The Formation of Character by Charlotte Mason has been one of my slow cooker reads over the past couple of years and I’ve finally finished it! The book contains studies related to character formation in children and consists of four parts plus an appendix. The first two parts took me probably twice as long to read as the rest of the book but I was also reading a couple of other educational books that required a bit of brain. Since it’s been so long since I first started the book, I’m going to concentrate more on the second half, although I do have another reason for that which I’ll get to later.
So what do we mean when we talk about character formation?
The word 'character' comes from a Greek verb meaning 'to scrape, cut, or engrave.' Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary expresses it as:
'The peculiar qualities, impressed by nature or habit on a person, which distinguishes him from others; these constitute real character, and the qualities which he is supposed to possess, constitute his estimated character, or reputation. Hence we say, a character is not formed, when the person has not aquired stable and distinctive qualities.'
Charlotte Mason described it this way:
'...character is original disposition, modified, directed, expanded by education, by circumstances; later, by self-control and self-culture; above all, by the supreme agency of the Holy Spirit, even when that agency is little suspected and as little solicited...
...character is not the outcome of a formative educational process; but inherent tendencies are played upon, more or less incidentally, and the outcome is character.'
This reminds me of the verse in Ecclesiastes 11 about sowing seeds - the sower doesn't know whether the seeds he sows will all grow well or whether one lot will do better than the other.
Sow a habit, reap a character...
The Sower by Jean-Francois Millet, 1850
Part 1 - this section contains short studies that show ways to help a child get rid of annoying faults: a boy with a quick temper; Kitty, the girl who was flighty and couldn’t keep her attention on anything for very long; the sullen child, the moody older girl who found the key to gaining victory over her inherent disposition.
'...youth does not last; and the poor girl who began as a butterfly ends up as a grub, tied to the earth by the duties she never learnt how to fulfil.'
Charlotte Mason speaks a word of wisdom to parents, especially to those who are not naturally demonstrative, pointing out that older children are usually taught to give place to the younger ones resulting in a lack of affection being extended to those children who are past the cute stage. Toddlers are in your face affectionate and just the right size for a cuddle. Older kids and teenagers less so!
'Actions do not speak louder than words to a young heart; he must feel it in your touch, see it in your eye, hear it in your tones, or you will never convince child or boy that you love him, though you labour day and night for his good and his pleasure...'
She observed that young people are love hungry. They will sell their souls for love and we see the results of that all around us. I think this is definitely something to consider but since she wrote these words there have been a couple of generations where the doctrine of self-esteem has been pushed and I think this has skewed our ability to address this issue properly.
In his book, ‘Psychological Seduction,’ published in 1983, William Kirk Kilpatrick writes:
The philosophy of self-esteem is everywhere. One would think that by now it would have had time to take effect. Yet depression is rampant. So is suicide. Adolescent suicide is up almost 300 percent over the last twenty-five years. Suicide among children- at one time a rare phenomenon - is on the rise. The philosophy of self-esteem doesn’t cause these problems, but it doesn’t seem to prevent them either. “I arm you with the sword of self-esteem,” says the psychological society to its children. “It will serve you well in battle.” But it is not a good weapon, and our enemies are not so easily slain.”
I’ve noticed with my own children that adults often say things like, “You're awesome,” or “You’re amazing!” to them when all they’ve done is something they should have done, or something that didn’t really inconvenience them much. I don't imagine that this type of treatment is what Charlotte Mason had in mind. A simple “thank you” or “That was kind/generous/helpful...of you,” would have been a more appropriate response. Gushing praise won't satisfy this hunger because it is devoid of substance.
'The boy who knows that his father and his mother love him with measureless patience in his faults, and love him out of them, is not slow to perceive, receive, and understand the dealings of the higher Love.'
Part II - this section is titled ‘Parents in Council’ and relates a conversation between a group of parents about what education should look like. This Fathers' & Mothers' Club takes a serious look at what education is and the responsibilities required of parents.
These discussions in Part II were the spark that led to the formation of the Parent’s National Education Review (PNEU). I think there were only about five couples present at that meeting but what a chain of action they set in motion!
There is also a short piece on choosing holiday destinations, some thoughts on the nature of the child - physiology, or ‘the science of life;’ and the musings of a schoolmaster.
Most of the chapters may be read independently although the parental discussion in Chapter I is later picked up again in Chapter V imagining the situation‘a hundred years after.’
Few things could be more disastrous (as, alas, few are more imminent) than a sudden break with the traditions of the past; wherefore, let us gently knit the bonds that bind us to the generation all too rapidly...
It is well that we gather up, with tender reverence, such fragments of their insight and experience as come in our way; for we would fain, each, be as an householder, bringing forth out of his treasures things new and old.
To be continued...