“The Greatness of the Child as a Person”

Dear Reader,

This is a follow-up to an earlier post on a Charlotte Mason article originally published in 1911 — “Children are Born Persons.” Charlotte Mason Poetry recently republished this article online (here). As I have been looking at Charlotte Mason’s principles in the light of Scripture, I thought I should address the ideas in this article as they touch on both her first principle (for which the article is named) plus many others.

Where we are and how we got there

I began this series by looking at what it means to be a Charlotte Mason purist and why we should care. The big take-away from that post was that because Charlotte claims that her philosophy is based in divine law, we should, if we accept this basis, adhere as closely as possible to her philosophy as being so founded. But that is a big “if” so I turned my attention to seeing if Charlotte’s philosophy is indeed in line with divine law as far as we can know it. This divine law is known to us from both special revelation, i.e. the Scriptures, and from general revelation, that which we can discern from God’s creation through science and observation. I am not equipped to evaluate all the science behind her philosophy but I do think we can hold her principles up to Scripture and ask if they are “agreeable to and founded upon the Scriptures.” Thus far, I have looked at her first principle (and a side post on the image of God), her 20th principle and her second principle in three parts (see: part 1, part 2 and part 3).

My most recent post in this series is a return to the first principle based on the article I mentioned above. In that post, following Art Middlekauff who has written on the article for Charlotte Mason Poetry, I delineated four points that Charlotte makes relating to the proposition that “children are born persons“:

  1. “the greatness of the child as a person”
  2. “the liberty that is due to him as a person”
  3. “some forms of oppression which interfere with his proper liberty”
  4. “the aliment which he is to live by – Admiration, Hope and Love”

I looked briefly at numbers 2 through 4 but left most of the discussion of the first point — “the greatness of the child as a person” — for another time as it is a large topic that I want to be able to delve into.

What Charlotte Mason Means

As has been my habit, I would like to begin by looking at how Charlotte explains her own idea; what does she mean when she speaks of “the greatness of the child as a person”? This concept is addressed in various points throughout her six-volume Home Education series but I find its explanation in the 1911 article to be her most concise and deliberate treatment so I will focus on what she has to say in that article.

Charlotte begins her discussion by quoting the poet Wordsworth who, she says, expresses “the immensity of a person, and the greater immensity of the little child” (Charlotte Mason, “Children are Born Persons,” as published at CharlotteMasonPoetry.org, paragraph 4). She then goes on to make the enigmatic statement that:

”  . . . not any of [the child’s] vast estate is as yet mortgaged, but all of it is there for his advantage and his profit, with no inimical Chancellor of the Exchequer to levy taxes and require returns! But perhaps this latter statement is not so certain; perhaps the land-tax on the Child’s Estate is really inevitable, and it rests with us parents and elders to investigate the property and furnish the returns.” (paragraph 4)

There are two questions immediately before us:

  • What does Charlotte mean by “the greater immensity of the child”? To what extent and how is a child greater than an adult? Is he truly more of a person as she seems to imply here?
  • What is Charlotte saying about the sin nature of children? In the longer quote about the child’s estate, she calls to mind her second principle on the goodness and evilness of children (which I have already discussed in not one but three posts, see links above). Her language is figurative and I do not want to make too much of it from this quote alone, but as we look through the rest of the article, I think we will see that we cannot separate this idea of the greatness of the child from the question of man’s original sin (I do recommend reading at least this post in which I discuss the various Christian views of man’s nature/original sin to get a sense of the variety of positions available within mainstream Christianity).

As we look first at what Charlotte calls the greatness of the child, we must be clear what she does not mean. She does not fail to recognize the child’s limitations. While making clear that the child is indeed a person, Charlotte acknowledges that he is a “weak and ignorant [person], whose ignorance we must inform and whose weakness we must support, but whose potentialities are as great as our own” (paragraph 6). And again: Children are “differentiated from men and women by their weaknesses, which we must cherish and support; by their immeasurable ignorances, which we must instruct” (paragraph 9).

But if they are weak and ignorant, children also have areas in which they show superiority to adults. Charlotte lists the following (paragraph 7):

  • The child “sees with a closeness of observation that we have long ago lost”
  • “he enjoys and that he sorrows with an intensity we have long ceased to”
  • “he loves with an abandon and a confidence which, alas, we do not share”
  • “he imagines with a fecundity no artist among us can approach”
  • “he acquires intellectual knowledge and mechanical skill at a rate so amazing that, could the infant’s rate of progress be kept up to manhood, he would surely appropriate the whole field of knowledge in a single life-time”

Charlotte goes on to give some examples, but I think all of us who are parents or have experience with young children can think of many of our own. We know that children seem to be made for learning languages, that they memorize quickly and well with a skill that their elders seem to have lost, that they can be quite imaginative, that they feel things profoundly (often to the consternation of their elders who find their concerns quite small). These points are more in the realm of science or observation, placing them under the heading of general revelation, and while we might quibble over some specifics, I don’t think there need be much debate or that we need take much time on them. My only observation would be that God seems to give children some of these skills  — language acquisition stands out — when they need them. Charlotte raises the question of what would happen if “the infant’s rate of progress [could] be kept up to manhood” but this is at best a hypothetical question; for whatever reason, God has given us these skills when we need them most but then chosen to diminish them as we age.

