The mind can know nothing save what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put to the mind by itself.”
Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ taught in very humble circumstances all around Judea. He did not have a classroom, scripted curriculum, schedule, or resources; neither did he have a teaching degree but he is still known as the “Master Teacher.” He attracted great crowds of people to hear his words and learn from him. His disciples wrote down these teachings and experiences and we are still learning from his example to this day.
Charlotte Mason fervently studied the New Testament, having a firm testimony in Jesus Christ. She based her philosophy and methods on what she learned from the Master Teacher. What are the timeless methods Christ employed?
First, he used stories to activate his students’ hearts and minds; he used nature, concrete objects, and real life experiences to teach eternal principles (this is called apperception). Then, he asked thought-provoking questions and encouraged his students to ask their own questions. As you study the New Testament, you’ll notice that many of his sermons were based on questions that his disciples had asked.
Nurturing the habit of asking questions, using students’ questions to guide teaching material, and asking open-ended questions are powerful tools that are severely underappreciated and underused in most educational settings.
The ‘Engines of Intellect’
David Hackett Fischer, professor of history at Brandeis University, observed that questions “are the engines of intellect—cerebral machines that convert curiosity into controlled inquiry.”
Dan Rothstein, founder of the Right Question Institute, says that questioning is “an experience we’ve all had at one point or another; just asking or hearing a question phrased a certain way produces an almost palpable feeling of discovery and new understanding.” In other words, questions produce the lightbulb effect. Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, expands on that quote and says “If they [children] are permitted to do that research–to raise and explore their own questions, through various forms of experimentations, and without being burdened with instructions–they exhibit signs of more creativity and curiosity.”
Storing and providing information is robotic; it does not take higher intelligence to perform. Computers can be filled with information to be retrieved when needed. However, computers are incapable of the creativity of formulating meaningful questions. While Albert Einstein was being interviewed for a newspaper article, the journalist asked him for his phone number for follow-up questions. Einstein picked up a phonebook and searched for his number to give to the man. The journalist was flabbergasted and wondered why one of the most brilliant men in the world didn’t know his own phone number, and he asked Einstein why this was. Einstein simply said, “never memorize something that you can look up.”
WHY ARE QUESTIONS IMPORTANT?
Albert Einstein didn’t believe the intellect should be used up memorizing information. Instead, he believed it should be used to ask questions and wonder. He famously said “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries to comprehend only a little of this mystery every day.”
Asking questions is also known as inquiry, research, and seeking. All of those words are used regularly in education and in the scriptures. Let’s take a moment to think about what happens in the mind when it forms a question:
First, the person must come across an idea, but realize there is a gap in their knowledge because they don’t understand something of that idea. In developmental psychology, this is known as “disequilibrium.” The person will identify what information they are missing and formulate a question in their mind. Next, they seek an answer in one of two ways: by generating a new idea (i.e. forming hypotheses) or by seeking to answer a question by experimentation, usually through the five senses.
The mind then takes this new information and processes, synthesizes, and analyzes it, then moves toward a conclusion. Interestingly, this is usually in the form of narration. When a person asks a question and discovers the answer (or makes new connections), they are eager to share that knowledge with anyone willing to listen.
Inquiry is Natural for Children
Jesus’s disciples asked him many questions, and his sermons were usually based on their questions. One question in particular reveals Jesus’ attitude toward learning and curiosity. The disciples asked:
“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:3)
In response, Jesus called a little child to him, set him in the midst of the adults, and said, “verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
There are many reasons why we should become like little children, but I believe it is because of their innate humility and curiosity. Around the age of four or five years old, children ask incessant questions. On average, they ask one hundred questions a day! If you’re like me, there are some days you wish it would stop, Tragically, it does stop.
Soon after elementary school, children mostly stop asking questions, and motivation and engagement in school also decrease dramatically. In other words, there is a strong correlation between asking questions and engagement in school (A More Beautiful Question). Boyd K Packer pointed out this relationship in his book Teach Ye Diligently; he said, “children’s questions are an indication they are ready to learn.” (pg 135)
Curiosity is Catalyst for Learning
Traditional education focuses too heavily on information input, things that can be measured on a multiple-choice test. Though it may be useful and necessary to memorize some things (times tables, formulas, beloved scriptures, poetry, etc) the human mind is capable of much higher intellectual abilities than simply storing information. In fact, when The New York Times asked several college presidents what students should gain from four years of college, it was not to retain a certain amount of knowledge or graduate with a high test score. The most common answer was to gain skills, one of which was the ability to inquire:
“The primary skills should be analytical skills of interpretation and inquiry.”
(Leon Botstein, Bard College)
“The best we can do for students is to have them ask the right questions”
(Nancy Cantor, Syracuse University)
Education should really be founded on a student’s questions, on things they don’t know yet, but have a desire to know.
When the teacher instructs, lectures, and asks the questions, it puts the child in a passive role. When a child asks the questions, he is put in the active role. Heavenly Father created His children to be curious, active agents in their life and education. Unfortunately, teaching our children to be active participants in the learning process is an important skill that is not taught in traditional learning environments. Why are schools and parents not prioritizing this skill more?
First, most of us are products of traditional education and direct instruction; we have no idea how to learn by asking our own questions. We wait for a person in authority to teach us, then ask us questions to test comprehension. Second, states have a long list of learning objectives that need to be met. School ratings are based on test scores, and if the learning objectives are not met, the school drops its rating and potentially lowers its funding.
As much as they’d like to, it is difficult for teachers to allow students to ask the questions; what if they don’t ask the right questions? What if they aren’t curious about the material that “needs” to be taught at that time? Allowing children to ask the questions leaves too much up to chance; it is messy and unpredictable, but it is also beautiful and the most powerful way to learn.
Ronald Vale, a scientist and professor at the University of California, explains why he believes questions are not prioritized in traditional school settings:
“Several cultural factors present barriers. First is the perception that the teacher is an almighty vessel of knowledge who imparts information to students. In that formulation, a difficult question with no immediate answer or an uncertain answer can be threatening to a teacher and disappointing to a student. However, that view is unfair to teachers. Teachers also need to be students. A teacher should feel completely comfortable saying, ‘I do not know the answer to that question, but let me look it up—or let’s look it up together.’ Many questions do not have quick, easy answers and thus become seeds for investigation. Students also should be able to teach their peers when they look up an answer to a question. In this model, teachers and students become partners in their mutual education.”
Charlotte Mason was also an advocate for this approach to learning, and warned against parents and teachers viewing themselves as the “showman of the universe.”
Inquiry is a Creativity Act
“Questioning is an integral part of meaningful learning and scientific inquiry. The formulation of a good question is a creative act, and at the heart of what doing science is all about.” (Students’ Questions: A Potential Resource for Teaching and Learning Science)
We are able to measure creativity using the Torrance test. Ever since the 1950’s, people from each generation have been voluntarily tested for intelligence and creativity. Interestingly, since the 1990’s, intelligence scores have gone up by about 10 points with each generation, but creativity has started going down with each generation. As a society we put high value on educating the mind, but we are neglecting the heart.
Educate the Whole Child
Marlene Peterson, founder of The Well-Educated Heart, presents a strong argument that we must educate both the heart and the mind. Her site is dedicated to teaching mothers how to educate their children’s hearts through music, nature, art and literature. The heart is synonymous with the spirit of a person: the traits of imagination, curiosity, and creativity. Instilling a habit of inquiry is one way to educate the whole child.
One of my favorite teaching resources, Teaching in the Savior’s Way, explains more about how the Savior utilized inquiry: “When the Savior taught, He did more than just share information. He gave His disciples opportunities to ask questions and share their testimonies. His pattern for teaching and learning invites us to ‘teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom’ so that ‘all may be edified of all, and that every man may have an equal privilege’” (pg 122).
Heavenly Father wants His children to become wise, intelligent, and creative; and we can only reach our full potential by learning how to inquire and seek truth. We are all equal in his eyes, and everyone (especially children) have something to contribute. It is easy to see this truth by looking for patterns in the scriptures. In them you’ll find many words synonymous with questioning, like inquire, seek, and ask.
“And if thou wilt inquire, thou shalt know mysteries which are great and marvelous;” (D&C 6:11)
“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:” (Matthew 7:7)
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” (James 1:5)
“For he truly spake many great things unto them, which were hard to be understood, save a man should inquire of the Lord; and they being hard in their hearts, therefore they did not look unto the Lord as they ought.” (1 Nephi 15:3)
In an address to students at BYU, Cecil O. Samuelson remarked on the profound importance of inquiry in spiritual progression: “Ours is a gospel of questions, and our lives in all of their spheres require thoughtful and appropriate inquiry if we are going to progress. The question is not whether we should ask questions, but rather, ‘what are the questions we should be asking?’”
“It is easier to judge the mind of a man by his questions rather than his answers.”
—Pierre-Marc-Gaston, duc de Lévis (1764–1830)
The mind can only learn when it is an active participant. Asking questions is difficult and requires mental strength. Stanley Boardmen, headmaster of a Parent Union School in England, acknowledged the important role inquiry plays in cognitive development by saying, “we know that a child can indeed follow a series of questions and can with some confidence suggest a series of answers. But don’t you think the real mental effort, the visualising of the whole, has been that of the teacher?” (Boardman, Stanley. op. cit., pp. 469-470.)
Developmental psychologist Michael M Chouinard, explains in his article “Children’s Questions: a Mechanism for Cognitive Development” that for cognitive development to occur, these four things must happen:
- Children must actually be asking the questions
- They must have a desire for an answer
- They should receive informative answers (either through secondary or primary sources)
- Their questions and answers must be applicable and meaningful in their lives
In a future article, I will explain how to use children’s questions as the springboard for further research, projects, and real-world application.
HOW TO UTILIZE QUESTIONS
Use Real Books and Real Things
Susan Engel of Williams College did an experiment with two sets of teachers: one group was not given specific guidelines on how to teach a science class, while the other group was “subtly encouraged” to follow a worksheet. The first group of teachers tended to respond with interest and encouragement when students expressed their own ideas or asked questions. The second group said things like, “wait a minute; that’s not on the instructions.” From the results of this study, Engel concluded that “teachers are very susceptible to external influences; their understanding of the goal of teaching directly affects how they respond when children spontaneously investigate.”
The materials we use (curriculum, textbooks, objects, etc.) affect our students directly and indirectly by influencing how we interact with them. This couldn’t be more obvious than in how we address children’s questions. For example, in the article “ Children’s Questions: a Mechanism for Cognitive Development” the authors point out that “…the type of stimulus materials used has an impact on the questions children ask; children are less likely to ask deep conceptual questions when looking at drawings or replicas of objects than when looking at the real thing.” When it comes to teaching materials, less is more. When we simplify education, kids have to ask more and consequently, think more.
Simplifying education and focusing on inquiry skills isn’t a new concept; Charlotte Mason warned us about using textbooks and direct-instruction as the majority of our teaching material. She said,
“Too much faith is commonly placed in oral lessons and lectures… ‘not exhilarating to any soul’; neither is it exhilarating to have every difficulty explained to weariness, or to have the explanation teased out of one by questions….Oral lessons have their occasional use, and when they are fitly given it is the children who ask the questions. Perhaps it is not wholesome or quite honest for a teacher to pose as a source of all knowledge and to give ‘lovely’ lessons. Such lessons are titillating for the moment, but they give children the minimum of mental labour, and the result is much the same as that left on older persons by the reading of a magazine. (School Education, pp. 226-227, emphasis added)
When teachers do ask questions, the quality and quantity matter. Closed questions require only one answer, and this immediately puts pressure on the student to remember the right one, or attempt to read the teacher’s mind to figure out what he or she wants from the student. In a Harvard Business Review article called “The Surprising Power of Questions,” we learn of a better way to ask questions:
“No one likes to feel interrogated—and some types of questions can force answerers into a yes-or-no corner. Open-ended questions can counteract that effect and thus can be particularly useful in uncovering information or learning something new. Indeed, they are wellsprings of innovation—which is often the result of finding the hidden, unexpected answer that no one has thought of before.”
