Posts Tagged ‘parenting’

Sin & Theories of Child Development

Dear Reader,

I recently discussed David Elkind’s Power of Play (Da Capo Press, 2007) with a particular eye to how his views on child development coincide with those of Charlotte Mason. Today I would like to return to the book but with a different emphasis.

Though I like a lot of what Elkind has to say, we do come at these issues from different places and this raises some questions. These have mainly to do with how we view rule-following and perhaps especially rule-breaking.

Elkind argues that children below a certain age are incapable of understanding rules. He is not an unschooler (speaking here of unschooling as a philosophy which says adults should not impose their will on children). He does believe that children do not always do what they should and that they need limits (p. 181). He also gives examples of disciplining children with humor, a lot of which comes down to redirection rather than discipline as such, which I find somewhat charming and which I think a lot of parents could benefit from. Yet his understanding is not mine because it does not include the category of sin.

As Christians we believe that children of all ages, even infants, are moral beings who are responsible to their God. They are capable of faith but they are also morally responsible for their actions, even for their thoughts and desires. In my denomination, parents promise to teach their children of their sinful nature, and my observation of humanity tells me that, though this sounds a bit depressing, it is one of the most important lessons every individual needs to learn.

So the major question I come away from this with is: How do we deal with sin as sin and yet account for the child’s development? Or do we reject secular theories of child development because they do not account for such things? (In this post I discussed the very un-Christian basis of much of the social sciences and how we should approach such secular scholarship.)

I don’t have all the answers but there are some random thoughts:

  • Ignorance of the law is no excuse. As reformed Christians, we believe that even infants in utero are sinful people (Ps. 51:5). One’s ability to understand the law of God and to recognize the rightness or wrongness of one’s actions is really irrelevant to whether they are sinful or not. On the flip side, I would add that God also saves His people before they are able to recognize their own sinfulness and, in the case of those who die young or who are mentally challenged, they may be saved even if they never are able to articulate an understanding of these things. This is because God’s saving of us is not dependent upon our own actions nor is it dependent upon our belief as a prerequisite.
  • Elkind speaks of children’s understanding of rules, both moral rules and the rules of games, as dependent on their developing reason but he does not deny that they have some sense of right and wrong at an earlier stage. If anything, he describes younger children as having stricter moral codes. In games, “[t]hey assume that the rules were created a long time ago by adults and cannot be changed” (p. 154). When asked to choose which is worse: accidentally breaking a whole stack of dishes or breaking one plate on purpose, young children always say whatever broke most is worse and they do not take into account intentions (p. 155). As adults we may evaluate the situation differently, but we must acknowledge that these young children do have a moral sense. If anything it is often the case that adults attribute too much to circumstances and intentions and thereby minimize sin.
  • Which brings us to — there is a way in which we are told to be more like children in our faith (Matt. 18:3). This is one of those passages which I really wish told us more. I am hesitant to put children on a pedestal; I do not think they are little innocents by any means. Yet there is something about them that we are told to emulate. Perhaps this is one possibility: “Young children are curious about extremes of weather like hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes. In answering children’s questions about this subject, we need to remember their mythic thinking. Young children assume that everything has a purpose” (p. 131). One might argue that we should all be looking for the greater purpose in such events.
  • Elkind argues for the power of games in developing children’s moral sense. “Games provide a set of rules that govern how to behave under certain circumstances” (p. 148). When they play games, particularly games in which they must negotiate the rules with other children (as opposed to games in which adults set the rules), “children are learning to subordinate their personal wishes — not to be chosen It — to the rules of the game” (p. 153). Fantasy role playing also teaches one to put onself in another’s shoes (p. 162). These are very valuable and desirable skills and if games are an easy way to practice not putting oneself first, I say we should play a lot more games.
  • The Bible has a lot to say about disciplining one’s children and, while I do believe that the rod language it uses refers to physical discipline, it is not the case that physical discipline is our only option. Sin is so serious that it is far better to avoid the sin if possible than to discipline after the fact. Elkind’s suggestions on how to parent with humor, though he might not see them that way, provide ways that both parent and child can avoid sin: “When we discipline lightheartedly, we accomplish three important goals. First, we manage our own negative feelings in a positive and constructive way. Second, we provide our children an effective and constructive way of handling their own emotions. Third, we provide a healthy model for parenting for our children to use . . .” (p. 177). Note that there is a temptation for the parent in these situations as well. I suspect most of us who are parents are all too aware of that.
  • I like Elkind’s suggestions. At the same time, I think we need to be careful not to always make sin a joke. If humor and lightheartedness can help us avoid sin, particularly if we can use it to defuse a situation which could turn worse, then it is all well and good. But we also need to communicate that sin is serious and is to be taken seriously. So I do think there is a time for punitive discipline.
  • Charlotte Mason includes habit training in her philosophy of education which, as she uses it, is largely about avoiding sin before it happens as well. We need to be careful not to think that good outward behavior is all we need but at the same time we should not scorn the importance of those good habits, whether they be picking up one’s toys or not snapping an annoying sibling. Elkind’s humor addresses sins once they have happened or are happening. Habit training is a proactive approach that identifies stumbling blocks and seeks to address them before they recur. Both are good and necessary.
  • When the proactive and humorous approaches are not enough, we do need to address sin head-on and we need to identify it as sin and help our children to know that this comes from their hearts and that they cannot will their way out of their own sinful nature. In other words, they need a Savior. And at the same time we need to acknowledge that we are in this together. Our nature and our need is the same as theirs. We hopefully have a little more perspective and insight on it and so we help along those who are further behind, whether due to their youth or spiritual immaturity, but we are all on the same road.

