Charlotte Mason’s Paradoxical Principle, Part 2

Charlotte Mason’s Paradoxical Principle, Part 2

Personhood Explored: The Discipline of Personhood

This is the second article in a three-part series exploring Charlotte Mason’s concept of personhood. The first article was concerned with personhood from the angle of doctrine. That is, what did Mason believe theologically about the personhood of human beings, and thus the personhood of children? Out of doctrine comes a way of life, and only from a rich doctrine—a doctrine that is accurate and expansive—can a proper way of life be determined. This article is the beginning of understanding how the doctrine of personhood is lived out. For Mason, as with all Christians, a doctrine has only been truly believed when it begins to permeate and transform every aspect of existence. In other words, Christians can only claim to know a truth if it is known wholistically—if it transforms our mind, body, and emotions. Mason had a deep understanding of the wholistic reality of the Christian life. Her triple concept of education being an “atmosphere, discipline, and life” is precisely a claim that education must address the whole person—our minds, our habits, and our feelings. Charlotte Mason’s wholistic approach to reality is absolutely upheld in her approach to personhood; not only did she have a sound doctrine of personhood, but she believed it so deeply that she intuitively felt how it impacted discipline and atmosphere. This article will discuss how Charlotte Mason believed a proper understanding of personhood led to certain disciplines. In particular, I will explore how a rich view of a child’s personhood compels parents to foster in their child certain disciplines.

Before continuing, we should clarify exactly what Mason meant by “discipline.” Mason (the reader may notice a theme here from previous articles) is both clarifying and confusing in this area. For example, there is a section in Parents and Children where Mason discusses the role of parents in providing discipline to their children and describes exactly what discipline means:

… the first function of the parent is that function of discipline… Discipline does not mean a birch-rod, nor a corner, nor a slipper, nor a bed, nor any such last resort of the feeble… We do not say the rod is never useful; we do say it should never be necessary…What is discipline? Look at the word; there is no hint of punishment in it. A disciple is a follower, and discipline is the state of the follower, the learner, imitator. Mothers and fathers do not well to forget that their children are, by the very order of Nature, their disciples… He who would draw disciples does not trust to force; but to … the attraction of his doctrine, to the persuasion of his presentation, to the enthusiasm of his disciples.[1]

Reading this section in the 21st century, there is much here that sounds very familiar, much to which the modern person warms: punitive punishments are to be discouraged, there is a tone of “doing life together”; it feels like discipling one’s children is very natural and easeful, just as Jesus discipled his friends in a very non-institutional, non-compulsory sort of way. The image is of Jesus walking along the road, disciples leaning in and having a lovely, earnest, casual sort of chat, drawn by the incredible magnetism of their teacher. I would like to suggest, however, that our 21st century minds intuitively interpret this section incorrectly and miss Mason’s real point. Mason herself seemed to anticipate that she would be interpreted as allowing a more lackadaisical and so-called “organic” approach when she said:

… this uphill work is by no means to be confounded with leisurely strolling in ways of our own devising.

The parent who would educate his children … must lay himself out for high thinking and lowly living… This thought of discipline, for example, is one of the large comprehensive ideas which must inform and direct the life.[2]

Clearly, Mason comprehended a good deal in her notion of “discipline.” However, another difficulty in reading Mason is the fact that while she sometimes used the word “discipline” in her own technical sense, at other times she used it very generally. Careful reading is essential.

What is Mason’s particular, technical meaning of “discipline”? It is best understood as one of the three methods Mason allowed parents (or anyone, for that matter) to use in bringing up children: “Therefore we are limited to three educational instruments—the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas.”[3] Discipline to her was directly related to habit formation: “By education is a discipline, is meant the discipline of habits formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or body. Physiologists tell us of the adaptation of brain structure to habitual lines of thought—i.e., to our habits.”[4] This emphasis on habit formation arises from Mason’s view of the human person: because human beings are an inseparable combination of body and spirit, the physical part of a person is deeply involved in life. One cannot expect to disciple persons properly if one only addresses them as heads on a stick—as minds and emotions that didn’t have physical reality to reckon with. Mason believed that a holistic childrearing seeks to train one’s mind, heart, and body. Or, more correctly, that to train any one part was to necessarily affect another, and that to neglect any one avenue was to miss out on an avenue of God’s grace.[5] This view was particularly confirmed to Mason by the research of British scientist Dr. William B. Carpenter, who found that the person could not be reduced to a mere material entity responding to external matter. Rather, the spiritual and physical parts of a person were deeply intertwined, with both impacting the other.[6] The result of this discovery for Mason was monumental:

