The Role of the Mother: A Child's First and Best Teacher
"Maternal love is the first agent in education." - Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi
Charlotte Mason's first volume entitled Home Education is comprised of a series of lectures that Charlotte Mason gave on education. Her lectures were so popular that they were later comprised into the book, Home Education. Although, the title is somewhat of a misnomer by today's standards; the subject matter isn't focused at all on "homeschooling" as we know it, but rather it is a book that aims to help parents and teachers see all that children can (and should) be encountering and learning from birth through age 9 or so. Since mothers are by and large the primary caregivers during the early years, the intended audience is actually moms (as well as governesses, teachers, and anyone else who is around young children).
In fact, Charlotte Mason goes so far as to say that, "...it is upon the mothers of the present that the future of the world depends, in even a greater degree than upon the fathers, because it is the mothers who have the sole direction of the children's early, most impressible years. This is why we hear so frequently of great men who have had good mothers––that is, mothers who brought up their children themselves, and did not make over their gravest duty to indifferent persons."¹
Mothers as Disciplers
Charlotte Mason held firm convictions that as mothers, one of the most important (if not the most important) duties in life is to disciple our children. In modern Christian culture it is easy to conflate our children's need for discipline with their need to be discipled. We often spout Proverbs 22:15 as a justification for the punishment we dole out...But are discipline and punishment the same thing? Charlotte Mason says this:
"What is discipline? Look at the word; there is no hint of punishment in it. A disciple is a follower, and discipline is the state of the follower; the learner, imitator. Mothers and fathers do not well to forget that their children are, by the very order of Nature, their disciples. Now no man sets himself up for a following of disciples who does not wish to indoctrinate these with certain principles, or at the least, maxims, rules of life. So should the parent have at heart notions of life and duty which he labours without pause to instill into his children...He who would draw disciples does not trust to force; but to these three things––to the attraction of his doctrine, to the persuasion of his presentation, to the enthusiasm of his disciples; so the parent has teachings of the perfect life which he knows how to present continually with winning force until the children are quickened with such zeal for virtue and holiness as carries them forward with leaps and bounds."²
We've talked in a previous post regarding the role of the Bible in our children's education, but since reading the Bible to our children is a major part of discipling them, we'll revisit it again now. Charlotte Mason believed filling our children's hearts with the Word of God is an integral part of our discipling them. However, without being overly moralizing. This undoubtedly means holding our tongue when we are tempted do otherwise, thus providing space for the Holy Spirit to do His work. Miss Mason warns we must be careful, "not read the Bible at the child: do not let any words of the Scriptures be occasions for gibbeting his faults. It is the office of the Holy Ghost to convince of sin; and He is able to use the Word for this purpose, without risk of that hardening of the heart in which our clumsy dealings too often result."
As a result, sometimes we inadvertently despise or hinder our children instead of cultivating a deep love and affection for the Bible. We do this when "...we make a mistake in burying the text under our endless comments and applications. Also, I doubt if the picking out of individual verses, and grinding these into the child until they cease to have any meaning for him, is anything but a hindrance to the spiritual life. The Word is full of vital force, capable of applying itself. A seed, light as thistledown, wafted into the child's soul will take root downwards and bear fruit upwards. What is required of us is, that we should implant a love of the Word; that the most delightful moments of the child's day should be those in which his mother reads for him, with sweet sympathy and holy gladness in voice and eyes, the beautiful stories of the Bible; and now and then in the reading will occur one of those convictions, passing from the soul of the mother to the soul of the child, in which is the life of the Spirit. Let the child grow, so that, 'New thoughts of God, New hopes of heaven,' are a joy to him, too; things to be counted first amongst the blessings of a day."³ [emphasis mine]
Another aspect of education that mothers play a huge role in within the realm of discipleship is the instruction of our children's conscience. It is through instructing and forming their conscience that children learn a sense of duty. Charlotte Mason writes, "...all the time, the idea of duty is being formed, and conscience is being educated and developed....As she instructs her child in duty, she teaches him to listen to the voice of conscience as to the voice of God, a 'Do this,' or 'Do it not,' within the breast, to be obeyed with full assurance."⁴ Charlotte Mason talks at length about developing children's conscience and the role we have as parents to disciple our children. In the interest of time and space we'll digress on the point of discipleship and turn to look at why it's important for mothers take interest in students' academics.
