Charlotte Mason on Religious Education
I started blogging through Charlotte Mason’s School Education (Volume 3 of The Original Home Schooling series) in 2014 and got as far as Chapter XII. I’ve been reading it again this year with an online group and using this opportunity to start writing about it again.
So here are some thought on a few of the topics in Chapter XIII, 'Some Unconsidered Aspects of Religious Education.'
The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt, 1851
In this chapter Mason touches on a few of the more practical principles which seemed to her to be essential in order to bring children up in ‘the nurture and admonition of the Lord.’
She starts with the principle of authority and the fact that most of us who have authority over someone are aware that we, too, are acting under a higher authority.
We can’t let ourselves off the hook with “Do as I say, not as I do.” It’s hypocritical to require our children to be under authority if we reject it in our own lives.
When Mason wrote this volume in the early 1900’s, the exercise of authority was believed to have a stifling effect on individual personality. In our age of individualism that belief is even more firmly entrenched. Anything that smacks of authority is seen as detrimental to the growth of personality.
If we take the example of good and just government, we see its role as defending liberty. Laws are in place to restrain or punish those who interfere with the rights of others and to endorse those who do what is right.
Proper authority doesn’t oppose the development of an individual unless that person is on a morally wrong track. It’s wrong thinking to equate harshness, punishment and force with the idea of proper authority. This kind of authority doesn’t punish but prevents us from doing wrong. The penalties that follow us through life are the natural consequences of broken law. Proper authority is preventative and helps to keep us from severer penalties later on.
Mason next considers the laying down of habit in the religious life and her first concern is the thought life.
‘...every act and attitude is begotten of a thought, however unaware we be of thinking.’
A child needs to be guided into true, happy thinking; that ‘God should be in all their thoughts.’
With little children, devotional living (using everyday circumstances to teach into their lives) is something we can do to help instill and reinforce these habits of the thought life. Nature gives us an ideal opportunity for this and we have many instances in the Gospels where Jesus himself used the natural world to illustrate and teach - ‘Look at the birds of the air...’
‘To keep a child in this habit of the thought of God - so that to lose it, for even a little while, is like coming home after an absence and finding his mother out - is a very delicate part of a parent’s work.’
Reverent Attitudes - Mason believed that ‘the form gives birth to the feeling’ and that our aversion to ‘mere forms’ and the feeling that it’s ‘best to leave the child to the natural expression of his own emotions’ may be wrong. That children should be taught how to be reverent - to show/feel deep and solemn respect - is something worthwhile to consider now when spiritual instruction has a tendency to be dumbed down. Children given twaddle and cartoon characters won’t develop habits of attention and real devotion. Turning everything into fun or entertainment won’t deliver inspiring ideas in spiritual things - and a single great idea can change the course of a life.
Regularity in Devotions - this was an opportunity for our reading group to share how we each went about laying down habits and it reinforced the fact that each family is different in how they go about this in their homes or even at different stages of family life.
Idealism can produce unrealistic expectations but family devotions doesn’t have to be complicated or look a certain way. It can be something simple such as praying together, reading the Bible aloud, some sort of devotional reading, listening to/singing a hymn together, or a child might ask a question and you take it from there; taking advantage of seasons such as Advent or Easter to introduce a time of devotions together.
Families are sometimes messy. Dads aren’t always around or some family members may be antagonistic to spiritual things but God will honour your efforts to pass on your faith to your children. We don’t have to wait for ideal circumstances - they may never come. As Deuteronomy 6 shows us, there are endless opportunities throughout the day and untold ways to impress these things of the heart upon our children:
‘These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.’
Which brings me to one of my favourite ideas from this chapter -
* That we make sure to prevent the separation of things sacred and things (so called) secular in the child’s mind and that we recognise that the Holy Spirit is the supreme educator of mankind. Instilling an overall sense of the presence of God in our children's lives strengthens this aim. *
Our children ultimately need to establish their own religious habits and a big part of that is for them to see that it is something we do ourselves.
Young children have a keen sense of wrongdoing and will keep their feelings turned inward. They might sulk, get passionate or be just plain naughty and have no idea that ‘there is a Saviour of the world, who has for him instant forgiveness and waiting love.’
I’ve observed that children sending a child to a ‘naughty chair’ as a form of punishment may encourage this bottling up of emotions and wallowing in self-pity. I’ve seen the banished child stew and come out worse than they went in. I understand that sometimes a child needs to be taken out of a situation to calm them down but I think that’s different. I had to do this with one of my sons because he had a quick temper but he knew I wasn’t punishing him. It gave him space and a way out of the temptation to lash out in anger.
Some closing thoughts:
Life can throw some difficult things at us and it’s important that we keep close to the Lord ourselves. We teach what we know so we need to make time to feed our own spirits before we can pass anything on. We are ALL under God’s authority - our children need to see this in our lives.
Although we can’t ‘make’ our children follow God we can make it attractive for them. We can be firm about our beliefs but do so in a way that our children can always approach us. Forcing our beliefs onto our children can backfire.
The good news is that we’re not on our own. If we don’t have the wisdom we need we can ask for it.
It’s important to remember that Christianity and religious education isn’t a legalistic process where we tick the boxes but it is about a Relationship.
‘The very essence of Christianity is passionate devotion to an altogether adorable Person.’