We have often urged that the great discovery which modern science has brought to the aid of the educator is, that every habit of the life sets up, as it were, a material record in the brain tissues. We all know that we think as we are used to think and act as we are used to act. Ever since man began to notice the ways of his own mind, this law of habit has been matter of common knowledge, and has been more or less acted upon by parents and other trainers of children. The well-brought-up child has always been a child carefully trained in good habits. But it is only within our own day that it has been possible to lay down definite laws for the formation of habits.[7]

Thus, for Mason, habit development was where a great intersection of mind and body took place: as a parent trains a child to do right and prevents them from doing wrong, they are not only teaching their spiritual minds, but are also bringing their physical bodies into allegiance with the spiritual intent by leaving a physical record in their bodies so that doing right becomes easier and easier as time passes. To discipline, then, is to thoughtfully train a child into habits of thought and action that reflect their personhood. It requires an understanding of law (an understanding of how habits are formed), and of ends (an understanding of the sorts of habits proper personhood aims at). Therefore, proper discipline can never be done arbitrarily; a parent trains a child in habits because such behaviour is right, not because it is personally convenient.[8]

Thus much for Mason’s idea of discipline. The goal of this article is not to describe Mason’s process for training a child in good habits. What I would like to focus on is the habits that Mason again and again insisted a parent take pains to give their child in recognition of their personhood. If a child is a person who is meant to be relationally and objectively ordered to reality, what sort of disciplines should a child be taught?

The most important discipline (or habit) a parent is to give their child is obedience. Without this one habit, Mason saw the entire task of the parent as having essentially failed and the personhood of the child doomed to a withered existence. I would like to press on this point rather forcefully; there is relatively little talk in the Charlotte Mason community about obedience, but Mason herself wrote about it transparently, frequently, and vehemently:

First, and infinitely the most important, is the habit of obedience. Indeed, obedience is the whole duty of the child, and for this reason—every other duty of the child is fulfilled as a matter of obedience to his parents. Not only so: obedience is the whole duty of man; obedience to conscience, to law, to Divine direction.[9]

[The parent] will see that he has no right to forego the obedience of his child, and that every act of disobedience in the child is a direct condemnation of the parent.[10]

The mother has no more sacred duty than that of training her infant to instant obedience.[11]

Tardy, unwilling, occasional obedience is hardly worth the having; and it is greatly easier to give the child the habit of perfect obedience by never allowing him in anything else, than it is to obtain this mere formal obedience by a constant exercise of authority… To secure this habit of obedience, the mother must exercise great self-restraint; she must never give a command which she does not intend to see carried out to the full.[12]

The children who are trained to perfect obedience may be trusted with a good deal of liberty … and are not pestered with a perpetual fire of ‘Do this,’ and ‘Don’t do that!’[13]

Show how the habit of obedience eases the lives of children.[14]

And, with this spring of glad obedience within us, we arise and shine, because every feeble, faltering step is sustained[15]

But the first duty of the parent is to teach children the meaning of must; and the reason why some parents fail to obtain prompt and cheerful obedience from their children is that they do not recognize “must” in their own lives. They elect to do this and that, choose to go here and there, have kindly instincts and benevolent emotions, but are unaware of the constraining must, which should direct their speech and control their actions. They allow themselves to do what they choose; there may be little harm in what they do; the harm is that they feel free to allow themselves.[16]

‘… If a person be truly a person only as he acts upon the choice of his own will, surely,’ you say, ‘obedience must destroy personality.’ On the contrary, obedience is the exquisite test, the sustainer of personality; but it must be the obedience of choice. Because choice is laborious, the young child must be saved the labour, and trained in the obedience of habit[17]

The liberty of the person who can make himself do what he ought is the first of the rights that children claim as persons.[18]

These are only a taste of Mason’s statements on obedience. There are many more. What I would like to lean into is how clearly Mason links obedience with personhood: “obedience is the exquisite test, the sustainer of personality” and “The liberty of the person who can make himself do what he ought is the first of the rights that children claim as persons.” Why is it that Mason believed that the habit of obedience is an essential expression of personhood? The answer is found in the purpose of personhood—relationship.

