Yet More on Motivation

Dear Reader,

In preparation for the next Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival, I have been reading the fifth chapter of Charlotte’s sixth book, a chapter entitled “The Sacredness of Personality.” I was drawn in from the very beginning of this chapter because it has as a topic a subject I also have been considering a lot this year. that of motivation (see this earlier post or this one).

Charlotte spends a large part of this chapter discussing the various ways students can be motivated and rejecting them. She speaks of motivation through fear (picture a scene from a Dickens novel here) which has apparently largely disappeared in her own day and I am glad to say does not often appear, at least not as official policy, in our own.

But she also rejects the idea of motivation through love of the teacher. This too, she says, undermines the child’s own personality. It makes them dependent upon the beloved. Now I do think children, especially young ones, are to some degree naturally motivated by a love for their parents or even for other teachers. But we need not play upon this love and deliberately use it to motivate children.

She then speaks of motivating through “suggestion.” I do not fully understand what she means by this. She does say, “‘Suggestion’ is too subtle to be illustrated with advantage” (p.82). All I can imagine is the parent saying things along the lines of “don’t you want to . . .” and then inserting the desired behavior.  If anyone has a better idea of what is meant than I would love to hear it. I picture the subtle sort of remarks that mothers and mother-in-laws seem to be so good at. Of course these remarks often drive us in the opposite direction.

She then speaks of “influence.” This seems to be the pull of a stronger personality upon a  weaker which I am sure does not work in all cases. But even when it does, it undermines the personality of the child, making them more dependent upon the stronger one of the teacher and not allowing them to develop their own personality and interests.

Charlotte then moves on to talk about motivational methods  which work by raising a good a natural desire to an elevated place, that is by taking an inborn desire and playing upon it to the exclusion of other natural desires. We all have, for instance, a desire to excel which she calls emulation. But when we are provoked in such a way as to cause us to want to excel about all else, we stifle other desires and we work only to excel and not for the love of knowledge itself.

Similarly, we have a desire for power called ambition and a desire for society which causes us to seek the approval of others. When we feed any one of these desires through the use of grades, prizes and accolades, we warp the child’s personality. We pull it all our of shape like a sweater that has become lumpy where it shouldn’t be and no longer serves its right purpose.

The right motivation for learning is the also inborn desire for knowledge itself. We as parents, particularly homeschoolers, want a magic key that will cause our children to learn and ideally to want to learn all the things we think they need to know. But this is not something that can be forced. It is naturally present in children. If they have been in traditional schools, it has likely been stifled by all the grades and prizes which have been feeding the other desires and choking it out. We cannot force it to come back. But we can try to gently feed it. It eats good food, quality materials, living books (and art and music). We further poison it when we feed it lectures and text-books.

There are times when we actively, intentionally shape our children. This is habit training. But in my understanding thus far, it is not done in the realm of academics or knowledge itself. Habit training may be used to help a child learn to be diligent or neat in their work. But we err when we use such methods, with rewards and punishments, to try to force knowledge into our children.

And not only do we err with our outward motivations, our grades and prizes and even monetary payments, Charlotte says that we “maim or crush, or subvert” (p.80) their very personhood. That is pretty strong language and I find it a bit daunting. I think we all as parents have probably resorted to such measures at one time or another. We feel that there is some thing our children just must get, whether it be multiplication tables or their history lesson, and we use outside motivators and they work it seems. The child learns what we wanted them to. But if Charlotte is right and we have done so at the cost of their personhood, is it worth it?


4 responses to this post.

  1. I agree, it is daunting to find that the way we parent instinctively, and even intentionally, is faulty or distorted. I am grateful for Ms. Mason’s high and ‘impossible’ standards – it forces me to acknowledge my need for the Lord’s wisdom and guidance. Parenting is really done on bended knees, prayerfully. Blessings!


  2. […] second thought I had was about personhood. This is something that has come up in terms of our children and how we need to respect and not violate their personalities as we seek […]


  3. […] In the previous chapter, Charlotte discussed some way we could motivate children to learn and rejected them as imposing as upon the child’s personality. We  may not, for instance, motivate the child through fear or love. Neither should be motivate them through grades or prizes. Instead, we are left with only three tools. We may place them in the proper environment, we may help them in developing habits, and we must feed them upon a healthy intellectual diet to sustain their (intellectual) lives. There is a ton of information in this chapter. I want to try to touch on each area briefly. […]


  4. […] up in conversations frequently, and I know I have blogged on it many times before (see here and here). A book I read recently, Scott Kaufman’s book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, touches on […]


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