Charlotte Mason’s Second Principle: Goodness and Badness

Dear Reader,

The Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival is doing a series on Charlotte Mason’s 20 principles. Even though I entered a post for the first one, I was hesitant to attempt the second. It is the one that is most uncomfortable for me and I think for many others. I like so much of what Charlotte has to say, but this one does not sit well in my reformed (ie. Calvinist) mind. The principle says:

“[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.”

Ambleside Online gives its summary/rewording as:

“Although children are born with a sin nature, they are neither all bad, nor all good. Children from all walks of life and backgrounds may make choices for good or evil.”

But even this is not really acceptable to those of us who believe not only in original sin but total depravity. Original sin says we are born sinful, but total depravity says that we are unable to choose or do good until God first chooses us and works in our hearts. So what do I do with this principle? Do I reject it when I like so much of what Charlotte Mason has to say otherwise?

The common interpretation I have heard is that Charlotte was living and working in a time when many children of the poor were considered not worth educating and even uneducable. So her point is not necessarily a statement on our sin natures but that all children are capable of learning and are able to be saved. I can agree with this idea, but I wonder if it is just taking the easy way out, making Charlotte say what we want her to say.

So in the end, I still don’t know quite how to take this statement but here are some thoughts I have on it:

1. Charlotte is not trying to set out a theology but a philosophy of education. We may be asking to much of her to expect here to get all the theology right (by my definition of right 😉 ) when that it not her object.

2. Children are persons (principle #1) and they are all made in the image of God. This was true back in her time when the children of miners or factory workers were not thought to be educable and it is still true today. Charlotte’s principles are not elitist. They are for every one, and I think that is important.

3. The point for my children, and probably for most of yours, is moot. I believe my children are saved. They are no longer incapable of choosing any good because the Spirit of God has worked in them such that they now can choose good, though like all of us still have fleshly natures which will cause them to sin and choose the bad at times too. (See more discussion on infant baptism and the salvation of children here.)

4. Even for those whom we have reason to belive are not saved, there is common grace. That is, by God’s grace, even though some are not saved, they are not as evil as they could be. Charlotte speaks of all knowledge as coming from God, the All-Knowing One. It is His Holy Spirit which inspires an inventor or scientist or poet even though that person may not be one of His. So too with children, if they learn anything it is because of the Holy Spirit’s work in their minds and hearts.

5. As we educate children, it is our duty to lay before them the best things. If we present them only with twaddle, how can we expect them to ever choose the good? So even if we never have success with a certain child, it is still our duty to present them with the best materials for their education. Perhaps the ideas they find there will be what drives them to Christ and thereby enables them to choose and do good.

6. We should expect much of children (and adults too). If we go in with low expectations, saying this person is lost and cannot understand the good ideas I am presenting to them, this will no doubt be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Charlotte expects much of children, assuming that each one can think and learn, and I don’t think this is  a bad thing.

So in the end, I am not sure I would have phrased Charlotte Mason’s second principle as she does. But taken in the whole context of her philosophy of education and her view of children, I am okay with it.


5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by goddebates on June 20, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    Love it: all too often I feel like children are ignored in debates. Yes they aren’t as developed as us, but they’re equally important and what’s more we must always bear them in mind: after all they don’t have a public voice or a vote.


  2. Posted by Anna Migeon on June 27, 2012 at 2:31 am

    I think it’s a question of how we treat the children. Do we treat them like they are all bad and depraved? Or like they are naturally good? No, it’s best to treat them as if they have in them the possibility to go either way, which is true.


    • That’s a great way to put it. Thanks. I think the same applies to our witness to non-believers. Even though I believe in predestination, we should still reach out to all those around us because we don’t know who God is saving. We must treat them all as potentially saved even though we know some may not be.


  3. Posted by Anna Migeon on June 27, 2012 at 2:34 am

    Elaine Cooper wrote about this question: “Miss Mason was a devout and practicing Christian who wrote a six volume opus entitled, The Saviour of the World. As an Anglican, she was steeped in the Book of Common Prayer which, for believing Christians of her time, taught the biblical understanding of original sin. Thus, when Miss Mason asserts her second educational principle (not creed), “They (children) are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil,” she is not offering a systematic theology or doctrinal dogma, but is, at this point, presenting a working educational principle, informed by real life observation and interaction with many children. Christian teachers today do not anticipate that their students are entirely warped and uneducable as a logical consequence of adhering to a doctrine of original sin, and neither did Miss Mason.”


  4. […] “Charlotte Mason’s Second Principle: Goodness and Badness” […]


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