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8 Words That Make All the Difference
If there was one thing that Charlotte Mason believed in, it was potential. Yes, she respected each person in her life as a unique individual, just as they were in that moment. But she also had a way of lifting their eyes and helping them believe that they could keep growing, that there was more inside them than they might realize.
And she summed up that belief in eight words.
Today I want to share eight words that played a large role in Charlotte Mason’s work. They have also played a large role in my friend Crystal’s life. Crystal has thought on them as a home educator; she has held onto them through cancer; and she has found strength in them for many years. In fact, she has passed them on to her children, all graduated now, and is continuing to share them with other parents’ children whom she is currently teaching.
I used to think these eight words were just for the students; after all, they were the student motto in Charlotte’s schools. But then I realized, as Crystal showed me, that those students were going to grow into adults and these eight words were shaping how they would (and should) view life all through the years. These words are for everyone. These words are for you today.
You know them: “I am, I can, I ought, I will.”
Let’s take a few minutes to lift our eyes and look at the potential in them . . . and in us.
“I am.” Who are you? What do you believe, deep down in your heart, about who you are? You see, what you believe about who you are will greatly affect what you think you can do. So we start with “I am.”
It’s easy to define ourselves by the tasks that we do every day: “I’m the cook, the chauffeur, the referee, the chore police.” I think that’s why Charlotte painted several beautiful portraits of parents in her book Parents and Children, detailing different aspects of who we are. She reminded us that we are more than the seemingly small things that we do every day. Let me share some of her powerful pictures.
Parents are rulers.
We are the authority in our homes. We have been given that responsibility by God. People in authority have to make the tough decisions, decisions that might not be popular but that will lead the way to what is good and true and right. We’ve talked before about the place of authority and obedience in our homes. You are the authority in your home, under the authority of God, Who has placed you there for the good of the children He has entrusted to your care. You’re not just making rules; you are setting up guideposts in the art of living.
Parents are inspirers.
We create an atmosphere of support and encouragement as our children learn and grow. We provide life-giving ideas that shape who they are becoming. We inspire rather than motivate. What’s the difference? Motivation is mainly from the outside; it seeks to get results through external pressure, such as rewards and punishment or threats and bribes. But inspiration is mainly from the inside; it sees past the wobbles and poor choices, fixes its eyes on the possibilities within that person, and encourages him to live up to his potential. That’s what it means to be an inspirer. You’re not just listening to your child chatter; you are getting a glimpse into her potential. And you’re not just reading aloud; you are planting seeds of noble, inspiring ideas.
Parents are schoolmasters.
When we think of schoolmasters, we think of someone who is responsible for the schooling of the children. And as homeschoolers, that plays a big role in who we are and what we do. But there is more to this portrait. Schoolmasters in Charlotte’s day had the reputation of making the students sit up and shape up; they instilled the discipline of good habits and cultivated that all-important self-compelling power. Some parents preferred to take the easy way out and leave that task to the schoolmaster, but Charlotte reminded parents that we have that responsibility ourselves. We are the ones who help our children cultivate the good habits and self-direction that will set them up for success in life. You are not just supervising chores; you are laying down the rails of good habits. You’re not just assigning schoolwork; you are providing opportunities to grow in self-direction.
Parents are trainers too.
This portrait is all about the importance of maintaining mental and physical health. It’s about modeling, teaching, and practicing appropriate exercise and good nutrition, keeping a wide variety of interests, and balancing rest and work. It’s about the importance of doing all we can to live life in a state of well-being. You’re not just brushing your child’s teeth or reinforcing bedtime or cooking a meal, you are training your child in healthful practices for well-being.
Parents are also spiritual instructors.
Perhaps I should have put this one first, because Charlotte believed that this was our greatest portrait as parents: to represent God’s character wholly and accurately to our children and to secure that our children are well grounded in the Scriptures. So you’re not just singing a hymn or reading a Bible story or doing your Scripture memory box, you are directing your child’s heart toward the most important Person in her life: God.
