Strengthening the Will: I Am, I Can, I Ought, I Will, part 5

Charlotte Mason Motto: I am, I can, I ought, I will

As we wrap up our series on Charlotte Mason’s motto for students, let’s look at how we can help our children strengthen their wills to do hard things—I am, I can, I ought, I will. Remember, Charlotte urged parents to make it a priority to teach their children the difference between “I want” and “I will.” A child with a truly strong will can make the tough decision to do what is right even if he doesn’t want to. But how can we help our children strengthen their wills to get to that point? Read on.

I think we all have dreams of grandeur when we’re growing up. My dreams took various forms, but they all had a similar theme: fabulous success without a bit of effort. I had dreams of winning the blue ribbon at the 4-H horse show without ever having to practice with my pony. I daydreamed about dazzling everyone with a delicious dinner but never took the time to learn to cook. I imagined myself stepping in for a sick virtuoso pianist without ever practicing.

But the reality is that those sudden momentous occasions never happened. And while I was daydreaming about instant success, I was overlooking the more important everyday opportunities. For it is the everyday efforts that add up to a strong character.

“Great occasions do not come to us at any time of our lives; or, if they do, they come in the guise of little matters of every day. Let us be aware of this” (Vol. 4, Book 2, p. 142).

The Will’s job is to make decisions. And it is the everyday decisions that strengthen the will for tougher decisions ahead. We are fooling ourselves if we expect that our children will succeed in some larger decisions that require a lot of effort if they haven’t been practicing similar smaller decisions all along the way.

It’s the Little Things

Why would we think that a child who every evening makes the decision to argue and dawdle his way to bed will suddenly start obeying his authorities when he is older? A child who every day decides to be selfish with his siblings will not suddenly become a servant in his own household when he is grown. A child who gets in the habit of deciding to leave his room a mess will not suddenly keep it pristine when he gets married.

Our children can strengthen their wills by making good small decisions every day. And as we have already seen, those decisions are affected by the ideas that we feed our children. Their reasoning and their consciences must be instructed and trained if they are to be the best persons they can be and make those tough decisions that require a strong effort of the will.

“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. It is well to know this, to be quite sure that we may not leave any part of ourselves ignorant or untrained, with the notion that what there is of us will act for the best” (Vol. 4, Book 2, pp. 141, 142).

We are doing our children a disservice if we allow them to get in the habit of taking the easy way out, of yielding to “I want” instead of strengthening their wills and deciding to do what is right.

Let’s encourage our children to grow strong by making small tough decisions every day, for those small efforts of will are what will pave the way to strong character and the ability to make the right decision in larger matters.

“As the wise parent sees that his children are invigorated by proper exercise, so we may venture to think that Providence strengthens the children of men by giving to each opportunities for effort, chiefly, perhaps, for this effort of decision. For the will grows strong by its efforts, and the will is the man” (Vol. 4, Book 2, p. 158).

Next week we will announce where you can read more about Charlotte’s motto for students and what we as parents can do to encourage our children in those areas. (Want a hint? Its initials are ACMPCJ.)


  1. I LOVED this series, but I do have a question. HOW do you implement these things when you’ve not done them well all along, and are just now understanding them….when your children are 13 an 10? I feel like my child, especially my oldest, has already formed a very “weak” will, and it frightens me (Spiritually speaking) as well as it is very hard to deal with. I cannot seem to motivate him to make good choices, to not be lazy, to work diligently. I know I’ve made many mistakes as a parent in previous years….not even realizing how damaging I was being, but I’ve learned a great deal and want to make things right. I’ve confessed to my children my faults in parenting in the past (even in tears), but it doesn’t seem to help them to do better themselves. I know choosing discipline wisely probably needs to happen, there has to be consequences. I’m just not sure how to do this without causing MORE bitterness at this point. I’d love suggestions here. I have really tried to implement CM’s methods the last 1 1/2 years, and though my children have learned a great deal more, and we have great discussions, they still do not RESPECT me, nor want to obey, be diligent, etc. It’s like they KNOW what they are supposed to do, but they do not want to do it. It’s a matter of the will….as this article states. I’d love some practical ideas on how to help children when they are OLDER. I understand that it’s best to train them when they are young, and I do have a preschooler that I certainly want to implement these ideas early…in hopes that they will stick with her. (But, she is also seeing her sibling’s disrespect and negative attitudes and learning from them, too).

    Thanks in advance for any encouragement or help!

    • You’re right, Dena, consequences can be powerful motivators. And don’t overlook the power of good ideas giving in the form of living stories and persons who display strong wills and choose to do what is right even when it is hard.

      Another key thing that Charlotte emphasized in working with older children is to sit down with them during a neutral time—not in the heat of battle—and have a brief talk about what it is you want to help them develop and how that will benefit them in their own lives. Explain that you will help all you can, but you cannot force them to develop a strong will; only they can do that. Explain the difference between a strong will and a weak will. Give some examples of how a weak will can sabotage a person’s life. Then maybe decide on a private signal or phrase that you can use to help remind each other to make good decisions in the small, everyday matters as they happen. Encourage one another; spur one another on toward love and good works.

      This series on the Way of the Will might also be helpful.

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