If God made humans persons for the purpose of relationship, and if God himself is a person who is fundamentally relational, it follows that the most basic fact of the universe is relational (which is another way of saying that the fundamental fact of the universe is love). Therefore, the fundamental mistake a person can make is not an intellectual mistake; that would presuppose that the most basic fact of the universe is mechanical, that it is a machine that one either comprehends or does not. But God is not a machine. Speaking philosophically, the nature of the object determines the proper mode of knowing the object. To know a math equation, one knows it best if one knows it mathematically. To know a piece of art, one knows it best if one knows it artfully. To know a person, one knows it best if one knows it personally. If we are to know God, we must begin by being in relationship with him, by trusting him, ergo, by obeying him. I think it is extremely significant that there is not a single case in the Bible where a person who did not do what God told him to, is interpreted as misunderstanding God; it is always interpreted as disobeying God. King Saul is a perfect example: he is perpetually trying to explain his disobedience as logical misunderstandings of confusing events and commands. Again and again, Samuel refuses to allow Saul to frame his actions as intellectual errors; it is all disobedience.[19] Perhaps one of the more shocking examples in Scripture is the case of the man of God who was told by God not to stop to eat anywhere on his journey home. A prophet deceives him, saying, “I also am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the Lord, saying, ‘Bring him back with you into your house that he may eat bread and drink water.’” The man of God listens, and that very day he is killed by a lion. God’s explanation?

Because you have disobeyed the word of the Lord and have not kept the command that the Lord your God commanded you, but have come back and have eaten bread and drunk water in the place of which he said to you, “Eat no bread and drink no water,” your body shall not come to the tomb of your fathers.[20]

Mason aligned herself with this ethos perfectly. For example, she said, “To give reasons to a child is usually out of place, and is a sacrifice of parental dignity.”[21] To give reasons to a child is inappropriate because it presupposes that a child obeys on the basis of his understanding, rather than on the basis of his trust in his parent. And a parent has a right to their child’s trust on the basis of his “parental dignity,” or on the basis of his role as God’s representative.[22] Thus, a child’s obedience to their parent is their obedience to God. Obedience is thus the foundational discipline (or habit) of personhood, for treating God as a person and being treated by God as a person.

Described from another angle, the discipline of obedience is foundational to personhood because it is the gateway to the objective life; it requires the child to live based on reality that exists outside of him rather than on reality only insofar as he can understand it, that is, subjective reality. And for that reason, obedience puts the child in touch with, not only a much more expansive reality than he can comprehend, but reality as it actually is. To use Mason’s words, to put him in touch with reality is to place your child in “a large room,” one in which his personhood can truly expand as it encounters the world and God rather than his own narrow conceptions of these. In this room, the child’s objective self—the great and glorious creature God intends him to be—is actualized rather than his “distressfully poor” subjective self, which is ever “under bondage to his own wilfulness [and] the victim of his own chance desires.”[23]

Thus, the discipline of obedience is the first and foundational habit that a parent imparts to their child in view of their personhood (both the parent’s and the child’s). The other habits that grow out of personhood rely on the pre-existence of obedience for them to be properly exercised. For that reason, Mason says, “Indeed, obedience is the whole duty of the child, and for this reason—every other duty of the child is fulfilled as a matter of obedience to his parents.”[24]

But, with obedience in place, what other disciplines does Mason believe express personhood? Since the list is quite long, I would like to discuss what all these habits have in common and then discuss three in particular.

Unsurprisingly, the common feature to all these habits is that they require the child to behave as a person. That is, they require the child to be objectively and relationally oriented. A child should develop habits that make looking at God, His people, and His creation as God intends the default mode. This means that one acknowledges each thing’s God-given value and purpose and engages with it accordingly. Essentially, when a parent raises their child with the child’s personhood in mind, the parents are doing precisely that; they are looking at God’s creation (their child) and submitting to God’s purpose for that child. In raising their child as a person, they seek to teach their child to do the same thing with all he encounters. Here we get an explanation for why Mason can discuss every detail of life, from clothing to décor to manners to shopping to physical fitness, with a strong sense of how such things ought to be done. She recognizes that nature is objective. For example, God made trees particular things for particular purposes, and therefore we can interact with trees in submission to God’s design or in a way that does violence to God’s design. Similarly, God made families particular things for particular purposes, and therefore there is a way of “doing family” that submits to God’s design or does violence to God’s design. This is why Mason (and many old Christian writers) used words like “seemly”, “fitting”, “appropriate”, “becoming”.[25] The assumption Mason made when she used these words is that there is a way of behaving that does not “fit” with reality. (We will come back to this theme in our next article.) Therefore, in order to behave as a person, one’s habits have to submit to God’s design for all of life; one’s habits must lead one to walk in step with the true nature of reality.

