“One thing at any rate we know with certainty; that no teaching, no information becomes knowledge to any of us until the individual mind has acted upon it, translated it, transformed, absorbed it, to reappear, like our bodily food, in forms of vitality. Therefore, teaching, talk and tale, however lucid or fascinating, affect nothing until self-activity be set up; that is, self-education is the only possible education; the rest is mere veneer laid on the surface of a child’s nature.”
THE GIFT OF AGENCY
When I was a young mother I imagined whipping up nutritious meals that my children would devour. I envisioned them cleaning their plates and growing healthy and strong with all the nutrients they were receiving.
Then my dreams were shattered with my first child when he refused to eat anything other than bread and yogurt. I attempted to bribe him with dessert, then resorted to negative consequences in one last, desperate attempt to regain control over the situation. However, I soon realized that if my child did not want to eat a certain food, nothing in the world could make him eat it. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” became my new mantra.
In situations like this parents may feel that the “gift” of agency is more like a curse. We constantly stress ourselves out trying to take control of things that were never meant to be in our control. In regards to mealtime, I soon learned that I am in control of what is put on the table and when, and my child has control over if he eats and how much (attr. to Ellen Satter) I started focusing on my responsibilities instead of my child’s. Is it a coincidence that my two younger sons became hearty, adventurous eaters? I don’t think so. It is a universal truth that when any person, adult or child, is given control over their life , they thrive.
Control Equals Happiness
Developing our children’s sense of agency is not an educational frill or some new-age idea. Children who doubt their competence set low goals and choose easy tasks. When they face problems, they become confused, lose concentration, and start doubting themselves. Children with a strong belief in their own agency work harder, focus better, are more interested in their studies, and are less likely to give up than children with a weaker sense of agency (1)
Agency is a main component in the Plan of Salvation, so is it any surprise that agency is also the determining factor in human happiness and well-being? Not surprisingly, the opposite of agency, lack of control, is a significant cause of stress and unhappiness. When I attempted to force my son to eat food he did not want to eat, I was causing stress on both of us; I was stressed because I was trying to take control over something that I physically and morally had no control over, and he was stressed because he did not feel like he had control over his own body. Part of life on earth involves taking responsibility of what we have control over and letting go of what we don’t. If our children choose to listen to our lessons and how much of that they choose to internalize is completely in their control, and school will become immensely more enjoyable for you both when you learn to apply this eternal truth.
Choose to ACT
In regards to education, parents may feel undue stress because they are trying to control which subjects their child is interested in and how much information they retain. As a result, children will rebel—or concede and lose an important part of their humanness. David A. Bednar explains the importance of agency by saying, “Learning by faith and from experience are two of the central features of the Father’s plan of happiness. The Savior preserved moral agency through the Atonement and made it possible for us to act and to learn by faith. Lucifer’s rebellion against the plan sought to destroy the agency of man, and his intent was that we as learners would only be acted upon.” (3)
Traditional education puts the majority of control on the teacher and not the student. In the future, I will talk more about the role of the teacher and how to be a non-anxious presence, or in Charlotte Mason terms engaging in “masterly inactivity.” Masterly inactivity “indicates the power to act, the desire to act, and the insight and self-restraint which forbid action.”(4)
Children should be slowly given complete control over their life as they mature; ultimately, the parents goal is to work themselves out of a job. In their book, Rapid Relief from Emotional Distress by Gary Emery and James Campbell, they outline three ways parents can find relief by relinquishing control:
- ACCEPT | accept that your child doesn’t desire to have perfect handwriting right now, and as a result he may never have perfect handwriting.
- CHOOSE | choose to give him control over his handwriting goals. Choose to not stress over his lack of desire.
- TAKE ACTION | talk to him about the pros and cons of good handwriting; help him outline his goals; Be an example by improving your own handwriting.
SETTING A FEAST
Although it may seem like the teacher has little influence over children, it is important not to confuse Charlotte Mason’s philosophy with unschooling or free-range parenting. Charlotte Mason believed that teachers and parents have a vital role in the education of children; she described the teacher’s role as “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 a study I read about in college. 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 2 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. (5)
Food for Thought
I truly believe that 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. This principle applies to spiritual matters as well, David A. Bednar said it perfectly; “Ultimately, the responsibility to learn by faith and apply spiritual truth rests upon each of us individually. This is an increasingly serious and important responsibility in the world in which we do now and will yet live. What, how, and when we learn is supported by—but is not dependent upon—an instructor, a method of presentation, or a specific topic or lesson format.”
