“What is the most precious thing to have in a house?”
Charlotte Mason poses this question at the dinner table one evening. She gleans answers from the dinner guests that we all would agree with: answers such as “a bookcase” and “a cradle.” But not Mason; she rebuts with, “I think I would put space first.”
This narrative, from The Story of Charlotte Mason by Essex Cholmondeley (p. 78), gives us new insight into Mason’s statement, “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” We are all familiar with these words which encapsulate the essence of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. Crediting Matthew Arnold for the phrase, she considers it the most “complete and adequate definition of education we possess.” But how, specifically, does atmosphere apply to education? Mason explains that “we should take into account the educational value of [the child’s] natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions.” But what is a “natural” and “proper” home atmosphere?
To answer this question, we turn to The Home Education Series. There we see Mason’s emphasis on atmosphere from the very beginning. Volume one opens with directions on how to ventilate a nursery, select proper clothing, choose healthy food, and develop positive habits. I believe Mason addresses atmosphere first because as home educators we create the atmosphere of learning even from the newborn stage of life. In Parents and Children she explains:
… we can order those memories for him: we can see that the earliest sights he sees are sights of order, neatness, beauty; that the sounds his ear drinks in are musical and soft, tender and joyous; that the baby’s nostrils sniff only delicate purity and sweetness. These memories remain through life, engraved on the unthinking brain. As we shall see later, memories have a certain power of accretion—where there are some, others of a like kind gather, and all the life is ordered on the lines of these first pure and tender memories. (p. 27)
Memories of neatness are actually a learning tool for the early years and begin to form visual imprints for children.
But how do we achieve “order, neatness, beauty” in our homes? I have found from experience that the more possessions we own, the harder it is to achieve this goal. Mason saw this as well, and writes in Ourselves:
It is worth while 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. (Book 1, p. 177)
The phrase “space is most precious” helped clarify for me the attitude of creating a life-giving atmosphere. For our family, that meant purging almost half of our belongings! How could I teach my children about beauty and value when their space was overwhelmed with stacks of papers, piles of toys, and mounds of laundry? Too many times have I nagged my child about cleaning his room while I was responsible for a home in disarray.
Purging can be hard. Many times as parents and educators we believe that more is better. Society tells us that more objects, more activities, more work, more options, more anything will infuse our children with greatness. Mason challenges this popular view. In volume one she references The Purple Jar, by Maria Edgeworth. A mother questions and guides her child to choose what she needs, but still the child insists on what she wants. The girl chooses to buy a purple jar rather than paying for her shoes to be fixed. She learns later that she made the wrong decision:
“Oh, mamma,” said she, as she took off her hat: “how I wish that I had chosen the shoes—they would have been of so much more use to me than that jar: however, I am sure,—no, not quite sure—but, I hope, I shall be wiser another time.”
Sometimes I think of myself as this girl. I recall many times that the Holy Spirit asked me to consider what I really needed. But again and again I chose the “purple jar” instead.
Even so, getting rid of a surplus of items is only the first step in achieving “order, neatness, beauty.” We must also decide what to do with the items of beauty and purpose that we are keeping. Mason guides us by suggesting in volume one, “a place for everything, and everything in its place” (p. 130). Cleaning up after handicrafts should only require mother saying our time is done. The children would then naturally go put each item in its place. It is the same for entering a home. No thought should be required about where to put shoes, coats, gloves, for they each have a place. Additionally, the objects that a child uses on a daily basis should be durable, useful, and beautiful. Mason advises:
The little girl must not only put her flowers in water, but arrange them prettily, and must not be put off with some rude kitchen mug or jug for them, or some hideous pink vase, but must have jar or vase graceful in form and harmonious in hue, though it be but a cheap trifle. In the same way, everything in the nursery should be ‘neat’—that is, pleasing and suitable; and children should be encouraged to make neat and effective arrangements of their own little properties. Nothing vulgar in the way of print, picture-book, or toy should be admitted—nothing to vitiate a child’s taste or introduce a strain of commonness into his nature. On the other hand, it would be hard to estimate the refining, elevating influence of one or two well-chosen works of art, in however cheap a reproduction. (Home Education, pp. 130-131)
This movement of simplicity isn’t about owning nothing. It is about training our children to search for the things of beauty and craftsmanship; to slow down and observe loveliness in items and not dismiss that things affect our personhood.
