Authority… is also considerate, and that is why a good mother is the best home-ruler; she is in touch with the children, knows their unspoken schemes and half-formed desires, and where she cannot yield, she diverts; she does not crush with a sledge-hammer, an instrument of rule with which a child is somehow never very sympathetic. (III:23)
It isn’t often in the chaos of our busy lives that we are granted the grace to see ourselves from the outside, to gain almost an external perspective on a moment as if reading about it from a novel. Such an instance happened to me earlier this spring and I was reminded how much I have learned from Charlotte Mason. I was also reminded just how easily I could have broken the code of education we have from the Gospels and offended my child. In the hope that my narrow miss will help another parent, I share the following story with you, dear readers.
Let me begin by setting the stage. Our family lives in the south. By May we are living in a humid pressure cooker. Or at least that is how it feels when a person is nine months pregnant, which was my condition at the time of this tale. It had been one of those days—I’m sure everyone reading this can relate. Both of the toddlers had been whiney all day, struggling to obey even the smallest duty required of them. Naptime was a welcome respite where I could tackle my seemingly endless to-do list in a bubble of calm. Upon waking, however, my oldest son, Jonah, was in no better mood. In fact, he seemed worse. It was hot, and I am most definitely not sanctified enough. I was quite grumpy myself.
Usually, outdoors is the solution. But that day, with the thermometer registering in the mid-90s and humidity levels high, I didn’t want to go back outside at the hottest time of day. I just wanted to stay inside my air-conditioned home and sip an iced beverage. But I mustered my resolve and trooped back outside with my boys, hopeful that the outdoors would provide a diversion and restore this little soul to his normal, cheerful self. No such luck. Did I mention I was grumpy before? I could feel myself growing in irritation. I tried to distract myself, reading a book, while the boys played.
It took a while, but I noticed that Jonah had become focused on a task. Blade by blade, he was gathering dried grass clippings and placing them in his wagon. I heard him muttering instructions to his younger brother, and the word “fire” kept permeating my consciousness. Being rather absorbed in my book, and honestly grateful that the constant quarreling had stopped, it took me a long time to realize that he was building a play “fire” by arranging those grass clippings and some stones in the bed of his wagon. I felt my own irritation at the heat and the long, tiring day start to ebb. I remembered, once again, why I love three-year olds, and particularly this one before me.
Not long afterwards, it was time to pick up our things and head indoors to begin dinner preparations. I braced myself for the task of asserting my authority and requiring two rebellious persons to obey. Surprisingly, Jonah didn’t need much coaxing. In fact, he gleefully announced he would take the wagon back into the garage. The garage is attached to the back of our home and houses the equipment for our organic produce farm which we jointly run with my husband’s family. My father-in-law, who happens to be very fastidious with his tools had just completed a year-long undertaking of setting up a shop space along one side of the garage. It was beautiful—neat and tidy.
Meanwhile, still outside helping his younger brother pick up his trucks, I didn’t notice that Jonah had been gone longer than necessary. He finally returned and we trooped around the house through the garage. On the way there Jonah started telling me that he had built a fire for his “Gaffer.” Feeling a mounting sense of dread at the thought of what I would find in his grandfather’s newly cleaned shop, I had to stop myself from berating my son for making “a mess.” But it was at the very moment of entering the garage that I had a flash of insight and could see, as if from the outside looking in on the scene, what was really going on.
My son, a born person, had built a fire for his Gaffer.
Jonah was so delighted with his creation outside that he had meticulously recreated it and left it as a gift for his grandfather. Piece by piece, blade by blade, stone by stone he had transferred the raw materials of nature into a gift. Out of a heart filled with delight and love, he gave this precious offering. And it was beautiful. It was artfully and carefully arranged. The late afternoon sun beating in through the open door revealed the subtle colors of the stones. I felt myself choking up.
Nothing is trivial that concerns a child; his foolish-seeming words and ways are pregnant with meaning for the wise. It is in the infinitely little we must study in the infinitely great; and the vast possibilities, and the right direction of education, are indicated in the open book of the little child’s thoughts. (I:5)
I had come so close to using my authority as a sledge-hammer. While this incident may seem mundane and small, I knew in an instant that I could have so easily crushed the soul of my beautiful boy. What he meant as a gift I could have cursed. I thanked God, and I thanked Him for Charlotte Mason whose wise teaching has saturated my thought these long years. I like to say that I am a better mother for having “met” Charlotte Mason almost a decade before my first child was born. The instrument my Heavenly Father has used to sanctify me as a mother, more than any other, is my great mentor, Miss Mason. My twenty-something-year old self would have not restrained herself upon discovering the mess on the floor of the garage. My temper, already so overwrought, would have burst out and spewed anger into the ears of this child before me. And the fact that I came so close to doing that very thing has been a lesson to me in these intervening months.
… the chief thing required of grown-up people is that they should do no sort of injury to the children: Take heed that ye OFFEND not—DESPISE not—HINDER not—one of these little ones. (I:12)
This is the code of education Charlotte Mason found in the Gospels. I have committed these sins against my children countless times, even if I was saved, by the grace of God, from committing them that day in May. What strikes me in the incident of Jonah’s “fire” is how many times we parents fail to see the gravity of our actions in the small details of our daily lives. Neglecting to notice the gift my son had made for his Gaffer may not seem like a sin. But, reprimanding him for “making a mess” in the newly cleaned shop would have been a great offense against his soul, for, as Miss Mason tells us, “we offend them, when we do by them that which we ought not to have done” (I:13).
I also would have despised him as a person.
“Despise: to have a low opinion of, to undervalue”—thus the dictionary; and, as a matter of fact, however much we may delight in them, we grown-up people have far too low an opinion of children. (I:17)
By viewing his offering as a mess, I would have despised my son as a person. Three year olds don’t have much they can give to their loved ones besides physical affection. There, on the floor of the garage, Jonah had fulfilled his calling as an Image-bearer of His Creator, creatig something new, out of the raw materials around him. He gave meaning to a pile of grass and stones. How easy to, and how very nearly did I, see the mess and miss the beauty.
The most fatal way of despising the child falls under the third educational law of the Gospels; it is to overlook and make light of his natural relationship with Almighty God. (I:19)
What hit me so hard that day in the garage was my own ignorance of the spiritual workings of my children. If I had let my temper loose that afternoon, it may have hardened his heart, and hindered him as a person. And so, as much as I can remember, I try to take stock of these little incidents. I try to pause and ask if “the mess” that was caused was really an act of disobedience or neglect, or if it was an attempt to do something good. How easily could I have crushed, using my authority as a sledge-hammer, and so hindered not only my relationship with my child, but his relationship with Almighty God.
For every time I succeed in holding myself in “wise passivity,” there are more times I fail and need to repent. But, I have hope, as I keep reflecting on the wisdom granted to Miss Mason, that I’ll continue to grow in grace. I hope, too, that we all will learn to see our children as persons, that each child “is much more—a being belonging to an altogether higher estate than ours; as it were, a prince committed to the fostering care of peasants” (I:11).
©2017 Emily Kiser
Emily Kiser’s aim in life is to spread beauty; teaching others about Charlotte Mason, writing the Picture Study Portfolios, putting lovely books into the hands of eager readers, and seeing the world through her sons’ eyes help bring her closer to this goal. Emily co-hosts A Delectable Education with Liz Cottrill and Nicole Williams.