The ultimate goal in education should be to teach our children to be self-directed, life-long learners. They should know how to gain knowledge through the process of asking a question, finding answers through studying books and experimenting with things, and then having the intelligence to know how to assimilate and apply the knowledge they have learned. Traditional education creates dependent learners through textbooks, classrooms, and professional teachers. Too often adults believe they need to “go back to school” in order to learn and that knowledge isn’t official until they have a certificate to prove they checked the boxes. They need a professor to provide them with lectures, compile primary sources into textbooks, and tell them what is important to learn. Instead, education should be focused on the process of learning and less on the material. A true education teachings people to act, and not be acted upon.
Going back to the analogy of food, we don’t pre-chew our child’s food (at least not past infancy). We don’t process and extract the vital nutrients of all their food so they don’t have to go through the work of digesting. We don’t give children potent doses of multivitamins as a replacement for real food. When we read primary sources, or whole ideas, and then pre-chew them for 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 the important work for our children and creating passive learners with weak constitutions.
Here are a few ways that we inadvertently create passive learners in our children :
- Asking all the questions. Instead, let the child ask questions about things that have piqued their interest. “The mind can know nothing but what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind to itself.”(6)
- Asking pointed questions. Instead, ask open-ended, thought provoking questions that require effort and time to answer.
- Automatically giving the answer, or pointing out connections. Too often we jump in to point out a connection/pattern or “help” them discover a truth. But, sometimes an unanswered question is the best gift you can give a child. (See “Ponder” section)
- Solving a child’s problem for them. Give them the right tools/skills and let them solve the problem themselves. Even if it takes days to solve; it’s the effort that is educational, not the answer.
- Giving unsolicited feedback. By telling your child what they are doing wrong and how they need to fix it we are 1) hurting the relationship and 2) smothering their ability to self-correct and actively improve their own work. Instead, ask “what did you do well?” “what do you need to improve?” and, “what will you do differently next time?” Make sure they know what is expected of them, and that they give specific examples of what they think they did well and what they did not.
- Labeling a character in a story as “bad” or “good.” Children are much more captivated by a story and get more out of it when they have analyze the characters’ actions to decide for themselves what kind of a person they are.
- Automatically defining words. Instead, wait for the child to ask for a definition or simply let them figure out the meaning of the word through context. Most good authors will provide enough description for the child to comprehend the word’s meaning.
“I believe that in the pursuit of education, individual desire is more influential than institution, and personal faith more forceful than faculty. Our Creator expects His children everywhere to educate themselves. He issued a commandment: “Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (7)
Charlotte Mason regularly compared educational principles to gastronomical ones, which explains why I found it so successful to approach education in the same way I approached meal times. For example, my first year of teaching my son, I tried to give him knowledge he wasn’t craving. I fed him ideas when he wasn’t hungry. I tried to force his brain to digest certain information that I deemed most important by administering worksheets and tests. And just like with feeding his body, this method of feeding his mind was a failure. After a discouraging kindergarten year, I began to concern myself over the things I do have control over: what knowledge is presented and when I introduced it. Then, I stepped back and let my son choose if he wanted to listen and how much he retained. The key to whether my child listened and how much he “digested” is based on his hunger, or desire.
In terms of desire, parents need to keep these two facts in mind:
You can’t make your kids do something against their will.
You can’t make your kids want something they don’t want.
There is only one way to get your children to do something, and that is to arouse desire within them.
“He who can [arouse desire in others] has the whole world with him. He who cannot walks a lonely way.”(8) For children–or any person for that matter–to become self-motivated they first need to develop a desire to do it. According to Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory (9), people need a sense of autonomy, competence and connection to become self-motivated. These three things need to be balanced, like a three-legged stool, or the whole thing will topple over.
Explain why a task is important, what you expect of them, and then allow as much personal freedom in carrying out the task. French parents call this “cadre.” They give their children a broad framework of requirements and then give them lots of freedom within that structure.
Make a list of the positive and negative consequences of their choice, and then respect their agency and allow them to make their choice and enjoy the consequences of their choice (see chapter seven of Christlike Parenting). Teens and children as young as nine are capable of making decisions that are identical to adults; even more so if they are shown the consequences of their choice. (10) Kids are capable of making good decisions; the reason they sometimes fall short is lack of experience, not ability.
William Winter once observed that “Self expression is the dominant necessity of human nature.” Dale Carnegie also observed that self-expression is essential when igniting a geniune desire in people. Help your child incorporate their interests in learning academic skills, like math, reading, and writing. The sentences they use in copywork or grammar can be from a favorite book or movie. They can make a manual about how to defeat levels in Zelda, an essay about their favorite Disney princess, or the different flowers they have found in their area.
Being competent is more about feeling that we can handle a situation than it is about excelling at something. Competence comes from within, not from without. When your child successfully solves a problem ask “how did you figure that out?” This requires your child to see himself as the active agent in his own story and see the evidence of his own competence. Helping your children notice their successes and showing them how their decisions and strategic actions are responsible for them increases children’s perceptions of their ability and effect is less of their focused efforts” (11).
