The Process of Shaping: I Am, I Can, I Ought, I Will, part 1

Charlotte Mason motto

This week we start on a new series, looking at Charlotte Mason’s motto for students: “I am, I can, I ought, I will.” We will take a few weeks to look at each of those phrases, mull over what it means, and ponder some practical ways that we can help our children live that motto.

Today let’s think about the motto as a whole and how it is quite different from “I read, I write, I calculate, I test.” What exactly was Charlotte wanting to emphasize with her unique motto? Here are some thoughts.

The Process of Shaping

You may have noticed that Charlotte Mason’s student motto—I am, I can, I ought, I will—is not about dumping a prescribed set of facts into our children’s brains at a prescribed time. It is not about filling their minds with facts. “On the contrary, a child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas” (Vol. 1, Preface).

Rather, her motto’s focus is on shaping the whole person. We are shaping our children’s minds, wills, emotions, and beliefs.

Shaping is different from filling.

A friend of mine gave a glimpse into what can be involved in shaping a sword. She described two bladesmiths of her acquaintance who “were beginning work on a traditional katana blade. They started with 1000 layer piece of steel that cost them $125 per inch. Making the blade in the traditional way will take over a year” (Mama Mentor’s Menagerie, Monday, April 18, 2011).

As one experienced forger counseled: “It’s just not possible to be in a hurry at all during the forging of the point. It must be straight, the bevels must be lined up, and on the same plane as the rest of the bar. The rest of the blade grows from this small beginning and I’ll strike a few licks and constantly stop and examine the point from all angles. If it’s wrong at the start, it’s simply miserable to go back and refine later” (

Shaping requires intimate knowledge, trusting relationship, careful monitoring, constant interaction. We must become our children’s students, studying them, learning about them, discovering where they need shaping and how best to use our shaping tools in their lives.

Our Shaping Tools

Charlotte believed that parents have two shaping tools in their hands as they work with their children: good habits and noble ideas.

“We know that to form in his child right habits of thinking and behaving is a parent’s chief duty, and that this can be done for every child definitely and within given limits of time. . . . To nourish a child daily with loving, right, and noble ideas we believe to be the parent’s next duty” (Vol. 2, p. 228).

As we cultivate within our children good habits of thought and behavior, we are building the foundation that will support their learning and living out I am, I can, I ought, I will.

Habit-training is a wonderful way to learn about oneself, about what ought to be done, and about what I can do if I exert my will in order to strengthen it and repeat the action until it becomes a habit. Every habit that we help our children cultivate teaches them more about I am, I can, I ought, I will and adds support for future endeavors.

But habits are not the only tool we have to shape our children. We can also present loving, right, and noble ideas to our children in the form of living examples, wonderful books, and beautiful art. Those right ideas will demonstrate how others have lived out I am, I can, I ought, I will. Those ideas will become a motivation and inspiration for our children to accept the shaping process and, indeed, welcome it.

We use good habits and noble ideas to help shape our children—not just their minds, but their whole persons.

And now we begin to see the magnitude and the richness of those eight little words in Charlotte’s motto for students. Next week we will look more closely at I am.