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We are on a tour of the core values of Charlotte Mason. These are the foundational principles that inform the way we view our children and why we teach them as we do. Last time we talked about the values of obedience and authority. We looked at how those two responsibilities are natural, necessary, and fundamental to any orderly society and to our home schools.
But Charlotte Mason wanted to make sure we did not abuse our position of authority, so she ended that core value mid-sentence and put the little word “but” on the end of it to indicate that a caution was coming. Here’s how it is worded:
“The principles of authority on the one hand, and of obedience on the other, are natural, necessary and fundamental; but—”
And that brings us to the core value we want to discuss today: respect. Yes, authority and obedience are necessary, but—”These principles are limited by the respect due to the personality of children.”
The child is a person (Core Value #1)—just as you and I are persons. We all have a mind, a will, emotions, and desires that are similar in many ways. And we must respect that personhood in our children even as we fulfill our responsibilities of authority and obedience.
What exactly is respect? The dictionary highlights several facets of respect. The first shines the spotlight on our feelings toward that person: we admire the person because of his abilities and qualities and achievements. In our situation, then, we believe that the child has possibilities (Core Value #2), and we are quick to notice and highly value growth in all areas of his personhood. We’ve already talked about that aspect at length. If you haven’t yet read the Possibilities post, I encourage you to do that.
It is the second and third facets of respect that we want to focus on today. The dictionary goes on to define those aspects as “having a due regard for the feelings, wishes, and rights of others” and “being careful not to harm or interfere with” their personhood.
That sounds nice, but what does it look like? Well, Charlotte gave some very practical examples, and they all boil down to this: There is a difference between natural motivation and controlling manipulation. We need to be careful that we don’t confuse the two.
Charlotte pointed out that we have crossed the line into manipulation when we try to control our children through fear, through love, or by our suggestion.
If you’ve ever watched the movie Miss Potter, you’ve seen a vivid illustration of manipulating a child through fear. In the movie, young Beatrix and her little brother have a nurse who tries to scare them into good behavior. She is constantly telling fearful stories about some creature who comes to carry off little children, especially those who dare to get their clothes dirty!
Respect does not turn a child’s fears against him nor use those fears to manipulate his behavior.
Charlotte also mentioned manipulating through love. Children are born with a desire for their parents’ love. Withholding that love in order to control behavior crosses the line into manipulation. Yes, when a child breaks trust or rebels against a parent, there is a resulting estrangement in that relationship, and he should comprehend his parent’s disapproval. But even as the child experiences that disapproval, he should never have cause to question her love for him.
I love how Charlotte described a similar situation in the first chapter of Formation of Character, in which a mother tried to help her little boy overcome a bad habit of pitching a fit. One day after he had a tantrum, he wanted to go back to life as usual and just ignore that his outburst had even happened. But his mother knew that he needed to come to a place of understanding how much those tantrums were hurting him and those around him, so she didn’t go along with his plan to resume life as usual after he had calmed down. She remained silent and unresponsive. But here is the key: it was not a sullen, cold silence that could make him doubt her love. It was not a turning of her heart away from him. Rather, when he looked at his mother’s face, here’s how Charlotte described it, “He saw love, which could not reach him, and sorrow, which he was just beginning to comprehend.”
Respect offers unconditional love, even when correcting a child’s behavior.
The third manipulation tactic that Charlotte warned against was using suggestion or influence to try to control a child’s behavior. As a child grows, he should begin to make choices for himself. That’s part of being a person. I think what Charlotte was warning against here was a parent’s tendency to want to control a child by repeatedly voicing her own opinion on any choice that child is facing. If the child has grown to the point where you have allowed him to choose what he will wear to church, for example, be careful of revoking that privilege at the last minute by “suggesting” that he go change into the blue shirt instead. Of course, we can and should guide and help our children learn what is appropriate as they are growing, but we need to be aware of any tendency to try to keep some of the control in our own hands when we say we are passing it off to the child.
Respect allows a child to make decisions and experience the consequences (as long as they don’t injure him) without our interference.
Then Charlotte added one more example to the list. She said,
“These principles [of authority and obedience] are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, which must not be encroached upon, whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire” (A Philosophy of Education, p. xxix).
Our children are naturally motivated by basic desires. We all are.
“Every man has an innate desire for companionship: every man wants to know, however little worthy the objects of his curiosity: we all want to stand well with our neighbours, however fatuously [silly or pointlessly] we lay ourselves out for esteem: we would, each of us, fain be the best at some one thing, if it be only a game of chance which excites our emulation [our efforts to match or surpass someone else]; and we would all have rule, have authority, even if our ambition has no greater scope than the rule of a dog or a child affords” (Formation of Character, pp. 70, 71).
The desire for companionship, for knowledge, for esteem, for being as good or better than someone else, for power—each of those desires plays a natural part in all of us. They all to some degree and in some situations motivate us to learn and grow as persons.
Taken together, they can form a balanced whole. But if we start overemphasizing any one of those desires, we throw that balanced approach out of alignment. That’s why Charlotte had such a low view of grades and competition in the schoolroom. Most schools put all the emphasis on grades and competition to try to motivate the students. But that lopsided motivation does not show respect for the child as a whole person. In some instances, it can even cross the line into manipulation.
Respect encourages each child to learn and grow as a whole person in alignment with who he is rather than how he compares to anybody else.
Charlotte has already given us several practical applications of what it means to respect the child, but let me wrap up with two of my own.
1. Teach the child, not the curriculum.
Don’t let anyone or anything dictate what your child must learn and when. Yes, curriculum can be helpful. But keep in mind that we usually tend to cross that line into manipulating when we’re trying to make a child fit a predetermined agenda. When we feel the pressure that he is “behind,” it’s easy to start pushing and trying to force things. But if we’re going to respect each child, we must use curriculum simply as a tool. Don’t let it dictate to you or your child. Make the curriculum fit your child; don’t try to force your child to fit the curriculum.
2. Avoid the comparison trap.
When you fix your eyes on what others are doing and how they seem to be excelling, it’s easy to lose sight of the respect that is due your unique child as a person. In homeschooling circles, the comparison trap usually centers around How fast? and How far?: How fast is the child progressing? and How far has he grown in proficiency or ability? And if your child isn’t growing as fast or as far as someone else’s child, it’s easy to lose heart or to panic and push. But How fast? and How far? have nothing to do with who your child is becoming as a person. Character does not depend on speed. Knowledge does not depend on rank. So rather than focus on the trap of How fast? and How far?, I encourage you to focus on Who: Who is my child? and What are the possibilities within him? Stop looking around. Give your child the respect of your full attention and steadfast love.
Respect—it’s a core value of Charlotte Mason.