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Your child will learn a lot from having natural, first-hand experiences with the people and things in your home.
Today we’re continuing a series on the core values of a Charlotte Mason approach. Last time we looked at three facets of education and how we need all three to stay in balance; like a three-legged stool, you need all three legs.
Now we’re going to turn the spotlight on each of those three facets of education: education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life. If you haven’t read the previous posts in this series, I encourage you to do that first. These principles build on each other, and you will gain a much deeper understanding of Charlotte Mason’s core values if you have that fuller background leading up to today’s topic.
In this post, let’s look at how education is an atmosphere.
Think back to the home in which you were raised. Can you picture it? Think about the people who were there and how you interacted with them. Think about the things—the physical objects or animals—that surrounded you and what experiences you had with those things. That was the atmosphere of that home, and you learned from it.
Your child doesn’t need a special, age-segregated, controlled environment in which to learn. The natural atmosphere of your home provides a big part of your child’s education as a person.
Charlotte described it this way:
“When we say that education is an atmosphere we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child environment’ specially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere both as regards persons and things and should let him live freely among his proper conditions” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 94).
In other words, your child will learn a lot from having natural, first-hand experiences with the people and things in your home.
“We all know the natural conditions under which a child should live,” Charlotte went on to explain; “how he shares household ways with his mother, romps with his father, is teased by his brothers and petted by his sisters; is taught by his tumbles; learns self-denial by the baby’s needs, the delightfulness of furniture by playing at battle and siege with sofa and table; learns veneration for the old by the visits of his great-grandmother; how to live with his equals by the chums he gathers round him; learns intimacy with animals from his dog and cat; delight in the fields where the buttercups grow and greater delight in the blackberry hedges” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 96).
All of those relationships with people and things shape who that child is becoming. Today we might call it your family culture. Interestingly, the atmosphere of your home does not depend on how many members you have in your family or where you happen to live, whether you are rooted in one place the whole time or travel around a lot, if you live in one country or two or three, what kind of house you have, or any of the other circumstances that are just “packaging.”
No matter what your situation, the culture of your family—the atmosphere—is made up of one thing and one thing only: the ideas that rule your life as the parent. You see, the ideas that rule your life will permeate the atmosphere of your home, and it’s almost as if your child breathes the air of those ideas.
“Education is an atmosphere—that is, the child breathes the atmosphere emanating from his parents; that of the ideas which rule their own lives” (Parents and Children, p. 247).
The ideas that rule your life will overflow into how you interact with your child, how you allow your child to interact with others, how you spend your free time, whether you value knowledge for yourself as well as for your child, how important you think it is to spend time outdoors and get to know God’s creation up close and personal, how you treat your belongings. There are a myriad of ideas that rule your life, if you think about it! And those ideas will educate your child.
Now don’t get stuck into thinking about education as only formal lessons. The education of atmosphere is casual; it’s a way of living that surrounds your child in your home.
“These indefinite ideas which express themselves in an ‘appetency’ towards something and which should draw a child towards things honest, lovely and of good report, are not to be offered of set purpose or at set times: they are held in that thought-atmosphere which surrounds him, breathed as his breath of life” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 107).
Did you notice what Charlotte said those ideas in the atmosphere should draw the child toward? “Things honest, lovely and of good report” (taken from Philippians 4:8). The only way to create an atmosphere, a family culture, of things that are honest and lovely and of good report is to embrace those ideas yourself.
You see, education as an atmosphere is more about who you are than about doing set things a certain way. Are the ideas that rule your life worth emulating? Are they the direction you want your child to walk in his own life? Charlotte wanted us to stop and think about how much our words and ways at home are teaching our children.
“It is distressing to think that our poor words and ways should be thus inspired by children; but to recognise the fact will make us careful not to admit sordid or unworthy thoughts and motives into our dealings with them” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 107).
“Every look of gentleness and tone of reverence, every word of kindness and act of help, passes into the thought-environment, the very atmosphere which the child breathes; he does not think of these things, may never think of them, but all his life long they excite that ‘vague appetency towards something’ out of which most of his actions spring” (Parents and Children, p. 36).
Wow. It can be a bit overwhelming when we ponder the full implications of this idea that education is an atmosphere built on who we are as persons and the ideas that rule our lives as parents. Charlotte fully recognized the heaviness of that responsibility and the heart-stopping feeling that can come with it:
“Oh, wonderful and dreadful presence of the little child in the midst!
“That he should take direction and inspiration from all the casual life about him, should make our poor words and ways the starting-point from which, and in the direction of which, he develops—this is a thought which makes the best of us hold our breath” (Parents and Children, pp. 36, 37).
It is a solemn task we, as parents, have been given, yes. But we were given this task by a Heavenly Father Who knows all about us. He knows our weaknesses and tendencies better than we do ourselves, and yet He entrusted these precious children into our care. Why? Because that responsibility of parenting can press us to lean more fully on God, to come to the end of ourselves and to rely on His strength and His wisdom and His patience more and more. And when we do that, we begin to see how the atmosphere of our homes can educate us as well as our children.
So let me encourage you with two applications.
1. Keep the atmosphere of your home real, not perfect.
Your home will never be perfect. You will never be perfect, and your children will certainly never be perfect. But that’s okay. Some of the best education happens because we’re not perfect. We’re all here to help each other and encourage each other on the journey.
Your child needs to see you deal with disappointment and failure and difficult times in real life. He needs to realize that we all struggle here on earth. Of course, you shouldn’t burden your child with adult-sized issues or responsibilities that belong on your adult shoulders, but at the same time don’t shield him from age-appropriate disappointments and struggles.
You’re not trying to create an artificial atmosphere. In fact, you’re doing your child a disservice if you try to keep his environment always happy or always catering to his childish wants and desires. That type of limited environment suppresses growth rather than encourages it.
“It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the ‘child’s’ level” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 94).
Instead, remember how Charlotte described the natural, educative atmosphere of a home: how the child is taught by his tumbles, how he learns self-denial by the baby’s needs and veneration or respectful deference for the old. Home is where real-life learning takes place—amid the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s real. It’s not simulated . . . which leads to my second application.
2. Keep the atmosphere of your home active, not passive.
Put the emphasis on personal relationships with people and physical objects. Remember that relationships are built through first-hand active interaction and experiences. So make personal, real interaction a priority. In other words, be careful with passive entertainment.
The atmosphere of our homes can be decimated by electronic devices if we are not intentional about when and how we use them. We need to be careful that we are using phones and tablets and computers in a self-controlled manner and not allowing them to separate us from the most important people in our lives: the ones who physically live in our homes.
Parents, how and when you use your phones contributes to the atmosphere of your home. Your child needs you to be fully present, available, eager and ready to interact, to look him in the eyes and listen to what he is saying without feeling like he’s vying for your attention or competing for your love.
And please think twice before handing your child a phone or a tablet to keep him entertained and occupied. You may be missing an important opportunity to help him learn from real experiences with real people and things around him. You may be missing an opportunity to connect with his heart and offer that important education that comes casually in everyday situations.
I know it’s not easy. It’s not easy to teach and train a child through life—it requires a lot of energy and thought and effort and patience and wisdom—but it is so important. These are precious years that neither of you can get back. This is part of his education as a person.
So create a personal and real home atmosphere. Be intentional. Actively engage your child in conversation. Talk, discuss, question, explore, and experiment. Focus on real people and real things around you. Grow in this season of life together.
Education is an atmosphere. Let’s make that atmosphere a rich treasure.