Is Charlotte Mason a Gentle Approach?, Part 1

Homeschool girl painting art outdoors

I have often heard homeschool moms refer to the Charlotte Mason approach as a “gentle” approach. I’ve even used the term myself, come to think of it, when describing some of her methods. Usually that word comes up when we talk about how her methods fit so well with a child’s natural way of learning, how they mirror so much common sense, and how they focus on quality rather than a mind-numbing quantity of busywork.

But a recent discussion on our SCM Forum nudged me back to Charlotte Mason’s writings to see if she ever referred to her approach as “gentle” or a “gentle art of learning.”

Guess what. She didn’t.

Now, obviously, that doesn’t mean that we can’t use that description when talking about her methods, but let’s see if that term is accurate. This week let’s look at some ways that Charlotte’s approach would not be considered gentle; next week we’ll look at ways that it could be characterized as “gentle.”

How CM Is Not Gentle

If your mental picture of the Charlotte Mason method is of tea parties with lace tablecloths, snuggling on the couch with a sweet little storybook, and setting up an easel in the middle of a field of daisies as your children paint to their hearts’ content, you have only a partial picture of her approach. In fact, you have a part of a partial picture. The Charlotte Mason approach is not all warm and fuzzy.

Charlotte expected a lot of effort from the child in many areas of life. Her academic expectations were rigorous.

  • Students were given only one chance to listen to a reading. Then they were required to tell back in full detail all they had heard. If you think this is an easy task, try it some time.
  • Students’ living books were of a very high calibre, written with “literary power,” and students read hundreds of pages each term.
  • Poetry, the highest form of literature, was included regularly. Sometimes the students were required to narrate the poems or even write a narration from one of their other books in poetry form, reflecting a certain poet’s style.
  • Foreign language standards were high. Students learning French were expected to listen to readings in French and then narrate those readings in French.
  • Shakespeare, Plutarch, and Latin were staples in her schedule.
  • There were no pre-exam reviews and no repeating of passages. Charlotte expected long-term retention, and with her style of exam, cramming was impossible.
  • Charlotte’s students did school six days a week.

Academics were not the only focus; Charlotte also had high expectations for the child as a person.

  • Students were to pay full attention. Her class schedule allowed no margin for repeating material or coddling those who dawdled.
  • Each child was expected to strive for perfection—the habit of perfect execution—in all his work.
  • The habit of reading for instruction became the students’ responsibility. They were expected to discipline themselves to approach their books with a mind-set to learn.
  • All in all, Charlotte listed some sixty habits that she encouraged and emphasized with her methods—habits that take a lot of sustained effort to cultivate.

The Charlotte Mason approach requires much of the children. It is not all sweet little storybooks and time playing outside. That skewed picture is what gives people the mistaken idea that CM is only for young children. It’s not. It is a method with high personal expectations and strong academics that gives children of all ages an excellent education.

Next week we’ll take a look at what Charlotte herself said about gentleness and see if there is room for gentleness in her approach. I think you’ll like what we find.

Those of you who roll your eyes (albeit discretely, of course) when you hear people describe Charlotte Mason as “gentle,” what else should be mentioned here? Can you think of other ways that the Charlotte Mason Method would NOT be characterized as “gentle”? Leave a comment and share your ideas.


  1. I would like to add that I believe much of the misconception comes from her philosophy of education in the “early years.” Lots of time outside, lots of storybooks, no “formal schooling” until age 6, etc.. Many mothers who are researching homeschool methods and curricula do so when their children are young (kindergarten/preschool age.) Most advice given to these women is, “Let the kids play outside! Read them lots of books!” Many of these same mothers never fully embrace the method, or drop off before the “hard stuff” really begins. Consequently, we have a lot of mothers running amuck explaining to others a philosophy of which they only gleaned a small snippet.

  2. I’ve often heard it said that the Charlotte Mason approach is fine for younger children but that older children, especially by the teenage years, need something more rigorous. Somehow those who believe this seem to have the idea that the CM approach is reading aloud primarily, and nature study. Even nature study, the CM way, is not easy. To be expected to dry brush accurately and write the scientific name, to observe carefully, is rigorous. Perhaps the CM approach is called “gentle” because it doesn’t hurt exactly; it excites delight and wonder while still requiring effort and concentration?

