Is Charlotte Mason Subdued and Tranquil?

Recently, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of Charlotte Mason’s legacy. It is true that she lived in the Victorian era, and sometimes when we think about Charlotte Mason and her methods, we get this mental picture of everyone sitting in the little drawing room, very prim and proper in their hoop skirts—or whatever fashion they were wearing at the time—having their tea, and everything’s very quiet and subdued. That picture doesn’t really mesh very well with some of our kids. Is that an accurate picture of the Charlotte Mason Method? Joining me today is my friend and coworker Karen Smith.

Sonya: Karen, we’re going to talk about: Is Charlotte Mason’s approach to education quiet and subdued and prim and proper? I know that’s you in a nutshell.

Karen: Oh yes. 

Sonya: That was the sarcastic font there. (laughs) Yes, maybe quiet, but not prim and proper and subdued.

Karen: No.

Sonya: Okay, and with your boys that you raised, and even with your daughter, they are not prim, proper, or subdued.

Karen: We didn’t do tea parties.

Sonya: Thank you; neither did we. So, let’s just talk a little bit about that mental picture and how Charlotte Mason’s Method is a good fit for even a boisterous household.

Karen: Yes. Across the subjects, there are things that are not just prim and proper. Take music, for example. Some composers have very lively music.

Sonya: Oh, that’s true. When you think “music study,” you think everyone’s sitting in little seats, listening to the recording, and that’s all. 

Karen: The little, quiet, classical music.

Sonya: Yeah, But it’s not all the quiet “Moonlight Sonata” type. You’ve got the 1812 Overture; you’ve got lots of bombastic pieces. I mean, Beethoven was known for his wide range of dynamics and being so far out there from what used to be considered “proper” music.

Karen: Yes, so, with those children who are active and boisterous, you can put the 1812 Overture on, let them listen to it, and let them be active and move to it. They don’t have to sit prim and proper to listen to that. 

Sonya: I mean, if you want to shoot off the cannons, it’s strictly up to you. If you happen to have one in your living room. (laughs)

Karen: Maybe you made a potato cannon or something.

Sonya: There you go. 

Karen: But how about poetry? 

Sonya: Yes, you often think of poetry as, “This is teatime; we’re going to sip our tea and read our sweet little poems about flowers.”

Karen: And Robert Louis Stevenson, about childhood, nice calm poems, sweet, that sort of a thing. But what about Longfellow?

Sonya: He’s got some great long stories that are powerful stories, like “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” That’s not what you’d call prim and proper and sweet.

Karen: No, it has adventure; it has intrigue. I mean, there’s so much going on in it that it’s not, “Let’s sit quietly and listen to it.” There is so much going on with that. 

Sonya: As the children absorb and form relations with these poems and music and other things we’re going to talk about, one thing Charlotte said is that you know they’ve got it if they start using it in their play. You’re going to see them acting out whatever that was, maybe they’re going to shoot off their cannons in their playtime, so their playtime is not going to be quiet and subdued, and that’s a direct result of what they learned in their school time.

As the children form relations with poems and music and other things, you know they’ve got it if they start using it in their play.

Karen: Because it fires their imagination.

Sonya: Yes. And we’re not saying that school time should be chaos.

Karen: No, not at all. But it’s not just, “Everybody sit here, in your seats, don’t move.”

Sonya: “Children should be seen and not heard.” It’s definitely not that. What other school subjects come to mind?

Karen: Picture study. Some artists do have paintings that are flowers and nice, serene landscapes, that sort of thing. But others have ones that have something different. I think of Winslow Homer. In many of his paintings, there is an angry sea in the background or things that are happening that are high adventure. 

Sonya: Yeah, he’s got the pictures of the women in hoop skirts playing croquet, but then most of his pictures are different. Right now, I’m picturing the one of someone being rescued from a shipwreck. You’ve got that swing.

Karen: Yes, they’re crossing on that cable.

Sonya: And the storm is raging around them. That is high adventure.

Karen: But even Crack the Whip, that one with the children playing the game, I mean it’s obvious that those children are not being gentle with each other just in that still shot of the painting.

Sonya: And Charlotte would approve (I mean, if we have to have this approval), but she would approve of what’s going on in Crack the Whip because I remember that passage where she talks about how we want our children to have strong muscles and strong lungs and strong hearts, but to do that, they’ve got to go outside and use them. And so they’ve got to use their voices, fill up their lungs, yell and scream and run about.

Karen: And be children. History. History is full of wars, and we can’t turn a blind eye to those because the wars are what shape our world. So, there are wars, there are spies, those are not prim and proper.

Sonya: Yeah, exploring, interactions, and tensions that maybe did not explode into a war but there were tensions there. History is not prim and proper, taken as a whole, it is not. And maybe your children are sitting and listening. Others are going to be pacing and listening. That’s fine as long as they’re listening. But the ideas they are getting are not all prim and proper ideas.

