Atmosphere, Discipline & Life at the Dinner Table
©2017 Anna Migeon
“If the child dislike his dinner, he swallows it, but the digestion of that distasteful meal is a laborious, much-impeded process.… Hence it is not a matter of pampering them at all, but a matter of health, of due nutrition, that the children should enjoy their food, and that their meals should be eaten in gladness” (Charlotte Mason, 1989a, p. 27)
When I first discovered Charlotte Mason education in 1997, it struck me that Charlotte Mason’s favorite metaphor for education of a child seemed to be feeding, digestion, appetite. Instead of using grades, rewards, and pop culture to make learning more “palatable,” teachers laid before children a “broad and varied feast” of the best, most mind-stimulating materials they could find, allowing each child to choose from that feast what she needs and wants.
In those days, I had already noticed that so many American children were “picky”: resisting both food and knowledge. Many youngsters seemed to be losing their appetites for both. The typical tactic was coercing and enticing children to go against their wills, whether in learning, behavior or eating, through urging and extrinsic motivators—rewards and punishments.
As time went on, I learned more about this philosophy of education and saw its effects on my own children. I discovered that spreading the feast, whether a feast of learning or a literal feast, was a good start, but wasn’t sufficient in itself to engage the will of the child and allow his natural appetites to function normally. That abundant feast must be hedged in with the right atmosphere and the right habits, like a lamb placed in an enclosed pasture of good, green grass.
Pasturing your lambs
While Miss Mason speaks most often in broad terms of educating a child, feeding is an element of educating the whole child. The central thought of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy is that the child is person, and “no part of child’s home life or school should be excluded from this pervasive law.”
That children are persons means that they are not vessels to be filled with broccoli and peas against their wills, nor animals to be conditioned behaviorally, with rewards and punishments. Instead we have Miss Mason’s three legitimate tools: atmosphere, discipline and nourishment of life. Her specific instructions for us on feeding a child both fit within and illustrate her methods for our interactions with a child in general. How we “pasture” a child in general applies directly as well to how we feed him.
Miss Mason’s philosophy of raising a child can be summarized in one broad directive: “‘feed’ (which should be rendered ‘pasture’) my ‘lambs,’ place them in the midst of abundant food” (Mason, 1989f, p. 81). She illustrates the concept by telling how a teacher had left the classroom with the students reading their lesson. When the teacher came back, they were still reading. As she reported: “I had left them in the pasture and came back and found them feeding” (Mason, 1989f, p. 81).
In the same way, when we create the right conditions and place a child there, as this teacher did, we can leave our children alone, like contented sheep in a pasture, and they will willingly eat all on their own, without urging or bribing.
Take up your cross
“So besotted is our educational thought,” Miss Mason writes, “that we believe children regard knowledge rather as repulsive medicine than as inviting food” (Mason, 1989f, pp. 88-89). We also tend to believe children view inviting food as repulsive medicine. The common American tendency today to coerce children to eat, establishing it as an act of self-denial for the child, is based on the belief that in order to be healthy, we can forget about enjoyment. We must deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and eat it anyway.
Educating children in eating habits too often becomes an attempt to accustom them to the idea that eating isn’t all fun and games. It’s about resignation to the inevitability of joylessness, for our own good. What’s good for you isn’t good.
The key role of pleasure for assimilation, digestive or mental, changes the game in the general context of bringing up children, according to Miss Mason, who decries “forcible intellectual feeding,” and surely by extension, forcible physical feeding. The only valid education is self education, as Miss Mason declared, and the only worthwhile feeding is self feeding, driven by hunger and satisfaction.
Enjoyment of food is essential to good digestion, Miss Mason has noted, confirmed since by science, just as genuine learning only takes place when the mind processes material voluntarily and with delight. As we look at ways that we can teach children not only to eat what’s good for them but to love eating what’s good for them, pleasure in eating is not only allowed but to be sought after.
By leveraging a child’s natural hunger, as with knowledge, we can to teach children to enjoy good foods, not learn to endure them. How? Through an atmosphere free of manipulation and pressure, structure of habits in the home that safeguards the appetite and undergirds normal eating, and a steady diet of both good ideas about food and our relationship to it and to others, and good food.
Learning to enjoy
“No pains should be spared to make the hours of meeting round the family table the brightest hours of the day,” Charlotte Mason writes in Home Education (1989a, p. 21). She stresses the importance of making every meal a family meal: “The advantage to the little people is incalculable. Here is the parents’ opportunity to train them in manners and morals, to cement family love, and to accustom the children to habits.”
