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    What is Masterly Inactivity?

    I ‘ve been around the Charlotte Mason block a time or two, and while there are mix-ups at times about nature study or mathematics or any number of subjects, the number one point of confusion is what in the world is masterly inactivity. Some will say in regard to a child, “He needs his masterly inactivity time.” Occasionally, I hear something similar about Mom: “I was doing my masterly inactivity” (meaning having free time). Let me clear up the main issue right here at the get-go: Masterly inactivity is not something your children do. It is not a code word for anyone’s free time. Masterly inactivity is something you do. It’s a word describing the actions of the parent.

    Masterly inactivity is often called “wise letting-alone” — it’s where Mom intervenes less (without being negligent), allowing the child’s actions to have direct consequences.

    So why do we confuse masterly inactivity on the part of the mother with free time on the part of the child?

    It makes a lot of sense, really, when you get down to it, because if masterly inactivity involves mothers learning to intervene less, the natural result is that the children have more freedom. This is a general sort of freedom, but it definitely includes them having more time free from adult intervention.

    To truly understand masterly inactivity, we must begin at the beginning.

    What is our goal in parenting?

    It’s easy to assume we have more control than we do. Of course, it’s also easy to think we have less control than we do. The truth is that God matches the parents with the children. I am my children’s mother because God ordained it.

    God can supernaturally work in a child’s life. He has done it before; He is likely doing it somewhere in the world this very minute. But God also created the natural world. He ordered this natural world so that causes have effects. One big cause that has an effect in a child’s life is who his parents are and how they go about raising him. This isn’t because parents have so much control, but because they have a job to which God has called them: they are to bring up the child in the way he should go.

    Principles like these have a million applications; masterly inactivity is only one of them.

    So what is your goal in parenting? What do you think a well-raised child looks like? Is he good-mannered and obedient? Likely he is, but only to a point. My guess is that your aims are similar to mine: responsible, independent thinkers who can tackle problems that come their way, entertain ideas without accepting them, speak their minds, and make good decisions in all the various aspects of adult life.

    I could go on, but that’s a tall order already. And isn’t this just a long-winded way of saying, “I want to raise responsible, strong, loving, capable adults”?

    The question is how do we get there? How do we make our way from a tiny, dependent creature who needs his mother for literally everything to an independent adult who will not just survive, but thrive out there in the real world?

    While nothing is a sure thing, masterly inactivity is a fabulous tool.

    Which brings us to our next question …

    How does masterly inactivity work? Here is a good example.

    As I implied above, it was Charlotte Mason who took the phrase “masterly inactivity” and applied it to working with children. The best way to grab hold of a vision for masterly inactivity is to hear lots and lots of examples of how people have lived it out. We can describe it as something that takes place when the mother is loving and wisely watching the child, but not controlling or overly directing. The mother is allowing the child to learn how the world works by allowing his own causes to have effects — by allowing him to reap what he sows.

    One of the best examples of this appeared in Charlotte Mason’s Parents’ Review Magazine. It’s a little story called Rosemond and the Purple Jar.

    Rosemond is out shopping with her mother and everything she sees in the store windows is a delight to her eyes. Rosemond wants it all. While they are walking, they are talking, and Rosemond’s mother is dripping out truth without being preaching. Rosemond urges Mother to buy many things, and Mother consistently explains why she’s not buying: she doesn’t want it, already owns something like it, can’t afford it, has no use for it, etc.

    This is an important part of helping them grow up: giving them insight into how responsible adults think. While these conversations are not masterly inactivity, we should pay attention to the fact that these teachings preceded giving the child the freedom you’re going to witness as we go on with the tale. When Charlotte Mason discusses giving children (over age 10 or so) freedom to spend their own pocket money, she explicitly says that the father should first have given them “large thoughts about money.”

    Tip: Masterly inactivity must always be paired with wise teaching if it is to have maximum good effect.

    (Note: teaching is not the same thing as preaching.)

    Moving on with our story.

    As they are walking along, two important things happen. First, Rosemond spies a purple jar in a shop window and she is smitten. She loves the jar and calls it a flower-pot and a vase. Rosemond wants the jar. Second, Rosemond’s shoe is wearing out. She has a hole in it — a pebble has gotten in and is giving her pain. Rosemond needs new shoes.

    Mother and Rosemond stop at the shoemakers, but Rosemond is still thinking about the purple jar. Rosemond spies a pair of shoes she thinks will fit, and this is where Mother drops the truth bomb upon which the whole story hinges:

    “Perhaps they might, but you cannot be sure till you have tried them on, any more than you can be quite sure that you should like the purple vase exceedingly, till you have examined it more attentively.”

    Rosemond, like many children, is pretty sure she’s figured the world out. She replies:

    “Why, I don’t know about the shoes, certainly, till I’ve tried; but, mamma, I’m quite sure I should like the flower-pot.”

    We are not sure how long Mother has thought that today is a good day for Rosemond to learn a lesson, but immediately Mother permits Rosemond a choice: Mother will buy her one thing. Rosemond may have the purple jar she wants or the shoes she needs, but she may not have both.

    “But I should tell you, that I shall not give you another pair of shoes this month.”

    Rosemond starts to think aloud. At one point, she asks Mother for advice — will the shoes last a whole month longer, does she think? Mother declines to give advice at this point. She encourages Rosemond to mull it over — explicitly instructs her to “think for herself” while she talks with the shopkeeper about a pair of clogs.

    Finished with the clogs, Mother asks Rosemond if she has decided, and Rosemond answers:

    “Mamma! — yes, — I believe. If you please, — I should like the flower-pot; that is, if you won’t think me very silly, mamma.”