The desire for a feeling of importance. You can foster self-esteem by saying “I bet you’re proud of yourself” after a child has completed a task or mastered a skill. This satisfies the internal desire for importance and does not rely on external sources. You can also ask “how does it feel to have solved that difficult math problem, read the entire book, written something like that, etc.?”
Rites of passage, positions in the home, and responsibilities are all ways you can ignite a desire in otherwise apathetic learners. For example, you could make “tutor” badges for the older kids in subjects they are competent in. Then they can help younger siblings with school work (tutors have special privileges, of course). You could also plan a special dinner date with mom and dad on the child’s sixth birthday, explaining that now they are old enough to start school lessons.
Create growth mindset. To create a growth mindset, focus on effort instead of ability. Praise the strategies they use to solve problems, help them see the progress they have made. A feeling of competence comes when a child can see improvements through daily, consistent effort. It does not come by feeling they either have or don’t have in-born abilities. If your child needs a boost of desire, give them a challenge. Every child loves a game, especially boys. Just make sure they are competing against themselves. See if they can sort their words faster than last time, make their handwriting look better than the day before, etc.
When your child has a strong attachment with you they’ll want to work harder for you. Your child should feel that they are more important to you than their achievements. I have already covered, in-depth, why connection is important and how you can nurture your relationship with your child. You can read about Love and Attachment in this article and this article.
Autonomy, competence, and connection are vital to eternal progression; the Lord has said “For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.” (12) Charlotte Mason has also commented on the importance of these traits by saying, “Boys and Girls are generally Dutiful-It would be better for boys and girls to suffer the consequences of not doing their work, now and then, than to do it because they are so urged and prodded on all hands that they have no volition in the matter. The more we are prodded the lazier we get, and the less capable of the effort of will which should carry us to, and nearly carry us through, our tasks. Boys and girls are, on the whole, good, and desirous to do their duty. If we expect the tale of bricks to be delivered at the due moment without urging or entreating, rewarding or punishing, in nine cases out of ten we shall get what we look for. Where many of us err is in leaning too much to our own understanding and our own efforts, and not trusting sufficiently to the dutiful impulse which will carry children through the work they are expected to do.” (13)
In my experience I have found there are two main ways we can foster self-education in our children: give children space to learn by experience and lots of time to ponder.
LEARN BY EXPERIENCE
“We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;”
When you first read these verses your initial thought may be that we came to earth to be proved or tested, but once you replace “prove” with its archaic translation of “learn by experience” you understand the purpose of earth differently. The purpose on earth is to learn by trial and error; to make choices and experience the consequences. Our children cannot possibly do this if we take complete control over their lives and prevent them from making mistakes, and they cannot learn if we rob them of the consequences that are due to them. This can be absolutely terrifying for parents, and seem borderline neglectful. However, it is important to remember what we do have control over: the atmosphere of our home, the habits we instill, and the living ideas we present.
Stages of Competence
As I mentioned earlier, children as young as nine are capable of making responsible decisions. After the age of eight, children are held accountable for their choices, and we also know that the prefrontal cortex starts developing around this age as well. Therefore, it makes sense that children are developmentally capable of making decisions at this age. This is the time to start relinquishing parental control and giving them more decisions over their lives. I can guarantee that this will be a messy, difficult process. It will be hard to watch, but it helps to realize that people go through stages of competence. Here is an example of the stages of learning by experience:
Stage 1: Unconsciously incompetent. This will look like a child saying “I don’t want to study spelling. People know what I mean.” You can see the consequence dead ahead, but after you have offered to help with spelling and explain the consequences of bad spelling, there is nothing else you can or should do.
Stage 2: Consciously incompetent. Your child wants to make a sign to sell lemonade on your street. He made the sign by himself but misspelled some key words. Adults may just smile and purchase some lemonade, but older kids may laugh at his sign and tease him that they can’t understand what he is selling. He is now conscious of his incompetence, although he still needs help. The key is that he has experienced the consequence and a desire is starting to develop. It is important to remember to let his consequence do the talking; you don’t need to rub it in his face!
Stage 3: Consciously competent. Now the child has worked on his spelling, and when he makes a sign or writes a letter he feels confident people will understand the meaning of his words.
Stage 4: Unconsciously competent. As years pass, correct spelling becomes habitual and the child is now a parent. Now it is hard for the father to understand why spelling is so difficult for his child, or why his child resists spelling so much. This is why an older sibling makes a great tutor to younger siblings; their previous incompetence is still fresh in their mind.
