“Well, you’re the fellow for ideas,” said Hazel.
“I never know anything until you tell me.”
“But you go in front and take the risks first,” answered Blackberry…
— Richard Adams, Watership Down
I ‘ve recently been privy to a bad example of leadership. I don’t want to say too much about it because my point here is not for anyone to identify a bad leader. This is a person who is learning to lead, and I think it’ll all come out in the wash, eventually. The important thing is why I say this person is a bad leader. The answer is simple: there’s a whole lot of bossy going on, but no real leading.
I make a point, says a judicious mother, of sending my children out, weather permitting, for an hour in the winter, and two hours a day in the summer months. That is well; but it is not enough. In the first place, do not send them; if it is anyway possible, take them; for, although the children should be left much to themselves, there is a great deal to be done and a great deal to be prevented during these long hours in the open air.Charlotte Mason (Vol. 1, p. 43)
The quote above isn’t really meant to be a quote on what leadership looks like. I know the primary angle one should take on this quote is nature study. But, when I think of leadership, I think of the difference between sending and taking.
Leadership in Watership Down
Watership Down, which we’re reading for AO Year 7, is really a leadership book. Hazel, the accidental chief, is learning how to lead. He’s unlikely in many ways. Oh, sure, he was pretty certain as a future leader. But sometimes the future arrives sooner than we expect. Hazel is too young, too small, too inexperienced — and yet he must lead.
Unlike the “bad” leader I mentioned above, Hazel isn’t very comfortable giving orders. He’s not even comfortable being called a leader at first. And yet he knows his band of followers need him to do exactly that: they need him to lead.
Throughout the book, we see Hazel bearing the weight of this urgency. His people need him. He’s not sitting back on a throne, an emperor enjoying the act of ordering others around. Instead, he’s right up in the front lines with them. When they need to head through dangerous ground, Hazel is in front, leading them with his voice. When Bigwig is caught in a rabbit trap, Hazel is right there, trying to dig the peg out of the ground. He begins, and then the others join him in the work.
Leadership in the Homeschool
I think this difference between sending and taking has been huge in terms of certain successes we’ve had here in our homeschool. For example, I’ve had mothers ask him how I “got” a child to do certain things — make entries in a commonplace book or a book of centuries, keep a nature notebook, or study Latin. It was only through the course of conversation that I realized that the difference was that I was doing these things myself before asking my children to do them.
Can I be honest with you?
When I talk to moms who are struggling with a child, a lot of the time the ultimate issue is that the child is being sent rather than taken. What I mean is, Mom is asking the child to do something that she herself is unwilling to do.
It’s easier to see this play out in some subjects than others, true. So let’s pick something obvious: if Mom keeps her own notebooks — however imperfectly.
Let’s talk about that real quick. We’re all busy. So please don’t imagine that I’m saying that Mom is making entries in her notebooks every single day. That’s ridiculous. I don’t do that. I don’t know anyone who does do that. But Laurie Bestvater wrote something very encouraging about that:
Our practice need not be perfect to begin to ripen us into people who see beyond what is to what ought to be, and who believe that in taking up these few postures of sustained attention we can and will be open to the mysterious transformation.
But if Mom is truly a student, and she’s maintaining her own notebooks as part of her own personal growth, then certain possibilities come about. For example, these notebooks can become rites of passage rather than something forced upon a child. The children see Mom doing this from a young age. “Can I have a notebook, Mommy? When do I get a notebook?” And then Mom replies, “Oh, you are still too little to have a real notebook, though you are free to get a piece of paper and pretend to have one. But when you are in (enter grade or age here), I will buy you one and help you to begin.”
The tone has totally changed. It’s been seen and talked about for years, and the practices are seen as the privilege of a maturing student. The students become eager for these next steps.
Now, I’m not naive enough to think this will work for every child in every home, and every leader who leads by example still has those who resist his leadership. The difference is, the leader who serves as an example has more authority than the one who simply gives orders.
Busywork in the Home Schoolroom
There is an inadvertent consequence here, and that’s that we might need to consider what we’re asking. This is a good way to discern what is busy work. While Mommy need not do her math drills — because she already has her facts memorized, hence she is already the example — she might reconsider some of what she is asking.
Let’s take coloring, for example. I made that coloring book for the Burgess Animal Book, you recall. It’s a great resource for children who love to color. But I don’t think I ought to make anyone color. I don’t need to color to understand that book, and I don’t think that they do, either. If they want to, fine.
When we run into something where we’re asking the child to do something, and they don’t want to do it, and we don’t want to do it, either, we need to ask the question: Is this worth doing? If it’s not, then maybe it needs to be something optional, that’s available for those who want to do it.
Understanding True Leadership
Reading through AmblesideOnline Year Seven is a great study in what it means to lead. Whether it’s Hazel going from young yearling to Chief over the course of five days, the Wart becoming fit to be King, or Ivanhoe secretly fighting for his place in the world, there are a million aspects of leadership to be discussed and pondered.
Leading by example is definitely one of the concepts that has come up over and over during the course of the past few weeks of lessons. One of the things that has become clear is that the example never comes from who we hope to be, but who we actually are. Hence the need to be transformed.
Something to think about, anyway.
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