CM on the Nature of Children

Dear Reader,

As I work my way through Charlotte Mason’s second volume, Parents and Children, I come across a series of quotes on the nature of children. This is a topic I have visited in one way or another many times previously. It is one of the questions I am asking of each of the homeschool approaches I look at in my series on them. And I have done a post on Charlotte Mason for that series which addresses the issue. It has also come up in a number of other posts.

But I think it is still a topic worth revisiting. There is a lot to unpack on the subject. As I have said before, I think a truly biblical approach to education has to balance two things: the fact that we are all made in the image of God and our inherently sinful natures. It is much easier to overemphasize one or the other than to find the right balance between them. In my opinion, unschooling, for example, overemphasizes the goodness of the child and their ability to choose the good on their own. In contrast, most Christian approaches tend to stress the sinfulness of children and their need for discipline. While there is often some mention of the image of God and of a God-given destiny for each child, one is left with the impression that for the present time, when they are still children, there is not much good there yet and we must do much in terms of discipline and training so that they can become what God is calling them to be.

For myself, I am part of a theological tradition (Calvinism) which takes a pretty stern view of human nature. I do believe in total depravity and that we are by ourselves, apart from God, unable to choose or do any good. And yet these approaches that emphasize training to such an extreme degree still rub me the wrong way. I like how Charlotte Mason combines habit training with the belief that children can take in good ideas. It should be noted that she does not believe they do this on their own but sees God the Holy Spirit as the great Educator of us all. In Charlotte’s approach, children are capable of choosing the good, not because they are inherently good, but because God works in them as He works in their elders.

And here we get to the crux of the issue, I think. If we accept that all people since the Fall all are inherently depraved, unable and unwilling to choose or do good without the intervention of God, we must still ask when and how we become able to choose and do good. Most of the Christian approaches I have considered seem to have the belief that children, who are by their youth  as yet uneducated are more depraved, are farther from the good than their elders and that therefore we must put much effort into training them so that as adults they will walk with God and be able to serve and glorify Him.

But Charlotte has a different view. I think it all begins with her first principle: “Children are born persons.” She believes that children are complete people, born with all their faculties. She says in School Education:

“Plainly, we do not have to develop the person; he is there already, with, possibly, every power that will serve him in his passage through life.” [School Education (Wilder Publications, 2008) p. 60]

It is not that they don’t need education and training, but there is nothing lacking in them that must be developed or created in order for them to be productive adults. In fact, she would say that in many ways they are better off than adults:

“We believe that children are human beings at their best and sweetest, but also at their weakest and least wise.” [Parents and Children (Seven Treasures Publications, 2009) p. 116]

To try to get at it a different way, I would say that those other approaches (perhaps I am setting up a straw man here, but I don’t know how else to explain this all) view children as either unformed or bad. Either way, they need to be shaped into godly persons by a very active form of education. There are two assumptions here. The first is that we can be sheer effort mold the children as we want them to be. Perhaps this is a bit disingenuous of me. Almost all truly Christian approaches will acknowledge the work of God in shaping our children. But they are nonetheless very teacher-centric. There is a heavy burden to teach the right things in the right way so that the children will turn out right. So while the place of God is acknowledge in some way. there is still a strong assumption that we, the grown-ups, can do something to make the children what they should be and that education, at least the right education, can accomplish these goals.

The second assumption is that children need reshaping by us. Now everyone needs salvation. But the first question we must ask is are our children saved or not? If we assume that they are not, then no amount of education is going to change that. I am from a tradition that baptizes infants because we believe that God has commanded it and that He instructs us to consider out children as part of the church. Of course, over time they may by their words and actions prove that they are not regenerate just as an adult may. But we are to operate on the assumption that they are part of the body of believers.

So then we must ask what this means. My straw man’s approach seems to have the view that children are full of black sinfulness and that this must be washed out of them till there is more and more white and less and less black. This, then, is where education comes into play.

But I believe Charlotte Mason has a different understanding. Imagine two people, one of whom comes to faith in adulthood after many decades of sinful living and another who exhibits faith almost from the cradle, perhaps at 4 or 5 years of age. Both are now regenerate. Both began with hearts that could not choose or do good. Both have now been given a new heart which is able to love and follow its Creator. But we know that even though we are saved, we still battle our sinful natures. We still sin in thought and word and deed on a daily if not hourly basis. We all must move slowly along toward sanctification, and none of us will get there in this life. But which of the two people in my example is closer to the goal? Is it not the child? The adult will have many deeply ingrained behaviors that are hard to shake. He will have acquaintances who do not like that he has changed and seek to tempt him back into old sins. He will have a conscience dulled or blatantly misinformed by years of ill-use. The child, on the other hand, has had less time to sin and thereby to set himself up into bad habits. Nor has he had as much time to corrupt his conscience. Hs conscience may be uninstructed, and probably is, but an uninstructed one is not so far from the mark as a conscience that has been repeatedly silenced and twisted over the years. This, I believe, is why Charlotte says that children may be less wise but they are more sweet. Here is another way she says it:

“This is how we find children — with intelligence more acute, logic more keen, observing powers more alert, moral sensibilities more quick, love and faith and hope more abounding; in fact, in all points like as we are, only more so; but absolutely ignorant of the world and its belongings, of us and our ways, and, above all, of how to control and direct and manifest the infinite possibilities with which they are born.” [Parents and Children, p.129]

And since they are uninformed, our job is to instruct them, not that we may drive out the evil that is there, but that we may add wisdom to the qualities they already possess. Charlotte says:

“They, of the older generation, recognised children as reasonable beings, persons of mind and conscience like themselves, but needing their guidance and control, as having neither knowledge not experience.” [p. 128]

We are all born with consciences, and we all develop habits. These things are unavoidable. If left to ourselves, we will spoil our consciences and fall into bad habits. If we come to salvation as adults, we will probably have years of work to undo, as the man in my example. But if we begin as children, or if we are dealing with children, the job is simpler though no less vitally important. There has been less time for corruption so there is less to undo. But we must still strive to form good habits so that bad ones have no place to creep in, and we must instruct the conscience well so that it is a reliable guide through life. The role of the teacher, in Charlotte’s method, is to do these things. This is what she speaks of when she addresses habit-training. But when it comes to the more traditional part of education, the math and science and history, she allows to Holy Spirit to do the work and trusts that the child will be able to take in that of the good which is fit for them. Of course, the bounty set before them must be of good, wholesome materials, but she does believe the child is capable of choosing the good and consuming what they need (intellectually speaking).

I feel like in this post I am struggling to find the words to express what I am thinking. Have I made myself clear at all? What needs more explanation?

I would like to end with this thought: this may all seem like theoretical jibber-jabber, but I do believe it matters. We do not think of it often enough, but what we belive about our children, or in the absence of active thought, what our educational methods believe, affects how we educate and ultimately how our children will grow. Or in Charlotte’s concise language, “our conception of a child rules our relations towards him” [p.129].


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