I’m an anxious father. Many nature walks with my young boys (ages 2 and 5) have degenerated into tension-filled treks through the woods, devoid of joy, devoid of laughter. Why? Because there’s a gnawing in my gut that compels me to use these walks as teaching moments. When these educational episodes don’t go as I hope, I get irritable and my sons are ready to head back to the house.
I first realized I might be the cause of my frustrations (and not my children) when I came across a stinging passage in Home Education. Miss Mason writes,
There is one thing the mother will allow herself to do as interpreter between Nature and the child, but that not oftener than once a week or once a month, and with look and gesture of delight rather than with flow of improving words—she will point out to the child some touch of especial loveliness in colouring or grouping in the landscape or in the heavens. One other thing she will do, but very rarely, and with tender filial reverence (most likely she will say her prayers, and speak out of her prayer, for to touch on this ground with hard words is to wound the soul of the child): she will point to some lovely flower or gracious tree, not only as a beautiful work, but a beautiful thought of God, in which we may believe He finds continual pleasure, and which He is pleased to see his human children rejoice in. Such a seed of sympathy with the Divine thought sown in the heart of the child is worth many of the sermons the man may listen to hereafter, much of the ‘divinity’ he may read.” (Home Education, pp. 79-80).
As readers of Miss Mason know, she rarely anchors her assertions in specific texts of Scripture. However, students of the Bible detect a mind marinated in divine revelation, though she may not cite a chapter and verse to support every claim.
In the casual, careful suggestion that a “lovely flower or gracious tree” is a “beautiful thought of God” there is enough theology to occupy a child’s mind for the rest of his life. He later recalls this thought during church or family worship when he hears:
The trees of the Lord are full of sap;
the cedars of Lebanon, which he hath planted;
Where the birds make their nests:
As for the stork, the fir trees are her house. (Psalm 104:16-17)
Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (Luke 12:27)
Adults are often numb to the splendor of creation. Though our minds may have rejected the lie of naturalism, the idea of the mechanical material has anesthetized our hearts, leaving them cold and unfeeling towards the good, good world we live in. Miss Mason writes:
The flowers, it is true, are not new; but the children are; and it is the fault of their elders if every new flower they come upon is not to them a Picciola, a mystery of beauty to be watched from day to day with unspeakable awe and delight. (Home Education, p. 53)
Miss Mason’s method of teaching young children to observe creation and adore the Creator is a wise, lovely, and sensible application of Deuteronomy 6:5-7:
And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might… And thou shalt teach [these words] diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
We’re commanded to “talk” of the Greatest Commandment during our daily activities. Once the child has begun school, this must certainly guide our lessons in Bible, arithmetic, art, literature, music, etc., but it has particular reference to conversations we have with our small children over breakfast and during walks and bedtime stories. Such moments distinguish “religious” families who routinely read their Bibles, pray, and go to church from families who, while not neglecting such means of grace, live within a Christian worldview and take every thought captive to Christ.
This conviction is largely to blame for my nature walk anxiety. But my nervousness stems from my misapplication of the principle, not the principle itself. Since reading Miss Mason, I’ve realized the importance of “talking” with my children. A torrent of lectures taxes their minds and juices the joy out of our time together. But conversations are two-way streets, so we shouldn’t expect that our only theological and ethical discussions with our children will be the ones we initiate.
Miss Mason makes much of the curiosity of children, as, I believe, Scripture does. Curiosity played a vital role in the Jewish Passover, as it should in the Eucharist. In Exodus 12, we read:
And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service? That ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses. And the people bowed the head and worshipped. (Exodus 12:26-27)
As important as the Passover is to Jewish identity and God’s covenant with Israel, God tells His people the coming generation will learn the meaning of the meal by asking questions, not by sitting through suppertime sermons. This doesn’t exclude the possibility of striking up a didactic conversation, but it does provide us with a model: do, and then answer questions provoked by your doing. Miss Mason implements this model, recommending a “look and gesture of delight” instead of a “flow of improving words.” When our little ones see our attention taken captive by a squirrel gnawing a nut (it’s always Squirrel Nutkin, to my boys) or a bird gathering twigs for a nest, they perceive “a beautiful thought of God, in which we may believe He finds continual pleasure, and which He is pleased to see his human children rejoice in.” Passover (and thus, the Eucharist) is the perfect metaphor for spreading the feast for our children. When they see food-stuffed smiles and are delightfully shaken by booming laughter and delectable levity, they begin to ask questions.
A few weeks back, during a silent walk through the woods, my five-year old asked, “Daddy, if God made everything very good, why do snakes hurt people?” Goosebumps broke over my arms. The thoughtfulness of his question stunned me. He took what he remembered of Genesis 1 and 2 and noted a discrepancy between what he remembered and what he saw in the world around him. I stopped walking, then quickly resumed my pace for fear I would scare the opportunity away. This is a lecture I had begun and abandoned in frustration countless times, and here was my son, asking me to teach him.
I said, “Do you remember what Adam and Eve did after God pronounced everything good?” He said he did. Then I asked, can you tell me the story? He paused. I expected the conversation to end here. But it didn’t. He began slowly. He described, with an exquisite flourish of color and detail, how the serpent lied to Adam and Eve, how they had believed him, and how they brought sadness on our world. As he was talking, he made the connection. He finished his story and rushed to explain to me why some animals hurt people. I smiled. He basked in light of my lifted countenance, and then we continued on in silence, both of us feeling strangely warmed by the light of God’s lifted countenance.
I’m just beginning my walk with Charlotte Mason, but I’ve already witnessed her methods restoring fellowship and frivolity to the time I spend with my sons. I’ve only enjoyed a taste of the life-giving method of Charlotte Mason, but I’m tucking my napkin into my collar for the years to come. There’s a grand feast ahead.
Jonathan Cavett is an author and instructional designer. He and his wife Tara live in Southeast Tennessee where they spread the feast of the Charlotte Mason method for their two sons, Hezekiah and Nicolaus.
©2018 Jonathan Cavett