“The child breathes the atmosphere emanating from his parents; that of the ideas which rule their own lives” (Charlotte Mason, Vol. 2, p. 247)
At a homeschool retreat I attended last year, one of the speakers was asked to explain the reasoning behind his and his wife’s decision to homeschool. He said “I believe in the principle of marination.” Seeing that he had effectively confused the audience, he continued; “According to the principle of marination, a person or thing will passively absorb the flavor of whatever it is surrounded by. I want my children to absorb the flavor—habits, beliefs and mannerisms—of my wife, not public school.”
The very first teaching tool that Charlotte Mason lists in her philosophy of education is Atmosphere. My theory is that Charlotte listed these tools in sequential order: atmosphere, discipline, then life. The atmosphere is the foundational tool as it encompasses learning from relationships with people and real-life experiences. All people start learning from their environment the moment they are born.
Be Thou An Example
“First, we must control our behavior. Next, we must control the environment of our home. If we have done this, the children will control themselves.”
(Louise Latham, The Power of Positive Parenting)
As the parent, you set the tone of your home. You are in control of your own behavior which is a significant factor in whether your home is peaceful and positive or contentious and negative. You teach your children more through your example than from lectures. Children’s brains are equipped with mirror neurons which help them internalize and imitate the behavior they see, especially people they are securely attached to (See Hold on to Your Kids). The most important part of your child’s education is training their character, or heart. This is done through your example and the atmosphere of your home. Theodore Roosevelt once said “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.”
Too many early childhood programs are focused on academics when they should be focusing on the foundation for academics. A young child’s brain is primed for establishing 1) relationships, 2) five senses, 3) language and 4) morals. The atmosphere of your home has the capacity to develop and nurture all four of those areas. Creating a positive, beautiful, and sensory-rich environment should be the first order of business when establishing a center of learning in your home.
Instead of basing your evaluation on negative interactions in your home, base your valuations on the amount of positive interactions. There will always be negative interactions in groups of imperfect people, but when there are positive interactions they will counteract the negative. So look for the good and celebrate it.
The language you speak is powerful, and it will shape how your child views the world and themselves. The quality of speech important, specifically when it is positive and encouraging. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for self-regulation (or “the will”), is very sensitive to stress. Negative interactions and stressful situations suppress the growth of the prefrontal cortex. Positive, supportive interactions nurtures growth. Although young children are not capable of mature behavior, their brain needs nurturing right now if it will ever function at optimum level when they are older. Instead of barking negative directives–“don’t, stop, go away”–use positive ones. Tell children what they can do; “Here, you can hold the cup while I pour the milk” and, “The sand needs to stay outside.” If children only hear that they can’t, they will eventually believe it.
When your child does something desirable, prioritize telling them they are a good attribute; you are a helper, you are so kind, you are a hard worker. When they do something undesirable, speak about their behavior; “that was not a kind thing to do.” “Leaving your books on the ground is not responsible.” In this way you are creating a narrative that they are inherently good, and their behavior is not in line with who they are or should be. Research proves this to be true. Additionally, When your child makes an improvement, even if it’s small, praise their effort, and be specific. E.g. “You must be really proud of yourself for _______.” If you absolutely need to criticize or “reproof betimes with sharpness” ( D&C 121:43) make sure you start with praise; it’s much better to use “and” instead of “but.” For example, “you are getting so good at writing your letters in the lines, and your handwriting will be even better when you form your e’s just like I showed you.” Or, “I love you and I can’t let you hurt your brother.”
Studies have shown that children learn better social skills in mixed-age classrooms, and even more from their parents. ( Urie Bronfenbrenner,Two Worlds Of Childhood) This is an indisputable fact, yet most parents still believe that children need to learn social skills from peers, and public schools still separate children by birth year instead of mixing ages.
The reality is this: when older children teach the younger ones , like magic, they feel the need to be more responsible and engage in more mature behavior. They intuitively know how to teach younger children because they have been in the situation not too long before. Younger children look up to the older children and want to join in their activities and conversations.