Here is the advice Mason gives in regards to instruction and questions:
“They [children] weary of talk, and questions bore them, so that they should be allowed to use their books for themselves; they will ask for such help as they wish for. (Toward a Philosophy of Education, p. 19)
“… given the right book, it must not be diluted with talk or broken up with questions, but given to the boy in fit portions as wholesome meat for his mind, in the full trust that a child’s mind is able to deal with its proper food.” (Home Education, p. 232)
In general, children should be asking most of the questions and teachers should ask questions in moderation. We do not need to interrupt the reading to ask if the child knows what a word means; we trust that they will ask if they want to know.
A good discussion often begins with a good question—one that invites people to think deeply about the subject. When we ask open-ended questions and start discussions, we are nurturing an important type of learning called “convergent thinking.” It requires the mind to take seemingly unrelated ideas and synthesize them, discover patterns, or converge ideas together to make new ones.
The type of questions you ask depends on your purpose. These are three types of questions I have found extremely useful in my own home.
Synthetic Synthetic questions do not probe for specific details; they invite the child to relate the current material to other knowledge. To synthesize, or synthesis, means to combine into a coherent whole. Synthetic questions do not require a child to “break apart” her knowledge to find one random piece. Rather, they encourage her to “draw together” what she knows, looking for connections. Examples of synthetic questions include:
How is X like/different from Y?
What does this remind you of?
Introspective: Ask children questions that encourage them to evaluate their behavior and commitment to their beliefs. These questions naturally encourage “metacognition” which simply means to think about one’s cognition (i.e. thought process, thinking).
“If there must be riddles, let it be his to ask and the teachers to direct him to the answer. Questions that lead to a side issue or to a personal view are allowable because these interest children – ‘what would you have done in his place?’” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, pg 228)
Should he/she have done that?
What would you have done in his/her place?
Narrative: This is the most open-ended of all the categories. It is literally asking the child to summarize what they have learned from a reading. The difficult process of convergent thinking is the important part of asking these types of questions; much more important than the actual answer you receive.
“To determine whether class members understand a principle, try asking a question like “What have you learned about the Atonement of Jesus Christ?” A question that invites learners to state a gospel principle in their own words—especially if asked at the beginning of class—can help you assess how much time you need to spend studying that principle in class.” (Teaching in the Savior’s Way)
What have you learned about _______?
Who was __________ in this story?
(character traits such as compassionate, brave, greedy, persistent, etc)
What is something you want to remember?
I reserve these questions for Family Gather subjects like scripture study and read alouds, as they are best suited for discussion. I created a bookmark with these questions so they are available to me as we read.
Don’t Be Afraid of Silence
“Good questions take time to answer. They require pondering, searching, and inspiration. The time you spend waiting for answers to a question can be a sacred time of pondering. Avoid the temptation to end this time too soon by answering your own question or moving on to something else. Tell learners that you will give them time to ponder before they answer.” (Teaching in the Savior’s Way)
The same goes for the question formulation technique I will summarize below. It takes time to develop a habit of creative inquiry. Do not ask questions just to break the silence, do not answer your own questions, and do not give your child examples of questions to ask.
HOW TO TEACH INQUIRY
“Pursued properly, a good question also can be an excellent vehicle with which to start a process of inquiry. Investigating an answer to a question need not require a laboratory, special equipment, or money. The goal of asking and answering a question is not necessarily to probe a completely untouched area of science (which is unrealistic for K–12). Rather, it should be a personal quest to resolve a curiosity and grapple with trying to understand the answer. Furthermore, researching one question often results in a further round of questions that dig deeper into a phenomenon.” (The Value of Asking Questions)
The second type of thinking that is vital for learning is “divergent thinking.” This thinking requires the student to think of their own questions and generate new ideas. The best way I’ve found to nurture this thinking is by utilizing the Question Formula Technique from The Right Question Institute (RQI).
This is just a summary of how I personally use technique in my homeschool, so I highly recommend you to visit the RQI website to understand how it works and see it in action. Even better, buy or borrow a copy of Make One Small Change for detailed instructions and examples of implementing this technique in your home or classroom.
- At the beginning of a lesson or topic, I write down a simple sentence or display a picture/object for the question focus. For example, you could use a statement like “Seeds travel” as the question focus, or display a variety of seeds from your nature collection.
- For the next five minutes, ask your child(ren) to brainstorm every question that comes to mind. There are only four simple rules: do not stop to discuss or answer the question, do not judge or evaluate, write down the question exactly as stated, and change any statement into a question. I usually write them down for my Form One age child, but older than that they should write down the questions themselves.
- For older children, ask them to label each question as open or closed (discuss the differences and pros and cons of both). Ask them to change a few questions, making them open- or closed. Discuss how the meaning is changed. . I was tempted to skip this step, but my five and seven year old sons really enjoyed this step. Try it out and adjust to your child’s abilities.
- Finally, ask them to pick the questions they want to pursue and find answers to. We write them on our blackboard, but you can also write them in your child’s goal booklet. These questions can be the starting point for essays, experiments, and further study. Future school lessons should focus on finding answers through observing the real thing or studying books. While we are reading a book or doing an object lesson, my boys will quickly tell me that their question is answered! This is an exciting moment for them. It is ok if you don’t always find the answer; sometimes an unanswered question is the catalyst for great discoveries.
I can’t overstate this enough: do not jump in and give your child the answers. Let them interact with the books and things and create relationships with them; the best teaching is providing learning materials and then getting out of the way so children can ask their own questions, make observations, and discover connections/patterns on their own. Help them find their own “treasures of knowledge.” If they seem uninterested or unsure what to look for, ask them questions to direct their attention: “what color would you call that bird’s eye?” “What do you notice?” “What does this story remind you of?”
“For students, posing their own questions is a first step towards filling their knowledge gaps and resolving puzzlement. The process of asking questions allows them to articulate their current understanding of a topic, to make connections with other ideas, and also to become aware of what they do or do not know. In this regard, student‐generated questions are also an important aspect of both self‐ and peer‐assessment (Black, Harrison, Lee, & Marshall, 2002, p. 14).
“The children, not the teachers, are the responsible persons; they do the work by self-effort. The teachers give sympathy and occasionally elucidate, sum up or enlarge, but the actual work is done by the scholars.” (6/6)
Inquiry is a Habit
If you’ve been a student of Charlotte Mason for even a short amount of time, you’ll be familiar with “habit training.”
Teaching your child to ask questions is an important habit that must be nurtured, and a certain atmosphere is required for children to feel safe asking questions. Robert Sternberg, an avid researcher and psychologist reinforces this truth–
“Creativity is a habit… It may sound paradoxical that creativity—a novel response—is a habit—a routine response. But creative people are creative largely not by any particular inborn trait, but rather, because of an attitude toward life: They habitually respond to problems in fresh and novel ways, rather than allowing themselves to respond mindlessly and automatically.” (Robert Sternberg)
Other professionals–researchers, educators, and psychologists–echo this fact:
“You can’t expect to wake up one morning and run a marathon without training. Similarly, asking good questions is a skill that requires practice, training, and mentoring. If a child (or adult) is placed in an environment that does not encourage active questioning, then that skill will not become an active habit of mind.” (Ronald Vale, “The Value of Asking Questions”)
“University of New Mexico neuroscientist Rex Jung has concluded that those who diligently practice creative activities learn to recruit their brains’ creative networks quicker and better. A lifetime of consistent habits gradually changes the neurological pattern.” (The Creativity Crisis, Newsweek)
The aim of education should not be spoon-feeding information to our students; it should be developing habits of life-long learning. And one of the most important skills is asking the right questions.
BOOKS + THINGS
Now, that you have a solid understanding of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, it’s time to learn about her methods. Through studying CM’s methods, Jesus Christ’s methods, and recent research, I’ve discovered a pattern in teaching. First, the student’s mind is nourished with ideas through books and/or things. Next, the student narrates what they’ve learned, either through words or showing an example, followed by generating their own questions and discussing ideas with others. Finally, the student learns how to look for patterns and apply truth to other situations, usually through projects and play.
Traditional education relies on direct-instruction to impart knowledge from teacher to student. But is this the gold-standard educational method? Over many years and hundreds of research studies, direct-instruction is still the most effective way to raise student achievement. Essentially, direct-instruction is when a person with experience and authority in a subject (the teacher) instructs the student on a certain subject. They are directing the student’s learning, by either sharing experience, or providing opportunities for the student to learn. Unfortunately, this method has a negative connotation among more progressive educational circles, especially in a Charlotte Mason education. This is because direct-instruction is strongly tied to oral lectures where the child passively sits and listens.
But, this instruction does not have to come in the form of an oral lecture from a teacher. Direct-instruction can be from the top experts in their field, and provided in the form of a book. How would you like to haver your child receive instruction from John Muir or Jean Henri Fabre?
Parents and teachers can directly instruct by providing objects to study, and direct the students’ attention to certain aspects of the object by asking open-ended questions.
Charlotte Mason said that “Children are most fitly educated upon books and things.” All ideas and knowledge for lessons should come from either of these two sources. Textbooks, oral lectures, worksheets, videos, or pictures are second-rate and should be avoided. (see Education is a Life)
“A corollary of the principle that education is the science of relations, is, that no education seems to be worth the name which has not made children at home in the world of books, and so related them, mind to mind, with thinkers who have dealt with knowledge. We reject epitomes, compilations, and their like, and put into children’s hands books which, long or short, are living.” (Charlotte Mason, School Education, p. 226)
Not all books are not created equal; the books that Charlotte Mason recommends are living books.
Living books are:
Written in narrative form. Interestingly, the human brain is meant to deal in narratives, it does not digest solitary, isolated facts. One of the central tenets of narrative theory is that human thought is fundamentally structured around stories. Narrative Theory is gaining more interest from psychologists and researchers. More and more research is showing that stories and personal examples (i.e. narrative) are the best way to teach because of the way the brain latches onto information. Narratives engage the heart and the mind, which is essential for stimulating memory and processing. Jesus, the Master Teacher, taught using parables and things. He told stories and used apperception (using concrete things to teach abstract concepts) to teach people gospel principles. “If the book is truly well-written, the words between its covers are arranged in an almost magical pattern that stirs deep emotional responses in readers.” (Children’s Literature, Briefly. pg 27)
Written by one author. A group of authors drains the personality and voice of a narrative. Therefore, textbooks are to be avoided. “We know that books store the knowledge and thought of the world; but the mass of knowledge, the multitude of books, overpower us, and think we may select here and there, from this book and that, fragments and facts of knowledge, to be dealt with, whether in the little cram book or the oral lesson.” (School education, p. 232)
Written by an author who has lived what they write about. And, in the case of historical events, the author should be passionate and knowledgeable about the subject. “Skilled writers, who pay attention to small details and keep looking until they discover truth, help us to find a freshness and more precise understanding even in familiar things.” (Children’s Literature, Briefly p. 34)
In Hints for Young Writers by Orison Swett Marden, the author describes exactly what living books really mean. In his book, he recommends that young writers write about subjects and experiences they have lived. The best, living books are ones in which the author has lived what they are writing about, either in real-life or in their imagination. The emotions they felt while writing are sealed with their words and conveyed to the reader.
Interesting and Engaging. A living book depends on personal taste and experience. “The [literature] expert is not the person to choose; the children themselves are the experts in this case.” (Children’s Literature, Briefly. p. 228) Adults may believe the book to be living and high-quality, but if the child finds it boring they will not learn from it. Some children may think a book is living, while others (both adults and children) will not. It depends on the child’s experience and preference at the time of reading. It also depends on what questions they are currently exploring and the lessons they are ready to learn. The Holy Spirit (the true teacher) knows what your child needs and will help guide you (and your child) to the right books.