But there is something more here that Charlotte hints at which brings us back to our second question about the nature of the child. After speaking of children’s weaknesses and ignorances, Charlotte goes on to say:

” . . . by that beautiful indefinite thing which we call the innocence of children and suppose in a vague way to be freedom from the evil ways of grown-up people? But children are greedy, passionate, cruel, deceitful, in many ways more open to blame than their elders; and, for all that, they are innocent. To cherish in them that quality which we call innocence, and Christ describes as the humility of little children, is perhaps the most difficult and important task set before us. If we would keep a child innocent, we must deliver him from the oppression of various forms of tyranny.” (paragraph 9)

She further defines what she means by the child’s innocence when she speaks of:

“that liberty which we call innocence, and which we find described in the gospels as humility. When we come to think of it, we do not see how a little child is humble; he is neither proud nor humble, we say; he does not think of himself at all: we have hit unconsciously upon the solution of the problem. Humility, that childish quality which is so infinitely attractive, consists just in not thinking of oneself at all.” (paragraph 14)

Thus, just as the child has abilities beyond that of the adult in the intellectual and emotional aspects of his person, so, Charlotte says, there is a way in which he is spiritually superior. Specifically, he has a quality which she calls innocence or humility, which is contrasted with pride, and which she defines as “just . . . not thinking of oneself at all.”

Charlotte does not proof-text her ideas as we might but biblical language and thinking often permeates her writing. On this point more than some others, it is clear that she is thinking of Matthew 18. In considering what she has to say, I’d like to begin by looking at this chapter and examining how Charlotte uses it and finally looking briefly at the “scientific” evidence, i.e. what our own observations may tell us.

The Biblical Evidence

Matthew 18 begins a section of short discourses by Christ. It begins thus:

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’  And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.'” (Matt. 18:1-4; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

In Matthew 18:1-4, the problem at hand is a dispute among the disciples as to which of them is the greatest. Jesus calls to Himself a child and uses him as a kind of object lesson to the disciples. This, He says, is what you should be like. The word Jesus uses is “humble” — whoever humbles himself like a child — and the implication is that this is just exactly the opposite of what the disciples are doing; they are exalting themselves by all trying to be the greatest. We can find a similar idea in Luke 14 in which Jesus advises that when invited to a feast one should “go and sit in the lowest place” (v. 10) for “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 11). In this context, then, to humble oneself means to not aspire to an exalted position but to intentionally opt for a lowered one.

There is some ambiguity here in terms of what it means for the child to be humble. We can read “Whoever humbles himself like this child” either as “whoever humbles himself as this child humbles himself” or as “whoever humbles himself as this child is humbled.” In the former case, the disciples are called to do what the child does and the child has a positive virtue — he humbles himself. In the latter case, the child does not have the positive virtue of humility; it is not that he humbles himself in the sense of choosing a lower position, or at least not aspiring to a greater one, so much as that he is inherently humble because his position in society is low.

But, Christ goes on to tell us, there is protection for such a one:

” ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.’” (Matt. 18:5-6)

Presumably with the child still before Him, Jesus warns that to cause such a one to sin is itself a great sin worthy of the harshest punishment. The child is called a “little one” which may be a reference to his position as much as to his size and age. [In this post I discussed the terms used for children in the Old Testament and showed that in Hebrew at least the “little ones” are likely toddlers, though their age is not strictly defined, and that they are capable of both sin and faith and are numbered among the people of God.]

As a side note — I find it interesting that He says “these little ones who believe in me.” It is not all small children who are in view but those who believe in Christ, who are counted among the people of God.

If your Bible is laid out like mine, Matthew 18:7 is a new paragraph with a new subject heading. These headings and parapgraph divisions would not have been in the Greek original; they are added by our editors. In verses 7-9 Christ rails against sin more generally saying that if your hand causes you to sin, you should cut it off. But in verse 10 He returns to “these little ones” saying that we must not “despise” them for God desires that not one should perish (v. 14). Chapter 18 then finishes with what to do if your brother sins against you including the parable of the unforgiving servant (vv. 15-34). 

[Scholars generally see Matthew 19 as the beginning of a new section as it begins with the words “Now when Jesus had finished these sayings . . . ” (Matt. 19:1).  In Matthew 19:13-15 children appear again, but while Charlotte clearly references this passage in other places, I could not find a clear reference to it in this article.]