What does all this mean for our theories of child development? It is okay for us as reformed people to say both that children can be too young to understand their sin and that they are still responsible for it. At times, because they have fewer abstract thinking skills, children are often less likely to justify away things that shouldn’t be justified away. Children can be very black-and-white in their thinking (especially about other’s wrongs I have found). So I don’t think we need to automatically conclude that they are in a worse place than we are (and the Scriptures imply that this is not so). But they are immature and we need to make sure that they understand their sinfulness and their need for a Savior. This can and should be done in a compassionate and not a harsh way, as ones who are in the same boat (ark?).

Nebby

 

The Power of Play: Elkind & Mason

Dear Reader,

I first encountered David Elkind through his book The Hurried Child which I was quite pleasantly surprised to like (see this post and this one). More recently I picked up his Power of Play (Da Capo Press, 2007) in which he tackles issues of child development and how learning happens in a more head-on fashion.

Elkind is a secular scholar and an expert in child development. He comes at the issues we will be looking at from a different place than I would, yet there are many similarities in where we end up that I find quite intriguing. Though I have my differences with her I largely follow the ideas of Charlotte Mason, a late 19th/early 20th-century educator. She was a teacher and her ideas of children and their natures come from her experience but also from her Christian faith.

As its name suggests, The Power of Play is a call for the return of play to the lives of children and especially the youngest children. Play, for Elkind, springs from the child’s “inborn disposition for learning, curiosity, imagination, and fantasy” (introduction). “Play is our need to adapt the world to ourselves and create new learning experiences” (p. 3). Though it is play Elkind stresses, he sees it as but one of a triad of drives that all people have. The others are love and work. These three work together. Play, without love and work, “is simply entertainment” (p. 4). There are times as the child grows when one or another of these drives dominates. From birth to age 6 or 7, play is the main thing. In childhood, work dominates and for teens love does. Yet education, at any age, is most effective when all three work together.

Because play is the driving force for infants and young children, their education should be largely self-directed. Elkind does not favor traditional, formal learning before age 6 or 7. From that age on, the child turns more toward work which he defines as adapting to the external world. Education as we know it is then more appropriate, though it should still not be rote memorization. Children, he tells us, want to understand (p. 7). In the teen years love becomes dominant until there is finally an equilibrium between the three in late adolescence (p. 10). For adults, play is still a part of life but tends to come in the form of hobbies.

On the surface, this may not sound much like Charlotte Mason’s philosophy but I do think there are some key connections here. Mason did not incorporate games in her curriculum and found it counter-productive in the long run to make schoolwork into entertainment. I would not call her methods playful. And yet as Elkind discusses play, I do feel there are some profound similarities. Play for Elkind is about creativity, interest, and imagination and all these Mason too incorporated.

Here are some points of connection which I see:

  • Mason would have said that learning does not happen without interest and relationship with the material. So Elkind says, “Formal instruction is work. For it to be effective, play [which includes interest] and love [relationship] need to be made part of the process” (p. 126).
  • A Charlotte Mason education is heavily reliant on books but they are books by people who love their subject matter and communicate their passion for it (aka living books). So Elkind urges parents to share their passions with children (p. 182) and says that teaching is more effective when the teacher shares his or her passions (p. 185).
  • Elkind talks about how children see the world and how they think. It is not in the same way adults do. Because of this “the child may be attending to something quite different than what the adult had in mind” (p. 102). This idea supports narration as it happens in a Charlotte Mason education. When we ask children reading comprehension questions, we ask them to tell us what we think is important. When we ask them to narrate, we let them decide what is important. As parents and educators, this often means that we have to bite our tongues and accept that these are two very different things.
  • And again, following Dewey, Elkind says that we only learn from our experiences when we represent them in some way. By doing so we make them our own (p. 191). This too calls to mind narration in which the child must tell back what he has heard or read, putting it in his own words, putting together his own thoughts, and making unique connections.
  • Elkind says that science begins with observation while experimentation is best introduced later. “Children are natural observers and classifiers” (p. 142). So too Mason kept science in the early years to nature study and used it to build observational skills and a love of creation.
  • Elkind says that rote learning is good for multiplication tables and for memorizing poetry but should not be the primary mode of education (p. 201). I think Mason would have agreed here too.
  • Quoting Smilansky, Elkind says that “‘History, geography and literature are all make-believe'” (p. 211). I love this idea. These subjects can be said to be make-believe because learning them requires imagination. We have to see in our minds what is being talked about. We form our own impressions and on some level again make the subject matter our own. Again, though I don’t have a specific quote to point to, I think Mason would have agreed.
  • Both emphasize the habit of attention. For Mason this is built through short lessons that do not tax the child. Elkind says that young children in particular should be allowed to complete the tasks they have set for themselves. When we interrupt their play, we teach them that their interests are not important and rob them of the power of attention. In the long run this leads to bored, unmotivated children. The emphasis is a little different here, but there is common ground in the value of building the habit of attention, and I think that Mason might have agreed that when children set a task for themselves it is better not to interrupt.
  • Though their brains are growing quickly, Elkind says, little children are not sponges. They take time to absorb information and throwing a lot of information at them will backfire. Mason did not throw facts at young children (as certain other approaches **cough, classical, cough** do). Having an interest in and relationship with the material was more important to her.
  • Both would delay formal education until around age 6 or 7. Elkind says that young children cannot learn to follow rules or complex verbal instructions until about age 6. Even though a younger child may learn their letters and some sight words eagerly, they may not be ready for formal reading lessons until later.
  • Elkind’s description of letting children play without adult interference but with some degree of oversight sounds a lot like Mason’s idea of “masterly inactivity.”

