In preparation for the upcoming Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival I have been reading the section of Charlotte’s third book entitled “Some Unconsidered Aspects of Moral Training.” This is the sort of section that puts me in awe of Charlotte all over again. It is amazing how many topics she hits upon, and how many she seems to get right (not that I always agree with her; I don’t).
Charlotte was never a parent herself but she did work with children for a long time and she seems to have some real insights into how to parent. Frankly, it doesn’t seem like things were very different in her day than ours. Her main bone of contention in this section is that idea that truth, and therefore also our moral standard, is relative:
“We say to-day that a man can but live up to his ‘lights’; in other words, there
is no authority, no truth, and no law beyond what every man carries in his own
bosom.” (p. 128)
Charlotte rejects this sort of relativism and argues instead that there is an obedience that we owe to God as His creatures.
But her point is not just that we must make our children obey but that we ourselves are also under authority and have limits upon their authority:
” . . . it is well that [parents] should understand the limitations of authority. Even the divine authority does not compel . . . It permits a man to make free choice of obedience rather than compels him to obey.” (pp.127-28)
So we must approach our task quite humbly, knowing that we are under authority ourselves and that we ultimately have no power to compel our children’s obedience. Even if we succeed in producing outward obedience, we cannot change their hearts to produce inward submission. That, as always, is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Another point which Charlotte makes and which I love (because I have also made it here) is that God’s law is all-encompassing. It cannot be summed up in a list of rules, though even the Bible tries to do so. But to have the complete law, we must have it written upon our hearts. Charlotte says that:
“Mother or teacher cannot give children a better inheritance than the constant
sense of being ruled and encompassed by law, and that law is another name for
the will of God.” (p. 129)
But lest we think there is then really nothing parents can do, Charlotte goes on to talk about the need to have an educated conscience. We are all born with some innate sense of right and wrong. Recently, this has even been shown in scientific studies. But just like the rest of our natures, our consciences are fallen and subject to the effects of sin (and here I think I do begin to differ with Charlotte who says in this passage that children are “born neither moral nor immoral”; p. 129). And more often than not it seems that as we grow and learn we warp our consciences even more. I don’t believe children are darling little innocents but I often do think that they are better than many adults because they have not (yet) had years of suppressing their consciences. But neither are children all they should be (yet). Better than a child’s conscience is an adult one, well instructed.
How then so we train our children’s consciences (and ours as well could no doubt use some improvement)? Charlotte speaks of teaching them the moral law found in both the Tem Commandments and the church catechism, even of having them recite such things daily. I tend to shy away from such practices. We must know God’s written law, to be sure, but it is too easy to become wrapped up in a kind of legality with focuses too much on the rules and misses the whole. I tend to think one will learn more of what God wants from us from reading the narrative passages of the Bible, from seeing how He has dealt with His people through the ages, than from reading the law. When we are given a list of rules, we tend to think that is all there is and that we need not strive for anything higher. What we need rather is to see and understand the character of God Himself.
I could, as Charlotte does, goes on to talk about other tools which are useful in shaping a child’s conscience and character such as poetry, patriotic songs, and biographies. These things are no doubt helpful, but to know God Himself is so much above any other thing that I think I should leave it there for now.