How to Explain Charlotte Mason to your Relatives

So imagine this scene with me: you are sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner; you have all your relatives—some who are close, some who are distant. They’ve all gathered in your house, and you’re getting ready to partake of this wonderful feast, and Aunt Flo right next to you says, “So tell me about your homeschooling.”

What do you say? How do you explain Charlotte Mason homeschooling to a relative, just off-the-bat like that? How deep do you go? How do you explain it? Today we want to talk about how to explain something so deep and so rich as a Charlotte Mason education, and something so different. How do you explain that to relatives who are inquiring? Joining me for this discussion is my friend Amber O’Neal Johnston.

Sonya: Amber, have you ever encountered a situation like that?

Amber: All the time. Every time I get together with our extended family. I was raised by two public school principals, a whole family full of teachers and educators. There’s a whole other layer, so this would come up frequently for us.

Sonya: As you got started, this probably came up more than just at Thanksgiving dinner. So how did you approach it?

Amber: Well, at first I was very defensive, and I just wanted to tell all the things, all at once, and get everybody on my side to agree with me. “I’m going to tell you how wonderful this is, and there’s this, and there’s this, and here are the books you can read, and here’s a website, and once you do all that, you’ll see how great this is,” and I saw, “Okay, that did not work.” I learned to pace myself, and realized that I’m in relationship with my relatives for the long haul. I don’t have to explain every single thing, so I start with something light and tell a little bit about some of the ways we spend our days and, over time, more and more unfolds.

I’m in relationship with my relatives for the long haul. I don’t have to explain every single thing.

Sonya: I think that’s wise when someone asks that question, especially if it’s a distant relative whom you don’t see very often. One of the first things you have to do is assess: What is the interest level? Is the person just making casual conversation and hoping for a two-sentence answer? Like, “How’s-the-weather-been?” type level? Or does the relative really want you to dive in and go deep? Assessing the interest level would happen by, as you said, sharing a little bit and waiting to see the response.

Amber: Right, because it might be like, “Oh that sounds great!” or it might be like, “Well how do you do that?” Or “Well, wouldn’t it be better for them to get that at school?” Or any other follow-up questions, but if there aren’t any follow-up questions, it’s like, “Pass the pie.” Then I can hold back on all of my other ideas, or maybe save them for another time.

Sonya: As you give those first couple of ideas, how do you present it? I know Charlotte talked about how we don’t go on the attack. We simply state our philosophy and practice, and we don’t attack the other person. How have you put that into practice in those initial sentences? 

Amber: Yes, I think in the beginning I thought the easiest thing to do would be to compare and contrast to help my family really understand the differences with a Charlotte Mason education. But I realized that every time I contrasted with, “Well, we do this, while at school they do this,” or, “Traditionally these are things are done.” I was not only attacking my family members, their careers, and their life-callings, but also the educations they had received and what they had given me as their child. And so I think that causes people to become sensitive and feel attacked. Since then, I’ve learned to lead with what we do do, versus what we don’t do, as much when it’s comparing it to what someone else may have experienced. So for instance, I talk about living books, but I leave out the part “as opposed to those dry textbooks,” you know. Or, I talk about the idea of spending time in nature and what we do there as opposed to canceling recess everywhere. So I stay positive and state the affirmative and let them infer some of the other things. There is some contrasting that needs to happen to fully understand it, but it doesn’t all need to happen in every conversation, especially not the early ones.

Sonya: Yeah, that’s a good point, and in the rest of that quote about that, Charlotte Mason said about state your theory, but don’t attack. Because when a person is on the defense, their mind is not open to new ideas. 

Amber: That’s true.

Sonya: Especially if your parents or other relatives are in an educational profession. 

Amber: Yeah, for sure, it feels very attacking. 

Sonya: Now, did you actually say, “We use living books”?

Amber: Yes, I did; I said, “We use living books,” and they were like, “Well, what are living books?” But then, instead of working harder to define them, I defined them at first with, “Totally different than what we used!” I was just not really thinking fully toward what I was saying; what I was saying was more than just communicating what we do in our home, but it also was saying that it’s the opposite of what you do and what you did with me. You know what I mean?  There has to be some sensitivity there. As we think of who we’re talking to, close relatives—for us it’s grandparents—I give a lot of latitude too, in terms of patience. When I dig deeper, and my parents were like, “What are you doing?” I think it came down to fear.

Sonya: “You’re ruining my grandchildren!” (laughs)

Amber:  Yes, right! they love them so much and want the best for them. And I think they’re afraid that, “Whatever my crazy kids are in doing in their house, somehow my grandchildren will miss out on opportunities, or fulfillment, or a full education.” To have others love your children that much, that they have thoughts about their future and sometimes worry, is a gift. So I had to step back and say, “These are my parents; these are my in-laws. They love our children so much,” and rather than becoming frustrated with their care, I need to take patient time to let this unfold for them. 

