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Personhood: Core Values of Charlotte Mason

What do you see when you look at your child? Here’s what Charlotte Mason would like you to see.

Charlotte Mason created a list of 20 core values, 20 key principles that formed the foundation on which her approach to education was built. We’ve started on a tour through those 20 core values. If you haven’t read the first post on this tour, I encourage you to take in that introduction too. It will set the stage for the rest of the tour. Today, we’re pausing to take a good look at the very first core value on the list. 

Charlotte believed that the first core value on her list was a revolutionary idea. That it would bring about a complete 180 in the attitudes of parents and teachers if they could fully grasp the concept. What was that revolutionary thought? 

“Children are born persons.”

Now, you may be thinking, “Yeah? So . . . ?” It seems obvious to us today: “Of course, children are born persons.” But in Charlotte’s day the popular educational philosophy segmented children into separate parts and pieces and said that the teacher must focus on and develop each part in a specific order for that child to become a complete person.

Charlotte couldn’t have disagreed more. She believed that the child already possessed all aspects of personhood: body, soul, spirit, mind, will, emotions. Instead of segmenting a child into parts, we should feed and nourish him as a complete person, and he will develop naturally and wholly.

Think back to when your child was little bitty. Do you remember when that child’s personality started to show? It wasn’t that he suddenly developed into a person. He was a person from the very beginning; he just didn’t have the words or means to express his thoughts to you. It’s just that once he could start expressing himself, then you were able to see all the aspects of his personhood that were in there, and you were probably amazed at the depth of feeling and understanding and observation that he had to share. Charlotte described it this way:

“As soon as he gets words with which to communicate with us, a child lets us know that he thinks with surprising clearness and directness, that he sees with a closeness of observation that we have long ago lost, that he enjoys and that he sorrows with an intensity we have long ceased to experience, that he loves with an abandon and a confidence which, alas, we do not share, that he imagines with a fecundity no artist among us can approach, that he acquires intellectual knowledge and mechanical skill at a rate so amazing that, could the infant’s rate of progress be kept up to manhood, he would surely appropriate the whole field of knowledge in a single lifetime”

The Story of Charlotte Mason, pp. 223, 224

Each child is a complete person from the very beginning. He might not be able to reason logically, as you would consider logic, for example, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any reasoning power. Charlotte gave the example of a little girl who asked, “If bees make honey, do birds make jam?” Now, at first glance we might laugh that idea away as ridiculous; but if we examine it closer, that child was reasoning with what little knowledge and experience she had at the time. “Bees eat nectar and make the sweet honey that goes on my bread and I love so much. Birds eat berries, so do they make the sweet jam that goes on my bread and I love so much?” It’s a logical conclusion to draw based on the knowledge and experience she had.

So it’s not that the child is lacking any aspects of personhood, it’s simply that the child is lacking the personal knowledge and experience necessary to grow in those aspects of personhood. And so we seek to guide the child in gaining more knowledge and experience about God, about the wonderful world around us, about the vast array of people in this world, and about himself as a person.

Education is helping your child to grow in all facets of personhood: body, soul, spirit, mind, will, emotions.

Applications

Let me give you a couple of applications of this core value and how it can influence our actions and attitudes.

1. We need to keep a broad perspective. Don’t get tunnel vision.

Education is not just how many facts can this child regurgitate and how quickly. That’s a very narrow, almost insulting, view of personhood that limits our focus to just the child’s mind, not the whole person. 

When we keep the big picture of personhood in mind, education is about who the child is becoming—his character—and what that child cares about.

I recently read an autobiography of a man named Allen, and his experience reminded me of this pitfall of focusing on a child’s mind but neglecting the bigger picture of his personhood. 

Allen’s parents got a divorce when he was 11, and his mother sent him to live with his grandmother. But his grandmother was not happy to have him there, so she made a deal with him. She said, “If you can pass the test to get into this elite school here in this city, I will get you your own apartment.” He was 12 years old when he started living by himself. His mother supported him financially, but he was on his own. Can you imagine? Who was educating his heart? Who was instructing his conscience and strengthening his will to make hard choices? Yes, he was getting the academics, but the rest of his education as a person wasn’t even considered.

