Teaching Obedience

Dear Reader,

In preparation for my local Charlotte Mason discussion group, I am rereading Charlotte’s sixth volume, Towards a Philosophy of Education. This month’s selection is the fourth chapter which is entitled “Authority and Docility.” Miss Mason sees these two concepts — authority and docility — as being like the two foci of an ellipse; they are the two points around which we orbit or two celestial objects whose gravitational pull keeps us between them.

We all have authority in some area and are called to submit in others. If nothing else, we have authority over our own selves and even the greatest among us is called to submit to God. One of Miss Mason’s main points in this chapter is that we, as parents and teachers, must let our children know that we are also under authority, that we do not demand obedience from them on our own behalf but that we do so because we are likewise under divine authority.

What struck me most as I read through this very brief chapter once again was what sort of obedience we should be calling our children towards. Elsewhere Charlotte speaks of the will and how to be willful as we usually use the term is a very bad thing. It means really to follow one’s own desires. What we should want for our children is not to be willful in this common usage of the word but for them to be able to will. To will, in her language, means to be able to choose to do something and to do it even when it does not fit our own desires. Really, it is to have authority over ourselves, to do what we do not want to do. It is a form of self-control.

So when we try to teach our children obedience, in reality what we should be teaching them is not just submission but authority, authority over their own members and their own desires. If all we want is kids who will do what we say in the short term, then we can be quite dictatorial, we can force obedience. But when our force (or bribery or whatever motivating principle we use) is removed, the obedience will likewise disappear. In the long-term what we want, at least what we should want, is not for our children to obey us, since our authority over them will pass away, but for them to learn obedience to God, whose authority will never pass away. We do this by example, by showing them our own docility and submission to Him (not by preaching it all the time, but by showing them through how we live our lives and only occasionally explaining why we do so). We also do it by helping them learn to control themselves, to lay aside their own desires and to do what it required of them or what benefits another.

Docility, or submission to authority, then, is as much about authority over our own natures as it is about submission to another.


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