Teaching Children to Will

Dear Reader,

For the next Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival, I am reading through the eighth chapter of her sixth book, “The Way of the Will.” This chapter discusses the will, that power by which we make decisions. The will is hard to define but it is what we exercise when we act or think deliberately, when we do not merely act from habit or parrot the opinions received from others. When you do what you don’t want to because it is your duty, that is the will at work. The simplest example might be what we call will-power today  — turning down a piece of chocolate cake because it is not good for us. Not a life-altering decision and yet how hard is it for us even to do that?

But we want our children to be ruled by their wills, to be able to stand up to others and even to their own desires and inclinations and to say “yes” or “no” because it is the right thing to do and not because others push them or because their own desires demand it.

Charlotte being Charlotte covers a lot in this not so long chapter, but I would like to focus on what she has to say about how we teach our children to be wilful (meant in the good way, not how we usually use that term). She is very adamant that teaching the way of the will is a part, a main part even, of education. But how one earth do we do it?

Charlotte begins by telling us what we should not do. She is firmly opposed to what she calls “the use of suggestion.” This is one of those bits that is hard to understand because she uses seemingly ordinary words without explaining them  in a way that we no longer use them. But I imagine that she is referring to all those ways that we try to influence each other with subtle (or not so subtle) little comments. For example, I was watching a sitcom the other day and the wife laid a pretty good guilt trip on someone else and her husband said, “Oh, honey, you will make such  a good mother!” And of course the audience laughed because this is what we expect parents to do. To be able to control their children through guilt or other such emotions is acceptable. The important thing is that they do what you want them to, not how you get there. But Charlotte tells us that we must respect the personalities of our children and we can not control them through manipulation. Apart from the crime that such methods are against our children’s natures, they are not ultimately successful because they do not instill long-lasting character. Charlotte puts it this way:

” . . .those who propose suggestion as a means of education do not consider that with every such attempt upon a child they weaken that which should make a man of him, his own power of choice” (p.130).

So what is the right way to go about it? Charlotte suggests providing the child with a “map of the City of Mansoul.” This is something she expounds upon at length in her fourth book, Ourselves. In that volume, she basically elucidates an extended analogy in wich we each are kingdoms with various ministers (appetites, desires) each playing their part but also each trying to seize control. I can recommend no better way to introduce this subject to children than to read through her book with them. She recommends doing so around age 12 I believe. It is a very useful exercise for anyone to see how our desires play upon us and how we must not always be led by them. To not do so, but to discriminate between them is to exercise the will.

The second suggestion Charlotte has is to “put clearly before the child the possibility of a drifting, easy life led by appetite or desire in which will plays no part; and the other possibility of using the power and responsibility proper to him as a person and willing as he goes” (pp.131-32). The way we do this is through good books which show how the lives of other people play out. Stories will communicate the messages much more effectively than all our lecturing could do. It is much more profitable for a child to read in a book the effects of bad choices upon another’s life and to come to his own conclusions about them than for us to be continually telling him that he mts not do this, that, and the other.

Charlotte goes on to say that “But always the first condition of will, good or ill, is an object outside of self” (p.133). In other words, to strengthen our children’s wills, we need to encourage them to look beyond themselves and not to be self-focused. We live in a  very selfish culture, much more so than I think Charlotte could have imagined. One of the best tools I have found for countering this is to be a part of a church with many ages and types of people and to actively pray for the needs of others.There is almost always someone whose problems are worse than ours.

A major tenet of Charlotte’s philosophy of education is that ideas are the food of the mind. It is only an education which includes ideas, transmitted through living materials, that will help to build the will. But, Charlotte cautions, we must be ware of which ideas we present. To focus too much on the “self-” ideas, things like self-control and self-knowledge, is detrimental. Here is how she puts it:

“While affording some secrets of ‘the way of the will’ to young people, we should perhaps beware of presenting the ideas of ‘self-knowledge, self-reverence, and self control.’ All adequate education must be outward bound.” (p.137)

Our culture in particular focuses a lot on building the child’s self-esteem (just look at any parenting  magazine!). But this is counter-productive. There is enough to make us focus inwardly; we must strive to help out children focus outwardly but showing them the very real needs of others.

It is not an easy, simple formula — use this curriculum and raise children who are able to say yes to the good and no to the bad. I wish I had still more direction on how to go about this. I would love to hear other ideas if you have them. But perhaps there is only so far one can go with such things.


3 responses to this post.

  1. “Our culture in particular focuses a lot on building the child’s self-esteem (just look at any parenting magazine!). But this is counter-productive. There is enough to make us focus inwardly; we must strive to help out children focus outwardly but showing them the very real needs of others.”

    I love this. It dovetails what has really helped us work our way through a thorny problem which has finally turned a corner. Focus on the outward (GOD) and not the problem, much less self.


  2. […] sixth book. This is the counterpart to the previous chapter, the Way of the Will (see this earlier post). These two things are tools which Charlotte believed we all have with which to order our […]


  3. […] The problem, as he sees it, is not really knowing what is good. He would say, and I agree, that we more often than not know what the good choice is, we just fail to make it. It is rather a matter of the will: […]


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