    Mother’s response is important here. Mother is not making Rosemond unnecessarily vulnerable. She replies:

    “Why, as to that, I can’t promise you, Rosamond; but, when you are to judge for yourself you should choose what would make you the happiest, and then it would not signify who thought you silly.”

    Rosemond is quite sure flower-pots bring happiness and the matter is settled. The shopping continues, and Rosemond’s shoe begins to fall quite apart, but Rosemond persists in her belief in the desirability of flower-pots. Mother instructs a servant to buy the jar and bring it home, much to Rosemond’s delight.

    When Rosemond receives the jar later in the afternoon, she is dismayed to find it is full of something liquid that smells badly. She asks to borrow a bowl from her mother to pour it out so she can fill the pot with water for her flowers. Rosemond is astonished to find that when she pours out the liquid, the jar is no longer purple.

    Rosemond bursts into tears. Her jar is a plain glass jar after all and won’t look nearly so beautiful as she had imagined.

    And what does Mother have to say about all this?

    “[D]idn’t I tell you that you had not examined it and that perhaps you would be disappointed?”

    At this point, Rosemond plunges into buyer’s remorse. But Mother requires Rosemond to reap her consequences. This is the most important part of the story.

    “I am disappointed, indeed; I wish I had believed you beforehand. Now I had much rather have the shoes, for I shall not be able to walk all this month; even walking home that little way hurt me exceedingly. Mamma, I’ll give you the flower-pot back again, and that purple stuff and all, if you’ll only give me the shoes.”

    “No, Rosamond, you must abide by your own choice; and now the best thing you can possibly do is, to bear your disappointment with good humour.”

    “I will bear it as well as I can,” said Rosamond, wiping her eyes; and she began slowly and sorrowfully to fill the vase with flowers.

    The month was a long one for Rosemond. Her shoes continued to crumble and her feet pained her many times before it was over, and when one fell apart entirely, she missed opportunities to go places.

    Masterly inactivity is firm, but never unkind. It’s simply playing a long game rather than a short one.

    How many a modern mother would have given in and bought Rosemond new shoes before the month was up! Perhaps we are unwilling to watch our child bear the pain of his consequences. Or we do not want to be inconvenienced or embarrassed ourselves. Whatever it is, we often jump the gun before the lesson is fully learned. This is what I mean by “playing the short game.” We trade long-term benefits for short-term gain.

    Sometimes, even when we determine to follow the course, others intervene.

    When our grown son was a little boy, he was constantly leaving his Bible behind at church. We warned him that someday he would find it gone for good. Sure enough, that day came.

    We did not buy him a replacement right away. Instead, we let him suffer the small pain and humiliation of having to borrow Bibles whenever he needed one. Sometimes, he asked family members. Other times, he borrowed one from a friend. He hated every second of it, but he was learning how important it is to keep track of your things when you go somewhere.

    Our intention was to buy him a replacement as a Christmas gift. This would have involved about six weeks total of suffering, which we thought about right.

    Three weeks into the process, a friend at our church, without consulting us, decided our son needed his own Bible and gave him one. You can imagine the uncomfortable position in which this put my husband and me. This was very kind — and it was likely based on his assumption that it was difficult for us to afford a replacement Bible. Because we didn’t want to seem ungrateful, we simply encouraged our son to say thank you.

    But the reality is that, because the friend did not consult with us first, he short-circuited a lesson we were attempting to teach our child. Thankfully, three weeks did the job, and he’s been very good about his things ever since.

    Masterly inactivity isn’t about being unnecessarily hard on a child, but rather letting life teach the lessons while the child is young and the consequences less severe. This is especially important to do when the children reach the point that Rosemond and our son both did: where they are no longer taking adult advice very seriously.

    Masterly inactivity means you get out of the way.

    We have to stop trying to rescue our children from every bump and bruise of life; we’re disconnecting cause and effect when we do so, which means we’re doing them zero favors. This doesn’t mean we never help them; it just means we must be wise in how we go about it.

    There is a difference between these examples:

    • Example A: Little Johnny is very good about caring for his pet rabbit. Grandfather calls and asks if he can come pick Johnny up. Johnny asks Mother if he may go and if she will take care of his rabbit while he is gone.
    • Example B: Little Johnny is always forgetting to take care of his pet rabbit. Grandfather calls and asks if he can come pick Johnny up. Johnny asks Mother if he may go and will she please do all the rabbit chores he should have done in the morning? The rabbit still hasn’t been fed today.

    You are probably guessing how the masterfully inactive mother would respond. In Example A, she says of course she will take care of the rabbit. Adults get pet sitters or helpers all the time. But in Example B, she says no. Johnny did not take care of his rabbit when he ought to have done so, and now he must miss an opportunity.

    When we begin to think of masterly inactivity in this way, we begin to realize that education really is an atmosphere — that all the things, people, and situations around the child are things he must learn to rightly relate to. Moments like these — Rosemond and her jar, my son and the Bible, little Johnny and the rabbit — are opportunities for coaching and learning.

    Masterly inactivity shifts us to coaching and comforting rather than shielding and removing all consequences. In the end, children are strengthened and instructed by the tough experiences we allow them to have.

    You can learn more about Charlotte Mason’s ideas about masterly inactivity in my talk Masterly Inactivity: Charlotte Mason Secrets to Successfully Leading Your Homeschool:

    To further explore masterly inactivity, check out these posts:

    You can also read more about masterly inactivity in Newbie Tuesday Volume 2:

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