I have four daughters, no sons. So sometimes I get asked whether a Charlotte Mason approach works with boys. The answer is “Yes, absolutely it does,” but don’t just take my word for it. Today we’re going to talk with one of the co-founders of Simply Charlotte Mason, my friend and mother of three boys, Karen Smith.
Sonya: Karen, thanks for joining us today to talk about your family, and your experiences with Charlotte Mason with boys. Have you even been asked does Charlotte Mason work with boys?
Karen: Yes, I have, many times.
Sonya: And what do you say to people when they ask that?
Karen: Yes, it does.
Sonya: Why do you think parents ask that question?
Karen: There seems to be a misconception that a Charlotte Mason education is all about tea parties, poetry, and daises.
Sonya: Thank you. Yes! And even though I have all girls, they were not all tea parties, poetry, and daisy girls.
Karen: No, my daughter certainty is not.
Sonya: Yes, you have one daughter, as well as your three boys. I think we need to make clear that when we’re talking about Charlotte Mason with boys, some of the characteristics that we’re going to describe, some of the tips that we might give, might apply to some girls as well.
Karen: Oh, definitely.
Sonya: But, I’m relying on you, because you’ve told me that raising boys and girls are two different things. They think differently; there are just some significant differences.
Karen: Actually, they’re wired differently.
Sonya: From the time they’re born.
Karen: From birth. Yes.
Sonya: So tell us why Charlotte Mason works for boys. In what way is it a good fit?
Karen: There are several ways. The short lessons really work for boys who have short attention spans. Boys do not like busywork at all. They like to have a purpose for why they are doing what they are doing. And Charlotte Mason’s methods work right along with that.
Sonya: Yes, that’s right in the sweet spot.
Karen: They do not like true or false, multiple choice, fill in the blank, guess-what-the-teacher-is-thinking type questions. They just want to tell you. They also love to wiggle. And so being able to mix up the subjects is very beneficial for boys.
Sonya: So they don’t just have to sit and listen for hours on end. They can do other things in the middle, but they’re still learning.
Karen: Yes, and even some of the lessons they can stand up or move around while that lesson is taking place. Sometimes they need to sit and do their lesson. But there are other times that they can get up and move around.
Sonya: Like, it’s hard to walk around while you’re doing your copywork, but that only lasts for a couple of minutes, and then you can look at a picture and walk around while you’re trying to get it in your head or something like that.
Karen: Or when you’re doing your oral narration after a reading.
Sonya: Some of them just think better when they’re moving.
Karen: Yes, like my oldest son.
Sonya: Yes, he loves to walk while he’s talking, because it helps him think.
Karen: It’s the only way his brain works.
Sonya: So they can do that with those oral narrations.
Karen: Yes, they can do that.
Sonya: What else were you thinking of?
Karen: The short lessons leave plenty of time for boys to be boys. They can run and jump and dig and use their imaginations, which is also beneficial to their growing up and their education. They learn a lot in that play.
Sonya: Running and jumping and playing sounds like the younger boys. (Well, maybe some young adult boys would do that still. They would play in different ways.) But how about when the kids get older, when the boys get into the teen years,—any ideas for that?
Karen: The shorter, focused lessons give them opportunity to pursue their own interests and to develop those. Several of my boys did that. And also if they want to work a part-time job, it gives them plenty of opportunity to do that.
Sonya: It seems like—when you’re talking about they have those short lessons and they can pursue their own interests—it’s almost like giving them that sense of leadership and control and incentive that is inherit in many of them.
Karen: Right. And they’re still learning when they’re pursing their own interests; it’s just now things that they really want to learn about. And really CM education sets them up for that beautifully, because they love to learn, and they learn how to learn. So they can learn whatever they want to outside of their more formal lessons.
Sonya: Because we’ve given them the tools.
Karen: Yes, the focus on being attentive to your lessons helps boys (and well, girls too) as they get older, when they have to read harder material and maybe even textbooks. They learn how to pay attention, and they can do it in one reading, unlike other students who may need to go back and re-read and find the answers to the questions.
Sonya: And then, I’m going to assume that re-reading things is going to feel like busywork.
Sonya: And feel self-defeating almost.
Karen: Yes. I know my oldest complained about the sort-of textbooks we used for science in high school. And when he had to use real textbooks for college classes, he came back and thanked me and told me he was wrong, that what he had in high school were not textbooks, because they were so different from what he had for college level classes.
Sonya: That’s great. And he noticed that difference.
Karen: Yes, he did, on his own. I did not point it out to him.
Sonya: So are there any specific tips you would give to parents who are homeschooling boys, especially with the Charlotte Mason method but even in general? You’ve been homeschooling boys for almost 30 years. At least, you’ve been parenting boys for almost 30 years, let’s put it that way. And homeschooling has been the majority of those years as well. So what tips would you share?