Remember: if a child’s heart and mind are not engaged they will not learn, period. So the decision of which books to read should be ultimately up to the child. “A book may be long or short, old or new, easy or hard, written by a great man or a lesser man, and yet be the living book which finds its way into the mind of a young reader.” (School Education, p. 228)
You need to accept the honest feelings of your children, misguided as they might be in your adult eye, and continue to provide and introduce books that might challenge your children. In Children’s Literature, Briefly the authors caution parents and teachers to avoid negative comments on literature they feel are “low-quality.” They say, “Direct attacks on [a child’s] positive responses to poor-quality books, however, almost guarantee that a rift will develop between you and your child and between a child and a genuinely good book. No person, young or old, wants to be forced to defend his or her choice in reading material.” It is important you not shame or guilt your child into reading certain books, but remember it is the parents’ responsibility to introduce their children to books worth reading. This could be by reading aloud at night, or filling a basket with living books near a comfy spot to read.
Mason says, “The master must have it in him to distinguish between twaddle and simplicity, and between vivacity and life. For the rest, he must experiment or test the experiment of others, being assured of one thing—that a book serves the ends of education only as it is vital.” (Charlotte Mason, P. 229)
Of High -Literary Quality. Choosing the right words is important, and a good author works magic with words. Precise vocabulary “expands the perimeter of [a child’s] language, to set a wider limit to it, to give them a vocabulary for alternatives.” (Elaine Konisburg, 1970, pg 731-732) Talented writers create works that are clear, believable, and interesting, And the rules for good writing are essentially the same for children’s books and adult books. High-quality literature has:
- Figurative Language: a good tool to introduce rich vocabulary.
- Dialogue: character is best revealed through speech. “Let what he did, tell what he was.”
- Character: characters are complex and real.
- Plot: the plot is intricate, interesting, and believable.
What is “Twaddle?”
“I am speaking now of his lesson-books, which are all too apt to be written in a style of insufferable twaddle, probably because they are written by persons who have never chanced to meet a child.” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, pg. 229)
A book can be living or “twaddle,” and a reader can respond positively or negatively to either. For the most part, weak writing (AKA twaddle) has these three elements: didacticism, condescension, and controlled vocabulary.
Didacticism: Any intelligent person can detect and is repelled by stories that moralize and lecture. Instead of telling a child a person is “bad” or “good”, a living book simply describes the characters actions and lets the reader decide what to think. A twaddly book includes a lesson at the end that connects actions to consequences instead of allowing the reader to make those conclusions.
Condescension: According to Charlotte Mason, children are born persons. Therefore, they are born with all the intelligence required to learn. Twaddle includes condescending language that speaks down to children as if they lack intelligence. Living books are enjoyed by people of all ages; twaddly books are distasteful for most ages because of dumbed-down plot and language. Condescension doesn’t trust the reader to get the point and over-explains the obvious.
Controlled vocabulary is against everything Charlotte Mason has taught us about reading and children. It is based on the idea that children learn to read easy words first and then graduate slowly to more difficult ones. Does “Sam sat on the cat” bring back miserable memories? Even though it is still common in most elementary reading programs today, controlled vocabulary has been proven to be more difficult for children to read, especially for children with dyslexia. Over one hundred years ago Charlotte Mason advised parents to discard the books with CVC-only words and teach children to read using literature with a rich and varied vocabulary. If it is a skilled writer, he/she should include dialogue or a discreet description making it easy for the reader to understand the meaning without blatantly providing a description.
A Definitive Booklist: Does it Exist?
“There is, after all, only one list of good books that is completely dependable—your own. However, although your list may have books of both lower and high literary merit, the quality titles will end up taking your family further.” (Children’s Literature, Briefly, pg 26)
“The ‘hundred best books for the schoolroom’ may be put down on a list, but not by me. I venture to propose one or two principles in the matter of school-books, and shall leave the far more difficult part, the application of those principles, to the reader.” (Charlotte Mason, School Education, p. 177)
I have included booklists for each stage of development, but I don’t want it to deter you from exploring and reading books that are not on the list. I acknowledge that many of us are starting this difficult journey in home education and need a little assistance in the beginning. The booklists I include in the Early Years, Form 1, and Form 2 guides are a starting point; I strongly encourage you to use the principles I outlined above to discover your own living books and create your own home library.
“We older people, partly because of our mature intellect, partly because of our defective education, get most of our knowledge through the medium of words. We set the child to learn in the same way, and find him dull and slow. Why? Because it is only with a few words in common use that he associates a definite meaning; all the rest are no more to him than the vocables of a foreign tongue. But set him face to face with a thing, and he is twenty times as quick as you are in knowing all about it; knowledge of things flies to the mind of a child as steel filings to magnet. And, pari passu with his knowledge of things, his vocabulary grows; for it is a law of the mind that what we know, we struggle to express. This fact accounts for many of the apparently aimless questions of children; they are in quest, not of knowledge, but of words to express the knowledge they have.” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 67-68)
The human brain learns abstract concepts by first becoming familiar with a concept concretely. This requires the use of things–a very specific and scientific term 😏. By things, Mason meant anything that can be experienced by the five senses. For example, a child must count objects and physically divide them (concrete) before they can understand how division works on paper (abstract). They must be exposed to words concretely, through copywork and word study, before they can compose their own essays. They must be familiar with dropping things from high places, constructing pumps, and cooking food before they will understand the formulas in physics, mechanics, and chemistry.
A couple of years ago, I read a BBC article explaining that cardiology students were failing to understand how a heart worked because they had never used or constructed a basic pump. Around the same time, I read an article about the NASA engineers that worked on the first space missions. These engineers would soon retire and NASA wanted the best-of-the-best to replace them. They picked the highest scoring graduates from the most prestigious schools in the world, but these new engineers just weren’t living up to the high standards set by the previous engineers; problems were not solved and new ideas were not birthed. These engineers were the top of their class; they were geniuses. So, what was wrong?
NASA sent out a task force to figure out what was different about the original engineers, and how they could replicate it in future generations. What they found was so simple it surprised them. Their childhoods were different. The retired engineers were allowed to take apart appliances and electronics, and expected to put them back together. It was the act of putting them back together (problem solving, creative thinking) that nurtured their engineering mind.
Worksheets DO NOT Work
Most children today do not have the same opportunity. They are too busy memorizing formulas, completing worksheets, and studying for tests. Ironically, mechanical engineers must spend time tinkering with things. Too often parents, teachers, and school administrators are focused on what can be tested and measured, putting way too much focus on abstract concepts and skills. When your child takes apart an old clock and attempts to put it back together, that is engineering. When your three year old sorts his M&Ms by color, that is math. When your child wants to see what will happen when they leave out the baking powder in muffins, that is chemistry. Sure, you can tell them what will happen, or watch a video. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, then real experience is worth a million. So much more can be learned from experiencing it with all five senses. Real, concrete, tangible things are far superior to descriptions, pictures, or videos.
For example: virtual puzzles on the iPad are a popular “learning” activity for young children. But what are children really learning from this activity? When they attempt to fit two pieces together that don’t fit, a beep sounds and the pieces fly back to the corner. The child learns that one piece cannot go there, but doesn’t understand why. On the other hand, if the child is working with a real puzzle they may try to force two pieces together but their hands will feel the incompatibility. If the child can force the two to fit, he will continue fitting pieces together until he realizes that it doesn’t look right. The colors and patterns don’t look like the picture on the box. So he must take it apart and figure out where he went wrong. This is the benefit of working with real things versus abstract or virtual “things.”
“Wait a minute,” you may be saying. “This all sounds good in theory, but does working with real things really make a difference?”
What The Research Says
A meta-analysis of 15 years of research on the advantages of hands-on learning, including 57 studies of 13,000 students in 1,000 classrooms, demonstrated that students in activity-based programs (programs that use “things”) performed up to 20% higher than groups using traditional or textbook approaches. The greatest gains occurred in creativity, attitude, perception, and logic (Bredderman, 1982). The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) also known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” revealed that teachers who conduct hands-on learning activities on a weekly basis out-perform their peers by more than 70% of a grade level in math and 40% of a grade level in science (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). (Source)
Children can learn mathematics and sciences effectively even before being exposed to formal school curriculum if basic math and science concepts are communicated to them early using hands-on, concrete methods of teaching. Math and science are practical and object-oriented and can best be learnt through inquiry (Okebukola in Mandor, 2002) and through intelligent manipulation of “things” (Ekwueme, 2007). (Source)
With so many “things” available, how do you decide which to purchase and keep around? As with booklists, I include supply lists in the Curriculum Guides (the Early Years is the most extensive). But for now, here is a list to get you started:
String or rope
Paper (printer and construction)
Paints + brushes
Clay + tools
(clocks, VCRs, remote control cars, etc)
Stainless steel buckets
Aquariums (a few sizes)
“I know you may bring a horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink. What I complain of is that we do not bring our horse to the water. We give him miserable little textbooks, mere compendiums of facts, which he is to learn off and say and produce at an examination. And all the time we have books, books teeming with ideas fresh from the minds of thinkers upon every subject to which we can wish to introduce children. We must open books to children, the best books. For the mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows, and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body. Our business is to give our children mind-stuff, and both quality and quantity are essential. Naturally, each of us possesses this mind-stuff only in limited measure, but we know where to procure it; for the best thought the world possesses is stored in books.” (Charlotte Mason)
“I think we owe it to children to let them dig their knowledge, of whatever subject, for themselves out of the fit book; and this for two reasons: What a child digs for is his own possession; what is poured into his ear, like the idle song of a pleasant singer, floats out as lightly as it came in, and is rarely assimilated. I do not mean to say that the lecture and the oral lesson are without their uses; but these uses are, to give impulse and to order knowledge; and not to convey knowledge, or to afford us that part of our education which comes of fit knowledge, fitly given.” (Charlotte Mason, School Education,, p. 177)
“The teacher who allows [her] scholars the freedom of the city of books is at liberty to be their guide, philosopher and friend; and is no longer the mere instrument of forcible intellectual feeding.” (Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education, pg 32)
“This sort of weak literature for the children, both in any story and lesson books, is the result of a reactionary process. Not so long ago the current impression was that the children had little understanding, but prodigious memory for facts; dates, numbers, rules, catechisms of knowledge, much information in small parcels, was supposed to be the fitting material for a child’s education. We have changed all that, and put into the children’s hands lesson-books with pretty pictures and easy talk, almost as good as story-books; but we do not see that, after all, we are but giving the same little pills of knowledge in the form of a weak and copious diluent. Teachers, and even parents, who are careful enough about their children’s diet, are so reckless as to the sort of mental aliment offered to them, that I am exceedingly anxious to secure consideration for this question, of the lessons and literature proper for the little people.” (Home Education, pgs. 176-77)
“…seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith;” D&C 109:7
“We know that books store the knowledge and thought of the world; but the mass of knowledge, the multitude of books, overpower us, and think we may select here and there, from this book and that, fragments and facts of knowledge, to be dealt with, whether in the little cram book or the oral lesson.” (School education, p. 232)
Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever. (Native American Proverb)
“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten” (Rudyard Kipling,1970)
“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” (CS Lewis)
“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” CS Lewis
“The children I am speaking of are much occupied with things as well as with books, because ‘Education is the Science of Relations,’ is the principle which regulates their curriculum; that is, a child goes to school with many aptitudes which he should put into effect. So, he learns a good deal of science, because children have no difficulty in understanding principles, though technical details baffle them. He practises various handicrafts that he may know the feel of wood, clay, leather, and the joy of handling tools, that is, that he may establish a due relation with materials. But, always, it is the book, the knowledge, the clay, the bird or blossom, he thinks of, not his own place or his own progress.” (Vol. 6, p. 31)
Mark 4: 2-12
Home Education, Part V, Chapter VIII
School Education, Chapters XV, XVI, and XXI
Towards a Philosophy of Education, Book I, Chapter VII
The Read Aloud Family by Sarah Mackenzie
EDUCATION IS A LIFE
“In saying that “education is a life,” the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.” (Charlotte Mason, Educational Principles)
Our physical bodies cannot live and thrive on just any food; we require nourishing food. Like our bodies, the mind requires nourishment, what Mason called “living ideas.” Ideas are different than information. Information to the mind is like a multivitamin to the body; it is concentrated and unnatural. It rarely ignites curiosity and deep thought. Information does not require the work of mental mastication and digestion. A fact is there, void of the narrative and living idea that makes it appetizing.