Children learn mature social skills from watching their parents. They learn about genuine friendship from family relationships; how to be loyal, selfless, loving, forgiving, and kind. Children learn from the example set by parents and older siblings and they get opportunities to practice those skills in daily life. These unique opportunities are only available in family life, and this is why: when a person of any age is securely attached to other people (like parental and sibling relationships), they feel safe to disagree, to assert their rights and opinions, and to stand up when they feel their rights are not respected. They learn how to apply these social skills to multiple situations and a range of ages.
As a parent you may feel discouraged when you see negative social behavior in your children. But what you may not realize is that this is an essential part of maturation, and it needs to happen when people are young and where they feel safe. They need to know they will be forgiven and loved when they make mistakes. They need to learn how to forgive people when they are wronged, how to assert their opinion in productive ways without being rejected, and how to respect those who have different opinions. They need to learn how authority works and why it is important. It is much more difficult at school where relationships are mostly superficial and conditional.
You will not see your child exhibit the same behavior with peers because your child does not feel safe enough to be vulnerable and display their whole spectrum of emotions. For boys, emotions usually become physical as they express emotions more easily this way; wrestling, tackling, and hugging are the result of almost every emotion. Many times play fights will turn into real fights because one boy was too rough or the competition became too intense. The boys learn from their experience and alter their strength or change their tactics. Children need to learn their limits while they are young, otherwise they will learn when they are older and the consequences are more serious.
I guarantee that you will see more negative behavior between siblings than with peers, but it is an essential part of maturation; avoiding sibling rivalry is only prolonging the inevitable. The truth is that the more vulnerable the relationship, the more hurt feelings. Maturation and development of social skills is messy, but essential, and the best environment for children to learn these valuable skills is at home with their family. They can practice those skills with peers, but the real work is done at home.
Teach Correct Principles
How can you allow your children the freedom they need to learn and grow, but still maintain a positive atmosphere? Teach correct principles and let them govern themselves. Especially for children over eight years old.
Taking a principle from human systems management, we can see how to make our home more positive while still maintaining a sense of agency; Anytime you see sibling relationships in apparent chaos your “training” urges you to interfere to stabilize and shape things up. But if you can trust the workings of chaos, you will see that the dominant shape of your family can be maintained if you retain clarity about the purpose and direction of the members. If you succeed in maintaining focus, rather than hands on control, you also create the flexibility and responsiveness that every family craves. What parents are called upon to do in a chaotic world is to shape their families through concepts. Simple guiding principles, guiding visions, strong values, family beliefs – the few rules individuals can use to shape their own behavior. (paraphrased from Christlike Parenting by Glenn Latham, pg 159)
I recommend writing a family mission statement to help the members of your family prioritize the principles your family wants to be built on. (see “Apply” section for complete details).
“It is worthwhile to remember that space is the most precious and also the most pleasing thing in a house or room; and that even a small room becomes spacious if it is not crowded with useless objects.” (Charlotte Mason)
Charlotte Mason was a strong advocate of simplifying the atmosphere of the home to create beauty and order. When you are focused on buying more of the “best” homeschool items and spend most of your time and energy organizing and cleaning up these items, you lose sight of what matters most: relationships and experiences. When your children have too many toys and too many choices, their nervous system becomes overloaded and they don’t enjoy playing or engaging as deeply. Less is more when it comes to toys and homeschool items. Except books; you can never have enough “living books.”
“So many choices and so much stimuli rob them of time and attention. Too much stuff deprives kids of leisure, and the ability to explore their world deeply… Imagine the sensory overload that can happen for a child when every surface, every drawer and closet is filled with stuff? So many choices and so much stimuli rob them of time and attention.” (Kim Jon Payne, Simplicity Parenting)
Simplify your home and schedule; ask yourself what is most important to you and your family. Figure out which items and activities bring your children the most joy, and get rid of the rest. Scrutinize everything you bring into your home and schedule to safeguard the unstructured time that is needed to ponder and reflect.