As we spare no pains in feeding our children, our efforts should be directed at establishing a pleasant, respectful atmosphere at the table as in the home, establishing good habits that sharpen the appetite, and preparing delicious, nutritious food. Our pains should not be wasted on twisting a child’s arm to eat, or identifying the most effective incentives to get her to eat, or figuring out ways to camouflaging vegetables in brownies or noodles.
Pleasure in eating begins with the pleasure an infant first finds in eating the company of her family. Being together at the table is meant to be enjoyable; real, natural food is also meant to be enjoyed.
Miss Mason speaks much also of the importance of motive, “in education, as in religion,” which we can extend to eating. She references Plato, who placed the highest value on our desires and pleasures within any educational context. He spoke of education of any kind as a training in our affections. The point of education is to learn to take pleasure in good things. Education of any kind is about acquiring good taste.
Exposing a child to foods should guide him to take pleasure in goodness, or what’s beneficial, let’s say broccoli, and feel pain from evil, or what’s harmful, say, doughnuts. Only formation that “leads you always to hate what you ought to hate, and love what you ought to love from the beginning of life to the end,” Plato wrote, can be “rightly called education” (Plato, 1892, pp. 30–31). This sincere and virtuous love and enjoyment of goodness Plato calls “harmony of the soul.”
Thus, with the right training, your child can escape the endless battle between what he should and what he wants. He can go into life equipped with a harmony of his soul in a priceless love of healthy food, in sincerity and truth.
Making duty lovely
How do we make what’s good for a child, whether it’s cauliflower or Shakespeare, appealing? How do we manage to get a child to love what’s good for her? Make “duty … lovely,” as Miss Mason put it (1989a, p. 340), in your child’s eyes.
Variety in the feast presented is key. Serving the same meals week after week is useful, but not lovely.
“The wise mother does not say, ‘I always give my children so and so,’” wrote Miss Mason. “They should not have anything ‘always’; every meal should have some little surprise.” Too little variety in the diet week after week makes for a child who is “inadequately nourished, simply because he is tired of it,” she added. As she prescribes for learning, spread a feast and allow each child to take from it what he needs and wants.
Foods offered within an atmosphere of respect and sincerity become a child’s favorites, while pushiness raises resistance. Rewarding a child for eating against his well can never replace careful pasturing. The discipline of habits and structure in the home provide the rails, as for a train, that let the natural appetite work.
Chaotic eating, on the other hand, squanders the natural appetite and innate ability to appreciate natural foods. If a little girl doesn’t eat enough at breakfast, in expectation of snacking through the morning, for example, she then doesn’t eat enough lunch. Then after a nap, if no snack is planned unless she asks, she is famished and unmanageable well before dinner.
Within the discipline of habits is the essential habit for children of docility, the need to have “a hold” on a child, as Miss Mason calls it. To form the beneficial habits in a child, to have a child who follows willing the structures put in place, whether in the classroom or at the table, we must expect his obedience and not allow ourselves to be drawn in to a child’s struggle to get his own way.
How big is the room where you’ve placed your child’s feet? Miss Mason asks parents (1989c, p. 170). How complete is the pasture? How well furnished and how well built? Have you exposed your child to as many worthy foods as you can? Fennel, asparagus, kiwi, rutabagas?
Children are nourished body, soul and spirit though ideas and exposure to real things, life-giving things, including delicious, healthy foods. How full is the life of eating that you’ve given your child?
Anna Migeon is the author of The Happy Dinner Table: The Path to Healthy, Harmonious Family Meals (2016), available on Amazon. Anna’s children were born in France, where she was inspired by the strong food traditions, delicious dishes and healthy, hearty attitudes toward eating. Her children, now adults, also attended Charlotte Mason schools, where Anna learned more about raising children who love what’s good for them. She has conducted workshops and coached parents and about how to eliminate picky eating through Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy. Anna is also an award-winning cook (her chocolate truffles won a red ribbon at the Gillespie County Fair in 2005, even though they melted into one blob in the Texas heat). She and her French husband, Gérard, share their empty nest in San Antonio.
Mason, C. (1989a). Home education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Mason, C. (1989c). School education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Mason, C. (1989f). A philosophy of education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Plato. (1892). The dialogues of Plato. (B. Jowett, Trans.) (Third Edition, Revised and Corrected, Vol. 5). New York; London: Macmillan and Co.