Balance: Core Values of Charlotte Mason

I love how Charlotte Mason was so balanced in her approach to education—and to life. She encouraged us to use both books and physical, hands-on things in lessons. She preached and modeled a healthy balance of work and play and rest, all three. She was careful not to restrict learning to just a few subjects but wanted to give all the children a broad and generous education with a wide range of subjects.

Charlotte was a balanced person, and she was careful to maintain a sense of balance in her teaching. But there is one area of balance that stands out above all the rest. In fact, she summarized and adopted this balance as the motto for her work. It’s a core value of Charlotte Mason, and it goes like this: 

“Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life” (Parents and Children, p. 248).

Now let’s back up for a minute and review the other core values that have brought us to this point. If you’ve missed those posts, you can check out the entire Core Values series from the beginning.

  1. Your child is a person, not just a mind to be filled.
  2. Your child has possibilities both for good and for evil.
  3. Authority and obedience are natural, necessary, and fundamental in your relationship with your child, but—
  4. You must respect your child as a person and not try to manipulate him.
  5. “Therefore,” Charlotte said, “seeing that we are limited by the respect due to the personality of children we can allow ourselves but three educational instruments—the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit and the presentation of living ideas” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 94).

These three tools of educating do not manipulate or disrespect the child. Rather, they work in a beautifully balanced way to help your child grow as a person. Think of a three-legged stool. You need all three legs to keep that stool in balance and most useful.

The first leg of the stool is atmosphere; education is an atmosphere. Did you know that your child is learning just from living in the same house and doing life alongside you? He is absorbing, probably unconsciously, some of the same ideas that rule your life—ideas about what you think about yourself, ideas about how you relate to others, ideas about handling money, ideas about responding to authority, ideas about what is most important in life. All of those ideas make up the atmosphere of your home, and it is that atmosphere that is educating your child as a person. Charlotte said, “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 second leg of the stool is discipline; education is a discipline. By that, Charlotte meant the discipline of good habits that you intentionally cultivate in your child. And those habits are not limited to just “brush your teeth” and “comb your hair,” though you should probably include those. When Charlotte talked about habits, she was thinking about habits of character: the habit of obedience, the habit of attention, the habit of diligence, the habits of kindness, of thankfulness, of truthfulness, of respect. Intentionally training your child in good habits is an important part of his education as a person.

Then the third leg of the stool is life; education is a life. We give the children living ideas that nourish their minds and hearts, as opposed to a meal of dry facts. Ideas fire your emotions, feed your imagination, and spark other ideas of your own. Ideas help shape who you are becoming as a person. They educate you.

Atmosphere, discipline, life—the three work in harmony to help a person become the best version of himself that he can be, and they do that work respectfully. They motivate; they don’t manipulate.

In fact, they motivate a person toward self-education. And this is something that dawned on me just a week or two ago. I’ve done a whole series on how Charlotte’s teaching methods equip a child for self-educating, but only recently did I realize how this balanced, three-legged core value plays a major role in self-education too. Here’s what I discovered.

We hear a lot these days about “personal growth” and how important it is to keep growing and learning as an adult. “Personal growth,” it’s a buzz word. What is interesting is that the more I study and hear about personal growth, the more I find the three balanced components that Charlotte advocated: atmosphere, discipline, and life. Think about it.

As an adult, the atmosphere of the people you surround yourself with plays a big role in your growth and your desire to grow. You want to be around people who value growth and encourage you to keep learning and growing, people who are striving to improve and reach high goals themselves. The more you spend time around people who epitomize the life you’re working toward, the more those models motivate you and teach you. That’s atmosphere. 

Personal growth experts also put a big emphasis on cultivating habits that will help you keep moving forward, to be the best version of yourself, to show up on your A-Game for those around you who need you. That’s discipline. 

And when you listen to a podcast or read a book that focuses on personal growth, it feeds you ideas, not just dry facts. You hear and read about a lot of ideas, but it is the ideas that you accept into your mind and heart personally that grow and produce fruit in your life. Those ideas change you. They continue to fuel your desire for growth and they equip you with practical how to’s to make it happen. Education is a life, nourished upon ideas.

Education. Personal growth. It’s the same thing. In fact, Charlotte Mason said we learn in order to grow. Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life—whether you are 6 or 60.

We’ll look at each of those legs of the stool in more detail in future posts, but for now let me wrap up by giving you two applications.


1. Include all three legs of the stool; don’t ignore any single one.

If you have a three-legged stool, what happens if you take one of the legs away? It tips over. And that’s the same for this core value. Atmosphere, discipline, life—all three are necessary for a well-balanced education. 

Take away atmosphere and your child will have no model or encouragement for learning.

Take away discipline and your child will struggle with using what he is learning in a personal way.

Take away the living ideas and your child will divorce learning from real life and wonder what’s the point.

You need all three legs of the stool to keep your balance.

2. Keep all three legs of the stool in proportion; don’t overemphasize any single one.

If you’ve ever tried to balance on one leg of a stool, you know how unstable and precarious that position can be. In the same way, your approach to education can become unbalanced when you focus on one leg of the stool more than the others. Charlotte said, “We sometimes err, I think, in taking a part for the whole” (School Education, p. 148).

Perhaps the “atmosphere” part sounds most appealing. It is very inviting to picture your child absorbing ideas from living with you and think that such an atmosphere will surely shape who he will become. Yes, it will; but that’s not the balanced whole.

When you emphasize only a good atmosphere, your child can begin to think that he doesn’t need to do any work. True education must include some definite effort on the student’s part. 

Perhaps you tend to lean more on the “education is a discipline” leg. Training your child in good habits is a valuable endowment that will serve him well into his adult years and give you smooth and easy days. Absolutely. It is a vital leg to the stool.

But you can’t put all of your focus on that leg either. If you emphasize habit training too much, you can slip into an unhealthy focus on outward behavior and neglect to nourish your child’s heart and mind with living ideas. Charlotte said, “We must not make a fetish of habit; education is a life as well as a discipline” (Home Education, p. 192).

We need to give our children an ample supply of living ideas served up at regular intervals. But if you put all of your weight on the “life” leg of the stool, it can be intellectually exhausting. Your child needs time to process and digest those ideas. He needs space to determine which ideas to accept and which to reject. 

Your child needs the supportive atmosphere of your home where he can ponder living ideas and embrace the ones that will motivate him to form good habits. 

Atmosphere, discipline, and life—that’s balance. And that’s a core value of Charlotte Mason.