Responsibility: Core Values of Charlotte Mason

As a person, your child has one chief responsibility. Let’s talk about what that is.

Our topic for today starts with this word: therefore. Whenever you come upon that word, you know that you’re jumping into the middle of a thought or conversation. It’s important to know what came before it. As a former paster of mine used to say, “Whenever you see therefore, check to see what it’s there for.” So let’s do that.

Let’s back up a couple of posts in this core values series and remind ourselves of the ideas that we have been unpacking: “There are two guides to moral and intellectual self-management to offer to children, which we may call ‘the way of the will’ and ‘the way of the reason’” (A Philosophy of Education, p. xxxi). Do you recall all that we talked about regarding self-direction and the Will and the Reason? If you haven’t yet read those posts, I encourage you to do so, because they form the basis for what we’re going to talk about today. 

Charlotte said, in light of what we have learned—about the importance of self-direction, and understanding how the will works, and when you can rely on reason or when that’s a bad idea—in light of all that,

Therefore, children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas.

A Philosophy of Education, p. xxxi

That’s it. That’s your child’s chief responsibility as a person. That’s your chief responsibility as a person. Accept or reject ideas.

From the cradle to the grave suggestions crowd upon us, and such suggestions become part of our education because we must choose between them.

A Philosophy of Education, p. 129

Now, we’ve talked about choosing between ideas, but perhaps it still sounds a bit nebulous to you. “I don’t see any ideas crowding upon me, lining up at the gate to my heart and mind!” So it might seem a bit abstract to wrap your head around. But Charlotte made this idea very practical when she explained that the things around us represent ideas. 

That overflowing trash can represents the ideas of serving others by emptying it or taking the easy way out and serving self by leaving it for someone else to empty. The person whose chore it is to empty the trash sees that overflowing trash can and now has to decide which idea to accept and which to reject. It takes an act of the Will to choose to serve others. Will must boldly choose to reject the idea of serving self and accept the idea of emptying the trash can. Such a choice requires a strong Will. A weak Will would take the easy way out and allow emotions to carry it along: “I don’t feel like emptying the trash right now. Just leave it for someone else to empty.” Do you see how this works? Things represent ideas.

Charlotte put it this way: 

It is well to know what it is we choose between. Things are only signs which represent ideas and several times a day we shall find two ideas presented to our minds and must make our choice upon right and reasonable grounds. . . . There are two services open to us all, the service of God, (including that of man) and the service of self. If our aim is just to get on, ‘to do ourselves well,’ to get all possible ease, luxury and pleasure out of our lives, we are serving self and for the service of self no act of will is required. Our appetites and desires are always at hand to spur us into the necessary exertions. But if we serve God and our neighbour, we have to be always on the watch to choose between the ideas that present themselves.

A Philosophy of Education, pp. 134, 135

This is why good habits are so helpful. Once a habit is established, it doesn’t require an act of the Will. That choice becomes automatic and leaves the Will stronger to make other needed choices. So we help young children by cultivating good habits. But as the children get older, they need to understand how the Will works and to grow in their ability to respond well to the ideas that come their way. The “ability to respond well” is what we mean by “responsibility.”

Charlotte counseled that, 

Early in his teens we should at least put clearly before the child the possibility of a drifting, easy life led by appetite or desire in which will plays no part; and the other possibility of using the power and responsibility proper to him as a person and willing as he goes.

A Philosophy of Education, pp. 131, 132

That’s the chief responsibility of each person. But we do not leave the child to flounder his way through those decisions. It is our task as parents to give opportunities for him to practice using his Will and strengthen it, but also to make sure he understands how his desires and emotions will try to carry Will along with what they want.

The boy must learn too that the will is subject to solicitations all round, from the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eye and the pride of life; that will does not act alone; it takes the whole man to will and a man wills wisely, justly and strongly, in proportion as all his powers are in training and under instruction. We must understand in order to will.