I have some other big thoughts that arose in my reading of The Power of Play but as they change the topic a bit I think I will save them for another post. My short take on Elkind’s book is that it is easy to read, enjoyable, and well worth the time. Though he comes to issues of child development from a different starting place, I am pleased to find that many of the techniques he ends up with are not so far apart from Mason’s (and mine as far as they echo hers).

Nebby

 

The Hurried Child: How Socialization Happens

Dear Reader,

If you are a homeschooler, you are probably sick of the “S” word  (if you are not, that word is “socialization”). Often used as a weapon by mothers-in-law and doubting friends, it is a slippery little word with so many possible meanings that it becomes hard to defend oneself against the “they won’t be socialized” accusation.

But it turns out there are actual scholarly definitions of socialization and theories about how it happens, or fails to. I recently picked up an older book, The Hurried Child by David Elkind, Ph.D (Cambridge, MA; Da Capo Press, 2007; 3rd edition). Elkind is a professor of child psychology who originally wrote this volume in the 1980s to argue that America’s children were being hurried into growing up too fast to their detriment. Even the revised revised volume I have is somewhat dated, but there is still some meat here which is worth considering.

Elkind does not start from the same place I would. There is no evidence he is a Christian; his view of human nature seems to be entirely physical, ignoring any spiritual element. He relies heavily on thinkers that I would consider suspect: Rousseau, Freud, and Piaget among them. And his idea of the child vis-a-vis the adult is not mine.

Yet a lot of the scholarship here supports and adds to some of the ideas about education which we have been discussing. A small example: I have argued, along with Charlotte Mason and others, for a broad education that does not allow the child to specialize too early. Elkind provides arguments from his clinical experience to back this up:

“Premature structuring is most often seen in children who have been trained from an early age in one or another sport or performing art. What often happens is that the child becomes so specialized so early that other parts of his personality are somewhat undeveloped.” (pp. 198-99)

Some other ideas Elkind presents with which I would agree:

  • Multi-age groupings of children are beneficial (p. 69).
  • Standardization in education is detrimental (p. 50).
  • Sex ed in the classroom does not work (p. 65).
  • Children confronted with tasks for which they are not ready blame themselves for failure and develop a “learned helplessness” (pp. 57, 131). [We also saw this idea in The Making and Unmaking of a Dullard; see this post.]

There were also a number of ideas I got from this book which I had not considered previosuly but which make a lot of sense:

  •  The motivation for learning to read is primarily social (p. 38).
  • A certain amount of repression is a good thing. Kids need to learn the rules, for instance the rule of romantic relationships, before they learn to break them. Thus movies and the like with adult themes do damage to kids. They see the breaking before they learn the rules (pp. 95f).
  • Grammar and algebra are best taught after age 11 or so. Both these subjects require is to think about thinking. Until that time kids are not ready to learn them (pp. 132f). [I need to think more about this one; I have generally resisted delineating stages in education.]

The biggest topic which made me think here is the one that seems to be uniquely Elkind’s theory. It is about how kids are socialized. He does not offer one clear definition but Elkind’s working definition of socialization seems to be that it is how children learn to live within a society (p.142).  Much to my pleasure, he places the primary locus of this teaching squarely within the family. After reviewing a few models of how socilization happens, Elkind presents his own which incorporates the others but is broader. His theory is that parents and children interact through a multi-faceted social contract. This contract has three axes which might be called the achievement-support axis, the responsibility-freedom axis, and the loyalty-commitment axis. Over time on each of these there will be change and renegotiation. Parents initially control the whole contract and set it terms but over time children are given more say in the contract (p. 147). When parents break the contract, or ar perceived to do so, children have problems. It is important to note as well that the elements of this contract are often implicit; they are not laid out or communicated verbally but are nonetheless understood on a number of levels (p. 155).

The responsibility-freedom axis is perhaps the easier to understand. The child is given more freedom over time in proportion to the responsibility he is able to take. This axis of the contract in particular prepares the child to be a responsible member of society. He learns that there is a trade-off between freedom and responsibility (p. 148).

I am a little looser on my understanding of the acheivement-support axis (pp. 149ff). Elkind argues that parents need to give their children support for their achievements (such as going to recitals and sporting events)  while also acknowledging that the child should not be made to feel that his success is for the parent’s gratification — which is all well and good. It does not seem to be as much of a trade-off, however, as the child’s achievement is not for the parent’s benefit and is certainly not something he owes the parent.

The loyalty-commitment axis is particularly interesting.  It says that parents expect a certain amount of loyalty and give their commitment (pp. 152ff). I think Christian parenting books especially are prone to identifying the responsibility-freedom axis accurately but to omitting the other axes. I haven’t thought of all the implications of this yet but I wonder if and how our strategies would change if we took this definition of social contracting between parent and child and applied it in a Christian context.

For Elkind the contract between parent and child is the primary means of socialization but it is not by itself sufficient. The parent-child relationship is a hierarchical one. The child also needs relationships with peers, those on his own level, with whom he has more equal contracts which also require much more negotiation (p. 155). And as he grows, he will also likely be the parent to a child. Elkind argues that he cannot learn the parent side of a contract directly from his parent (p. 155).

Overall I think there is a lot in this theory that fits well with Christian theology, and particularly with reformed covenant theology. Covenant theology says that God relates to us through a covenant which is essentially a contract. That we would also relate to our children in this way makes sense to me. For Elkind the parent-child contract does not actually teach the child how to be the dominant party in an unequal contract. I would argue that our contracts are actually mutli-tiered. We parents do our parenting as agents of God. We do so by divine, delegated authority. Thus even as we are authorities to our children, we are under authority to our God. Our children learn from us both how to be in authority and how to be under authority (if we are doing it well).