The two questions we have to answer with regard to Charlotte’s interpretation of these chapters are:
  • What does it mean that the child of Matthew 18:1-4 is humble?
  • How do the other sections of Matthew 18, particularly verses 10-14, relate to this idea of the child’s humility?
My first instinct in reading Charlotte’s thoughts was to think that she goes too far when she uses the word “innocence.” This seems a very broad term and we might think it means the child is sinless, but Charlotte makes clear that this is not the case when she calls children “greedy, passionate, cruel, deceitful” (paragraph 9). Rather, she says: “Humility, that childish quality which is so infinitely attractive, consists just in not thinking of oneself at all” (paragraph 14). The opposite of humility if self-consciousness; humility ends when “a child becomes aware of himself.” The opposing sin is pride. (In this Charlotte is in line with other Christian interpreters, including Matthew Henry and Spurgeon.)
In the context of her article, it seems that Charlotte’s point is that, just as children are in some ways intellectually and emotionally better, so in this area they are inherently superior in the spiritual/moral realm (I don’t believe she distinguishes the two). In particular they possess a natural humility and are free of the corresponding sin of self-consciousness or pride.
Though most people will exhibit this particular sin, Charlotte does believe it is possible for some to avoid it:

“The principle is, I think, that an individual fall of man takes place when a child becomes aware of himself, listens as if he were not heeding to his mother’s tales of his smartness or goodness, and watches for the next chance when he may display himself. The children hardly deserve to be blamed at all. The man who lights on a nugget has nothing like so exciting a surprise as has the child who becomes aware of himself. The moment when he says to himself, “It is I”, is a great one for him, and he exhibits his discovery whenever he gets a chance, that is, he repeats the little performance which has excited his mother’s admiration, and invents new ways of shewing off.” (paragraph 14)

Charlotte in this section is dealing with the child’s vanity or sense of self from which she would spare him. She presents a nice picture of how this self-consciousness comes about.  There is no big, deliberate sin involved. The picture she gives is of something quite unconscious but which nonetheless results in a person who is different than he was before — he has learned pride.

Notice how Charlotte characterizes this change: “an individual fall of man.” Though we are all fallen in Adam, she is here saying that there is some sense in which each of us falls. This language initially rubbed me the wrong way because it could, taken out of context, be seen to advocate the view that people are not really born sinful, that we are not all inheritors of Adam’s original sin, but that we each experience our own fall, or perhaps even that we might be capable of avoiding such a fall and remaining sinless. I do not think that this is what Charlotte had in mind, however. It is not a view she advocates elsewhere nor would it have been the view of her church (the Church of England; again my second post here discusses views of original sin, including that of the COE in Charlotte’s day). I think, rather, that she equates this particular sin with the Fall  because it is the sin of pride. Pride, it is commonly believed, was the first sin, and it is the sin of Satan himself (Isaiah 14:12-15). Pride, as Charlotte defines it, is an awareness of self; so we see that as soon as they sinned  Adam and Eve became self-conscious (Gen. 3:7). When an individual learns pride, he re-enacts the original fall not because he was not previously sinful but because of the nature of the sin itself.

I mentioned above that there is some ambiguity in the biblical text as to what it means that to humble like a child. Charlotte takes this humility of the child as a positive virtue. It is not merely that the child is on the lowest rung of society; he has a positive quality which the disciples are lacking. This is not my own interpretation, but I cannot say that Charlotte’s interpretation is ruled out by the text. What she says could be true; I do not happen to believe it is true.

But Charlotte’s interpretation does not stop with verse 4. She alludes to Matthew 18:10 when she talks of “despising” the children (paragraph 6) and to verse 14 when she  uses the word “perish”:

“We can only see the seriousness of this failing from two points of view – that of Him who has said, “it is not the will of the Father that one of these little ones should perish”; and that, I take It, means that it is not the divine will that children should lose their distinctive quality, innocence, or humility, or what we sometimes call simplicity of character. We know there are people who do not lose it, who remain simple and direct in thought, and young in heart, throughout life.” (paragraph 14)

Charlotte here ties verses 10-14 closely to verses 1-4. She takes “little ones” to refer to children and she equates their “perishing” with the loss of their humility. With regard to the former, I am not fully convinced that “little ones” need refer only to children. I think it could refer to any that would be considered lowly in that society, but I will admit that to take “little ones” as children is the simplest explanation within the context of both this chapter and the Bible as a whole. It is also supported by verses 5 and 6 which use “child” and “little one” in parallel.