Karen: Correct. The other subject that I think of is science. Science is where your children can get down and get dirty.

Sonya: Okay, I’m thinking nature study; we have to be quiet so we don’t scare the animals away.

Karen: You can be quiet, but there are other aspects of nature study that involve things that otherwise we don’t think of as prim and proper. You can observe live worms, slugs, centipedes, and other insects. You can find out what happens when you mix water with dirt. That makes mud. Something that might be a little bit more prim and proper, but is fun, especially for adventurous children, is to make rainbows with a garden hose, where they have to spray it. So that spray can be a fun thing, and it might turn into more than what mom thought for the lesson.

Sonya: But then they’re getting their exercise and using those muscles.

Karen: And they’re having fun and making memories. Some experiments that they might do when they are older, let’s say high school, middle school age, they might do experiments where they are burning iron.

Sonya: Oh wow, okay, I don’t picture that as happening in a parlor at a tea party. That is heavy-duty stuff there, burning iron.

Karen: They might be doing some electroplating with their experiments, or culturing bacteria so they can see what places really are clean or not clean, those types of things. Or they could be taking a chicken bone and making it rubbery in an experiment. There are all sorts of things that they can do.

Sonya: That reminds me of handcrafts too. You think of knitting or crocheting or embroidery, but there’s also ironworking and woodworking, leather tooling, and many things like that. 

Karen: There’s working with rope coiling.

Sonya: Yes, and you don’t think of any of those things in equation with teatime in the parlor.

Karen: Yes, there are so many things. There’s also the free time that the children have because their lessons are short and don’t take their whole day. They can explore some of those things that interest them that might be on the loud and boisterous side. Maybe it’s making different contraptions. Maybe you’re studying the Middle Ages, and your children really want to make a trebuchet; that’s something they can experiment with in their own free time if you don’t want to put that as part of your lessons.

Children have free time because their lessons are short and don’t take their whole day. They can explore some of those things that interest them that might be on the loud and boisterous side.

Sonya: Charlotte protected that aspect of childhood because she was careful not to give homework; she was careful to protect those afternoon occupations, where the children could explore, still be productive, but explore their own interests. Absolutely: if their interests are loud and boisterous, let them go.

Karen: Yes, let them explore, let them be who they are as persons; you never know what that might produce in your child, how that might come about.

Sonya: I’m thinking of comparing Charlotte Mason with other approaches and really, Charlotte Mason allows the child to be himself, to have the freedom to be boisterous and uproarious at the proper time.

Karen: Yes, because there are times when they need to be disciplined and pay attention and sit for that lesson for math or reading.

Sonya: But the lesson is going to be short. In many other approaches, the expectation is that child has to sit all day long because the lessons go—even in a classroom—they often go from morning till late afternoon.

Karen: With small breaks in between, but not allowing the child to really run and play and explore his world. 

Sonya: Yes, and act out what he has been learning. Was it Longfellow who talked about laying siege to the armchair? They would lay siege; they pretended that was the castle and sieges are not quiet things, they’re not prim and proper things, laying siege to something is a pretty heavy-duty, loud thing when your army is coming. So the Charlotte Mason approach needs to be set free from this mental image too many people have. It’s not a “prim and proper, sit in your seats, drink tea and ooh and aah over flowers every day” type of approach.

It’s not just giving them prim and proper, flowers and daisies, and soft music; it’s giving them the whole variety and letting them have time to be children.

Karen: And we’re so glad it isn’t. 

Sonya: Now, there are quiet things involved because we give children a wide variety. That’s the thing: it’s not all loud; it’s not all quiet, just as life is not all loud and all quiet.

Karen: Yes, there’s a balance between those. 

Sonya: And learning to recognize when each of those is appropriate is part of growing for the parent and for the child, but not frustrating the child is a huge part of it. Short lessons and paying full attention, but giving the wide variety. It’s not just giving them prim and proper, flowers and daisies, and soft music; it’s giving them the whole variety and letting them have time to be children, to act out what they’re learning, and to make those potato cannons. I have to tell you this—my chiropractor told me recently—they have a Christmas tradition at their house that when they come up to Christmas; they make gingerbread houses. The kids all make their gingerbread houses, and then they let them sit there until New Year’s. On New Year’s they take them out in the middle of the street and they blow them up. (laughs) 

Karen: That is not prim and proper.

Sonya: But doesn’t it sound like fun? It would be great to have that as family memories right there, and they’re learning a lot from watching all of that and doing all of that. I think Charlotte would have approved of those types of fun family times together. It doesn’t have to all be sit-in-the-parlor, and besides, I don’t drink tea.

Karen: Me neither.

Sonya: Okay, but don’t tell anybody; we’d have to turn in our Charlotte Mason cards. (laughs) Thanks.

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