All of those beautiful portraits—a ruler, an inspirer, a schoolmaster, a trainer, and a spiritual instructor—are included in that phrase “I am.” That’s who you are as a parent. Let that sink into your heart.
The next two words are all about the capabilities that you have: “I can.”
Lately I’ve been impressed by the impact that our thoughts have in this area. What we tell ourselves can have a big effect on us emotionally and even physically. Telling ourselves “I can” can have a huge impact on how we view our days.
Now, I’m not advocating an all-encompassing “if you believe it, you can achieve anything” mentality. There are plenty of things that I simply cannot do; they’re not going to happen. For example, I can tell myself all day long that I’m going to play professional football in the Super Bowl, but realistically, as a petite grandma, that’s never going to happen. We need to be realistic. But for every one thing that we cannot do, there are probably at least a hundred things we can do. So rather than focus our thoughts and energy on what we cannot do, let’s focus on what we can do.
It’s interesting that when things go wrong at home—whether that’s in relationships or schoolwork or whatever—it seems like the natural place for my thoughts to settle and churn is “I’m not” or “I can’t.” “I’m not smart enough. I’m not a teacher. I’m not a patient person” or “I can’t say the right things. I can’t teach my kids math. I can’t be consistent in this new habit.” But the more we tell ourselves “I’m not” and “I can’t,” the more we will sabotage our growth and our children’s growth as persons. We must be careful of telling ourselves lies—about ourselves and about God.
I love Exodus 3 and 4. When God called Moses to an important role, Moses immediately started in on his excuses for why he couldn’t do the job. His mind immediately went to “I’m not” and “I can’t.” But for every excuse Moses thought of, God gave an assurance to counteract it. And those assurances had to do with God’s presence, God’s provision, and God’s power—all three things that He promises to us as well.
Yes, there are some things we will never be able to do, and that’s all right. But there are hundreds and thousands of things that we can do, especially with God’s help. When we are weak, He is strong. So rather than focus on what we can’t do, let’s shift our minds to what we can do. “I can.”
The next two words are about responsibilities: “I ought.” What are you being called to during this season of life? For some of you, it’s high school courses; for others, it’s preschoolers in the mix or a difficult pregnancy or moving cross country or chronic pain or . . . you fill in the blank. But for every situation in which we find ourselves, deep down inside there are certain things that we feel we ought to do.
Take a quiet moment to consider that question: Deep down inside, what do you think you ought to do? Now, keep in mind that sometimes we are too hard on ourselves and criticize our mistakes to an unhelpful degree. On the other hand, sometimes we are too easy on ourselves and live from one excuse to another. So try to determine which way you are leaning right now and pull yourself back to center as you do this exercise.
What do you think you ought to do during this season of life? Take note of what comes to mind. Capture it in writing somewhere or make a note on your phone.
And once you have done that, you’re ready to think about the final two words: “I will.” This is all about choice. You have a choice. You can choose how you will respond to the situation in front of you. You can choose whether you will do what you think you ought to do.
We’ve talked several times on this blog about how the Will works: how Will stands at the gate of your mind and heart, and as ideas present themselves there, his job is to choose which ones will be allowed in to influence your thinking and behavior and which ones will be turned away. It’s all about choosing. Making your choice in the moment this time. And then this time. And then this time.
And if you fill your mind with those beautiful and important pictures of who you are as a parent, and you’re careful to focus your mind on what you can do with God’s help rather than what you can’t do, and you identify in your heart what you ought to do in this moment, you will find that Will is bolstered and supported as you make that choice, “I will.”
“I am, I can, I ought, I will.”
Those eight words have the power to unlock the potential that God has placed inside you—as a homeschool educator, as a parent, as a person. There’s more inside you than you might realize. Tuck those eight words into your pocket, carry them with you today and review them often, and see what a difference they can make.
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Thank you. These are exactly the words I needed to read this morning.