With the principle of objectively-oriented habits in mind, I’m going to discuss three habits in particular: speech, attention, and thoroughness.

I would like to start with a quote from Mason:

… from the very first a child’s sensations should be treated as matters of objective and not of subjective interest. Marmalade, for example, is interesting, not because it is ‘nice’—a fact not to be dwelt upon at all—but because one can discern in it different flavours and the modifying effect of the oil secreted in the rind of the orange… a useful piece of education is this of causing a child’s interest to centre in the objects which produce his sensations and not in himself as the receiver of those sensations.[26]

Admittedly, her example of marmalade and her language of “oil secreted in the rind” is a bit odd, but what Mason is getting at here should strike the modern reader as radically different from the way children are expected to speak and think about their own sensations today. What is the one question children are perpetually asked?—“What is your favourite…?” or “Do you like…?” or “How would you like your…?” That is, adults are continually communicating to children that something is valuable only insofar as it suits the child. All our language we direct to children, and we train them to speak back to us, tells them that the important point is not the “the objects which produce [their] sensations” but “[themselves] as the receiver of those sensations.” Rather than the child expanding to encounter the objective world—classical music or tomatoes or the colour orange or a great history book or a beautiful landscape or God himself—a child diminishes as each new item is either accepted or dismissed based on whether it has any value for his small and insufficient notion of himself. Or as Mason puts it, if something is “nice.” Thus, a child should not be encouraged to use the language of “I want/don’t want,” “I like/don’t like,” “favourites,” or any language that assigns value to something only as it relates to the child. Of course, this assumes that the parent is not perpetually asking his child what he wants (“Do you want the blue or pink cup today?”) or likes (“Don’t you like cheese?”). It is difficult to overstate how at odds this view of objective language is with our current culture. Mason’s statement, “thoughtful parents are … careful that, in the matter of food, children shall not be self-regardful,” can hardly be applied to adults today.[27] We all require a reformation of our habits in this area if we are to encourage our children towards objective living.

Rather than speak about things only as they matter “to me,” Mason urges that parents discipline their children in particular habits of speech. An often-overlooked reason for Mason’s passion for time in nature is precisely that nature’s beauty, grandeur, variety, and complexity push the individual away from self and towards something deeply objective. A mother is to encourage her child to attend with such vigour and zeal to a tree that the tree becomes as real to the child as her own self:

The child who describes, ‘A tall tree, going up into a point, with rather roundish leaves; not a pleasant tree for shade, because the branches all go up,’ deserves to learn the name of the tree… But the little bungler, who fails to make it clear whether he is describing an elm or a beech, should get no encouragement.[28]

The “little bungler” is not permitted an introduction with the great thing that is this tree precisely because the bungler has shown himself to be completely uninterested in it. Do you want to meet, to be in relationship, with this tree? Then care about it, not yourself.

Fundamentally, Mason urged discipline in speech so that children are put in contact with the truth. She has an entire chapter in Ourselves on the “Spoken Truth,” describing in detail the nature of veracity, exaggeration, and generalization, analyzing the various reasons we become sloppy in our speech and are thus severed from reality.[29] Mason understood that words and reality are so intertwined that our speech radically shapes how we perceive the world to be. We thus discipline our children’s speech to be primarily about reality (as opposed to their subjective selves) and true to reality.

As a child speaks, so he thinks. As he thinks, so he speaks. Thus, another habit that Mason urged parents to give their children is the habit of attention.[30] For Mason, to teach your child to attend is to open a vast and wonderful world to them and to save them from the fruitlessness of an undisciplined mind. Without the habit of attention, the capacity of your child is left completely untapped.[31] The parent thus owes it to their child’s personhood to give them this great gift of attention. The gift of attention allows the child to interact as a person with everything around him. That is, when a child has the habit of attention, his mind is fixed outwardly and can properly observe the nature of things and therefore give them their due. For example, Mason urges parents to raise their children with the habit of paying attention to other people, to attend to and not to be attended to. A child should not treat any family member or guest disrespectfully, either through monopolizing the attention of others or dismissively withholding one’s own attention. A parent is thus to teach a child to be alert to the needs of others: “It is well to bring up children to think it is rather a sad failure if they miss a chance of going a message, opening a door, carrying a parcel, any small act of service that presents itself.”[32] To give one’s whole attention to a thing, whether a person, a task, a piece of art, is to acknowledge its worthiness, its God-given objective nature.

