[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.
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?
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!
Want to Go Deep With Masterly Inactivity?
The talk I’ve 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. ♥
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