You Need All Three: Atmosphere, Discipline, and Life

Keys of Successful Education

If you have ever sat on a three-legged stool, you know how important the three legs are to keeping your balance. Take away any of the legs and the stool becomes unstable.

It’s the same with a Charlotte Mason education. Charlotte described her philosophy of education in three words—three legs of a stool, if you will.

“Education is a discipline—that is, the discipline of the good habits in which the child is trained. Education is a life, nourished upon ideas; and education is an atmosphere—that is, the child breathes the atmosphere emanating from his parents; that of the ideas which rule their own lives” (Vol. 2, p. 247).

Discipline, life, atmosphere—all three are necessary for a well-balanced education. You become unbalanced when you focus on one above the others. “We sometimes err, I think, in taking a part for the whole” (Vol. 3, p. 148).

The “education is an atmosphere” part, perhaps, pleases us most. It is very inviting to picture your child absorbing sunshine and green fields, pleasant rooms and good pictures, and think that such an atmosphere must surely shape who he will become. Yes, it will; but more is needed.

When you emphasize only a good atmosphere, the child can begin to think that no work is needed on his part. As Charlotte described the tendency, “they expect life to drop into them like drops into a rain-tub, without effort or intention on their part” (Vol. 3, p. 150).

True education must include some definite effort on the student’s part and some definite training from the teacher. So you must be sure to include the aspect of “education is a discipline” too—the discipline of good habits.

Training your child in good habits is a valuable endowment that will serve him well into his adult years and give you smooth and easy days in the meantime. It is a necessary second leg to the stool.

But you can’t put all of the weight of your child’s education on this leg of the stool either. Too much emphasis on habit training can result in an unhealthy focus on outward behavior. You can lose sight of your child as a whole person and the goal of his growth in all aspects of life. “We must not make a fetish of habit; education is a life as well as a discipline” (Vol. 1, p. 192).

Living ideas are like food that nourishes your child’s mind and heart. An ample supply served up at regular intervals is your goal.

But a constant stream of new ideas can be intellectually exhausting. Your child needs time to process, to digest those ideas and determine which ones to accept and which to reject. He needs the space in the atmosphere of your home to ponder the ideas he observes and embrace the ones that motivate him to form his own habits.

All three legs of the stool are necessary—atmosphere, discipline, and life. Give your child all three and you will both enjoy a well-balanced education.


  1. Thank you for sharing this!
    Would you please clarify what is meant by “living ideas” as the food that nourishes your child’s mind and heart? What do you mean specifically by living ideas? Thank you!

  2. I can’t thank you enough for this article, Sonya! I’ve printed it and placed it in my notebook to re-read often. I struggle with balance in homeschooling, even though this is our 16th year, and your words are such a pointed but gentle summary of how to think of the big picture in education and life. Thank you!

  3. Sonya,
    Thank you so much for this post! It is such a good reminder as I can get very lopsided in my thinking of what to focus on! Do you have any practical tips for keeping this balance daily/weekly? Thanks!

    • Probably the most practical tip I have is to do a quick 3-point check on Sunday afternoon or evening:

      1. Do I have some time set aside this week to nourish my own heart and mind, knowing that the ideas that rule my life make up the atmosphere of my home? Or alternately, do I have some time set aside this week to add something of beauty to my children’s lives, whether an object or a word or a stretch of time?
      2. Do I know which habit we are focusing on this week and what I want it to look like, taking into consideration the ages and abilities of my children?
      3. Do I have a good variety of subjects scheduled for schoolwork this week, including good living books and worthy things in the world around us?

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