Elkind does not draw the lines he might between this theory of social contracts and our educational system He does at times say that requiring young children to move from daycare to school and back to daycare hurries them by forcing them to make more transitions than they are capable of but he does not go much farther than this. I would argue that every relationship is in some sense a contract. Asking young children to make too many contracts, particularly unequal ones in which they have little or no say, is dangerous ground. These kinds of contracts are in some sense in loco parentis. That is, because of the young are of the child, they mimic the parent-child contract, They can’t help but do so. Yet they offer some of the axes — responsibility-freedom and achievement-support — without offering all of them. Loyalty-commitment in particular is left out. And while I agree with Elkind that is is good and necessary for children to have peer relationships that require them to make equal contracts, I also wonder if throwing them into situations in which they are around 10 or 20 or more peers for long hours requires them to do too much negotiating. The deepest, most regular relationship, like those with siblings, are often the hardest to negotiate but can also be the most rewarding. Perhaps we were not meant to make so many “contracts” at a young age.

If you are a regular reader, you know that I am fairly pro-homeschooling. I understand, however, that this is not always a possible or even the ideal choice. I have concerns about how this social contract theory plays out when young children in particular are placed in the typical public school environment. But that does not mean that these problems cannot be overcome. If we are aware of the hazards, I think we can prepare our children for the many relationships they will have to negotiate. The main way to do this (that I can think of) is simply to be involved, to be aware of the relationships one’s child has, especially the unqueal ones which put the child in the subordinate position  and to make sure they are good relationships. And to always make the child aware that the parent is still involved and will have the commitment to them that they require.

As for that socialization argument that your mother-in-law badgers you with — Elkind’s theory provides is with some pretty good answers. If to be socialized is to learn to live in society, then the family is the first and primary society in which to learn this skill. Though it is a smaller classroom, it is an intense one and in it a parent can do more to ensure that the lessons learned are the right ones. It is a question of quality versus quantity. Better a few good relationships which involve all the axes the child needs than a large number which are yet only partial contracts.

Nebby

 

Inoculating Our Children (Ideas, not Measles)

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

At some time or another most Christian parents are faced with the question: Do I expose my children to some particular evil idea or shield them from it? Of course the immediate answer will depend upon the specifics, not least of which is the age of the child. But, since life-long isolation is an impossibility, there will be a point at which the child has to know what’s out there, from homosexuality to abortion, from the very real temptations to fornication to just plain bad theology. Sometimes these things come into our lives unexpectedly. But occasionally, we are given time to prepare and introduce ideas in a thoughtful way.

In two books I have read recently, I have come across the same model for introducing wrong ideas. It may be called the inoculation or immunization approach. In A Reformed Christian Perspective on Education (Grand Rapid: ChapBooks Press, 2011) Donald Oppewal presents a model for exposing students in a Christian school to “bad influences”:

“Seeing the classroom as an immunization center would seem to be more productive . . . The better strategy would be to plan deliberately controlled exposure to bad influences, after the manner of inoculations . . .  Applied to the classroom, the inoculation strategy would require tat the teacher expose the students to carefully controlled doese of ideas, lanuage and life styles that are not ideally Christian. . . . the teacher himself/herself can use the devil’s advocate method, and thus insure that the point-of-view gets an adequate hearing.” (p. 236)

Chap Bettis addresses parents in his book The Disciple-Making Parent (Diamond Hill Publishing, 2016). He refers to a study by psychologist William McGuire which showed, through a series of studies, that “[a] person can best handle an assault on something he believes to be true if he hears the arguments against it in a safe environment” (p. 213). Just as Jesus warned his disciples that there would be attacks to come, so we need to prepare our children by letting them know what challenges will come their way. In practical terms, this means letting them know what arguments they will hear.

Nebby 

Is it Biblical?: CM on Habit-Training (Part 1)

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in which I hold Charlotte Mason’s principles up to the light of Scripture and ask if they are “founded upon and agreeable to” the Word of God or not. The entire series is listed under “Charlotte Mason posts” at the top of this page.

We have been looking at Charlotte’s motto: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life” as stated in her fifth principle. Having looked at “education is an atmosphere” and “education is . . . a life,” we must now go back and examine “education is  . . .a discipline . . .”

CM on “Education is  . . . a discipline . . .”

My process is to first look at Miss Mason’s own words to see what she meant by what she said. This idea — that education is a discipline– is expanded upon in her seventh principle:

“By “education is a discipline,” we mean the discipline of habits, formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or body. Physiologists tell us of the adaptation of brain structures to habitual lines of thought, i.e., to our habits.”

  • Discipline is discipleship.

The first thing we need to note here is how Charlotte herself uses the word discipline. This can be a loaded term in Christian circles. Charlotte is not talking here about spanking or any other kind of physical discipline. She does leave a place for physical discipline — but not much of one:

“Discipline does not mean a birch-rod, nor a corner, nor a slipper, nor a bed, nor any such last resort of the feeble. The sooner we cease to believe in merely penal suffering as part of the divine plan, the sooner will a spasmodic resort to the birch-rod die out in families. We do not say the rod is never useful; we do say it should never be necessary.” (Parents and Children, p. 65-66)

“Now we would not say that punishment is never to be used, very much otherwise. Neither would we say that physic is never to be taken. But punishment, like physic, is a casualty only of occasional occurrence at the worst, and punishment and physic alike are reduced to a minimum in proportion as we secure healthy conditions of body and mind.” (Ibid., p. 170)

What Do not think, however, that Charlotte is opposed to punishment because she does not take children’s faults seriously; the situation is quite the opposite:

“Now here is a point all parents are not enough awake to––that serious mental and moral ailments require prompt purposeful, curative treatment, to which the parents must devote themselves for a short time, just as they would to a sick child. Neither punishing him nor letting him alone––the two lines of treatment most in favour––ever cured a child of any moral evil.” (Parents and Children, p. 87; emphasis added)

Punishment, then, is viewed as best a rare tool to be used in emergency situations. Discipline, as Charlotte defines it, is long-term, continual training. It is closely tied to discipleship:

“What is discipline? Look at the word; there is no hint of punishment in it. A disciple is a follower, and discipline is the state of the follower; the learner, imitator. Mothers and fathers do not well to forget that their children are, by the very order of Nature, their disciples.”  (Parents and Children, p. 66-67)

“Not mere spurts of occasional punishment, but the incessant watchfulness and endeavour which go to the forming and preserving of the habits of the good life, is what we mean by discipline. . . ” (Parents and Children, p. 173)

The specific method of discipline Charlotte employs is what she calls “habit training.” We see this in the 7th principle above in which she speaks of “the discipline of habits.”

  • The child is not to be left to his nature which has evil aspects.

Before we get into the what and how of habit training, let’s address the why — The rationale for habit training rests firmly in the view of the child. I have spoken a lot about Charlotte’s view of the child and of human nature itself (look back at the posts in this series, especially those on her 2nd principle for more on this). For our purposes today it is enough to say that the child is not a little angel but embodies at least the possibilities for evil. Charlotte speaks of nature as embodying (1) the temptations common to all men, (2) those that run in families, and (3) those predilections which are peculiar to the individual:

“What, then, with the natural desires, affections, and emotions common to the whole race, what with the tendencies which each family derives by descent, and those peculiarities which the individual owes to his own constitution of body and brain,––human nature, the sum of all these, makes out for itself a strong case . . .”  (Home Education, p. 102)

“The child brings with him into the world, not character, but disposition. He has tendencies which may need only to be strengthened, or, again, to be diverted or even repressed.” (Parents and Children, p. 23)

We start, then, with some issues, to say the least. The temptation of many parents is to let the children be, but Charlotte argues strongly against this saying that, left to his own devices, the child will not improve or even stay where he is but will sink lower and lower:

”  . . .  it is unchangeably true that the child who is not being constantly raised to a higher and a higher platform will sink to a lower and a lower.” (Home Education, p. 103)

“More, habit is inevitable. If we fail to ease life by laying down habits of right thinking and right acting, habits of wrong thinking and wrong acting fix themselves of their own accord. ” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 101)

For these two reasons, because of our natures and because of the tendency to sink rather than to rise, habit training is necessary.

  • The goal of habit training is to provide a “second nature.”

Habit training, as Charlotte sees it, can change one’s nature. In fact, it is a good deal stronger than nature:

‘Habit is ten natures.’ If that be true, strong as nature is, habit is not only as strong, but tenfold as strong. Here, then, have we a stronger than he, able to overcome this strong man armed.” (Home Education, p. 105)

“The extraordinary power of habit in forcing nature into new channels hardly requires illustration . . .” (Ibid., p. 106)

” . . . persist still further in the habit without lapses, and it becomes second nature, quite difficult to shake off; continue it further, through a course of years, and the habit has the strength of ten natures . . . ” (Ibid., p. 110)

Character is a word Charlotte uses frequently in this context; habits over time build the character of a man (or woman):

” His character––the efflorescence of the man wherein the fruit of his life is a-preparing––is original disposition, modified, directed, expanded by education; by circumstances; later, by self-control and self-culture . . .” (Parents and Children, p. 23)

Perhaps you are already familiar with this oh-so-CM quote:

“‘Sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; a character, reap a destiny.'” (Parents and Children, p. 29)

So we see that habit changes the (fallen) nature we are born with and builds the character we wish to see in the adult.

  • Habit training works by replacing a bad habit with a good one.

We turn now from the question of why to how — Every good habit only comes through conflict; the good must drive out the bad. Sadly, the bad are often easier and more attractive so the fight is not always an easy one:

” . . .  but a certain strenuousness in the formation of good habits is necessary because every such habit is the result of conflict. The bad habit of the easy life is always pleasant and persuasive and to be resisted with pain and effort,  . . . ” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 102)

“‘Habit is driven out by habit.'” (Parents and Children, p. 85)

“What are you to do with such inveterate habit of nature? Just this; treat it as a bad habit, and set up the opposite good habit.” (Ibid., p. 85)

“This meets in a wonderful way the case of the parent who sets himself to cure a moral failing. He sets up the course of new thoughts, and hinders those of the past, until the new thoughts shall have become automatic and run of their own accord. All the time a sort of disintegration is going on in the place that held the disused thoughts; and here is the parent’s advantage.” (Ibid., p. 90)

Charlotte has much more to say on the specifics of building a new habit. I am more interested in the theory than the practical details today. If you are looking for more of the nitty-gritty, see Home Education, part I, chapters 7 and following, and part II; and Parents and Children, chapters 9 and 16. Formation of Character, her fifth volume, also provides some interesting examples of habit training in families. And the fourth volume, Ourselves, is a unique book that will help you see the good and bad paths before you in every area of life.

  • Though Charlotte lists many specific habits to work on (obedience, attention, etc.), behind them all is what she elsewhere calls “the Way of the Will,” that is, the ability to make oneself do what one ought, not what one will.