A few years later, when Allen’s father migrated to America, he took Allen with him and immediately handed him off to study and live at a military academy. Allen didn’t know English. When he got into trouble and was expelled, his father met him on the driveway outside the barracks to explain what had happened and that the school authorities had given Allen one week to find a new place to live. Allen went inside to pack, thinking he was going home with his father. But when he came out again, his father was gone. Allen was 17. He had $20 to his name.

Do you see the gaping holes in his education as a person? And that’s what Charlotte was so passionate about in this first core value. We must keep in mind that the child is much more than a brain! Our responsibility is to embrace the broader perspective of personhood and educate the whole child.

Now, Allen’s experience may seem like an extreme case. After all, we are homeschoolers. We have chosen to keep our children with us more than many other parents. But perhaps there is a broader application that we can pull from Allen’s experience. 

When you boil it down, it seems like his parents’ focus was “stay out of trouble, don’t cause me any inconvenience, and complete your work.” That was pretty much the extent of their attitude toward him as a person and his education. 

I doubt that any of us would take that narrow of a view of our children intentionally. But sometimes we can slip into it without realizing. So let’s embrace this gentle reminder from Charlotte that children are persons, and we need to keep that broad perspective of all that is included in personhood as we seek to educate them.

2. We need to allow each child to grow as a unique person. Don’t expect uniformity.

Most likely your own school experience was lacking in this type of respect for you as a person. The vast majority of classroom situations lump the children all together. Everyone is expected to do exactly the same thing in the same way at the same time. And if you don’t, you’re either behind or you’re ahead. Which group were you in? Did you too feel that unspoken undercurrent that went along with each of those positions. If you were in the behind group, you felt somehow less valued than the others that were ahead of us. If you were in the middle group, you felt like you fit in and were valued about the same as the others in your group. If you were in the ahead group, you probably felt more valued by some people and less valued by others. In other words, it was easy to get the impression that your value as a person was somehow connected to where you fell on that comparison spectrum. Now, rarely would anyone say anything aloud about it, and most teachers would deny having those subconscious prejudices, but we felt them as students, didn’t we?

So let me just remind you of something you already know. Some of our children are better at remembering than other children are. No wait, let me rephrase that. Some children are better at remembering what we think they should remember than other children are. My daughter with autism can remember the ages and birthdates of all of our family members and friends. All of them. And they keep changing, right?! She can remember the running time for each of her favorite movies. And she can pull that information immediately out of her head and recite it for you. It’s amazing. But at the same time, she has been working on remembering 4 – 2 = 2 for several weeks now. Does that make her less valuable as a person? No!

And it’s the same for your child. The speed with which a child remembers and recalls certain facts does not dictate that child’s value as a person. We must plant that truth firmly in our hearts and water it and let it grow large and strong at the very core of our beliefs. 

Because when friends or relatives put that child on the spot and she can’t recall the right answer in that moment, or when you receive the results of the standardized test and you see a low score in one area, or when you watch your child struggle with a particular subject—when things like that happen, if we don’t have a firm hold on this broader perspective of personhood, we will panic. We won’t say this and we don’t want to admit it, but without that core belief, when those moments happen, we can easily feel like that child is of less value because she couldn’t recall a bit of information at a particular point in time. And when we feel that way, we either double down and try to fix it right now and put more pressure on the child to “drill it ’til you kill it,” or we go to the other extreme and we give up and think, “It’s no use. Let’s not even bother with that study. Just forget it,” and we teach our child to do the same. Neither of those two responses offers your child the respect she deserves as a person.

But when we grasp this core belief that the child is a complete person, we can respond differently in those moments, because we are not focused on that small fragment of who that child is. When we have the broader perspective firmly planted in our hearts, we can raise our eyes and look at that bigger picture and then come alongside that child and treat that child the way we would want to be treated—as a person who has value and is loved and accepted just the way she is. And we can determine to work together and to practice courage and perseverance and grace together as fellow human beings. 

That’s what it means to respect the child as a person. “Children are born persons.” It’s a marvelous thing! And we get the privilege of holding that bigger picture, that broader perspective of all that is included in being a person, at the forefront of our minds and hearts and purposing to help that child grow—body, soul, spirit, mind, will, emotions—as a whole person.

That’s an education based on personhood. And that’s a core value of the Charlotte Mason approach.

We’ll look at another core value in just a few weeks. In the mean time, ponder this one. Let it grow deep in your heart and see how it begins to overflow into your actions and attitudes.

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