Authority and Obedience: Core Values of Charlotte Mason

Charlotte Mason had a very balanced view of authority and obedience. Let’s talk about it.

We have begun a tour, looking at the core values that Charlotte Mason educators hold dear. These are the guiding principles upon which Charlotte built her whole educational approach; and if we can get a firm grasp on these values, we will gain confidence in our homeschooling. 

Today on the tour, we are pausing to look more closely at the third core value. If you haven’t yet read the posts on the first two, I encourage you to do that in order to gain the full picture.

So far we’ve looked at “Children are born persons,” not just empty containers or blank slates, but whole persons; and so we treat them as whole persons and educate the whole person. We’ve also discussed how children have possibilities. They are not doomed by any inherited tendencies or faults of character; we can help them cultivate good character traits and minimize or avoid evil ones. There is hope for change.

The third core value shines the spotlight on a relationship that is necessary if we are to treat children as persons and help them cultivate what is good in their lives. That vital relationship is between authority on the one hand and obedience on the other. If we can fully understand this necessary relationship, we will have a solid foundation on which to build our children’s educations.

An attitude of obedience, or “docility” as Charlotte also called it, is necessary for education to take place. Docility conveys the idea of being teachable; it accepts instruction, whereas a rebellious spirit rejects instruction. The Book of Proverbs tells us that over and over: “Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it” (8:33); “A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke” (13:1); “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future” (19:20).

So for education to take place, it is necessary that there is instruction from the authority and acceptance on the part of the student. 

But there is much more to this core value than that. Let’s take a look at the bigger picture that Charlotte laid before us. And this is crucial to successfully understanding and implementing this third core value. Here’s how she worded it: she said that this relationship between authority and obedience is “natural, necessary and fundamental” (A Philosophy of Education, p. xvii).

Authority and obedience are not just natural, necessary and fundamental in the home; they are natural, necessary and fundamental in the world at large and in an orderly society. 

A few weeks ago the city was doing some road construction near my house. We were driving down the street and came up to a line of stopped cars. We waited and waited, and finally a little parade of cars approached us and went by in the other lane. Then slowly, our line of cars started moving in our lane and, in our turn, we were able to navigate around the construction crew and go on our way. Now, what made that unusual but helpful maneuver happen? Authority and obedience. There was a person standing in the street at the front of our line of cars and holding a little STOP sign. None of us knew that person, but we all recognized the authority of that person who was holding the sign and we chose to obey. We may not have wanted to obey or liked to obey right then, but we recognized that authority and we gave our cooperation.

The person holding the stop sign was not superior to us as a person. She did not have more worth or value just because of her position. And the drivers of the vehicles were not inferior as persons. Authority and obedience happened in that scenario simply because both of us recognized our responsibilities in the situation and we performed those responsibilities in order to accomplish what needed to be done in an orderly manner. 

Now, think about that person holding the stop sign for a moment. She had a role of authority, yes; but she was also in a position of obedience to those in authority over her. She had rules that she was responsible to obey even in her position of authority, correct? She couldn’t just make up any rule she wanted for the vehicles in her care. She had been given a task and guidelines and that role of responsibility by someone in authority over her, so even as she was acting as an authority, she was also acting in obedience to a higher authority.

That is a key concept in this core value. As parents, we are in a position of authority in our homes, but that authority has been given to us by God, a higher authority, and we are responsible to obey His authority in the situation in which He has placed us. So when we talk about authority and obedience, that two-sided relationship applies to us as parents, not just to the parent-child dynamic. Does that make sense? We are responsible to obey the Authority over us even as we live out a role of authority in our homes, just as that construction worker was responsible to obey the authority over her as she exercised authority over us vehicle drivers.

It’s so important that we understand this bigger picture, and vastly important that our children understand it. It’s so easy for them to think that, as the authority in the home, we adults get to make any rules we want to and do anything we want to and make them do anything we want them to. But if we are to truly grasp this core value, that picture of total dictatorship has no place in our homes.

