post are worth the time they took to write! i too like what you posted. and agree with what you said. and i’m glad you are my friend. and i’m glad you’re sharing this with the carnival.

    i wonder if a change of place might help you to make a few changes? we moved our morning time from the table to the couch in order to ‘feel’ the new start we were making πŸ˜‰

    much love…

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 3, 2013 at 3:40 am

      Amy, That is a good idea! We used to do it in the living room, but when our youngest joined the party, we remained at the table because his high chair contained him well and he could play with quiet toys there. He’s already playing in the living room; I wonder how it would go to move in there with him? Worth a shot anyhow! Thanks for the advice, my friend. πŸ™‚

    • Reply Anonymous February 13, 2013 at 11:39 pm

      I’ve tried this several times – I love doing our morning devotions at the table but would like to move to the couch for folk songs, poetry and a couple read-alouds. I just find that if we move we tend to not get back to circle time and it gets dropped in the hectic time of getting everybody to finish school work which I prefer to have done by noonish so that they get free time in the afternoon. By the time we finished our morning, I’m ready for everybody to be outside playing πŸ™‚ We’ll get there one day lol.

      Brandy, this post is bang on and Mama’s attitude definitely needs work – we`re getting there too. πŸ˜€

      Thanks so much for writing!


  • Reply Ann-Marie February 1, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    Hi Brandy,
    I have been reading your blog for some time and this is my first time posting, but, I wanted to tell that I *loved* what you had to say. This is our first year of CM and we are still transitioning a bit. Your blog has been such an inspiration to me and has made it a smoother process πŸ™‚ Just finishing up “For the Children’s Sake” and loving that too! Thank you for sharing!

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 2, 2013 at 1:57 am

      Ann-Marie, I’m so glad you’re here!

      I really thought that I wouldn’t like For the Children’s Sake because I like reading CM’s actual words instead of someone’s interpretation, but I absolutely *adore* this book! I especially appreciate Macauley’s experience with seeing a CM school in action. She has so much insight. I would like to get her other CM book someday…

  • Reply Mystie February 1, 2013 at 2:41 am

    What a clever, clear paradigm! I think you’re right….problems can be examined within that framework to generate solutions. Brilliant!

    Yes, I do think most of our problems would wind up square in the “Mom became unfriendly” category. Sigh.

    Dawn: Mine did that for awhile, too. I took the CM “short lessons” principle and made sure to rotate the types of things we did and not spend more than a couple minutes on any one thing (song, recite passage, catechism, song, etc.). They haven’t called it boring since I made that effort.

    Maybe volume 6 should be a yearly read. πŸ™‚

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 1, 2013 at 6:56 am

      I think you are right about the annual read. It is daunting for me because it is so long, but then again the more often I read it, I suppose the less I have to work at it because it becomes familiar territory. I actually need a new copy because the pages are falling out of mine!

  • Reply dawn February 1, 2013 at 1:45 am

    I love the post. It helped me talk to my kiddos about our Circle Time issues. They called it “boring time” the other day πŸ™

    And I love the new domain.

    And I love that I don’t have to scroll left to right to read the post on my little netbook. Calloo, Callay!

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 1, 2013 at 6:55 am

      They didn’t! Boring time? Breaks my heart!

      Did you have to scroll left to right on your netbook before? I’m just curious because I didn’t change anything, at least not on purpose! πŸ™‚

    • Reply dawn February 1, 2013 at 12:19 pm

      Mine too πŸ™

      Yep, I did. But now I don’t. I still can’t see the far right sidebar without scrolling, but at least I can read the posts and comments more easily now. Funny how things “fix” themselves sometimes when you make a change …

  • Reply ...they call me mommy... February 1, 2013 at 1:00 am

    This is one of my most FAVORITE CM posts in a long time! THANK YOU FOR MAKING IT SOOO CLEAR AND SO SIMPLE! Oh and I had to “chuckle” about “becoming unfriendly”…oh dear. I’ve had my moments lately. Grr.

  • Reply Jeanne January 31, 2013 at 9:30 pm

    “But second, there is me. I start to violate the above list, becoming unfriendly, tense, and generally unpleasant to be around. It is something I need to guard against.”

    Where to start? Fabulous post, Brandy. You’re talking about me in that quote. What a nasty unpleasant mummy I can be. What an excellent reminder.

    Longfellow’s poem resonates with me particularly, because the little girl’s name is Jemimah!

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