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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education, Mother's Education

    Myth: Masterly inactivity is something children do.

    October 23, 2014 by Brandy Vencel


    I must say that this is a common myth, one that I myself believed for nigh on two years. I believed that afternoons, when schoolwork was done, were for the children to be masterfully inactive — which I thought meant to play elsewhere, preferably outside, and leave me alone so I could decompress. Or maybe it was to sit quietly doing creative things … without my help. Can you relate?

    The problem is that masterly inactivity means nothing of the sort. On AmblesideOnline’s topical index, there is a note stating: “‘masterly inactivity’ was a term used in CM’s time to describe a ‘wait and see’ attitude by legislators in response to political incidents, or, as one British letter puts it, ‘trusting to the helping influences of time.'”

    Hmmm. If we apply that to family, it doesn’t fit children at all, as they are not the “wait and see” type. Therefore, Ms. Mason was talking about the mother!

    The notion of doing all for the child with which the parents began gradually recedes. So soon as he shows that he has a way of his own he is encouraged to take it. Father and mother have no greater delight than to watch the individuality of their child unfold as a flower unfolds.

    They let their children alone, allowing human nature to develop on its own lines, modified by facts of environment and descent.

    Nothing could be better for the child than this ‘masterly inactivity,’ so far as it goes. It is well he should be let grow and helped to grow according to his nature; and so long as the parents do not step in to spoil him, much good and no very evident harm comes of letting him alone. But this philosophy of ‘let him be,’ while it covers a part, does not cover the serious part of the parents’ calling; does not touch the strenuous incessant efforts upon lines of law which go to the producing of a human being at his best.

    Home Education, pp. 4-5

    Ahh, it begins to clear. As I begin to do less for my child, I am using masterly inactivity. I guide as needed, but am careful to let him alone as much as possible, allowing him to explore and grow as he needs, not as I expect him to. However, note that last bit — “let him be” doesn’t begin to cover the difficulties involved in raising him right (can I get an amen?). It is part of parenting, not the whole.

    They must be let alone, left to themselves a great deal, to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens; for of the evils of modern education few are worse than this — that the perpetual cackle of his elders leaves the poor child not a moment of time, nor an inch of space, wherein to wonder — and grow. At the same time, here is the mother’s opportunity to train the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and to drop seeds of truth into the open soul of the child, which shall germinate, blossom, and bear fruit, without further help or knowledge of hers.

    Home Education, p. 44

    BE QUIET, mothers!

    Isn’t that so hard?? We feel like we must be in control, leading actively, instead of letting our lives quietly lead our children in the way they should go. (Assuming our own lives are going in the right direction. Ahem.)

    We have many ingenious, not to say affectionate, ways of [squashing the personhood of the child], all of them more or less based upon that egoism which persuades us that in proportion to a child’s dependence is our superiority, that all we do for him is of our grace and favour, and that we have a right, whether as parents or teachers, to do what we will with our own. Have we considered that in the Divine estimate the child’s estate is higher than ours; that it is ours to “become as little children,” rather than theirs to become as grown men and women; that the rules we receive for the bringing up of children are for the most part negative? We may not despise them, or hinder them, (“suffer little children”), or offend them by our brutish clumsiness of action and want of serious thought; while the one positive precept afforded to us is “feed” (which should be rendered ‘pasture’) “my lambs,” place them in the midst of abundant food.

    Philosophy of Education, pp. 80-81

    That’s rough. God and Ms. Mason, shooting straight, as always! We must not let our egos convince us that our children are nothing without us. It’s simply not true. We must learn when to intervene, and when to let them be. I’m no expert in this area — a bit of a control-freak, to be honest — and prayers for patience and wisdom are my daily fare. If you also struggle with letting your children be, I suggest reading more of CM’s works, more Bible, more prayer, and a side of patience and humble pie.

    A blessed thing in our mental constitution is, that once we receive an idea, it will work itself out, in thought and act, without much after-effort on our part; and, if we admit the idea of ‘masterly inactivity’ as a factor in education, we shall find ourselves framing our dealings with children from this standpoint, without much conscious effort. But we must get clearly into our heads what we mean by masterly inactivity. Carlyle’s happy phrase has nothing in common with the laisser allez attitude that comes of thinking ‘what’s the good?’ and still further is it removed from the sheer indolence of mind that lets things go their way rather than take the trouble to lead them to any issue. It indicates a fine healthy moral pose which it is worth while for us to analyse. Perhaps the idea is nearly that conveyed in Wordsworth’s even more happy phrase, ‘wise passiveness’. It indicates the power to act, the desire to act, and the insight and self-restraint which forbid action. But there is, from our point of view at any rate, a further idea conveyed in ‘masterly inactivity.’ The mastery is not over ourselves only; there is also a sense of authority, which our children should be as much aware of when it is inactive as when they are doing our bidding. The sense of authority is the sine quâ non of the parental relationship, and I am not sure that without that our activities or our inactivity will produce any great results. This element of strength is the backbone of our position. ‘We could an’ if we would’ and the children know it — They are free under authority, which is liberty; to be free without authority is license.

    School Education, p. 28

    Laura Witten has been a CM homeschool mom since 2010, using AmblesideOnline’s curriculum. She is a moderator on AO’s forum, and enjoys furthering her own education by participating in discussions there. She has an entrepreneurial husband, one son, 4 cats, 2 dogs, 1 horse and 1 blog.

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