Though habit training can cover many areas, Charlotte makes it clear that there is one habit behind all the others that is our real, one might say our only, target:

“Consideration made the reason of the failure plain: there was a warm glow of goodness at the heart of every one of the children, but they were all incapable of steady effort, because they had no strength of will, no power to make themselves do that which they knew they ought to do. Here, no doubt, come in the functions of parents and teachers; they should be able to make the child do that which he lacks the power to compel himself to. But it were poor training that should keep the child dependent upon personal influence. It is the business of education to find some way of supplementing that weakness of will which is the bane of most of us as well as of the children.” (Home Education, pp. 99-100)

“The problem before the educator is to give the child control over his own nature, to enable him to hold himself in hand . . . ” (Home Education, p. 103)

  • Habit training is not just for children; when grown they are to continue to “habit train” themselves.

The child begins life without self-control and needs his parents to begin the work of habit training:

“Not the child, immature of will, feeble in moral power, unused to the weapons of the spiritual warfare. He depends upon his parents; it rests with them to initiate the thoughts he shall think, the desires he shall cherish, the feelings he shall allow. Only to initiate; no more is permitted to them; but from this initiation will result the habits of thought and feeling which govern the man––his character, that is to say.” (Home Education, p. 109; emphasis added)

But as he grows, the child, now an adult, must “habit train” himself:

“and these last [the habits of a good life] will carry the child safely over the season of infirm will, immature conscience, until he is able to take, under direction from above, the conduct of his life, the moulding of his character, into his own hands.” (Parents and Children, p. 90; emphasis added)

  • Habit training is not done apart from the work of the Holy Spirit but is a part of it.

There may seem to be a lot of emphasis in all this on what we do, but Charlotte never sees habit training, whether by the parent or later by the adult in his own life, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit:

“In looking for a solution of this problem, I do not undervalue the Divine grace––far otherwise; but we do not always make enough of the fact that Divine grace is exerted on the lines of enlightened human effort; that the parent, for instance, who takes the trouble to understand what he is about in educating his child, deserves, and assuredly gets, support from above . . .” (Home Education, p. 104; emphasis added)

“His character––the efflorescence of the man wherein the fruit of his life is a-preparing––is original disposition, modified, directed, expanded by education; by circumstances; later, by self-control and self-culture; above all, by the supreme agency of the Holy Ghost, even where that agency is little suspected, and as little solicited.” (Parents and Children, p. 23; emphasis added)

“Here, indeed, more than anywhere, ‘Except the Lord build the house, they labour but in vain that build it’; but surely intelligent co-operation in this divine work is our bounden duty and service.” (Ibid., p. 90)

In summary, these are the main aspects we have seen of what Charlotte Mason means when she says “education is  . . .  a discipline . . .”:

  • Discipline is discipleship.
  • The child is not to be left to his nature which has evil aspects.
  • The goal of habit training is to provide a “second nature.”
  • Habit training works by replacing a bad habit with a good one.
  • Though Charlotte lists many specific habits to work on (obedience, attention, etc.), behind them all is what she elsewhere calls “the Way of the Will,” that is, the ability to make oneself do what one ought, not what one will.
  • Habit training is not just for children; when grown they are to continue to “habit train” themselves.
  • Habit training is not done apart from the work of the Holy Spirit but is a part of it.

What the Bible has to say

We must now turn to the Scriptures to see how Charlotte’s ideas fare when held up to its light.

There are some ideas here which seem so obvious that one almost need not discuss them.  That a child has a nature affected by the Fall and that he should not be allowed to stay where he is and that his parents are charged with disciplining him are not points that I think orthodox Christians of any stripe are going to dispute. How fallen the child’s nature is is a matter of some dispute but has been covered in my posts on Charlotte’s second principle. What form parental discipline should take is going to be the biggest and toughest topic we have to tackle today so I am going to save it for a follow-up post (part 2).

Starting from the end of the above list, Charlotte says that

  • Habit training is not done apart from the work of the Holy Spirit but is a part of it.

She quotes Psalm 127 in this context. I think we can also look to Philippians 2:12-13:

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

If we began to list all the places in which we are told to do good, to be good, we would be here all day if not all month or all year. I think the Bible makes clear that we are to do something  but it also makes clear that it is not our work but the Holy Spirit’s in us.

  • Habit training is not just for children; when grown they are to continue to “habit train” themselves.

The Bible makes pretty clear that parents are to discipline their children (we will look at a lot of these verses below when we get to the how). But it also shows us that adults are not perfect and still need to work on themselves (with the help of the Holy Spirit, as we have seen). So I think it’s not a big leap to say that at some point the burden gets passed from parent to grown child.

  • Though Charlotte lists many specific habits to work on (obedience, attention, etc.), behind them all is what she elsewhere calls “the Way of the Will,” that is, the ability to make oneself do what one ought, not what one will.

There is a lot to point to in the Bible to show is the importance of doing not what we will but what the Lord wills:

“Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’” (Matt. 6:9-10; emphasis added)

“And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”” (Luke 1:38)

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21)

“And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”” (Matt. 26:39; cf. Luke 22:42)

“I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” (John 5:30; cf. John 6:38)

  • Habit training works by replacing a bad habit with a good one.

This point touches on the specifics of how we habit train. I can’t think of places where the Bible gives its own program for such a thing (as Charlotte does), but neither do I think the idea is unbiblical. Charlotte speaks of habit training as laying down the rails upon which one’s life will run. Proverbs 22:6, which Charlotte also quotes (see Parents and Children, p. 21), supports this idea:

“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

We could quote many other verses as well in which the Bible speaks of the “way” in which a man walks (cf. Psalm 1:1).

  • The goal of habit training is to provide a “second nature.”