Karen: Allow your boys to wiggle. Allow them to move when they need to. Keep those lessons short, particularly in those early years when they are learning to control their bodies. Give your boys something to do with their hands when they have to sit still. If you require a young boy to sit still, he will not hear, he can not hear what you are reading to him or what you are telling him, because his mind is focused on staying still and not on what the lesson is.
Sonya: So what kind of things can you give them? I’m envisioning making all kinds of noise—vroom-vroom . . .
Karen: Give them quiet things. My boys liked to just doodle on paper. Sometimes those stress balls work, so they can just squeeze those. We had wax-covered yarn (I think they’re called Wikki sticks) that they could make all kinds of shapes with. Play-doh works or clay. As long as they’re quiet and they’re not disturbing somebody else.
Sonya: And they’re not getting distracted. I know your kids grew up with Legos all over. They made phenomenal things out of Legos. But I’m going to assume you did not let them do that while you were reading to them.
Karen: No, Legos were not allowed, because they’re too noisy.
Sonya: And it would take too much of their mental effort. They would concentrate on what they were creating. So you’re giving them things to do with their hands that are quiet and that are . . . I don’t want to say “mindless.”
Karen: In a way, yes; but they don’t have to concentrate on what they are doing with their hands, so that their brains can be engaged with the lesson.
Sonya: It gives them something to do, so they aren’t just focusing on, “I have to sit here, I have to sit here.” Makes sense. What else?
Karen: Let them run; let them play. Really, those short lessons and allowing them to wiggle are going to be your keys.
Sonya: Did you give your boys breaks between those short lessons, so they could go run, or did you find that just switching up, using different parts of the brain and keep-going, keep-going worked well for them?
Karen: We used both. We did some readings first—when they were younger, maybe up to a half-an-hour; when they were older, we could stretch it a little bit to 45 minutes or an hour—and then we would take at least a half hour break, and they would have time for a snack and time to go out and run around to burn off some of their energy. And then they would come back in and do their more individual studies: the math and copywork and that sort of thing. We mixed it up but definitely gave them a break to get outside and run around too.
Sonya: And that makes sense. That’s on Charlotte Mason’s schedule with her kids. Partway down the morning, they took that half hour to go do exercises and have free play as well.
Karen: Sometimes when a boy just can’t settle down, I would send them outside just to run around the house a couple times, in the middle of their lesson, because they were not going to get the lessons done.
Sonya: You can’t force them.
Karen: Right. We could fight about getting it done, but if I sent them out to run around, burn off some of that energy, they could come in and concentrate on what they were doing. So cut yourself some slack. Be a little flexible with your schedule, and let your boys do what they need to do to concentrate on their lessons.
Sonya: I think there is that fine balance there because, yes, you’re recognizing them as individual people, persons, and giving them what they need to succeed, but you also required effort from them.
Karen: Oh definitely.
Sonya: I know your oldest son—who is my son in-law. For those of you that don’t know about that, my second daughter married Karen’s oldest son. And so, I’ve watched him these last few years they’ve been married. They’re living down here, near us, and he works for us, and I can see the concentration, the attention that he has as a habit, and that does not just happen by accident.
Sonya: You must have required that, even in the midst of allowing them to move and wiggle.
Karen: Oh yes, I always required their attention and for them, as they got older, to focus their attention on their lessons. And if they focus their attention on their lessons, it’s amazing what they can get done in that older kids’ 20–45-minute time. Younger kids, shorter lessons of course, but even then they can get an amazing amount of work done in that time, if they concentrate.
Sonya: So that’s one benefit I have noticed. I’m curious what other benefits you have noticed with your boys, especially, and with your daughter. They’re all graduated now. How do you think the Charlotte Mason approach prepared them for life now. What are you seeing in them?
Karen: They all still have a love of learning, and they all know how to learn, and they’re able to pursue their own interests. My youngest was in an apprenticeship program with intensive training for the first three months of that; and he was not spoon fed. He was told, “Here’s a book; it does this. Here’s a book; it tells you about this. You choose which one. They’re both good, and you will learn what you need to. You go read it.” There were no assignments given. He was responsible for that. And if he had not learned how to read a book and concentrate on his lessons and to learn on his own without somebody spoon-feeding him, he would not have succeeded in that.
Sonya: That’s a great example. Anything else you want to say to parents of boys or of wiggly girls, either way?
Karen: Of course, require them to do their lessons, but think about how they are wired. Give them some flexibility on how they do those. And let them burn off energy. Let them wiggle. Let them keep their hands busy, but hold them to that standard of getting their lessons done.
Sonya: Good advice. Thanks so much for joining us.