Imagine a scenario with me. You are teaching your child how to write. So, as Charlotte Mason detailed, you set before that child a model of the handwriting you want him to copy. Now let me ask you a question: What does that model look like? Imagine giving your child a printout of the mistakes he has made in the past and saying, “Here, look at this, but write it correctly.” We would never do that! We put before that child a good model and say, “Make it look just like that.” Don’t we?
Yet it occurred to me that we, as homeschool teachers, often tend to focus on our past mistakes even as we’re trying to correct them for the future. It’s almost as though we keep setting before us a picture of what we’ve done wrong and telling ourselves, “Here, see this? Don’t do it this way. Look at this, but do it right this time.”
When we focus on past mistakes, we hinder ourselves from future success.
Charlotte Mason knew the principle that you move toward what you focus on. What we set before us is what will have our attention. Why focus our attention on mistakes? The more we replay those movies in our heads, the more they will consume our attention and energy, leaving little hope for the changes we want to make in the future. We need to learn from the past, absolutely; but then we need to envision the future and strike out in that direction, always keeping that new picture before us—looking at the good model, not the one with the mistakes.
Let me give you three examples that encompass the three aspects of education that Charlotte Mason talked about so much: education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.
First, let’s look at how you might apply this to the atmosphere of your home. Remember, the atmosphere of your home is made up of the ideas that rule your life as a person—your own habits of thinking and behaving, as it were.
Let’s say that in the past you’ve had a tendency to delay your bedtime. You’ve found yourself staying up until 2 AM consistently. Then when morning comes, you either drag yourself out of bed and give your children less than your best, or you sleep in and then have to face the fact that your children are waiting on you, or they’ve gotten busy with other things, and you feel like you’re playing catch up all day long.
You’ve come to the conclusion that something needs to change. Go ahead and take one good, long look at that old tendency and extract the lessons it has for you. What have you learned from that action? Perhaps you have learned that you can’t be at your best for your children when you get only four hours of sleep. So how many hours do you need to be at your best? You might think about what you usually do during those hours that you stay up at night. What are you trying to get done? How might you be able to do those things during the day instead? How might you rearrange your schedule to get them done before nighttime?
Once you have extracted the lessons that you can learn, . . . and by the way, beating yourself up and saying, “I’m a bad mommy” is not one of the lessons you should learn. Trust me on that. But once you have extracted the lessons that you can learn, shut that door. Don’t keep looking back at it. Determine what you’re going to do moving forward and set that decision before you. Look at that good model. The more you think about the past—the model that you don’t desire to copy—the more you’re going to move toward it. You move toward what you focus on. You can’t make much progress toward a different future if you keep turning around to look at the past.
It’s the same thing for your child’s habits, and that’s the second area where we can think about an example: your child’s growth in the discipline of good habits. Take a look at the past and determine which habit you need to work on next. Extract the lessons from that past. Then stop looking at the past and make plans for the future. What do you want this new habit to look like? Picture it in detail. Consider how you can communicate your expectations to your child. Think about what natural consequences could be used, as needed, to help your child learn and grow in that habit.
For example, maybe one child has been dawdling over his individual work, and that has been dragging out your whole day of schoolwork. Take a good look at what has been causing that dawdling and see what you can extract from that situation. Is it that he doesn’t understand the lesson? If so, consider whether you need to set it aside for a while until he is developmentally ready, or maybe you need to explain the concept a different way, or perhaps use a different resource. If, on the other hand, he understands the lesson, but he’s allowing himself to be distracted, think of the natural consequences you might use.
Perhaps you could determine how long that lesson should be and set a timer. You don’t have to leave the timer where he can see it; set it for yourself, so that 10 minutes before the end of that lesson time, you can go to him and in a calm, matter-of-fact voice, spotlight his responsibility. You might say something like, “In 10 minutes, I will start our picture study. Do you want to finish this lesson now or this afternoon?” Then let him make the choice and experience the consequences. If he had other plans for this afternoon, those will have to be set aside until he finishes the lesson he chose to postpone.
But during this process, keep before you the new plan, the good model. Remind yourself of what you want your school day to look like and the strategies you have decided to use to help you achieve that momentum.
Also keep before you a picture of what you’re hoping to achieve in that child. The more you look at him as a dawdling individual, the more you will expect that of him. Try to set before you a picture of what he could become as he learns and grows in the habit of focusing his attention and keeping it where it should be for longer periods of time.
Then the third example: education is a life, which relates to the living ideas presented in our school studies. Let’s say, you had a less-than-stellar exam week at the end of the term. As you look back, you have realized that you weren’t helping your child cement those ideas in his mind through consistent narration. You were skipping narration or pre-reading reviews. So extract the lessons from that experience. Perhaps it is simply that you need to require narrations.
After you have come to that conclusion and identified that this is the change that will help you improve, then take a few moments to map out what that improvement will look like. Try to think through all the details and get that picture crystal clear in your imagination. What does the good model look like: How often are you going to ask for narrations? How long of a passage are you going to read before asking for a narration? How will you set up that passage so your student has a chance to grasp the context before you start in? Will you have a timer going to help you keep the lesson at the appropriate length? Picture that whole narration lesson in your mind.
Now, be warned. The next time you read that history book, your mind will probably start to replay a movie of your past. It may try to remind you of all those times that you didn’t require a narration. Be ready for that. And when that movie starts to play, push the off button and declare to yourself what you learned from that experience and what you are moving toward now as a result. Push play on the new movie that you envisioned; set before your mind’s eye the way that you want this narration lesson to look. Focus on the good model. The more you keep your attention on what you do want, the more you will move in that direction.
There are any number of situations in which we can apply this idea, but it all boils down to this: don’t focus on the mistakes you’ve made. Take a good look at them, extract the lessons, and learn from them. Then set them behind you and focus your attention, instead, on the good model of what you want that situation to look like moving forward. Keep that good model before your mind’s eye, and you’ll have a much better chance of making your life look like it.