“The mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows, and is nourished on living ideas only; mere information is like mere sawdust to the body; there are no organs for the assimilation of the one more than the other.” (Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education, pg 104)
One major difference between information and living ideas is that information comes from a lesser source and rarely inspires growth and change, while living ideas (or truth) comes from God; “In truth, a nation or a man becomes great upon one diet only, the diet of great ideas communicated to those already prepared to receive them by a Higher Power than Nature herself.” (School Education, 156)
We often hear the terms “prepare their heart” or “prepare thine heart” in the scriptures. (see Alma 16:16 and Psalm 10:17). A person’s heart (not matter what age) must be prepared to learn. Curiosity, questioning, and a craving for knowledge prepare our hearts for learning. Like with physical food, we cannot control what our child’s body needs or what it craves, we can simply set a wide feast and let our children digest what they are prepared to take in. Charlotte Mason expounds on this idea by saying “These indefinite ideas which express themselves in an ‘appetency’ towards something and which should draw a child towards things, honest, lovely and of good report, are not to be offered of set purpose or at set times; they are held in that thought-atmosphere which surrounds him, breathed as his breath of life.” (Philosophy of Education, pg 107)
Seeds Planted in Heart and Mind
Alma describes perfectly the formation of a living idea when describing how faith is a seed planted in the heart. A living idea, a truth, is planted in a child’s heart and mind, and you know it is living when it sprouts, grows, and produces fruit of its kind.
Poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge described ideas this way: “From the first or initiative idea, as from a seed, successive ideas germinate. Events and images, the lively and spirit-stirring machinery of the external world, are like light and air and moisture to the seed of the mind which would else rot and perish.” Sound familiar? This description is eerily similar to Alma’s description of faith in Alma 32:
“Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.”
Setting the Feast
“Probably he will reject nine-tenths of the ideas we offer, as he makes use of only a small proportion of his bodily food, rejecting the rest. He is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his to take what he needs.” (Philosophy of Education, 109)
The teacher’s role in a living education is “setting the feast” of subjects and ideas and letting the child’s brain digest what it craves and needs at that particular stage. As soon as I heard this analogy, I immediately thought of the following study:
In 1926, Clara Davis conducted a study that would be one of the most influential studies on infants and nutrition ever conducted. Davis took orphans that were brought into a Cleveland hospital–many of them malnourished and some with rickets– and gave them complete control over what they ate. She provided a feast of 34 whole foods, from cod liver oil to oranges to ground liver, and let the infants/toddlers choose what they ate every day for six months. She recorded every food and amount they ate on a daily basis. What she found astonished even herself. The infants who had rickets would gulp cod liver oil with their meals until their rickets were cured, then never touched the oil again. One baby ate two pounds of oranges for a few days straight, along with a few other food items. When her analysis was complete, she found that overall the babies ate a near perfect ratio of calories averaged at 17 % protein, 35 % fat, and 48 % carbohydrates — much in line with contemporary nutritional science. The infants also intuitively knew which nutrients they were lacking and ate foods to compensate, like the infants with rickets drinking vitamin D-rich liver oil.
This study on physical nutrition is applicable to mind-food as well. If we are providing our children with an abundant feast of wholesome ideas, they will choose certain ones to chew and digest based on their intellectual needs.
When it comes to bodily food, we know better than to feed our child processed food, exchange whole foods for potent doses of multivitamins, or feed them baby food past infancy. This would result in serious health problems. Yet we do those same things to mind-food: we feed children processed, junk ideas (Charlotte Mason called this “twaddle”); we feed them concentrated facts with no substance; and we blend up ideas into an unappetizing puree of dumbed-down knowledge that no person of any age actually enjoys.
In regards to both bodily food and mind food, parents and teachers are responsible for what is presented and when. Students are responsible for if they partake and how much.
When we read primary sources, or whole ideas, and then explain them to our children, we are giving them nothing to chew on and essentially giving them potent sources of unappetizing mind food. Children need whole food for the mind. They need to work on the rich ideas they receive by filtering through what is important, making connections, and finding answers to questions. By over-explaining, lecturing, dissecting, and dumbing down information, we are essentially doing this important work for our children and creating passive learners with weak constitutions. There will be times when our children will not comprehend what is read. And if they don’t understand they will ask. It is important to let children do the work of discovering truth on their own. We have all experienced the joy that comes from solving a difficult problem or answering a question on our own. Excellent teachers guide students to find answers and are available to help when needed, but they know their responsibility is not to do the important work of digesting knowledge for the students.
As discussed in the Teacher’s Role article, our responsibility is to provide a feast of ideas, and trust that our child will digest what they need. The Holy Ghost knows our children, he knows what they are ready to learn, and he has prepared their hearts and minds to receive the ideas you present. They may not be the ones you expect or want, but they are the ideas your children.
Dry Bones of Fact
Now the question is, what exactly is living ideas and where can we find them? Mason answer this questions simply, and quite vaguely: “children are most fitly educated on books and things.” Dry textbooks and worksheets should only be used as a spine or “bones” in an education. “Living ideas are the flesh on the dry bones of fact” she famously stated.
How do you recognize “sawdust” information and non-living educational materials? Mostly it depends on if they spark ideas and begin to grow and bear fruit (going back to Alma’s definition of faith). But if you need hard-and-fast rules, ask yourself these questions:
If it’s a book:
- Is the book written by many authors?
- Is it void of narrative, personal stories, ?
- If so, does the story or plot flow and continue through the chapters?
- Are there side bars with information unrelated to the main text?
- Are there lists or bullet points?
- Is the text interrupted by questions? Are they closed or open-ended questions?
If you answered yes to most of these questions then you have a textbook on your hands, use sparingly or discard completely.
If it’s an activity:
- Does the activity come from a source with the word “workbook” or “lesson” on it?
- Was the activity copied from a textbook?
- Does the activity look like a multiple-choice quiz?
- Does the activity require students to fill in a blank space by copying information found in a textbook or from a lecture?
- Do you currently or have you ever called the activity a worksheet?
- Can the child gain the same knowledge using real things or engage in real experience?
If you answered yes to these questions then the activity is a worksheet, aka “busywork.”
“But my child loves worksheets!” I hear this especially from mothers of girls; the clear expectations and organized structure of worksheets is very appealing to our feminine nature. However, our children love and want lots of things, but it doesn’t always mean it’s the best thing for their development. Worksheets are not inherently bad, the problem lies in the fact that worksheets keep your child from doing more meaningful learning, like creative play, formulating their own questions, and synthesizing ideas. If they like worksheets because they are bored, well, boredom is good. It forces children to be creative and use their imagination. If you can review a subject or practice a skill without a worksheet, then get rid of it! If there is no other way to practice the skill (such as math), then keep it.
“Our chief concern for the mind or for the body is to supply a well order table with abundant, appetizing, nourishing and very varied food which children deal with in their own way and for themselves. This food must be served au natural, without the pre-digestion which deprived it of stimulating and nourishing properties and no sort of forcible feeding or spoon feeding may be practiced. Hungry minds sit down to such a diet with a charming greediness of little children.” (Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education, p. 72)
“Therefore, go ye unto your homes, and ponder upon the things which I have said, and ask of the Father, in my name, that ye may understand, and prepare your minds for the morrow, and I come unto you again.” (3 Nephi 17:3)
Albert Einstein spent over a year in Italy “loafing around aimlessly” dividing his time between attending lectures and being bored. Soon after this vacation he discovered the law of relativity. That time spent in boredom was just what his mind needed to sort through information, make connections, and form new ideas. Just as our bodies require nourishment, exercise, and rest, so do our minds. When we have eaten a large, nutrient-rich meal, our desire for food decreases as our body prepares to digest what we have just eaten. India’s ancient Vedic tradition states that “rest is the basis for all activity.” Just as our body craves rest after eating and exercise, so does our mind. Interestingly, the brain has at least forty neural networks that are dedicated to a resting-state. The fact that so much of our brain activates when we are at rest says a lot about the importance of taking time to ponder. What constitutes a state of rest? Anytime you are not being externally stimulated in the form of tasks, socializing, electronic devices, reading a book, etc. Being at rest literally means being alone and bored, and it can be very uncomfortable for most of us because it requires our brain to go into a deep reflective mode.
As difficult as this may be for our children, this is the time that the brain digests the information they have consumed and makes knowledge of it. This is the time that the brain solves problems, reflects on self, and makes connections. It is also when you consider what other people may be thinking or analyze their actions. This is the time that we receive personal revelation. The most powerful forms of pondering are daydreaming, meditation, and sleep (see chapter six of The Self-Driven Child by Stixrud and Johnson for more information on meditation and sleep).
Imagine the state of your body if you were constantly eating or exercising all day long, with no breaks to rest. Now imagine the state of your child’s brain if it were constantly being stimulated by socializing with friends, being tested, and consuming information all day long. This analogy makes the high rates of childhood depression, anxiety, and stress much more understandable. When a child loses focus during school it simply means they are full and need time to digest. We can literally see their mind preparing to digest information by entering a day-dreaming state. Sadly, too often children are punished or incorrectly diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder simply because their mind craves rest from stimulation.
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang describes two alternating brain systems: 1) a task positive or “looking out” system that’s activated when we’re engaged in goal-directed tasks, and 2) a task-negative or resting system that is for “looking in.” School lessons and projects are task positive and are an essential part of education. We are taking in other people’s ideas and discoveries. But too often we neglect the second brain system which is just as important as the first. The resting system involves formulating our own ideas and making discoveries. I cannot overstate this enough: all people need a liberal amount of unstructured time to ponder and be at rest.
In the scriptures we are frequently told to “ponder” on the things we have learned. Information does not become knowledge until the individual’s mind has had time to act on it. The most important thing for parents to do is to let their children do nothing. Give your child the gift of a few hours each day of unscheduled time to be bored and ponder, because this is when the act of self-education truly takes effect.
Strengthening the Mind
Not all subjects are driven by ideas, and vitality does not come from nourishment alone. The mind needs to be strengthened through exercise–by reasoning, logic, creativity, and problem solving.
Formulating questions, experimenting, solving mathematical problems, narrating, and playing are all forms of mental exercise. Most of these mental “exercises” are actually skills that are developed line-upon-line, precept-upon-precept. Math, writing, engineering, drawing, and other handicrafts are all skills people develop to express ideas and solve problems.
A healthy, strong body requires eating healthy foods and exercising. The mind requires the same: a feast of living ideas along with exercise that strengthen the minds faculties. You cannot draw out ideas of children (through mental exercise and skills) who have had nothing put it. And constantly putting in ideas without drawing them out produces weak minds with no true purpose of education.
The next few posts will explore and explain how to teach with living ideas and which exercises/skills are best suited for strengthening your child’s mind: books and things, narration, questions, play and projects.
Are my homeschool materials living or dry? How can I tell?
Do they allow my children to learn directly from great minds? Do they allow children to choose their projects and activities?
How do I “chew” or “digest” knowledge for my children?
What do I need to change to allow my children opportunities to wrestle with knowledge on their own?
Replace these materials with high-quality, living books and real things. (See Books and Projects posts)
Develop the habit of allowing your child to grapple with big ideas on their own without explanation, moralizing, or lecturing (See Narration post).
Develop the habit encouraging your child to ask their own questions, and, when you do ask a question, only ask open-ended ones (See Question post)
Christopher Langen is considered one of the most intelligent people in the world with an IQ of 195 (in comparison Einstein’s was 150). But he has spent most of his life as a bouncer in a bar and is now a rancher.