Mothers Should Take Interest in What's Being Taught
Even during Charlotte Mason's lifetime, she recognized that many parents are too quick to hand over their children's education to a teacher without the slightest question as to what and how students are taught. She lamented, "that parents are ready to yield the responsibility of direction, as well as of actual instruction, more than is wholesome for the children."
She goes on to say that, "the parent, also, should have thought on this subject [of what/how subjects are taught], and even when he does not profess to teach his children, should have his own carefully formed opinions as to the subject-matter and the method of their intellectual education: and this for the sake of the teacher as well as for that of the children. Nothing does more to give vitality and purpose to the work of the teacher than the certainty that the parents of his pupils go with him. Even when children go to schools taught by qualified persons, some insight on the part of fathers and mothers is useful as hindering the teacher from dropping into professional grooves, valuing proficiency in this or that subject for its own sake, and not as it affects the children."⁵
This notion that parents should form opinions of what/how subjects are taught is universally applicable to every parent - regardless of how we decide to educate our children. If we choose to homeschool, can we articulate why we've chosen curriculum A over curriculum B? Does how we instruct our students align with our family values? If we choose to send our kids to a traditional brick and mortar school (private or public), do we know which subjects are being taught and how our children are being challenged or supported? Do we know the teacher and what his/her bent is when it comes to instructing our kids? If we don't know the answers to these questions, we won't be able to adequately complement (or supplement) what's being taught - let alone have a simple discussion with our kids about all they are learning.
A Mother's Role in Habit Training
Last, but certainly not least, is the role that mothers play in habit formation - especially in the early years of childhood. Charlotte Mason says it best when she describes how habit formation, "...in the hands of the mother, is as his wheel to the potter, his knife to the carver––the instrument by means of which she turns out the design she has already conceived in her brain. Observe, the material is there to begin with; his wheel will not enable the potter to produce a porcelain cup out of coarse clay; but the instrument is as necessary as the material or the design."⁶ In other words, habit formation is the method in which we fulfill the end goal of education - developing virtuous humans who know love the Lord.
We've talked in a previous post about the importance of habits in Charlotte Mason's philosophy. However, since habit formation is such a foundational part of Miss Mason's philosophy - especially as it relates to mothering in the early years, we will look at what CM has to say specifically about the role mothers play in cultivating habits (intentionally or otherwise). The truth is, "...there is nothing which a mother cannot bring her child up to, and there is hardly a mother anywhere who has not some two or three––crotchets sometimes, principles sometimes––which her children never violate....
"So that it comes to this––given, a mother with liberal views on the subject of education, and she simply cannot help working her own views into her children's habits; given, on the other hand, a mother whose final question is, 'What will people say? what will people think? how will it look?' and the children grow up with habits of seeming, and not of being; they are content to appear well-dressed, well-mannered, and well-intentioned to outsiders, with very little effort after beauty, order, and goodness at home, and in each other's eyes."⁷
Whether in the form of habits, discipleship, or taking an interest in what children are being taught, the role of a mother is diverse and as expansive as it is endless. There is no way we could distill all of Charlotte's ideas on the role of the mother into one succinct post, but prayerfully there's enough here to encourage and motivate us to dig deeper or perhaps take interest in an area that we never have before. As always, I commend reading Charlotte Mason's first volume, Home Education; there's no better way to understand the robust nature of her educationally philosophy than reading it firsthand!
¹,³,⁴,⁵,⁶ Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 2, 349, 341, 170, 98, 106.
² Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, p. 67.