In a recent post I spoke of habit training as sanctification. That is really what we are getting at here. What else would you call that process by which our original, sinful nature is transformed? If we acknowledge that we need sanctified, that it is the work of the Holy Spirit, but that we must cooperate in our own sanctification (as opposed to sitting back waiting for God to change us), then the real question is not if but how.

This is where I want to spend part 2, asking: How do we “train up a child in the way he should go”? Is Charlotte right that punishment, including corporal punishment, should be rare? What specifics does the Bible give us on the how of discipline?

(Provisional) Conclusions

I realize we have just scraped the surface of this issue. The real meat is yet to come. Thus far, I think we can say that, though the Bible does not specifically describe the process of habit training as Charlotte does, that a lot of the principles behind it — the need to change one’s nature, the role of the individual vis-a-vis God’s role, the idea of establishing a way in which children should go — are in line with biblical principles.

Next up: Part 2: What does the Bible really say about discipline?

Nebby

 

 

Who You Let In

Dear Reader,

Another quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Autocrat of the Breakfast Table:

“Be very careful to whom you trust one of these keys of the side-door. The fact of possessing one renders those even who are dear to you very terrible at times. You can keep the world out from your front-door, or receive visitors only when you are ready for them; but those of your own flesh and blood, or of certain grades of intimacy, can come in at the side-door, if they will, at any hour and in any mood. Some of them have a scale of your whole nervous system, and can play all the gamut of your sensibilities in semitones, – touching the naked nerve-pulps as a pianist strikes the keys of his instrument.” (p. 72)

The doors he speaks of are to our feelings. As a parent of teens, I am reminded how important it is to warn them not to let just anybody into the inner sanctuaries of their being; teens are apt to form fast and close relationships without much discernment. As a parent also, I am reminded that we have the keys to enter into our children’s inner rooms and the ability to use this power for good or evil. When Charlotte Mason warns that we may not play upon the sensibilities of children, this is just the sort of thing she is speaking of. We can easily manipulate or be manipulated emotionally by those closest to us.

Nebby

Habit-Training and Sanctification

Dear Reader,

As my local Charlotte Mason study group makes its way through her 20 Principles,  we are up to “Education is . .  a discipline . . . ” Habit-training is what we are talking about here. As I revisit this topic, I find myself thinking more about the spiritual than the physical.

Often times in habit-training we seem to be speaking of very mundane issues — cleaning one’s room and bathing and brushing one’s teeth and putting one’s shoes away. On the surface these things don’t seem to have much of a spiritual component. But I think that if we get tied up in practical, everyday things we miss the point.

God is always working in the heart of His people to sanctify them and to bring them closer to Himself. As I told my own children, we need to cooperate in our own sanctification. About a year ago, I sat each of them down and asked them what they wanted to work on in themselves. They are slightly older (currently 10 through 15) so they are able to say that they need to work on things like “pride” and “patience” (that one is a lot like her Mama). But even when we work of the seemingly more trivial issues, it can and perhaps should still be a spiritual exercise. For one thing, whenever we change our habits, we are working on the will as Charlotte Mason speaks of it. We are forcing ourselves not to do the easy, lazy thing but to do what we know we should. Then too there can (and should) be good reasons for the things we are working on. I would go so far as to say if you can’t give your child a good reason why they should work on a given habit, you should probably let it go and turn your attention elsewhere. Brushing one’s teeth, trying a new vegetable, cleaning one’s room — these are all about stewardship, about being wise and responsible with what God has given us. Putting away your shoes so they don’t clutter up the foyer? That’s consideration for your family members who might trip over them.

Above all, habit training is not something we impose on our kids; they should be part of it. We should explain to them what they will be working on and why. And as they do they learn that we all have things we need to work on. If you conquer one bad habit, there is always another. And that’s really what life on this earth is like for God’s people. Too many of us (and I am guilty of this too) go through life waiting for God to start changing us. I do believe that the work of redemption and sanctification is all God’s, but He graciously allows us to cooperate with Him in it. How much better to do so consciously and intentionally. As Paul says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12b-13; ESV).

Nebby

Benefits of Solitude

Dear Reader,

As I mentioned recently, I am rereading The Golden Milestone by Frank Boreham. Boreham was a pastor in New Zealand 100 years of so ago and writes wonderful pastoral essays. In “Reflections in the River” he discusses the need for us to get to know ourselves by spending time alone, in solitude and even loneliness. I am reminded of an older (though she wouldn’t like that word!) homeschooling friend who observed that her homeschooled son knew himself better and was so much less prone to peer-pressure and so much more content than her daughter who had always gone to school because he had much time alone.

Boreham advances the same idea — that it is in solitude that we get to know ourselves and that we become prepared also for what God may call us to next. Here is what he says:

“It has often impressed me as a most striking circumstance that the greatest of the prophets and the greatest of the apostles were both sent into the silences for years and years for no other purpose then to get to know themselves.”

He cites the examples of Moses who spent 40 years as a shepherd in the desert till he was called to lead his people and Paul who after his conversion “retired to the Arabian solitudes.” The examples could go on — what of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert and John the Baptist’s time in the desert and Elijah’s vast loneliness?

Our tendency is to schedule ourselves and our children into oblivion. I think especially as homeschoolers we fear missing nay opportunity or having any gaps so we pile our kids up with academics and extracurriculars and socialization and we leave them little time to be alone. And if they are lonely, we have failed and not socialized them and they are sure to be ruined by our efforts so we add more and more. But perhaps it is loneliness that they need. Boreham shows us that it is often through solitude, even hard solitude, that God prepares us for what comes next in each of our lives.

Nebby

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.

Nebby

Catechizing Kids: What do you think?