The truth is that, as parents, we are under God’s authority and are responsible to obey His directives in our lives and in our homes. He has placed us in authority within our homes in order to care for the children He has given to us, to point them to Him, and to see that His loving laws are communicated and carried out to the next generation. We have a responsibility to obey Him in that directive, just as our children have a responsibility to obey us. 

The other week in school, I had just finished reading aloud the Bible story about when Saul became king and Samuel challenged him to obey God’s rules, or laws. I closed the book and waited for my daughter to begin her narration. She looked at me for a moment, then she said, “You don’t follow the rules.” 

My heart skipped a beat. What!? What mistake had I made now that my daughter had noticed? With fear and trembling I asked, “What do you mean I don’t follow the rules?” 

She replied, “You make the rules.”

There it is. That’s exactly what Charlotte Mason was talking about. It’s a common misconception among children that we need to be alert to and counteract. From a child’s viewpoint, adults get to make any rules they want to and don’t have to obey any of them. From their perspective, adults get different bedtimes, get to make all the decisions about money, and get to choose what to do when and what to eat when. In their minds, adults “get to” while children “have to.” 

That’s the misconception that we need to counter and correct. Our children need to understand that, as adults, we have to do a lot of things. We are under authority as well.

So I said to my daughter, “I have rules from God that I have to obey too.” 

“Like what?” she asked. 

I mentioned a few from Scripture passages in our Scripture Memory box—like teaching her about God’s Word and being kind and taking care of our bodies as a temple of God. It was quite a discussion. Well, it probably took less than five minutes, but this is my daughter who struggles with autism, developmental delays, and especially verbal communication. So the fact that we even had this conversation at all was a precious gift!

I was so grateful that she was able to communicate those thoughts that she had in her mind about authority and obedience. And your child has those thoughts too. We need to make sure that we are communicating the truth of this core value: that we have been assigned a role of authority in our homes and we are responsible to obey God Who has given us that assignment, just as our children are responsible to obey.

Both authority and obedience are natural, necessary, and fundamental.


As we think about this authority-and-obedience assignment that we have been given, a couple of applications come to mind. 

1. Let me encourage you to accept the challenge!

As parents, we cannot abdicate our responsibility to be the authority in our homes. Refusing to take a place of authority over our children is refusing to obey our higher Authority.

Most of us wouldn’t outright make a conscious decision to give up our role of authority in the home, but sometimes we loosen our dedication to it little by little as we get focused on other things in life. We can get so busy doing other things that we neglect the responsibility. Or perhaps we just get weary of being the grown up, of making unpopular decisions, and of carrying that authority. We would much rather set it down and make life easier on ourselves. 

Charlotte recognized the many temptations that parents have to relinquish their role of authority. Here’s how she described them:

“The busy parent, occupied with many cares, awakes to find the authority he has failed to wield has dropped out of his hands; perhaps has been picked up by others less fit, and a daughter is given over to the charge of a neighbouring family, while father and mother hunt for rare prints.

In other cases, the love of an easy life tempts parents to let things take their course; the children are good children, and won’t go far wrong, we are told; and very likely it is true. But however good the children be, the parents owe it to society to make them better than they are, and to bless the world with people, not merely good-natured and well-disposed, but good of set purpose and endeavour.

“The love of ease, the love of favour, the claims of other work, are only some of the causes which lead to a result disastrous to society—the abdication of parents. When we come to consider the nature and uses of the parents’ authority, we shall see that such abdication is as immoral as it is mischievous. Meantime, it is well worth while to notice that the causes which lead parents to resign the position of domestic rulers are resolvable into one—the office is too troublesome, too laborious. The temptation which assails parents is the same which has led many a crowned head to seek ease in the cloister—

‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,’

even if it be the natural crown of parenthood.”