During teacher training, Mason enforced such expectations of her students to have few items in a space. Cholmondeley recounts:
… only one vase of flowers was allowed in each bedroom. This seemed unreasonable at first, for the countryside was full of flowers; surely everyone was free to pick them. Gradually the value of space became apparent and we realized the telling effect of a few flowers or twigs rightly placed in a room. (p. 149)
Our current “countryside” is full of so much more than flowers. And it is that fullness which creates a false security that we are adding to the lives of our children. Taking away items would be deprivation… or would it?
As parents, I see this process of simplification as a call to action. It is an integral part of education—the atmosphere of education. In Ourselves, Mason explains why this is so important:
… wise men are feeling strongly that prudence requires of us, for the good of the state, to live simple lives, to avoid excesses, even if they come in the way of athletic or intellectual toils, and to eschew possessions more than are necessary for fit and simple living. Perhaps it is lawful for us to allow ourselves, in our furniture and implements, beauty of form and colour, and fitness for our uses; but it may be our duty not to accumulate unnecessary possessions, the care of which becomes a responsibility, and whose value lies in their costliness. These things interfere with that real wealth of a serviceable body and alert mind which we owe to the service of our country as well as that of our home. (Book II, p. 54)
Many conversations in our home begin with asking our children why they think they need something. Too often it is a toy seen on a commercial or something that another friend has, and it is my job as a parent to explain the cost of having items as well as the benefits of not having items. When we do not have as many things to account for, clean, and organize, we have more time: time to read the Bible, to love our children, to develop Mother Culture, and to train in habits. The paradox is that when we get rid of things we make time for what matters. The more we let go of, the more freedom we get.
Most of us have already acquired what Mason calls “unnecessary possessions.” And getting started on getting rid of the excess can be daunting, even overwhelming. But just as Mason guides us in habit training to focus our attention on one area at a time, simplifying can also be done in this manner. The first step while focusing on one area or room would be to eliminate all “vulgar” and “useless” objects. These items can be donated, recycled, or discarded. When trying to decide whether to keep an item, remember that everything left in the space must be deemed “necessary for fit and simple living.” I remember when I was first introduced to Charlotte Mason and the concept that some books are “twaddle.” This gave me a zeal to sift through all the books in our home and keep only the best. The same passion of removing “twaddle” can be harnessed to declutter a space.
The remaining items in the room should be arranged in a way that reflects “order, neatness, beauty.” This doesn’t mean your room needs to be ready for an eye-popping Instagram post. But it would be wise to take into account Mason’s advice from Formation of Character:
So far as possible, let their surroundings be brought together on a principle of natural selection, not at haphazard, and not in obedience to fashion. Bear in mind, and let them often hear discussed and see applied, the three or four general principles which fit all occasions of building, decorating, furnishing, dressing: the thing must be fit for its purpose, must harmonise with both the persons and the things about it; and, these points considered, must be as lovely as may be in form, texture, and colour… (p. 232)
Once your space is orderly, you are still not done. Just as you are always sifting books of twaddle to keep them out of your home, you will always be pruning your space. For us, this means creating an understanding prior to any gift-giving holidays (birthdays, Christmas, etc.). We declutter any unused items prior to the holiday. Because we all know children grow rapidly, as do their interests and abilities; there will always be an exchange of in and out. It is our responsibility as parents “not to accumulate unnecessary possessions” and to teach this philosophy to our children.
This same cycle of purging, ordering, and creating beauty goes on for each room in the home. Don’t think you need to conquer this in a day or even a month; just remember that this is part of habit training for the parent and it should be repeated until it becomes second nature. The more you do it, the easier it will become. If you ever find yourself wondering if you should keep an item or eliminate it, reflect on Mason’s words: “it is better to have too little than too much” (Formation of Character, p. 232).
Education is not just about books and habits. It is also about the atmosphere of the home. Our duty as parents is to model, coach, and participate in simple living by buying less and curating an atmosphere of beauty and order. To me, the most precious thing to have in a house is a contagious atmosphere of delight.
Stacie Johnson lives in Michigan with her husband and three boys. Her passion for simplicity and homeschooling developed into a website called Mindful Miss Mason. She hopes to intertwine Mason’s ideas with practical help tailored to modern organizing dilemmas. In between refilling her coffee cup multiple times a day, she enjoys hiking with her family, listening to podcasts, reading, and writing.
©2018 Stacie Johnson