books and tree

I remember sitting in our Charlotte Mason homeschool discussion group, explaining how a living book should give our children ideas, not just facts. One dear lady turned a puzzled look my way and asked, “What do you mean ‘ideas’?”

That question made me pause. It’s easy to think of “ideas” as “the opposite of facts” or “whatever makes the story come alive.” But when you get right down to it, how do you define an “idea” in the sense that Charlotte Mason used that word?

Well, this week I had an ah-ha moment that helped me get a better grasp on this whole facts vs. ideas concept that is so foundational in the Charlotte Mason Method.

An Example of Facts vs. Ideas

Let’s take a Bible character most of us already know about in order to illustrate the difference. Let’s look at Joseph.

A typical factual summary of Joseph’s life might read something like this:

Joseph, the eleventh and favored son of Jacob, was sold into slavery by his brothers and carried to Egypt. Because he accurately interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, he was appointed second in command over all the land. His good management of resources resulted in Egypt’s survival during a seven-year famine and eventually the salvation of his whole family from starvation.

But if we read Joseph’s story, told as a narrative in Genesis 37–50, we will get the facts, yes; but we can also pull from it all kinds of ideas like this:

  • Inter-family relations and sibling rivalry; how it can be enflamed by words and actions,
  • Diligence and trustworthiness in assigned responsibilities,
  • Sometimes good choices result in painful circumstances,
  • God is in control,
  • Circumstances can change in a moment,
  • People will disappoint you,
  • Forgiveness,
  • Managing resources in feast and in famine,
  • Giving glory to God before authorities; courage.

There are probably several other ideas you can think of that I didn’t list here.

Do you see the difference? The facts are just something that happened to someone else. The factual account takes all the emotional and human experience aspects out of the equation. But the ideas are common human experiences and emotions that we can relate to and learn from.

Based on that little exercise, here is an attempt at defining “ideas” according to what Charlotte Mason had in mind.

A living idea is a thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action; a mental impression that helps shape one’s thought processes and behavior.

Don’t Limit the Ideas

That quick comparison boiled down the difference into simple enough terms that I could wrap my mind around it. And then, as often happens, that discovery led to another one.

It suddenly dawned on me why Charlotte often warned her readers against moralizing a story. When we attempt to moralize, we limit the “take away” to only one idea. For example, I recently saw a book about the story of Noah, and the subtitle was “A Lesson in Obedience.” Well, yes, we can find in Noah’s story the idea of obedience, but there are so many other ideas included in those chapters as well! Why limit it to only one?

Charlotte encouraged us to share the story with our children and allow the Holy Spirit to impress on them whatever idea from it is needed at just the right time. Good living books overflow with living ideas. The more ideas that are presented, the more ideas there are available to shape our children’s thoughts and lives.

So next time you’re reading a book and trying to decide if it’s a good one, look for those ideas. It’s the ideas about common experiences and emotions that will make the book “living” for your child.


  1. Very illuminating. I was particularly struck by the idea of letting the Holy Spirit emphasize the idea that “is needed at just the right time.” What a fearsome thought that I might drown out the voice of God because I am so eager for my children to hear ME!

    I am learning, slowly but surely, to rein in my moralizing. It is limiting, and it also implies that the idea you focus on is the “correct” one. I find that my kids tend to shut down completely when I do that – they won’t even enter into a conversation about the particular idea that I am emphasizing. It puzzled me for a long time, but I’m starting to understand their reaction. Thank you again for this valuable food for thought.

  2. Great “idea”! 🙂

    I found so many beautiful ideas (for myself as a mom) in Charlotte’s writings that I knew it was the way to go for us.
    I just love it when I get a new idea or outlook on life, and I can see the beauty and power of it for our children…what a blessing to be able to train them from a young age with ideas and not just unrelated facts.
    I love the way you explain things!

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