The habit of thoroughness is directly related to attention.[33] If a thing is worthy of one’s attention, it is worthy of proper attention. This is why Mason always insisted that a child put in his best effort: “It is well to be reminded that ‘the thorough and willing performance of any duty, however humble or however exalted, is like the offering of incense to Christ, well-pleasing and acceptable.’”[34] Mason emphasized short lessons because she wanted to encourage the habit of attention and thoroughness, to make it possible for the child to put the full force of his mind to a thing and produce the best he can in a given space of time. The principle of short lessons to make full attention and best effort possible applies elsewhere; if a child’s room is so full of toys and clothes that cleaning is made practically impossible and certainly not rewarding, then a parent is setting the child up to have slipshod habits of cleaning; he will be convinced that the physical space in which he dwells (and any other unfortunate person) is unimportant. The principle that “all things should be done decently and in order” [35] will not ring with that wonderful “all,” and thus much of ordinary life will be stripped of significance; rather, things will only matter if he can see why they matter. Thoroughness requires an outward gaze that values all that comes within one’s grasp. It confirms one’s imago Dei-ness, one’s likeness to God, who delights in and upholds all he creates, no matter how seemingly insignificant, and invites us to do likewise.

Mason’s emphasis on habit development may seem like one of her more difficult teachings. It requires parents to be disciplined, to pursue habits of obedience, speech, attention, and thoroughness themselves if they are to pass these on to their children. But this difficult labour is fed by the beautiful and compelling vision of personhood that acknowledges the true worth of the child. It is an elevating, expansive view of the person that makes such disciplines feel, not like mechanical actions we grudgingly force upon ourselves and our children, but rather like the only seemly, fitting, becoming behaviour of creatures made in the image of God.

Laura Teeple is a piano teacher and homemaker. She recently completed her Graduate Diploma in Christian Studies from Regent College, garnering the Board of Governors’ Prize for Proficiency. While she enjoys theological reading, she finds her most important theological insights come from Tolkien, Lewis, and Austen. Laura lives in Cold Lake, Alberta where her husband, Nathanael, is stationed as a fighter pilot.

©2024 Laura Teeple


[1] Charlotte M. Mason, Parents and Children, pp. 65–67.

[2] Mason, Parents and Children, p. 170.

[3] Mason, Home Education, p. xiii.

[4] Mason, Home Education, p. xiv.

[5] Mason, Home Education, p. 104.

[6] Benjamin E. Bernier, “Education for the Kingdom: An Exploration of the Religious Foundation of Charlotte Mason’s Educational Philosophy” (PhD diss., 2009), p. 59.

[7] Mason, Parents and Children, pp. 173–174.

[8] Mason, Home Education, p. 162.

[9] Mason, Home Education, p. 161.

[10] Mason, Home Education, p. 161.

[11] Mason, Home Education, p. 162.

[12] Mason, Home Education, pp. 163–164.

[13] Mason, Home Education, p. 164.

[14] Mason, School Education, p. 250.

[15] Mason, Ourselves, Book II, p. 124.

[16] Charlotte M. Mason, “Children Are Born Persons: Liberty versus various forms of tyranny,” The Parents’ Review 22 (1911): para 12.

[17] Mason, Ourselves, Book II, p. 145.

[18] Mason, “Children Are Born Persons,” para 14.

[19] 1 Samuel 14–16.

[20] 1 Kings 13:14–22, ESV.

[21] Mason, Home Education, pp. 15–16.

[22] Mason, Home Education, p. 14.

[23] Mason, Ourselves, p. xliii. Mason, “Children Are Born Persons,” para 13.

[24] Mason, Home Education, p. 161, emphasis mine.

[25] Mason, Home Education, p. 21, p. 189, p. 289, p. 347; Parents and Children p. 14, p. 51; School Education p. xx, p. 31; Ourselves, Book I, p. 76, p. 114, p. 198.

[26] Mason, Parents and Children, p. 180.

[27] Mason, Parents and Children, p. 286.

[28] Mason, Home Education, p. 47.

[29] Mason, Ourselves, Book I, pp. 156–160.

[30] Mason, School Education, p. 120.

[31]Mason, Home Education, p. 146.

[32] Mason, School Education, p. 108.

[33] Mason, School Education, p. 120.

[34] Mason, Parents and Children, p. 139.

[35] 1 Corinthians 14:40, ESV.

5 Replies to “Charlotte Mason’s Paradoxical Principle, Part 2”

  1. May someone share who the artist is/ what’s the scene that is used as the cover for this article? The mother and child with hair being combed- not the flowers.

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