Born in 1952, he had access to an adequate education offered by the public schools in Bozeman, Montana. He received a scholarship to Reed college but dropped out and never graduated. When reflecting on his inability to finish college, Christopher Langan explained to Malcolm Gladwell (author of Outliers) that some of the reason was due to financial aid, but most of it was experiences that could have easily been solved by good habits and practical knowledge.
The Sum of Human Nature
All children are born with innate intelligence and desire to be good, and many are born to loving parents with rich opportunities. But too many of these children grow up to be adults that struggle to make basic decisions that affect their well-being. Charlotte Mason encountered the same puzzling phenomenon in the late 19th century, and asked the question that has been asked for centuries: why do intelligent, inherently-good children grow up to never reach their full potential?
In Home Education, Mason dedicates over 100 pages to answer this question. First, she describes foundational principles of human nature– all the passions, affections and emotions that are common to human beings. Think of it like this: people are born with two opposing forces that temper each other to varying degrees: the Light of Christ and the Natural Man. Every person is born with a unique genetic makeup that influences how they will react to the environment around them–physically, mentally and psychologically.
The sum of all these–The Light of Christ, the Natural Man, and genetics—are what Mason calls “Human Nature.” They greatly determine the character of a child, so much so that as a parent you may think you have little power over your child’s character. You may resolve to leave their personality alone and let them develop as they are. Or, as Mason says, “to let every child develop unhindered according to the elements of character and disposition that are in him.” (Home Education, pg 102)
But, human nature must not be left to grow unhindered. Mason clearly predicted the consequence of leaving children to their own devices, she said: “the world is making advances, but the progress is, for the most part, amongst the few whose parents have taken their education seriously in hand; while the rest, who have been allowed to stay where they were, be no more, or no better than Nature made them, act as a heavy drag:” (Home Education, pg. 103).
But, as influential as human nature is, there is something more powerful that determines the destiny of a person: their habits.
‘Habit is Ten Natures’
“The child is born, doubtless, with the tendencies which should shape his future; but every tendency has its branch roads, its good or evil outcome; and to put the child on the right track for the fulfilment of the possibilities inherent in him, is the vocation of the parent.”
Charlotte Mason’s beliefs about habit may have been considered theoretical in her day, but current research is slowly revealing the principal characters of human nature, and habit plays the lead role.
It is estimated around 40% of everything we do on a daily basis is habitual. If we had to consciously make decisions about every single thing we did, we would get very little done. Habit is the brain’s efficient solution to free-up working memory and make space for higher level thinking.
Habit takes away the burden of decision making, so the brain can concentrate willpower on more important issues. The vast majority of synaptic connections and pruning happen in the first three years of life. The atmosphere and discipline your child experiences shape their brain in ways that will greatly determine their destiny.
Young children (before age 8) need much more structure and discipline than older children and teens. Mason said there is a warm flow of goodness at the heart of every young child, but they are incapable of steady effort because they have no strength of will, no power to make themselves do what they know they should do. This is the function of the parents: to make the child do that which he lacks the power to compel himself to (Home Education, p 99-100).
Young children need the authority and structure that parents provide. You, the parent, provide this most vital education by your example (atmosphere), structure/routine (discipline), and teaching correct principles (life). Once your child’s will is strengthened and good habits are formed, you can slowly step back and let your child govern himself.
Train Up A Child
“Every day, every hour, the parents are either passively or actively forming those habits in their children upon which, more than upon anything else, future character and conduct depend. ”
The words “behavior” and “habits” are used interchangeably in this article because they are so closely connected. Behavior either becomes a habit by reinforcement, or the behavior goes extinct because it is missing a vital piece of the habit loop (see part 2). Whether or not a behavior becomes a habit depends on you, the parent.
Children are a bundle of raw material formed from their premortal and mortal attributes, but it is your job, as the parent, to shape these materials, and the most effective tool is habit training. I love the metaphor of “living clay” to describe parents’ responsibility to instill habits in their children:
“And to him who overcometh, and keepeth my commandments unto the end, will I give power over many kingdoms; And he shall rule them with the word of God; and they shall be in his hands as the vessels of clay in the hands of a potter;”
“How habit, in the hands of the mother, is as his wheel to the potter, his knife to the carver– the instrument by means of which she turns out the design she has already conceived in her brain. Observe, the materials are there to begin with; his wheel will not enable the potter to produce a porcelain cup out of coarse clay; but the instrument is as necessary as the material or the design.” (Home Education, p. 97)
“To help another human being reach one’s celestial potential is part of the divine mission of woman. As mother, teacher, or nurturing Saint, she molds living clay to the shape of her hopes. In partnership with God, her divine mission is to help spirits live and souls be lifted. This is the measure of her creation. It is ennobling, edifying, and exalting.” (Russell M. Nelson, 1989)
Every day you, and the people your child associates with, are shaping your child’s character for good or bad through habits. In his bestseller book, Atomic Habits, James Clear explores current research that reveals the social implications of habits. Multiple studies have shown that people of all ages will develop the habits of those around them, especially if they meet one or more of these criteria: 1) the close, 2) the many, 3) and the powerful.
If your child spends more time with peers, they will develop the habits of their peers (the many). If your child is securely attached to responsible adults (parents, grandparents, teachers) and spends most of the time with them, your child will develop their habits. It is imperative that you understand this truth if you want your child to develop desirable habits.
The habits you should be instilling in yourself and your children should be centered on Christlike attributes. These are the ten habits Charlotte Mason considered the most important:
- Critical Thinking
- Perfect Execution
- Personal Initiative
HOW HABITS START
Now that you understand why habits are foundational to education, let’s talk about how habits are formed and how to implement on a daily basis. To make habit training more approachable, I’ll compare each step in the habit loop to the habit that all mothers have experience with: potty training.
“True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior.”
(Boyd K. Packer, “Little Children,” Ensign, Nov. 1986, 17).
The first step in changing habits is changing beliefs. Most parenting books focus on changing behavior by reinforcement or extinction. This is called behaviorism, and it is, by far, the most popular theory in education and parenting today. However, the gospel of Jesus Christ does not focus solely on behavior–it focuses on improving relationships and changing the beliefs of a person so they can change their own behavior.
“We who teach should make it clear to ourselves that our aim in education is less conduct than character; conduct may be arrived at, as we have seen, by indirect routes, but it is of value to the world only as it has its source in character.” (A Philosophy of Education, pg. 129)
How can you help shape your child’s beliefs? First, do not push your beliefs on your child; instead help them see consequences of choices through stories. Introduce them to living ideas and real heroes from the best books. Family history is another way to teach living ideas; children love to hear stories about when their parents were young. After you’ve read or told stories, resist a lecture (I know, it is HARD) and instead ask them open-ended questions to help them understand the story, like “do you think what ____ was right or wrong?” or, “what would you do in that situation? Why?” These simple questions help shape your child’s beliefs better than a lecture.
Mason warns that teaching morals should be done naturally: “It is possible to sow a great idea lightly and casually; and perhaps this sort of sowing should be rare and causal because if a child detects a definite purpose in his mentor, he is apt to stiffen himself against it.” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 102)
As the parent, you assist your child in creating their beliefs and identity. But, you must remember your children are individuals and should not be manipulated or used to achieve your own goals. You have stewardship over your children, not ownership. The key is working with your child’s will, not against it. Your child must first change their beliefs and desires before their behavior will genuinely change.
Potty Training Example: Your child needs to believe that using the toilet is the right thing to do. Explain why toilets are used and why it is important. Talk about how every person learns how to use the toilet when they grow up. Get them to see and believe in the benefits of the habit.
“We entertain the idea which gives birth to the act and the act repeated again and again becomes the habit; ‘sow an act’ we are told, ‘reap a habit’ ‘sow a habit, reap a character.’ But we must go a step further back , we must sow the idea or notion which makes the act worth while.” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 102)
Ideas & Identity
“The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity.”
(James Clear, Atomic Habits)
The words you speak have a powerful effect on how your child views themselves. For example, when you tell your child “you are kind,” “you are a helper,” and “you are courageous” they begin to see themselves as having those attributes. If you say “you are so impatient,” “you are such a brat,” and “you are naughty” they will see themselves that way, and any habit in line with that label will be accepted by their subconcious. They will accept that attribute as part of their identity. Help your child form an identity instead of simply changing a behavior. Teach them to become a reader, don’t just read a book; become a painter, don’t just paint a picture.
In his bestselling book, Atomic Habits, James Clear points out a truth that is usually disregarded in most behavior programs: beliefs and desire are the driving force behind behavior. Charlotte Mason also pointed this truth in her volume on education. She said, “A habit becomes morally binding in proportion to the inspiring power of the idea which underlies it.” (School Education, page 110).
Potty Training Example: Toddlers see parents and siblings using the toilet and wearing underwear. They come to understand that wearing underwear is a rite of passage, that using the toilet is something that “big kids” do. They may identify themselves as a “big” boy or girl, and change their behavior to be in line with that identity.
THE HABIT LOOP
Charles Duhigg was the first to identify the “habit loop” in his book The Power of Habit. He observed and researched for years before discovering the four common components of all habits. He called his discovery ‘the Habit Loop.’ In the book Atomic Habits, James Clear expounds on the habit loop and how to apply it in real life. I have taken knowledge provided in both books and combined them with Charlotte Mason’s insights on habit formation and my own experiences. The instructions below are for developing a new, desirable habit, but if you want to extinguish an undesirable habit, simply do the opposite: (1) make it invisible, (2) make it undesirable, (3) make it difficult, (4) make it unsatisfying.
Cue: Make it Obvious
The cue is something that tells the brain to start the habit. It could be something that is not in-line with a person’s identity or desires–your child believes themself to be a clean person, and seeing a messy room cues them to clean it. It could be a sequence of behaviors–going to the bathroom upon waking. Or it could be a craving that reminds them to do the habit–the pressure of a full bladder and the craving to pee.
The best way to cue a habit is through the environment. In kindergarten classrooms there are bins with pictures/words written on them as a cue to put toys in them. Think: “A place for everything and everything in its place.” People’s behavior changes dramatically based on the environment, so make the atmosphere of your home orderly and peaceful. Your behavior as a parent can cue your child’s bad habits–tone of voice, word choice, body language, etc. so be aware of how you can change your own behavior to help change your child’s.
At the beginning you are your child’s cue, but this should only be temporary, like the scaffold of a building. Once the foundation is set, the scaffold is slowly removed so the building can stand on its own. The same goes for children and habits. One way to do this is by directing your child’s attention to what they need to do, or asking them what needs to be done. This is much more effective than using directive language (“don’t do that!” or “do this”).
Directive language does not build the prefrontal cortex,, strengthen the will, or create internal cues. For example, if your child starts to pee their pants, you could tell your child, “STOP! You’re peeing!” and quickly take them to the bathroom. The alternative (and more effective) method is to say “Oh, look! What is happening? Where should you go pee? What do you need to do now?” The sight and feeling of pee is their cue; you are simply directing their attention to it. This works for the majority of habits–closing doors, taking dishes to sink, hanging up coats, etc.
For other habits, you can use a daily chart or checklist. Make a list of what your child needs to do each day (get dressed, brush teeth, practice instrument, etc.) and hang it up where they can see it–make it obvious! The added bonus is that each habit will cue the next (get dressed after making bed, sit and read scriptures until breakfast is ready); this is called “habit stacking” and it is very effective for keeping habit momentum going. A daily chart/checklist helps children know what is expected of them and is a powerful kick start for habit formation.
As I stated before, children need help in the beginning when their will is weak. You may have to scaffold the routine for a while before it becomes a habit. Hang the list on their bedroom door so they see it as soon as they wake up. Walk through the list with them everyday, asking “what do you do after eating breakfast?” Like potty training it will be tiring for the first few weeks, but if you are diligent it will be worth the effort.