Dear Reader,

A few years back we were visiting family and attended a small church from our denomination that was in search of a new pastor. The week we were there they had a possible candidate as the guest preacher and after service had a meal and a time to get to know the candidate and his family. We stayed for lunch and got to hear the discussion. The only thing I remember from that conversation is one church member asking the candidate in a somewhat eager tone how he felt about catechizing his children. The candidate responded that he was all for it and that he and his wife did catechize their children. I will admit I was a little flummoxed. I guess you had to be there to see what I mean but the attitude of the questioner was just so intense. There was clearly more going on here that a simple question about how one chooses to train one’s children. I rather think from the tone of the whole thing that if the answer had been anything other than “we catechize our kids” that the candidate would have been rejected right then and there.

Since my husband is not a candidate for anything I will now confess that we have not ever catechized our children. Or maybe we have. It all depends on how you define it. If you’ll allow me to be ramble-y for a minute — It seems to be that “catechizing” one’s kids is a bit like “classical” education. In the contemporary homeschool world, when we speak of classical education we are really most often talking of a certain version of the classical philosophy of education which was reignited by Dorothy Sayers’ famous article. When one asks in this context if Charlotte Mason was a classical educator, the answer is no; I don’t think she would have bought into what now passes for classical education (and which I try to refer to in this blog as modern classical education — talk about an oxymoron!). But on another level, before the term was hijacked, classical education meant something different and others have written better than I can on how Charlotte Mason was indeed classical in the, well, classical sense.

All of which is to say that just as whether or not one is classical depends on one’s definition, so too whether or not we catechize our children depends on one’s definition of that term. I am afraid that catechizing has often come to mean something very diluted, something that I personally find unattractive and rather useless. But in a more classical sense, yes, catechizing is wonderful. In fact, it is so utterly basic I don’t know how one could not do it (though I am sure many don’t).

So what does it mean to catechize one’s children? I am indebted to this article by John Murray in clarifying my thoughts on this issue. These days catechizing seems to refer to a rote memorization of questions and answers. This sort of exercise repels me. While there may be some benefit to it for some children as they grow and the words they have learned come back to them, I think there is little true, guaranteed and immediate benefit. Nor does this approach fit with my philosophy of education. It does not take into account the individuality of the student; it does not therefore respect them as persons (as Charlotte Mason would say).  Murray tells us that this sort of approach would have been condemned by the early reformers:

‘It is clear that blind memorizing of a catechism was in the eyes of the Reformers and Puritans an evil to be guarded against. The fear of the divines who compiled the Westminster Catechisms was, as one of them expressed it, that “people will come to learn things by rote and can answer as a parrot, but not understand the thing.”’ (“Catechizing: A Forgotten Practice” by John Murray, Banner of Truth)

What, then, should catechizing be? Let me quote Murray again:

The reason why many people regard catechizing as a slight and trifling exercise is that they confuse the practice with the mere rote-work of asking and answering of question in a catechism. But there is a vast difference between catechizing and the mere rote acquaintance with a catechism. It is almost certain that the early Church did not have catechisms constructed on the method of question and answer. Their great concern was catechizing. The early Fathers, the Reformers, and the Puritans were at one in maintaining that true catechizing is a very different matter from learning the mere letter of the catechism.”

I grew up in the Roman Catholic church and we used the term catechumen which I have not heard in other contexts (until Murray’s article). In the Catholic church the catechumens were those adults who chose to join the church. They were required to take classes to find out what the church believed and then were baptized at Easter. Turns out that that is exactly the right idea. To catechize, in the original definition, is simply to teach what one believes. This was originally done orally and using a question and answer format because of the limitations of the time (few books available) and the practices of the time (question and answer format in education). The catechisms as we have them were created much later to aid in catechizing, but they are not the origin of catechizing. That is to say, we have catechisms so that we may better catechize; we do not catechize because we have catechisms.

Why catechize at all? For the Reformers teaching what one believes was a big deal because they came right out of the Medieval Catholic church. It was important that people know and understand what they believed because of the hostile religious environment in which they lived. The Catholic church of the time did just the opposite — they essentially said “listen to us; no need to think for yourselves.” And in a time of persecution, how could people be expected to stand strong if they didn’t really understand what they were standing up for?  Lastly, as Murray points out, people are a lot more likely to stick with right doctrine if they know and understand what they believe. When theological knowledge slips, people begin to slowly fall away and ultimately heresy easily slips in.

All these reasons are still good reasons for us to catechize our children today (and our adults, of course). By this definition, catechizing is simply teaching theology, teaching what we believe and why. And why wouldn’t you do that?

One last word on the how of catechizing: I can’t pass up this quote from Murray’s article:

“[Augustine] insists that each pupil be treated according to his individual needs and that to this end the catechist should examine him by preliminary questioning as to his motives and as to his attainments with a view to making the pupil’s error or lack the starting point of his particular instruction. Similarly, all the way along the pupil must be watched and questioned, and carefully dealt with individually so that he may be cause to know rather than merely be caused to hear the truth which is the substance of the catechetical instruction. This certainly puts catechizing on a different level from the mere use of a catechism.”

I love the emphasis on the individual approach here. It sounds very CM, doesn’t it? To end up where we started, rote memorization such as I have often seen which says, for instance, that every kid in the Sunday school class is memorizing question 10 this week and must recite it in class, often with no explanation of what question 10 means, is not going to produce kids who know what they believe and why. It is going to produce kids who commit a few words to short-term memory for a week in order to get a piece of candy and then quickly move on.

So do we catechize our kids? Absolutely! It is very important to us that they know what they believe and why. Have we ever made them memorize questions and answers? No.

Nebby