Educational Philosophy

31 Days of Charlotte Mason: Masterly Inactivity

October 19, 2013 by Brandy Vencel

[Masterly inactivity] indicates the power to act, the desire to act, and the insight and self-restraint which forbid action.
— Charlotte Mason (Vol. 3, p. 28)

Today, we’re going to talk about a concept that always makes me want to laugh: masterly inactivity. I’ve written about this a lot in the past, so what I’m going to do here is give some excerpts from past posts on this subject, with links to jump over to the ones that interest you.

Ready?

Okay.

ps. I added a more recent story to the bottom, so make sure you read this through.


The phrase “masterly inactivity” is thrown around CM (Charlotte Mason, for those of you just joining us) circles, and I have spent years not knowing what it meant! It is quite the relief to feel enlightened after wandering in the dark for some time. To begin with, I now know that masterly inactivity is something performed by, or, more accurately, a quality belonging to, the mother of the children. For some reason I had always thought it was a quality of the children. See what I mean by in the dark?

Totally clueless.

Okay, so what is masterly inactivity, exactly? Well, Charlotte tells us she caught the phrase from Thomas Carlyle, who found the phrase handy, and in 1881 utilized it in a single volume of Fraser’s magazine three times, the first in an essay entitled Alone in College, and what came of it:

Meanwhile I was labouring at the door with much energy, although wholly misdirected. My rooms were on the upper floor, so that the door was our only chance; but it was of tough wood and opened inwards, opposing to all aggression a policy of masterly inactivity: I had no tools, and neither kicks nor blows made the smallest impression upon it.

Perhaps Charlotte thought it might be helpful if mothers were more like that door, immovable and unimpressed. There are two other instances of the use of this phrase, but neither so vivid as this of the oaken door, standing strong in the face of conflict.

From: Masterly Inactivity and Classicism’s Wry Smile (26 July 2010)


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?

From: Masterly Inactivity…in Action (28 July 2010)


I’ve worked on masterly inactivity for a while now, and I think I’ve gotten much better about it. Nevertheless, I was surprised at how many times I had to stop myself from interrupting their play. Going to the park with a friend makes it much easier for me to ignore my children, that is for sure!I could give a number of illustrations from what I learned by doing this, but I’ll try and restrict myself to one. Q.-Age-Four was trying to get onto a swing. It was a bit too high for her. Normally, I would have seen her struggle and come to rescue her. This time, though, I sat back and watched.

From: Masterly Inactivity: The Experiment (3 June 2011)


I think that Obadiah the Bold is good for parents, and not just for children, because it offers a living example of what Charlotte Mason called Masterly Inactivity. Masterly Inactivity is an action (or non-action, as the case may be) on the part of the parents. It is a “wise letting alone.” It is having the power and desire to act, but the insight and wisdom to restrain oneself. Miss Mason suggested this sort of letting alone in so many areas of life. Surely this incident with Obadiah qualifies.Obadiah’s parents do … nothing.

From: Brinton Turkle and Masterly Inactivity (26 June 2013)


Q-Age-Five was playing with some glass figurines on the kitchen bar, and she had balanced one rather precariously on top of another. My masterly inactivity is always encouraged by the complete overbearing nature of E-Age-Ten in times like these.”It’s going to fall!” he declared.

“No it isn’t!” she retorted pridefully.

This is a very common sort of interaction between these two know-it-alls.

I’m sure you can imagine the no-it-isn’ts and yes-it-ises that flew back and forth after that. A-Age-Seven looked up to me with pleading eyes, but since it didn’t seem to be escalating, I decided to step back and see who God would teach through this. Would it be Q-the-Careless (to say nothing of her pride)? Would it be E-the-Enforcer (how many times have I reminded him that I, in fact, am the parent)?

They both needed correction, but I knew only one would get it because only one would be proven right and whoever was wrong? Well, whoever was wrong would be the one corrected.

From: Masterly Inactivity (20 December 2012)


Recently, we had a new incident in which I decided that masterly inactivity was my best approach. My older son had a situation with a few of the boys in a group with which we are involved. Basically, when my child was talking to a little girl who was there, these boys started pestering him about her being his “girlfriend” and other such nonsense.

Now, my son knows our family doesn’t talk that way about such things at these young ages, so he came to me. I think he was hoping I’d take care of the situation for him, and truly that was my first inclination. I’d just go to the group leader or mother of the boys and have it stopped, right?

Well, sometime during my thinking it dawned on me that this son of mine is, after all, eleven-years-old, and if there is one weakness in homeschooling, it is limited opportunities to work things out for yourself with people who (unlike your siblings) are not commanded by some authority afterwards to still love you.

So instead of taking care of it for him, I told him I hoped he’d take care of it soon, because otherwise they were apt to keep doing it, which would surely be annoying.

Since he asked how it might be taken care of, we brainstormed.

