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“You shouldn’t eat white bread; white bread is bad for you. Whole wheat is best.” The little girl looked up at me with sincere and reproving eyes as I prepared lunch. We were taking care of her and her brother for a few days while their mother was sick, and I knew exactly where that opinion had come from. Her mother was very knowledgeable about nutrition and was careful to educate and feed her children on only the most healthful foods.
I didn’t take offense at the comment, for I knew the source of the opinion and had learned to respect my friend’s knowledge. However, I also knew that this little girl needed some additional information to understand a bigger picture.
“This is rice bread,” I replied. “Two of my children can’t eat wheat; it makes them very sick. So we give them rice bread to help them stay healthy.”
The little girl’s brow furrowed as she tried to process this puzzling statement. I felt a bit guilty at having rocked her world of “certainties”; but on the other hand, I thought she was not too young to start learning that opinions should not be stated as facts.
Sharing Our Opinions
We have been talking about forming just opinions and all that goes into that process: not picking them up ready-made, but investing the time and mental effort to gather facts, compare them to timeless principles, and look for fallacies. Then, and only then, can we begin to form an opinion that is well-founded.
But even after we have carefully formed an opinion, we must remember the difference between opinion and fact. We may soon learn of some new facts involved in the situation that will affect our opinion; we may end up revising it or changing it entirely. For this reason, we must hold our opinions modestly, acknowledging that we are not omniscient or infallible.
“Indeed, no wise person, however old, is sure of his opinions. He holds them fast, but he holds them modestly; and, should he be like Numa, convinced that the opinion of others is more sound than his own, why, he has no shame in what we call ‘changing his mind.’ ‘We are none of us infallible, not even the youngest!’ was said by a wise and witty man, who knew that young people are apt to be cocksure—that is, to take up opinions at second hand and stick to them obstinately. The word opinion literally means ‘a thinking’; what I think, with modesty and hesitation, and not what I am certain-sure about” (Vol. 4, Book 1, p. 184, 185).
Notice, Charlotte Mason did not say to hold no opinion or to let yourself be swayed this way and that by whatever people around you are saying. Not at all. Form your opinions conscientiously and carefully, but remain humble about them. Stay teachable. And let those noble traits be evident in the way you present your opinions to others, including your children.
Teaching Our Children
The problem with the little girl who criticized my choice of bread is that she had latched onto an opinion (“wheat bread is best”) rather than the underlying principle (“eat food that will keep you healthy”). We must be careful to pass along principles to our children, not just opinions.
“It is our duty to form opinions carefully, and to hold them tenaciously in so far as the original grounds of our conclusions remain unshaken. But what we have no right to do, is to pass these opinions on to our children. We all know that nothing is easier than to make vehement partisans of young people, in any cause heartily adopted by their elders. But a reaction comes, and the swinging of the pendulum is apt to carry them to a point of thought painfully remote from our own” (Vol. 3, p. 42).
If we give our children only our opinions, and not timeless principles, we teach them to simply agree with whoever is important in their lives. If there comes a time when peers become more important than parents, those children can easily be swayed to a contradictory opinion.
Instead, we need to focus on giving our children good, loving, and noble ideas that will form the basis of the principles that rule their lives. This important task is done little by little through the books we give them to read, the art we give them to look at, our own attitudes toward nature and people, the discussions we have, and a hundred other daily occurrences. “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” (Vol. 6, p. 62).
Then when they are old enough to think along these lines, we need to teach our children how to “look all round” an idea, searching for fallacies and comparing it to life principles. In other words, we must teach them how to form a just opinion, always built upon the foundation of good principles.
A Matter of Integrity
As parents, most of us would agree that we need to be very careful to set an example of integrity—speaking the truth, being above reproach in financial dealings, handling other people’s property carefully. Now let us add one more area to that picture of integrity that we hold in our minds: integrity of thought.
“Our opinions show our integrity of thought. Every person has many opinions whether his own honestly thought out, or notions picked up from his pet newspaper or his companions. The person who thinks out his opinions modestly and carefully is doing his duty as truly as if he saved a life because there is no more or less about duty” (Vol. 6, pp. 61, 62).
Let’s think out our opinions modestly and carefully; present them courteously and humbly; and keep the emphasis on the timeless principles that never change.