To have others love your children that much, that they have thoughts about their future and sometimes worry, is a gift.

Sonya: So what did that look like for you, this patient unfolding? Was it just more, “Let’s go have lunch so I can dump some more information in your ear,” or how did you unfold that?

Amber: That was not working. I realized I’d had years to explore this. I’d read Charlotte Mason’s volumes and talked through them with friends, been to conferences, and listened to podcasts. To come to someone and expect him or her to fully embrace it over tea one day can be difficult, right? For me, one of the things I did is invite them in. So rather than just talk about the walks we take, I was like, “Would you like to go on a walk with us?” Rather than tell them about the handcrafts that my kids made, we would give those as gifts so they would see firsthand. And sometimes we would even read books based on things that I knew really interested them.

Particularly, one of the kids’ grandfathers is really into certain aspects of military and war and things like that, so my kids could talk to him about it, and he was impressed. He was like, “Wow, I don’t expect kids to know this about this,” and I was just like, “There are these great living books that they read that really gave them a relationship with this thing that you love,” so I feel like that has been singularly the most effective idea: inviting them into our world so that they can see and feel a living education, a relational education, for themselves, rather than just trying to describe it.

Sonya: I love those ideas—reading about things that their grandparents are interested in, and doing the handicrafts and taking nature walks. What other ways have you been able to show rather than tell?  

Amber: One of my favorites is from when I was dating my husband. My father-in-law made a reference to a poem I was not familiar with. It was called “Trees,” and he said, “This is my all-time favorite poem,” and I was dating his son, so I took a mental note. And years later, I added that into our recitations in the mornings. My kids learned that poem, and the next time we saw him, they excitedly ran up and started reciting it and he was so touched by that. He’s since passed away so that is a memory that we have, but I feel that we won him over with our sweetness. With relatives, sometimes you have to balance between being patient and being protective. If they need more time, maybe you can work harder to bring them into your world. But if they’re being truly antagonistic, then your first responsibility is to protect your children.

Sonya: That’s a good point. We should not assume their intent, but we need to be prudent. We need to be wise in our dealings with them, but always, as you said, be patient and know what our intent is. We are not going to attack. We are just going to state. I want to bring up one more thing. You used the term “living books.” You used the term “form a relation.” Were the relatives able to understand those? I usually think of those as CM jargon. Those are terms that we use in the CM world, but other people might not get it, or they kind of look at you funny. It’s like “living books?” Talk a little bit about how much CM terminology you used, and maybe it was a process? As you went over time, you could throw in a little bit more? Talk a little bit about language.  

Amber: I think it’s better to speak in language that the listener can understand. Because our number-one goal is to communicate. For me, it really comes down to how comfortable I am and how deep I think this conversation is going to get. So for living books, my mom immediately said, “What is that?” and it was really easy for me to say, “The kind you don’t want to stop reading,” and of course there’s so much more to it, but right away that set a stage for her that she understood enough for the conversation to continue. And there are other times my kids are like, “Oh I’m going to narrate, I’m going to narrate,” and she’s like, “What are the kids talking about?” And I told her, “Well, you know when he was in here the other day, telling us all about that movie and every single detail and we were like, ‘Okay.’ He was narrating what he had seen. In this case, they narrate what they read.” And she’s like, “Oh, wow,” she was like, “So it’s kind of like a quiz?” and I was like, “Nope, not like a quiz at all,” but, you know, we got there. 

And we have fun with it, and for me, it’s not becoming defensive. Because sometimes people are like, “Well, I don’t understand why that’s important,” and you want to be like, “They’re questioning me,” but I remember, “No, they’re loving my kids.” Again, they are wanting to make sure. There’s balance in everything, but using words that people are familiar with is a gracious way to converse. 

Sonya: That’s a wonderful way to put it: “a gracious way.” I think throughout the whole process we want to be the ones that display the grace and the patience and the love. There’s an idea just came to mind. We are still creating the atmosphere that our children are watching. They’re watching our interactions with those relatives, even if they’re sitting at the children’s table. But they get that atmosphere, and they know if we are on the defensive and trying to prove our point or if we are continuing to show that grace and love. 

Amber: That’s so important, and in the end, the proof is in the pudding. All the people around you who love your children are going to continue to see them grow and blossom, and that is going to be the answer to all the questions that they had. 

Sonya: That takes faith on our part. 

Amber: It does, and theirs too. You know, I remember my mom saying, “I’m not a big fan of homeschooling, but I’m your biggest fan.” 

Sonya: Wow! Oh, trophy for her! Yeah, that was the best mom-statement right there. That’s great. All right, thanks so much, Amber. 

Amber: You’re welcome.

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