Sure enough, it happened again the next time, and my son, determined to take care of it, chickened out at the last minute.

On the ride home he alternated with berating himself, and vowing not to let this happen a third time.

And on the third time, he took care of it.

There was a lot more satisfaction in that than having Mommy do it for him, I can tell you.

After many months of this happening, the boys tried it again at a recent activity, and my son took care of it right away, effectively nipping it in the bud.

It comes to mind that there area  lot of things that we do for our children when we are toddlers, and sometimes we forget to stop doing them when they are older, but this is how they begin to learn to navigate the real world. I am thankful that Miss Mason’s principle of masterly activity was taught to me at just the right time because my children have surely benefited!


Click here to go to the 31 Days of Charlotte Mason series directory.


Want to Go Deep With Masterly Inactivity?

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9 Comments

  • Reply The Don't Look Theory of Parenting | Afterthoughts November 15, 2019 at 7:10 am

    […] applies, I think, most especially to raising boys, developed because of how deeply moved I was by Charlotte Mason’s ideas on masterly inactivity. Unfortunately, that would be disingenuous. This little theory of mine sprung up almost entirely as […]

  • Reply Becca January 3, 2014 at 11:57 pm

    Brandy, love this post! I feel as if I have always been pretty good at masterly inactivity but not out of my own wisdom but rather laziness (and a slight pleasure of watching my children figure things out on their own). Currently my biggest struggles are with trying to help my children “get along” with each other. I feel this constant need to intervene their play when they can’t seem to resolve conflicts on their own. I see it most when it is all 3 of them playing together (3’s a crowd, right?). I know my kids are still little (2, 3, and 5), but is it too much to expect my older ones to work things out in a way that compensates for the younger child(ren)’s understanding? Does that make sense?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 6, 2014 at 4:38 pm

      I think that for the most part, you are still in the trenches and are going to have to do a lot of sorting out. 🙁 I honestly feel like I never really figured that stage out — even though it felt like we were in it for ever. We just muddled through and now, suddenly, our youngest is five!

      And one of my big frustrations has always been that an 11yo or 8yo can think of himself as the peer of a 5yo!

      With all of this said, I’m going to try Mystie’s lesson plans for Young Peacemaker next year. My children are ready for more direction on working things out together, and I think that this will be just the ticket. I wonder if reading through the peacemaker books {or at least one of them} would allow you to teach them just throughout the day? I haven’t done it yet, so I don’t know for sure, but it is something to think about.

  • Reply Karla A October 19, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    Having a special needs child AND being Latina makes masterly inactivity much harder 🙂 but I’m trying to be consistent. This week I was able to see it’s power during our math class. I had asked my son to think what a series of numbers had in common…and I waited and waited….for three days! When I finally asked him ( I was about to yell the answer!) he started brainstorming and found the answer. His face was priceless. When asked what was the favorite thing he had learned this week by daddy, he answered that he loved math.
    I have never thought of using MI when the kids fight with each other (my kids drive me crazy! I feel like a referee most days), but now that you mention it, the few times I have let them deal with each other they have ended up apologizing and making up by themselves….something to think about 🙂
    Karla (AKA clay1416)

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 23, 2013 at 10:35 pm

      clay1416! Nice to know your name. 🙂

      I laughed that you said being Latina makes it harder. My nextdoor neighbor is Latina. She doesn’t just boss her children; she bosses me! 🙂 So I know what you mean. Ha!

  • Reply Mary October 19, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    Thanks so much for doing this 31 days series. I imagine the daily-ness of this is a little tiring, so thank you! I have been getting a little bogged down already this school year, so this was perfect timing for me to find these posts this week. It has been a valuable reminder of why we do some of the things we do. So bless you! I am enjoying your writing style. Very thoughtful and well written 🙂
    Mary

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 23, 2013 at 10:35 pm

      Thanks, Mary. Welcome to Afterthoughts. 🙂

  • Reply sara October 19, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    Brandy, I understand your discretion in not providing further details, but you know I’m picturing your son punching their lights out, right? 🙂

    Aside – this requires real wisdom and discernment – evaluating risks etc. I so appreciate that you were there to help your son figure it out. When I was a child I was bullied by a group of bigger, older children and when I asked adults for help I was told that I should fight my own battles. I don’t know if it made be a better person today, but I think not.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 19, 2013 at 4:39 pm

      Oh no! 🙂 Thankfully, it never came to that. He basically told them something about our family not talking that way about girls and boys and the other boys {they are also homeschooled, and I think that helps in this situation} apologized. BUT my son tells me that he has to do this every so often. I don’t know if they forget, or if they are just testing him.

      I am so sorry you were bullied! I definitely think that masterly inactivity’s strength lies in its watchful, wise letting alone — rather than just letting the child “take care of it” and us not really knowing what is going on, you know? I know that hard things can make us stronger, but some hard things just shouldn’t be!

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