To take “perish” to mean “lose one’s humility” is a much bigger interpretative jump. In the immediate context of verses 10-14, the “little ones” are compared to sheep who get lost and are in danger of real, physical death. Verses 5 and 6 speak of causing one of the little ones to sin, as it is in the ESV, or, in the Greek: “to stumble.” Verses 7-9, though they do not refer to children, also use the word “stumble” and make it clear that to stumble is to sin.

In the light of verses 5-9, I am comfortable saying that when Christ speaks of little ones perishing in verse 14 that He is not referring to physical death but to the spiritual death that comes through sin. I am not comfortable linking this, as Charlotte does, specifically to pride or the loss of humility. This is due in part to our differing interpretations of what it means for the child to be humble. I do not see it as a particular virtue of the child so its loss does not become the key to my interpretation of what follows as it seems to for Charlotte. If we were to start where Charlotte does, and see the humility of the child as a virtuous condition and as the lack of a particular sin, and particularly if we accept the depiction of this sin, when it comes, as a sort of individual fall of man, then to tie the warnings of verses 5-6 and 10-14 particularly to leading the child into this sin, that of pride or self-consciousness, makes some sense.

If the question before us is “Is Charlotte’s view of the greatness of the child, as explained in this article, biblical?” then I would have to say that her interpretation of Matthew 18 is plausible. I personally don’t agree with it, but I think the text allows it.

The Evidence of General Revelation

I had said that I would not tackle general revelation, that which we know through our observation and experimentation rather than through Scripture, in this series. I am going to break that rule and at least introduce the idea here.

I have said that Charlotte and I diverge on this issue because we start out differently. A different interpretation of what it means to be humble like the child leads to different interpretations of what follows as well. But why do we start out differently? I suspect it is because our views of the child himself are different. In my many posts on Charlotte’s second principle, I showed that her church, the Church of England, takes what we might call a higher view of human nature than I as a reformed Christian would. That is, it allows for more ability or potential on the part of the individual to participate in his own salvation. That we come to these differing conclusions on Matthew 18 starts, I think, at a much deeper level. It arises from how we evaluate both our own hearts and those around us, particularly those of the children who are the most untouched members of society, the closest to their natural state.

So here are my questions for you — Are children inherently humble? Do they think of themselves? Or are they un-self-conscious? Self-focused? Self-promoting? These can be tricky questions to answer. The very smallest children, infants, are hardly aware that there are people other than themselves; the baby sees his mother as an extension of himself. My own observations lead me to say that the smallest children are quite self-focused. They do not think of the needs of others, but what this means in their case is hard to say. As they grow just a bit, they become aware of differences. I tend to agree with Charlotte that a girl will not be proud of her curls unless some adult has communicated to her that this is a point of pride. But the desire to be better in some way seems to be there almost from the start. A boy will run a race, with real or imaginary opponents, and insist that he is the fastest whether the facts support this claim or not. Charlotte sees self-consciousness, that embarrassment about one’s perceived faults, as a sign of the pride she speaks of. Again I agree that this sort of poor self-perception also stems from pride and I would also agree that it does not seem to be innate to the child but to be learned. But the opposite — to be proud of one’s appearance or abilities seems to spring quite naturally from the child’s (sinful) heart. I’d be interested in hearing others’ thoughts on this; do you think children innately think of themselves or is this a learned behavior?



What then does Charlotte mean when she speaks of the “greatness of the child as a person”? She sees a variety of qualities in the child which are superior to those of the adult. While we might dispute over one or two, on the whole I think we can see that there are things, like learning languages, that children are simply better at than adults. But Charlotte does not stop here. As her second principle applies to all aspects of the person, so she applies this idea of the greatness of the child to the moral realm as well as the emotional and intellectual. In particular, she lauds a quality of the child which she calls his innocence or humility. She firmly founds this idea on Matthew 18, particularly verses 1-6 and 10-14. Charlotte draws two conclusions from these passages:

  • That children have a positive virtue that the Bible calls humility and that she terms innocence.
  • That this is a quality which can and should be preserved and that those who cause a child to lose it bear a great fault for doing so.

While I do not agree with Charlotte’s interpretation of Matthew 18, I do not think it contradicts the text. I would say that the text allows for but does not necessitate this interpretation. Our interpretations differ because we have a fundamentally different evaluation of the child’s nature. This is based on a deeper division over the meaning of original sin and the effects of the Fall (which I will not revisit here) and a different perception of the small child and whether he does indeed think of himself.

My plan for the next post in this series to return to Charlotte’s Twenty Principles by looking at principle 4 and at what Charlotte calls the gospel principles of education.




One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Karen on June 20, 2017 at 9:19 am

    Nebby, Thanks for your series. It has been very helpful. I was curious if you looked at her writings on this part of the life of Christ in her poetry, The Saviour of the World and if it offered any clarity on her position regarding the position and humility of the child? I think I’m going to read through Book IV of Volume IV. There are several poems that tie in to these particular passages of Matthew.



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