A Philosophy of Education, p. 133

His powers need to be “in training and under instruction.” As we have seen, we need to instruct the child’s Conscience and train his Reason. You’ll remember that Conscience and Reason stand beside Will at the gate to the heart and mind; they are Will’s counselors. We must make sure that Conscience is instructed and Reason is trained in what is right and good, so they can give good counsel to Will as ideas present themselves and Will has to make decisions. 

One of the best ways to fortify Conscience and Reason is to give them timeless guidelines for life: principles. 

Charlotte said,

To help them in this choice we give them principles of conduct, and a wide range of the knowledge fitted to them. These principles should save children from some of the loose thinking and heedless action which cause most of us to live at a lower level than we need.

A Philosophy of Education, p. xxxi

What principles or ideas rule your life as a parent? Sometimes we can’t pinpoint when a principle first gripped our hearts or perhaps where we first encountered it, but success or failure in life depends upon the principles that we live by.

For what, after all, are principles but those motives of first importance which govern us, move us in thought and action? We appear to pick up these in a casual way and are seldom able to render an account of them and yet our lives are ordered by our principles, good or bad.

A Philosophy of Education, p. 62

So be sure to feed your child’s mind what is good and noble and worthy. The more he thinks about those things, the more his mind will begin to run on those tracks habitually. Remember, you are cultivating habits of thinking as well as habits of behaving. So be careful what your child’s mind dwells on.

This caution must be borne in mind. Reason, like all other properties of a person, is subject to habit and works upon the material it is accustomed to handle.

A Philosophy of Education, p. 147

Your job, as a parent and as a teacher, is to give your child an abundant feast of good ideas that will encourage right thinking. Those right thoughts will instruct his Conscience and help him make good choices with his Will.

Now the thought that we choose is commonly the thought that we ought to think and the part of the teacher is to afford to each child a full reservoir of the right thought of the world to draw from. For right thinking is by no means a matter of self-expression. Right thought flows upon the stimulus of an idea, and ideas are stored as we have seen in books and pictures and the lives of men and nations; these instruct the conscience and stimulate the will, and man or child ‘chooses.’

A Philosophy of Education, p. 130

So we use living books and beautiful art and music and poetry and the wide and generous curriculum with this goal in mind. A Charlotte Mason education is not about information, it’s about growing in knowledge that shapes who the person is becoming. 

The effect of knowledge is not evidenced by what a person knows, the store of acquirements he possesses, but only and solely by what a person is.

The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 252

That’s our goal. And it takes faithfulness in three areas: the example we set, which creates the atmosphere of our homes; the good habits we help our children cultivate; and the worthy ideas that we share from the lives and thoughts of other people.

It’s a long process to help a child grow in self-direction. It’s almost like coaching and training someone for the hundred-meter sprint. When you watch someone run the sprint, what you’re actually seeing is the result of thousands of hours of training and coaching and work behind the scenes. And when you watch your child make a choice by an act of his Will, what you’re actually seeing is the result of the thousands of hours of education that you have invested. 

The ordering of the will is not an affair of sudden resolve; it is the outcome of a slow and ordered education in which precept and example flow in from the lives and thoughts of other men, men of antiquity and men of the hour, as unconsciously and spontaneously as the air we breathe. But the moment of choice is immediate and the act of the will voluntary; and the object of education is to prepare us for this immediate choice and voluntary action which every day presents.

A Philosophy of Education, p. 137

And now we understand more of why Charlotte’s motto for students is “I am, I can, I ought, I will.” That moment of choice, that decision of the Will, is a demonstration of all that the child has learned about who he is, what it means to be a person, how his inner Kingdom of Mansoul operates, what he can choose to do, and the good and noble principles that have shown him the right path that ought to be followed for success in life. “I am, I can, I ought.” Now he has only to make his choice: “I will.” 

And that choice is his responsibility. Which ideas will he accept and which will he reject? It’s up to him. That responsibility is what we are preparing our children for. It is the chief responsibility that rests on each person, and it’s a core value of Charlotte Mason.


  1. Hi

    Could you please explain to me what is meant by the “Will” and how can I explain this to a 5 year old child.

    Thank you

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