The beauty of giving your child more control over their life is that when it comes time for you to make an authoritative choice, they are more likely to go along with your decision without resistance. Edward St. John wisely noted, “Moralizing all men resent; from experience they learn without a murmur.”
Practice Makes Perfect
Our children need more responsibility than we think they are developmentally ready for. The brain develops according to how it’s used. So, by giving your child control, even if it’s small, will activate her prefrontal cortex (decision making) and condition it to respond accordingly. If we do not give children opportunities to make choices at an early age, they will be forced to learn this skill in teenagerhood and beyond when the risks are higher and consequences more severe. We were sent to earth to learn by experience, which means we learn by trial-and-error. As the age-old adage goes, “Wisdom comes from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.” Children learn by experience through making mistakes. and we need to give them room to make mistakes and let the consequences teach the lesson; Glenn Latham, a father of nine children and doctorate of behavioral and developmental psychology, gave this wise advice on how to respond to your child’s mistakes: keep your comments short and positive, avoid lecturing and the dreaded “I told you so” attitude, and never tell a child something he already knows. (15)
The Power of Play
“In this matter the child who goes too much on crutches never learns to walk; he who is most played with by his elders has little power of inventing plays for himself; and so he misses that education which comes to him when allowed to go his own way.” (16)
While at play, children are not passive bystanders. They are making decisions, creating a narrative, and being active agents in that narrative. Play is a unique activity in that it draws out a child’s ideas, desires, imagination, and aspirations. (17) Play is important for all stages of life; Google famously asked employees to spend 80% of the work week on their official job and 20% on projects of their choice, which led to the creation of products like AdWords and Gmail. When we play, we are free to practice skills in a safe environment. Children can act out past and future experiences and ideas without fear of serious repercussions. Children need a lot of unstructured time to experiment with ideas, develop passions, problem solve, and develop social skills.
When your child’s attention is completely absorbed in a task they enjoy and is just the right amount of difficulty, they enter a state of “flow.”When you’re in flow, levels of certain neurochemicals in your brain–including dopamine– spike (18). Frequent states of flow shape your child’s brain to be more attentive and motivated. Forcing a child to work on something they don’t enjoy will not strengthen their attention skills; it will actually prevent them from developing it. Giving a child lots of time and freedom to play and engage in meaningful projects where they enter a state of flow will shape their brain and prepare them for difficult material later in their education. If your child can play with Legos for hours on end, but has a hard time sitting down for a few math problems, this isn’t an issue of attention; it is an issue of interest. Instead of focusing on the child’s assumed attention deficits, focus your efforts on making the knowledge or skill more appetizing to the child. The child’s attention is being developed through play, so allow them plenty of uninterrupted time for it and you will reap the benefits in the schoolroom.
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.” (19)
Albert Einstein spent over a year in Italy “loafing around aimlessly” dividing his time between attending lectures and boredom. Soon after this vacation he discovered the law of relativity. That time spent in rest 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 (20). 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 to be bored, 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. I also believe this is the time that we can 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.”(21) School lessons 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 our own 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. An essential component of education is frequently overlooked and it needs to be taken seriously. Children need time to 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.
Ellyn Satter, Division of Responsibility
Skinner,Zimmer, Gembeck, and Connell. (1998) Individual Differences And The Development Of Perceived Control
Bednar, Seek Learning by Faith, (2006) Church Educational System Address
(1896) School Education, page 28
Schleindlin. (2005) “Take One More Bite For Me”: Clara Davis and the Feeding of Young Children
Mason, Charlotte. (1896) School Education. p. 181.
Nelson, Russell M. Where is Wisdom?. General Conference October 1992.
Carnegie, Dale. (2009) How to Win Friends and Influence People. Simon & Schuster; Reissue edition.
Deci, Ryan. (2000) Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2000_RyanDeci_SDT.pdf
Weithorn et al., (1982) The Competency of Children and Adolescents to Make Informed Decisions.
Pintrich, P. R., & Blumenfeld, P. C. (1985). Classroom experience and children’s self-perceptions of ability.
Doctrine & Covenants 58:26.
Mason, Charlotte. (1896) School Education. p. 39-40
Latham, Glenn. Christlike Parenting. Gold Leaf Press (MI); First Edition edition (October 2002)
Mason, Charlotte. (1896) School Education. pg 37.
Macnamara, Deborah. Rest, Play Grow, Aona Books (April 26, 2016). pg. 54.
Kotler, Steven. (2014) Flow States and Creativity. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-playing-field/201402/flow-states-and-creativity
3 Nephi 17:3
Shen, Helen H.(2015) Core Concept: Resting State Connectivity. PNAS. https://www.pnas.org/content/112/46/14115
Immordino-Yang, Christoduolou, Singh. (2012). Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education. Sage Journals.