Parents and Children, pp. 12,13

Oh, my friend, don’t become weary in well-doing. This “natural crown” of authority is a sacred assignment from your Creator to care well for the precious souls in your home. Take it up with both hands, and say a prayer in your heart to be faithful to the task.

2. (This is a big one) Let me encourage you to work toward consistency. 

If we are under God’s authority to rule over the home, we must model what consistent obedience looks like. In other words, we must be careful not to model arbitrary obedience—only when it’s convenient or when we feel up to it.

Picture it with me. You help your children understand this important concept: that you have to obey the authority over you just as they have to obey your authority over them. You have been given the responsibility to instruct and train them in relationships with other people, in knowledge of God and man and the universe, in stewardship of themselves and their belongings. That’s your responsibility and you must obey. 

Then one day you’re at the grocery store with a cart full of food and one child stirs up the rest to start begging and whining for that kind of cereal that’s about half sugar, that kind of cereal that you have told them and told them it’s not good for them and they can’t have it. You’ve already had to tell them “no” about twelve other things during the day and deal with the fallout (but who’s counting?), school was a struggle, you’re pressed for time, and you’re tired. You’re weary. You really don’t want to make the unpopular decision again and have to muster up the strength to use a kind yet firm voice again, to answer their questions again, to remind them of what is right again, and to encourage them to respond with the right attitudes . . . again. 

Oh, the temptation is strong. But my friend, whenever we give in and take the easy way out, doing what is right only when we feel up to it, we are sabotaging our own work with our children. We are setting an example of arbitrary obedience. We are telling our children that it’s okay to obey sometimes and not obey other times.

And we may say, “But one little box of cereal is not that big of a deal!” And that is true. There may be little harm in the result of your decision, but there is a bigger harm in the fact that you altered your course, that you allowed yourself to do what you felt like doing instead of what you knew was right. 

Being able to do what you know is right brings liberty. Doing the hard thing brings freedom, because you are no longer a slave to your desires and emotions of the moment. When you give in to those desires and emotions, they carry you away from liberty and into license, which is a whole different and undesirable place. Here’s how Charlotte explained it:

“Children are persons; ergo, children must have liberty. Parents have suspected as much for a generation or two, and have been at pains not ‘to interfere’ with their children; but our loose habits of thinking come in our way, and in the very act of giving their freedom to children we impose fetters which will keep them enslaved all their lives. That is because we confound liberty and licence and do not perceive that the two cannot co-exist. . . . The child who has learned that, by persistent demands, he can get leave to do what he will, and have what he likes, whether he do so by means of stormy outcries or by his bewitching, wheedling ways, becomes the most pitiable of all slaves, the slave to chance desires. . . .

“The first duty of the parents is to teach children the meaning of must; and the reason why some persons in authority fail to obtain prompt and cheerful obedience from their children is that they do not recognize must in their own lives. . . . 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. . . .

“The parent, the mother especially, who holds that her children’s rule of life must be ‘Children obey your parents for it is right‘ certainly secures obedience, as she secures personal cleanliness or proper habits at table, because she has a strong sense of the importance of these things. As her reward, she gains for her child the liberty of a free man, who is not under bondage to his own wilfulness or victim of his own chance desires.”

The Story of Charlotte Mason, pp. 225-227

If we want our children to grow in making good decisions and to be able to do what is right even when it is hard, we must model that consistency for them. Will we do it perfectly? No, we’re human too. But with the Lord’s help, we can keep trying and growing in making good decisions ourselves too.

Now, one more application comes to mind and that is that we must not abuse this position of authority that we have been given. There are many ways that we can abuse our authority in the home, but that is a broad topic and it is actually the next core value: the principles of authority and obedience are limited by the respect that is due to the child as a person. We’ll take a look at those limitations that we need to keep in mind in our next core values episode. If you want to read ahead, take a look at chapter 5 in A Philosophy of Education. In fact, you will find chapters in that book that correspond to all of the core values we are discussing in this series. So if you want to dig deeper, read A Philosophy of Education.