Is This Real-Life?
Unfortunately, too many children in America are bored at school, especially boys. (here and here) The creativity and effort they exert to get out of their lessons is impressive. Instead of pulling out bribes and coercive techniques, we should be asking ourselves why school is not maintaining their interest. Why are children so disinterested in their lessons?
To answer this we need to revisit Charlotte Mason’s foundational principle: children are born persons. Just like adults, children’s questions and desire to learn originate from real-life experiences. Artificial learning environments, assignments, and projects are what is damaging our child’s desire to learn. They want to help solve real problems, be engaged in meaningful work, and practice skills in real situations. Elaborate curriculum where everything is laid out for the child, all connections made, and all projects planned, is not real life. This is not teaching your child to be self-reliant. You are not teaching them to be life-long learners. It is not how humans naturally learn.
How do adults learn? They encounter a problem or a question that piques their interest, they read about it, then share what they’ve learned with others. If they find a solution to a problem they engage in a project to improve or invent something new.
Creating an atmosphere of learning in your home involves you, the parent, being an active, self-reliant learner. It involves you creating a scaffold for your children to grow within (weekly schedule, or time table), and, as you slowly remove the scaffold, allowing them the freedom to follow their interests, choose books to read, and organize their own projects based on real-life problems. Learning is not something that is done to us; it is something we are constantly doing every moment of our lives. The most important change you can make in the atmosphere of your home is to be an example of life-long learning.
- Be curious and ask questions.
- Seek answers from books, people, and your own experiments.
- Narrate and record what you learn.
- Finally, apply what you’ve learned to real-life situations.
“When we say that ‘education is an atmosphere,’ we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child-environment’ especially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the child’s level.”
Teaching in the Savior’s Way | pg 15-16
A Philosophy of Education | Chapter 6
Your Refined Heavenly Home | David R. Callister
What Lack I Yet? | Larry R. Lawrence
What Manner of Men and Women Ought Ye to Be? | Lynn G Robbins
Good, Better, Best | Dallin H. Oaks
Be Thou an Example | Thomas S. Monson
Tongues of Angels | Jeffery R. Holland
Reproving Betimes with Sharpness | Millett and Newell
Simplicity Parenting | Chapters 1-3
- Which Christlike attributes do I need to develop? Is there anything I need to do to be a better example?
- Which features of my home help create an environment where children can learn? What changes might I need to make?
- What can members of my family do to make sure that everyone feels loved in our learning environment?
- What opportunities do I have to teach from real life? What can I do to ensure that I am always ready to take advantage of such moments?
HOW TO WRITE A FAMILY MISSION STATEMENT
- Gather family members together and decide your core values. There are a couple ways to do this:
- Brainstorm words you want to describe the family; e.g. kind, helpful, fun, righteous, silly.
- Ask each member what they want from the family, or to describe their idea of a perfect home; e.g. “I want to always feel loved” or “I want a family that can laugh and have fun.”
- Who are your children’s heroes from scriptures or history? Pick some attributes that you admire.
- Read Moroni 7:45 and pick charitable characteristics you want your family to have.
- Write down the words or phrases that your family comes up with. Pick a few that are the most important to your family.
- Charlotte Mason has said that children need to know four things: who they are (I am), what they expected to do (I ought), what they are capable of (I can), and what they will choose to do (I will). Use this as a guide to write your family mission statement. Remember to keep it simple and powerful.
- Here is an example of my family mission statement:
“We are children of Heavenly Parents who love us. We were made to be curious and have joy! We ought to be kind and love one another. We ought to keep the commandments of God. We can do all things through Christ, and we can choose to be happy no matter what our circumstances may be. We will choose to follow Christ. we will look for the good in ourselves and in others. We will seek learning by study and also by faith.”