Craving: Make it Attractive
In Chapter 10 of Atomic Habits, James Clear outlines the three groups that people of all ages imitate: the close, the many, and the powerful. The close relationships of family and friends will determine which habits your child will find attractive. Additionally, the peers your child associates with will also influence which habits your child develops. Finally, your child will most likely adopt the behavior of the people they see as powerful: characters from books and scriptures, religious leaders, athletes, singers, movie stars, etc.
A positive, secure attachment with your child will ensure that they will view your habits/behavior as attractive and seek to imitate you. And if you want your kids to find certain habits attractive, put them in environments or groups where that behavior is the norm. Immerse your children with stories of high moral character from people living in the past or present.
Before you attempt to develop certain habits in your children, you must first develop them yourself. Children learn from example–thanks to mirror neurons and attachment–and if you attempt to develop a habit in your child before yourself, it will inevitably fail.
Give your child more autonomy in choices and they will be more likely to adopt that behavior. As discussed in the Agency section, your child will be more likely to choose to develop a habit if it is their choice. It is helpful to ask when and where your child wants to practice their instrument (after lunch, before dinner, in between school subjects, etc). The same goes for other habits, like exercise and chores.
You can make potty training more attractive by letting your child watch you use the toilet, even if it may be uncomfortable. Many children find it attractive to have cool new underwear, and they find it unattractive to have an accident in them. Make it a priority to point this out to them.
Response: Make it Easy
“But of two things she will be careful–that he never slips off without shutting the door, and that she never lets the matter be a cause of friction between herself and the child, taking the line of his friendly ally to help him against that bad memory of his.” (Home Education, p. 124)
The actual behavior of the habit is called the response, and it needs to be simple and easy to perform. “The idea behind make it easy is not to only do easy things. The idea is to make it as easy as possible in the moment to do things that payoff in the long run.” (James Clear, Atomic Habits)
Make it easy for your children to develop good habits by making the action short and simple. For example, if you want your child to develop the habit of attention, schedule school lessons for the morning when their brain is at its freshest and make the lessons short so your child can focus the entire time. Gradually increase lesson time as the habit is formed. Design and organize the school room so it is easy to get school started and put things away when done.
If you want your child to read more books, make it the easiest option for when they are bored–get rid of the television (or unplug it) and make books available all over the house. If you want your children to play outside more often, buy the right outerwear and have it available right by the door.
An excellent method to make habits easy is to role play. If it is difficult for your child to engage in a desirable habit in certain situations, practice the good habit in a non-threatening situation. If your child uses inappropriate language or engages in aggressive behavior when they are frustrated, role play a situation where the child is regularly frustrated. For example, the younger sibling destroys a Lego creation and the older sibling must practice hitting a pillow (instead of a sibling) or telling the sibling what they did wrong (instead of hurtful names). Regular role playing starts to ‘lay the rails’ in your child’s mind, which makes it easier for them to engage in the desirable habit when faced with the real situation.
You must replace a bad habit instead of trying to eliminate it. The child will always go back to an old behavior if it is not replaced by a better habit that is just as easy to complete.
Potty Training: Start small by potty training with no bottoms on so the child does not have to bother with pants/undies in the beginning. Keep a training potty nearby so as soon as they need to go it is only a couple feet away. When that has become a habit, move on to something a little more difficult. Add loose fitting pants and move the potty into the hall. Keep going until the child can run into the bathroom by themselves.
Reward: Make it Satisfying
“One word more, prompt action on the child’s part should have the reward of absolute leisure, time in which to do exactly as she pleases, not granted as a favour, but accruing (without any words) as a right.” (Home Education, page 121)
Satisfaction comes from engaging in a habit that is in-line with our identity or by appealing to our most basic needs (love, security, power, etc). If your child believes themselves to be a kind, helpful, creative, hardworking, etc. person, then acknowledging and reinforcing behavior that is in line with their identity will make it satisfying.
One of the world’s most renowned behavior scientists, Sidney W. Bijou, noted “The most effective way to teach children to behave well is to strengthen desirable behavior through positive, reinforcing means. The least effective means to reduce problem behavior is through the use of aversive or negative processes.” (Behaviorism, 444-451)
You reinforce your children’s behavior (habits) by how you react to, or reward it. When your child craves your attention, they seek to satisfy the craving with undesirable or desirable behavior. When you give them your attention, they are satisfied, and this guarantees the behavior will be repeated. If you want your child to develop desirable behavior, you must make those habits satisfying by giving attention to them. The “reward” should be short and simple: genuine praise is the easiest and most effective, but for some children a touch on the shoulder or hug works well, too. Whatever the reward, it needs to be immediate and consistent. Once your child is older and more mature, they can pick a motivation that is tied to the habit. If your child completes all their tasks on their checklist each day, they earn a reward that they have chosen (see Notes on Rewards below)
Let’s talk a little more about praise and recognition. They are universal human cravings that are deeply satisfying to people of all ages. Never underestimate the power of recognition. Look for the good in the smallest actions and verbally acknowledge it. It should be short and simple–under 12 words and less than 5 seconds, according to Glenn Latham, author of Christlike Parenting. It can be accompanied by a touch on their shoulder or a smile. You do not need to praise them for everything, but you should be giving praise more than criticism–a lot more.
Research shows that positive reinforcement is much more effective than criticism, yet parents’ natural instinct is to criticize when they see bad behavior and ignore the good behavior. Dr Glenn Latham reports that 90-95% of most positive behavior goes unrecognized (Christlike Parenting) How much should we be praising? Some estimates are a ratio of 5 positive to every negative interaction. Research also shows that children’s brains literally grow better when they are given positive reinforcement versus negative. If that wasn’t enough, acknowledging the positive behavior and ignoring the negative behavior is proven to be more effective at reducing the negative behavior than by just criticizing!
What is considered undesirable behavior? It totally depends on your family. But the hard and fast rule is that if the child is physically hurting someone or breaking something, you should intervene. Otherwise, ignore it. If the behavior is truly bothering you, redirect them to something else and connect with them. Praise them for the good behavior they are now engaged in.
By ignoring the undesirable behavior you take out the reward part of the habit loop, and the habit will eventually go extinct. For many children, acting out is the only way they receive their parent’s attention. They crave it so badly that they will settle for whatever they can get, even if it’s negative attention. The reward is compounded by the fact that parents may respond to the undesirable behavior with “you are so annoying/obnoxious/naughty.” When a child adopts these negative identities as their own, the negative behavior is strengthened because they believe their behavior is in line with who they are.
Potty Training: When your child pees on the toilet, they feel satisfied because they kept their new underwear dry and clean! They feel satisfied when you praise them for their effort and their big kid behavior. They feel satisfied when they put a sticker on a chart for each time they use the toilet (if your child is motivated by that).
Some notes on rewards:
They should be a natural consequence or directly related to the habit. “Even with regular and short lessons, a further stimulus may be occasionally necessary to secure the attention of the child. His desire of approbation may ask the stimulus, not only of a word of praise, but of something in the shape of a reward to secure his utmost efforts. Now, rewards should be dealt out to the child upon principle: they should be the natural consequences of his good conduct.” (Home Education, p. 142)
Rewards are a slippery slope and can easily extinguish intrinsic motivation. “Marks, prizes, places, rewards, punishments, praise, blame, or other inducements are not necessary to secure attention, which is voluntary, immediate and surprisingly perfect.” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 7)
Bring out their good feelings. Tell your child “you must be so proud of yourself for mastering that song!” or “how do you feel after keeping your new underwear dry and clean?” It is fine to tell your child you are proud of their effort and determination, but do not tie your love and acceptance to their achievements. Make the habit satisfying because of internal motivation (their self-esteem and confidence) and not external (your love).
DAILY HABIT TRAINING
“Tact, watchfulness, and persistence are the qualities she must cultivate in herself; and, with these, she will be astonished at the readiness with which the child picks up the new habit.” (Home Education, page 122)
Habit formation is intense and it can easily become overwhelming. Potty training is a form of habit training that requires constant attentiveness from the mother for at least a week. But if it is done correctly and the habit is formed, the maintenance requires little or no work from the mother. The same goes for other habits: if you go into it with a laissez faire attitude and commitment, the habit will never fully develop.
As a mother of three boys, I am well aware that you cannot plan for everything–life with children is spontaneous and hectic. Many things will get in the way of habit training, making it seem impossible. But it is possible, and essential. Here are some things that make habit training much easier to implement on a daily basis:
- Focus on one habit at a time.
- Be intentional. Habit train during the summer or during breaks so you can fully focus on those habits. Make it the educational focus for that time.
- Start small and be consistent. Compounding interest is the investment principle that small, consistent increases make big payoffs. It is better to have small, but consistent, goals rather than large ones that you cannot sustain. Starting small could be asking your young child to pick up and put away 5 puzzle pieces instead of all of them. Slowly work up to 10, then 20, until they can pick up every single piece. This is similar to the “make it easy” principle—make it attainable.
- Be consistent. The goal is to create a neurological “trail” in your child’s brain that it will automatically take when given the choice. But just like trails in the woods, it requires that the trail is cleared from consistent use. Do your habit as often as possible.
- Decide on “Floors and Ceilings.” After listening to the “Floors and Ceilings” Brooke Snow podcast episode I started using this concept for habit training. It has made a world of difference. The floor is the bare minimum, the smallest step you can take. The ceiling is your ideal goal or habit. Decide on your “floor” and your “ceiling” As long as you are doing the bare minimum each day you will keep the momentum going and the habit will form.
- Focus on the process, not the product. Don’t get hung up on mistakes; you’re looking for progress, not perfection. We all make mistakes; the important thing is to look at the process, or pattern, of your habit formation. Slipping up once is a mistake, letting it happen twice in a row is the return to an old habit.
As a parent, you have an enormous responsibility to train up your children with habits that guarantee a happy, successful life. You do this by the beliefs you instill into your children, the words you use to establish their identity, and things you do to reward their behavior. You create a scaffold in the early years while their will is still weak, then slowly nurture good habits so that one day they can govern themselves. As Charlotte Mason famously stated, “The mother who takes pains to endow her children with good habits secures herself smooth and easy days.” (Charlotte Mason)
2 Corinthians 6:14
OPTIONAL: Atomic Habits
WHY are habits so important in the Plan of Salvation? WHAT part do they play in sin and righteousness?
WHICH habits do I want my children to develop? Are my children surrounded by people that exhibit those behaviors/habits? Do I exhibit the habits I want my children to develop?
HOW does 2 Corinthians 6:14 relate to habits?Are addiction and habits the same thing? Why or Why not?
HOW can I prepare my children to resist addiction/destructive habits?
Make a list of habits you think are the most important to happiness and success (temporally and spiritually). Keep your list short–contemplate the habits that are foundational to all others.
Pray and ask “what lack I yet?” Add any attributes to your list you feel impressed to develop.
Using the habit loop, chose one habit at a time to develop in yourself and your children. Summer is a great time to focus on habits.
“Narrating is an art, like poetry-making or painting, because it is there, in every child’s mind, waiting to be discovered, and is not the result of any process of disciplinary education. A creative fiat calls it forth. ‘Let him narrate’; and the child narrates, fluently, copiously, in ordered sequence, with fit and graphic details, with a just choice of words, without verbosity or tautology, so soon as he can speak with ease. This amazing gift with which normal children are born is allowed to lie fallow in their education.” (1/231)
What is Narration and Why is it Important?
The next stage of language acquisition is expressing ideas, feelings, and thoughts through speaking. This is where narration comes in. Narration is simply telling back what you know. In Charlotte Mason’s education method narration was the replacement for multiple-choice tests and worksheets. The act of simply telling back what you know may seem ineffective, but science is proving that this small and simple act is more effective than traditional methods of testing.
In a recent experiment (2018), people learned about sound waves and the Doppler effect. At the end of studying, the participants were told they would teach a lesson on what they learned, and they were randomly assigned to two groups: deliver the lesson with notes, the other without. A week later, they came back and had to take a surprise test on their recall. The ones who had taught the lesson without notes did better.
