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  • Writer's pictureKrissy Mellum

Harnessing the Power of the Will

Charlotte Mason’s 17th principle is: The Way of the Will: Children should be taught (a) to distinguish between 'I want' and 'I will.' (b) That the way to will effectively is to turn our thoughts away from that which we desire but do not will. (c) That the best way to turn our thoughts is to think of, or do some quite different thing, entertaining or interesting. (d) That after a little rest in this way, the will returns to its work with new vigour….

Charlotte Mason writes extensively about this elusive idea she calls the way of the will. What is the will? Miss Mason tells us, "The Will is the man'; and yet most men go through life without a single definite act of willing.” Further on she states that “its function is to choose, to decide” and “that to fortify the will is one of the great purposes of education…”¹

We can think of the will as a muscle. We can strengthen our will (i.e., our resolve to choose to do what we ought - even when we don’t necessarily want to). Conversely, our will muscle can atrophy due to lack of use, causing us to become enslaved to a weak will. Charlotte Mason argues that we want our children to have a strong will that enables them to choose rightly, regardless of external pressures or cultural norms. She discusses how a child who is unable to propel himself to do what he ought (such as peacefully obeying authority), is characterized as having a weak will.

On the other hand, we must also be cautious because the will becomes fatigued if overstrained. Decision making is something that is majorly taxing on the child's will. This is also why good habits that save children from the effort of endless decision-making is an important aspect of their education. For instance, a child who is left to decide whether or not they will clean up after themselves or speak kindly to others have little left to give when it comes to tackling a new task like copywork. However, if habits of cleanliness and kindness are habitual and therefore automatic, the child's will is at a much higher capacity when asked to apply himself to his schoolwork.

Charlotte Mason talks about distraction, or the power of being able to change your thoughts as a strategy for preventing the will from becoming overstrained.“It is something to know what to do with ourselves when we are beset, and the knowledge of this way of the will is so far the secret of a happy life, that it is well worth imparting to the children. Are you cross? Change your thoughts. Are you tired of trying? Change your thoughts. Are you craving for things you are not to have? Change your thoughts; there is a power within you, your own will, which will enable you to turn your attention from thoughts that make you unhappy and wrong, to thoughts that make you happy and right. And this is the exceedingly simple way in which the will acts; this is the sole secret of the power over himself which the strong man wields––he can compel himself to think of what he chooses, and will not allow himself in thoughts that breed mischief.”²

Another tangible analogy is found in the example of practicing a new instrument. Practice sessions can only last so long before fatigue sets in, and it would be unfruitful to continue practicing longer in that moment. At a certain point, it’s more beneficial to walk away and take a break. So it is with the will. Remember hearing about the Stanford marshmallow experiment? This is another good illustration of how important the function of the will is in daily living regardless of age.

More than anything, if our aim in life is to carry out the Lord’s will, we should certainly take some time to evaluate our own will and whether or not it is truly aligned with His. As always, there is much that can still be said on this topic, but for now, we’ll end with this last quote regarding training the way of the will with our children:

“While affording some secrets of 'the way of the will' to young people, we should perhaps beware of presenting the ideas of 'self-knowledge, self-reverence, and self control.' All adequate education must be outward bound, and the mind which is concentrated upon self-emolument, even though it be the emolument of all the virtues, misses the higher and the simpler secrets of life. Duty and service are the sufficient motives for the arduous training of the will that a child goes through with little consciousness. The gradual fortifying of the will which many a schoolboy undergoes is hardly perceptible to himself however tremendous the results may be for his city or his nation. Will, free will, must have an object outside of self; and the poet has said the last word so far as we yet know – ‘Our wills are ours we know not how Our wills are ours to make them Thine.’”³

¹ Mason, Charlotte. Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 129.

², ³ Mason, Charlotte. Home Education, p. 326 & 138.

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