  3. Thanks for this Sonya. Going to bookmark this one for the next time I need to refer the information here.

  4. Though it’s not exactly what you are asking, for what it’s worth, I would like to mention that another thing that is not “gentle” is the amount of “beating myself up” over the topic of narration that I have done in the past…the angst, the worrying over exactly how to do, if I was doing it right, etc. I know I am not alone, as I have read posts of other moms who absolutely panic about it, LOL!

    It’s almost as if the ideas and methods are too simple (but not in anyway simplistic, and that is a huge difference) to think they would work. But they do.

    Having done CM now off and on for our last 12 years of homeschooling, I can now breathe a sigh of relief and say that her methods work and to trust the process as I see the incredible fruit it has produced in my children.

  5. I had to giggle at your description of “tea parties with lace tablecloths, snuggling on the couch with a sweet little storybook, and setting up an easel in the middle of a field of daisies as your children paint to their hearts’ content”! I do love those CM moments though!

    Charlotte Mason’s high standards seem always just beyond my reach. I can always challenge myself and my children to go a little further in our homeschooling. Every term we extend ourselves in narrations, dictations and habit training. Charlotte Mason’s principles really develop us as we journey in our education and character training.

  6. To be attentive and observant takes great effort. Even greater is the ability to record accurately what has been observed. I have been amazed to see the depth and details that my children unearth through picture study, narrations, quality literature, and nature study. It has only gotten richer as each child matures. I have no doubt that Charlotte Mason’s methods provide rigorous studies for older children. Thank you for this article.

  7. I think CM is gentle only in that it respects the developmental level of the child, and the method is built on a view of the child as a whole person and not some incomplete clay model that needs molding. I think it is partly Mason’s rejection of cruelty that makes her method gentle. Institutional education in her day could be pretty brutal — corporal punishment, belittling of the child, etc. No matter how rigorous the content of our curriculum plan, we can love and respect our children. We can let them know that they are more important than educational goals.

    I have found that the CM approach requires a lot not just of the child but of me as the parent-teacher. One area of rigor not mentioned in your wonderful article is that of nature studies. When I was doing a Classical approach, I viewed CM nature study as just letting the kids run free in a meadow with little butterflies fluttering about their heads. No. While we aren’t to interfere with their explorations by doing “lessons” while on our walks, we as the parent are meant to educate ourselves so we’ll be ready to answer questions. I have to teach myself basic botany, field identification, etc. While I can sit on the blanket with the baby, I have to be vigilant and aware of what is happening, directing and guiding.

    I loved this article, and I can’t wait for next week!

  8. When many areas of study are covered in short lessons, this demands attention both to the content and to the time. It requires a student taking responsibility for the lesson and moving on to the next. To give that responsibility a nudge and some energy, it must well planned and thought out by the teacher. The teacher must choose well, coordinate the timing and know the skills needed to fuel the student through the course of study. It is not for the faint hearted as the student grows in their capacity. And it takes a patient and eager listener in the teacher to receive the narrations, make (gentle but swift) observations and in general be present. It isn’t a method of abandoing a child to a box curriculum with it’s preset syllabus.

  9. I say Charlotte Mason makes for a gentler mother/teacher by putting the onus on the child to do the work – hard work.

  10. Sonya, very well said. And I agree with all the comments. In the early years, I see CM as a gentle intro to home education when compared with the traditional workbooks and texts or with the scripted type of curriculum that has detailed lesson plans of snippets of so many subjects with loads of “projects”. Introducing young children to living books with narration instead of worksheets or tests, hands on nature study, the arts in all their glory is gentle. Gentle on the mom as well as the child. But I agree with you, following CM in later years leads to a very rigorous style of education when done well.

  11. Charlotte Mason’s approach to learning is certainly not “gentle” in terms of holding a child accountable for his/her own education. The act of reading a chapter, taking in all information, retaining that information and then having to be accountable for that information in the form of verbal narration is not a “gentle” approach in my book. This is our first year of homeschooling, so my children are experiencing a learning curve when it comes to accountability!

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