Having to describe the Doppler effect in their own words–i.e. to narrate– made a longer-lasting impression on their minds than taking notes. The best way to learn something is to narrate it to someone else.
Long before this study, Charlotte Mason summed up this truth by stating:
“As we have already urged, there is but one right way, that is, children must do the work for themselves. They must read the given pages and tell what they have read, they must perform, that is, what we may call the act of knowing. We are all aware, alas, what a monstrous quantity of printed matter has gone into the dustbin of our memories, because we have failed to perform that quite natural and spontaneous ‘act of knowing,’ as easy to a child as breathing and, if we would believe it, comparatively easy to ourselves. The reward is two-fold: no intellectual habit is so valuable as that of attention; it is a mere habit but it is also the hall-mark of an educated person. Use is second nature…” (A Philosophy of Education, pg 99)
A Timeless Method
I first experienced the power of narration while at Brigham Young University. I was exposed to many styles of teaching, but only one style was effective in retaining the knowledge I learned in that class. In my final, higher-level class the professor employed a unique teaching strategy: looking back I recognize this technique as narration.
These were the requirements for the class: read 2-3 research studies per week, come to class to discuss your thoughts, write one research paper, and take a midterm and final. There was no study guide for the exams because they were essays. They consisted of questions like “Describe how forgiveness benefits family life” and “What did you learn about sacrifice and how it affects relationships?” The exams were difficult, but not in the same way that multiple choice tests were difficult. It required me to synthesize all the information I learned and convey it in a meaningful way. I was forced to think for myself instead of guessing which minute details the professor had handpicked from the textbook. To this day I still retain the knowledge I learned in that class–not because I memorized it, but because I made it mine.
Eleanor Roosevelt is known for her intellect, speaking skills, and ability to think critically. Before she was the wife of a president and beloved public figure she was educated at a private finishing school near London, England. The history teacher at the school would not accept essays full of dull facts and parroted information; she expected her students to synthesize information, to write down their thoughts on the topic and support them with sources. Eleanor attributed her abilities to think original thoughts and speak eloquently to this history teacher. In her autobiography , Eleanor said that that teacher did more for her education than any other teacher in her life. She taught Eleanor how to make knowledge her own. She taught her how to think for herself.
“Our business is to provide children with material in their lessons, and leave the handling of such material to themselves.” (Home Education, pg 247)
During the 1960’s life was difficult for Black Americans; and Sonya Carson was no exception. As a single mom with a third grade education she fought hard to stay afloat. She worked two to three jobs while parenting her two boys, Ben and Curtis. After Ben brought home an unsatisfactory report card, she decided to make a change. She saw their potential, and knew they were capable of much more than what they were accomplishing. So she instituted a simple rule: the boys were limited to two TV shows per week, and they were required to read two books and write a report about (narrate) each one. After only a few months, Ben’s grades improved and his life ambitions changed. After graduating high school at the top of his class, he attended Yale and became a world-renowned brain surgeon and is now serving as the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
“We Tell and Then We Know”
Narration is simply telling what you know, but the act of narration is difficult and produces powerful results. After Eleanor and Ben read books, they were required to tell what they learned from the book, or were asked open-ended questions that required them to think original thoughts. This is narration. There was no multiple choice test or fill-in-the-blanks, and they were not required to write about any certain theme from the book. They simply wrote about what they learned or found interesting.
“The value of narration does not lie wholly in the swift acquisition of knowledge and its sure retention. Properly dealt with, it produces a mental transfiguration. It provides much more exercise for the mind than is possible under other circumstances and there is a corresponding degree of alertness and acquisitiveness. As a Yorkshireman would put it, the children become very “quick in t’ up-tak” (quick in the up-take).”
Each person is unique and what they gain from a book depends on their experience, maturity, and past knowledge. What your child gained from a book may be much more personalized, and therefore influential, for them than what you gained from the book. As I explained in “The Teacher’s Role,” narration allows the child to grapple with knowledge directly and to be taught by the Holy Ghost. The process of summarizing and synthesizing information is difficult because it requires the brain to transfer information from one side to the other. It is a whole brain activity. In his article, “The Method of Narration” Mr. Boardman beautifully and concisely describes the purpose of narration:
“This, then, is the purpose of narration—a purpose which we would do well to keep constantly before us. There should be no misconception. It is not a teacher’s device designed to find out if the child has completed a given task. It is not an act of verbal memory. It is a process which makes all the difference between a child knowing a thing and not knowing it. Narration is, indeed, like faith, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. It is the method whereby the child assimilates what he reads.”
How to Use Oral Narration
Starting at age six children should start oral narration. DO NOT require narration before this age. Instead, prepare your children by being an example of proper narration; after reading scriptures briefly narrate the story you read, or tell about your nature walk. If your child has older siblings they will already be well acquainted with narration and will most probably join in uninvited.
Although you may not realize it, your child already knows how to narrate; they may tell you (in detail) about a funny incident with a friend or a story they read with a grandparent. As explained in the “Parental Talk” section, it is imperative that you listen when they speak. This can be difficult as it seems they may never stop, but they will learn how to prune and edit their ideas as they get older. This is all a part of the process, have faith in it!
Start with Stories
Begin formal narration by reading something simple, but not too short. Fairy tales, Aesop’s Fables, or scripture stories provide good material for children to narrate. Before you begin reading, ask the child(ren) to recount what happened in the last reading. Next, write on the blackboard and pronounce names or words that may be difficult to pronounce during the reading. This is also a good time to give a sneak-peak of what you will be reading next to waken your child’s enthusiasm, if needed.
“…all [unfamiliar] names should be on the board directly the introductory question on the previous lesson has been dealt with, and the children should say them over until their tongues find them easy and familiar.” (Wix, Parent Review, pg. 68)
“Tell Me What You Learned”
When you are finished with the reading (usually a chapter or 2-3 pages) ask your child to tell you what they remember from the story or what they learned. Their first narrations may be short, incoherent, and/or incorrect at first. But don’t worry! Just like the body’s muscles, the mind will get stronger with practice. Resist the urge to correct and criticize their narration. If there are older siblings that listened as well, ask them what they remember from the reading; many times the correction will be addressed naturally and the child’s dignity will remain intact. If you are reading with multiple children there are some fun ways to narrate as a group: see “Notes on Narration” in the resources section below. These suggestions work well for book clubs, family scripture study, and when children are combined for form lessons (like history).
“So, probably young children should be allowed to narrate paragraph by paragraph, while children of 7 or 8 will ‘tell’ chapter by chapter. Corrections must not be made during the act of narration, nor must any interruption be allowed.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 191)
“If the lesson has been misunderstood, narration will show where, and when that is finished it is the teacher’s part to start a discussion in order to clear up misconceptions, etc.” (PR 36, pp. 780-782)
It is important to read the passage or chapter only once–do not read it a second or third time because your child was inattentive. Charlotte Mason is clear on this issue: the bad habit of inattentiveness should not be cultivated. If your child has not listened closely enough, close the book and tell them that you are sorry they missed the story and hope they will listen more closely to the next chapter. This has happened to me and it is hard not to give in to their pleas to re-read it. But be firm and loving. I promise after only one or two of these incidents your child will learn to listen.
“By the way, it is very important that children should be allowed to narrate in their own way, and should not be pulled up or helped with words and expressions from the text.” (Home Education, p. 289)
Children should narrate orally all throughout school years, although in year 4-5 they will start writing some of their narrations down on paper. Eventually written narration will take precedence, but do not give up oral narration! It is still the foundation of excellent language skills.
What if Your Child Won’t Narrate?
After reading a chapter from the lesson book you ask your child, “Please tell me what you learned from that story.” Silence. Your child shifts in their seat and looks around for an escape. They shrug and say “I don’t know” or the popular “I don’t remember anything.”
We’ve all been there, either as the narrator or the listener. There are a lot of reasons why narration may be difficult for your child. The important thing is to try not to get angry (or at least try not to show it) and don’t repeat the reading or tell them what happened. Before giving up on narration, identify the issue that is making it difficult to narrate. Here are some common issues with narration along with some suggested solutions:
- Your child may need more time to develop.
If your child is just barely six years old and is having a hard time narrating it may be they are not developmentally ready for formal narration. Go back to the basics of reading aloud and letting them narrate when they choose. Listen intently when they narrate everyday experiences; you’ll be surprised at how well they can narrate when they are talking about something they truly know.
- Summarizing a whole story may be overwhelming.
For some children trying to tell back the whole story or chapter may be overwhelming. In this case, they may need a little more structure. Try asking them an open-ended question instead. E.g. “tell me about a time when a character was honest (or kind, courageous, etc).” Another good one is “What would have happened if (character) hadn’t make the choice they did?” Read Aloud Revival has a whole podcast episode and workbook on how to ask open-ended questions with your kids. I’m also working on my own post about asking questions.
- Your child needs time to comprehend the story.
Some children need more time to digest the material. The next time you read from the book, ask your child to recount the chapter you last read. You can say “Can you remind me what happened the last time we read?” This is called delayed narration.
- Your child has difficulty expressing their ideas verbally.
Charlotte Mason has made clear the importance that children learn how to express their ideas through oral narration. However, in addition to oral narration (which may be difficult for your child) ask them to narrate by drawing their narration or acting it out.
- The book may not be interesting to your child.
If the book is not considered “living” or the author’s style is just not interesting enough to keep your child’s attention it is ok to switch to a different book. Some days children are just having an off-day, and may not pay attention, but if it is a regular occurrence consider looking for a different book on the same subject.
THE EARLY YEARS
Charlotte Mason believed that learning is hierarchical, especially in skill-based subjects like language. When one stage is skipped or not mastered completely, the other stages will be difficult to master. The foundation for language starts long before school, even before birth. Our brain is literally built on language, and the more diverse language you hear as an infant and child, the easier it will be to learn in all areas. Parental talk should come in a variety of forms: singing, poems, reading, and everyday talk. Singing and poems are especially good for language acquisition; the rhythm, rhyme, and way they draw out syllables and phonemes are especially helpful for language acquisition.
In her book Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, Dana Suskind delves into the findings of a groundbreaking study on language and brain development in preschool age children. What they found was surprising, even for the researchers.
Although academic achievement and intelligence was more prevalent in higher socioeconomic families, it was not the income that made the difference; it was the amount of words children heard per day. “In one hour, the highest socioeconomic status (SES) children heard an average of two thousand words, while children of welfare families heard about six hundred.Differences in parental responses to children were also striking. Highest SES parents responded to their children about 250 times per hour; lowest SES parents responded to their children fewer than 50 times in the same period. But the most significant and most concerning difference? Verbal approval.
Children in the highest SES heard about forty expressions of verbal approval per hour. Children in welfare homes, about four.” Instead of saying “no,” “stop,” or “don’t do that,” redirect your child and tell them what they can do. Look for the good and verbally recognize it. If a child is consistently told they can’t do things their brain will be shaped to believe it.
Suskind concludes that “Parent talk is probably the most valuable resource in our world. No matter the language, the culture, the nuances of vocabulary, or the socioeconomic status, language is the element that helps develop the brain to its optimum potential. In the same way, the lack of language is the enemy of brain development.”
Exposure is Key
The more words children are familiar with, the better they will understand the complex ideas found in the written and spoken word. Think about trying to understand a lecture in a second language. You may understand the words, but the comprehension takes much longer than in your primary language and by the time you understand the sentence, you are two sentences behind the lecturer. Children who do not grow up in a language-rich environment struggle in school because they cannot keep up with lectures and books full of words they are only slightly familiar with.
Too often adults speak down to children and choose books that have all the rich and interesting vocabulary diluted down to almost nothing. When it comes to early exposure, a word will never be too complex for children. The reason many children do not understand complex words is because they have not been exposed to them. Many adults do not recognize or understand complex words because of the simple fact that they were not exposed to them enough times to become familiar with them.
The Three T’s
How can you improve your own parental talk? Suskind has narrowed it down to these three steps: tune-in, talk more, and take turns. Tune-in to what your child is interested in; you should be spending the majority of your interactions focusing on and talking about what they are interested in rather than what you deem more important. Once you have tuned in to what your child is interested in, talk about it. Describe what it is, how to use it, or point out things they may have overlooked.
Take turns asking questions and responding; it is important for children to have lots of opportunities to speak and not just be spoken at. This give-and-take is personalized to the child and develops speech in ways that screens never will. Charlotte Mason gave a wonderful example of tuning-in and talking more in her volume, Home Education:
“Is little Margaret fixing round eyes on a daisy she has plucked? In a second, the daisy will be thrown away, and a pebble or buttercup will charm the little maid. But the mother seizes the happy moment. She makes Margaret see that the daisy is a bright yellow eye with white eyelashes round it; that all the day long it lies there in the grass and looks up at the great sun, never blinking as Margaret would do, but keeping its eyes wide open. And that is why it is called daisy, ‘day’s eye,’ because its eye is always looking at the sun which makes the day. And what does Margaret think it does at night, when there is no sun? It does what little boys and girls do; it just shuts up its eye with its white lashes tipped with pink, and goes to sleep till the sun comes again in the morning. By this time the daisy has become interesting to Margaret; she looks at it with big eyes after her mother has finished speaking, and then, very likely, cuddles it up to her breast or gives it a soft little kiss. Thus the mother will contrive ways to invest every object in the child’s world with interest and delight.” (Vol 1, pg. 141)
According to the Academy of Pediatrics recommendations, children under the age of two should not be watching screens at all. In a perfect world children would never be exposed to screens, but this is real life and children will watch a show occasionally or perhaps play on a device. But these should be the occasional treat, not a substitute for responsive caregiving or an antidote to boredom.
During my internship at United Way I worked with the Help Me Grow program aimed at helping parents nurture their child’s development and provide early detection for developmental disorders. I frequently spoke with mothers who were concerned with their child’s delayed speech. The first question we were trained to ask was “How much screen time does your child get each day?” The vast majority of parents admitted that their young child spent hours each day watching television or playing games on their iPad. “But they are educational apps!” they would insist.
I then explained that young children cannot learn language from a device. Unfortunately, an “educational app” for young children is an oxymoron. It is a marketing buzzword that companies use on well-meaning parents who desperately want to give their children the best start in life. Why are screens detrimental to language acquisition? Because language involves more than just hearing words spoken.
Language is Multifaceted
Language is a multisensory skill; you need to hear the words spoken, see the mouth and tongue forming words, and physically practice speaking words in a conversation. You may have noticed your child try to touch your mouth or tongue as you speak. Surprisingly, there is a purpose to this strange and maybe annoying action. In her autobiography, Helen Keller describes her experience of learning how to speak by touching her teacher’s mouth and tongue as she spoke. Although she never mastered speech, she was able to closely mimic those movements and gain a rudimentary ability to speak.
After tuning-in and talking, you should encourage your child to practice speech by conversing with you. Take turns asking questions and speaking. Even when your baby is young and all they can do is babble, listen and respond. Look them in the eyes and show them that what they have to say is important and valued. You may not know what they are saying, but the desire to communicate is there.
Now that you understand how to converse with your child, it is time to delve into reading aloud.
“Guard the nursery; let nothing in that has not the true literary flavour; let the children grow up on a few books read over and over, and let them have none, the reading of which does not cost an appreciable mental effort.” (Vol. 5, p. 215)
Reading aloud high-quality literature should start at birth and continue throughout a child’s life. The question then is not when you should start, but what should be read. Infants and young children love listening to nursery rhymes, poetry and Dr. Seuss books because of the rhythm and rhyme of the words. Give up books that are “twaddle” as Charlotte Mason would say. Unfortunately, many books being made for children today are, in varying degrees, twaddle. To gauge whether the book is twaddle I ask myself: do I enjoy reading the book? Does it have intelligent ideas or an interesting plot? Does it have rich language or beautiful illustrations? Is the language dumbed down or targeted for children? (E.g. Captain Underpants)
If your child wants to read the same book over, and over, and over again, read it! If the language is rich they will benefit from the constant exposure to rich vocabulary. Children get more from reading a few good books over and over again, than reading many “twaddly” books only once.
Essential Books for the Early Years:
- Nursery Rhymes (Tomie de Paolo’s Mother Goose)
- Read Aloud Rhymes
- Fairy Tales illustrated by
- Aesop’s Fable (Illustrated by Milo Winter or Jerry Pinkney)
- Beatrix Potter Books:
The Tale of Peter Rabbit
The Tale of The Flopsy Bunnies
The Tale of Tom Kitten
The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle
The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher
Two Bad Mice
The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck
The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse
The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin
- Winnie the Pooh Series by A.A. Milne (we LOVE the audiobook version)
- Robert McCloskey Books
- Fairy Tales by Scott Gustafson
- James Herriot’s Treasury for Children
- The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton
- Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virgina Lee Burton
- The Children’s Book of Virtues by William J. Bennett
- The Children’s Book of Heroes by William J. Bennett
- Frances books by Russell Hoban
- George and Martha James Marshall
“Every home is a house of learning, either for good or otherwise…”
-Joseph B. Wirthlin
When I was homeschooled, we lived in 4 different houses during the time I lived at home. Although each house was different, the kitchen and living room were always the homeschool room. The last house my parents were able to build and they included an actual school room with a library. However, although we did use that school room, it was not our main area for school. The heart of the house was downstairs in the kitchen and so that was where we often ended up doing our school.
Since I started my own homeschool journey three years ago with my own children, I remember fretting over where we would do school. We didn’t even have a toy room. The room next to the kitchen was our playroom. But, I relearned for myself what I subconsciously learned as a child, learning should happen in the heart of the home. This is exactly what Jessica and Randi have already shared so wonderfully in their own home tour posts. Thus, our playroom quickly evolved into a school room, library and our kitchen turned into our laboratory.
If I had my way, I would have a beautiful library with shelves from floor to ceiling covered in books. For now, we have learned to make do with our limited space. In some of our built in bookshelves I store the kids magazine school folders. We have used them for 3 years and I love them! I use a basket for our daily books and menus.
On the opposite side of our bookshelves we keep our library books separate next to our new display bookshelves. These finally went up this year (after buying them 2 years ago) and I love them.
When we first started homeschooling, we only had our dining table to use, but it was a cause of frustrations not having a place for the kids to just leave projects out all day without getting in the way of eating. My husband solved the problem and built us a table. It was one way he knew he could support me. But, like I said earlier, they don’t use it all the time.
My kiddos tend to spread out, on the floor, under the table, on the kitchen table sometimes sitting on the table. But, as long as their learning, that’s part of home schooling to me, being able to learn where they feel comfortable and not restrained to sit at one spot.
I’ve always wanted a large chalkboard, but ended up turning an old magnetic board into a chalkboard with chalkboard vinyl. The fact that it’s also magnetic makes it so much more useful for us. My kiddos keep track of their daily tasks on this board with little magnets. The system has worked really well for us.
As I reflect back to three years ago when we transformed this space, I have now realized that I wouldn’t wish for a separate school room anymore. If we were to ever move, I think I would always want a school room next to the kitchen. The most important thing I’ve learned is that any space can become the learning space you need it to be. It doesn’t have to be large or fancy. It is after all your house and you can do with it as you need and want. For our learning space and house, I want our space that my kids feel comfortable in and that reflects our love for God and for learning.
Havalah is a second-generation homeschooler who is passionate about her children, the outdoors, and art. Havalah has a degree in Humanities and uses her knowledge in the liberal arts to curate the Family Gather artist and composer studies available in the “Downloads” section.
You can also find her at www.sisterswhat.com where she shares beautiful sewing and crafting projects. If you are looking for handicraft ideas, this is the perfect place to go!
Pencil holder I painted it myself
DIY framed magnetic board – you can see my tutorial here, I later took the fabric off and added the vinyl, but you could paint it with chalkboard paint
When I was a child, I was the one who made pretend worksheets and set up a classroom in my bedroom for my begrudging little sisters. I don’t know why they didn’t want to do my worksheets or sit at a desk after being in school all day. Ha! I however was a VERY willing teacher and a (eh hem) bossy pants.
I like to joke that homeschool is my childhood dream come true. But really, it’s not a joke.
When we first decided to homeschool I started imagining the school room of my dreams. This classroom would have vintage desks and a big chalkboard and a glorious teacher station. I’d have a basket of gold star stickers (of course!), neatly organized shelves and maybe even a class pet! Of course this classroom would also be filled with willing students – sitting at their desks eagerly awaiting my homemade worksheets!
As we settled into homeschool however, things were quite different. I hadn’t set up that classroom yet – that was for the new home – and so I “made do” with our 1,100 sq foot home by being very resourceful. I’d set baskets of learning tools or wooden blocks in any spare corner of the living room floor. My boys bedroom shelves housed beautiful books and craft supplies. Our kitchen cabinet kept playdough, sand trays and children’s kitchen tools. And everywhere we went in our home, there was an invitation to play, learn and explore.
I began to see the blessing of this small space and not having a designated schoolroom.
We started to draw up plans for a new home and people would often ask “are you putting in a homeschool room!?” To their surprise, I would tell inquirers “no we are not building a schoolroom.”
In our new home, I took from the resourcefulness I had learned in our cozy little house. I designed our home with the intention of doing school anywhere and everywhere in the house. Most every room has resources that spark curiosity and learning. The kitchen drawers have dishes and tools in reach of young children. Bedrooms have bookshelves full of books. Living spaces: baskets of open ended toys or learning materials, etc. Even the car is packed with a bag of supplies!
Below are a few examples of how we have created an environment of learning in our home.
Our central school space is our dining room. We acquired an old chalkboard from a church house and hung it front and center in our home. This board is adorned with most everything we do and love; our schedule, tasks, pictures, lessons and preschool crafts proudly pinned up by little hands.
Below is our handy cart that houses our daily resources; math manipulatives, current read-a-louds, scriptures and journals, pencils and chalk.
And most importantly is our picture of Jesus Christ to remind us of the true purpose behind everything we do; Him.
I have 5 children so there is always a little one or two running about when I’m working with the olders or completing my own tasks. I like to create spaces for the children that invites exploration.
Whether it’s a book case, basket of open ended toys, art on the walls or nature finds placed on shelf, it is all there to spark curiosity!
We were gifted this vintage school desk (my schoolroom vision isn’t ALL lost!) and it has become the favorite place for my two older boys to do their independent studies. I hung a map, a plant and an old typesetting tray (to hold our nature finds) and this little corner feels like heaven! Many a day have I watched with joy as my boys journal about their adventures while younger siblings adoringly observe.
We love to take our schooling to the hills! I keep my trusty bag full of essentials for those days we have errands or just need to get out. Field guides, magnifying glass, paper and pencils. Plus the first aid kit – always the first aid kit!
I toss in a few books & snacks and we are set!
This is probably my most favorite homeschool tool because it represents the blessing of our freedom to take our classroom wherever our hearts lead us!
Homeschool is a beautiful mess. It doesn’t look like the organized classroom I originally envisioned, but so much more wonderful! Homeschool looks like reading a book over pancake breakfast, a basket of instruments dumped out on the living room floor. Blocks and puzzles everywhere. Masterpieces pinned up on the fridge and always a baking mess.
These are the days! We get to set the stage for our little stars. And what an honor that is!
Randi is a homeschool momma and artist who lives with her husband and five children in the desert of Southern Utah. She has a passion for seeing beauty in the ordinary and sharing that with others. Randi creates artwork that depicts everyday things through the simplicity of lines, and focuses on connection between people, nature, and God. On any given day you’ll find Randi outside with blanket piled with children and books. That’s just how she likes it. Connect with Randi via email email@example.com or see her work at simplewonders.org.
“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.”