Realistic Charlotte Mason: Parenting 411
by Catherine Levison
As the title suggests, we are going to cover some aspects of parenting because it has much to do with home education. If the television shows regarding nannies and the plentiful array of parenting books are any indication, then mothers and fathers have an interest, if not a need, to learn some skills in this area.
The old saying, “practice makes perfect” has been updated in our day to read, “Practice makes improvements.” For example, the more waffles I cook, the better I become at the task, and it is the same with raising my children. If I had given birth to all five on the same day I would have learned a thing or two as time went by. However because I had them one at a time I gained knowledge and experience that helped me with each successive child. But these are not waffles; they are people, who bring with them both challenges and fulfillments.
I think that parenting styles are very individual and the various methods will work for some families and not for others. It is a little like a set of house keys. Your set may look very similar to your neighbor’s keys, but try opening your front door with one of hers. Appearances can be deceiving, and not all methods and techniques will fit everybody.
First, let’s look at different types of moms. We have many to choose from. To start, we have the enabling mom, the lenient mom and the overprotective mom. I fall into that last category. When my children and I saw the movie, A Series of Unfortunate Events they felt the need to look at me each time Aunt Josephine (played by Meryl Streep) would sound off with some bit of wisdom such as taking care of the avocados as the pits may become lodged in one’s throat. As I recall the avocados did not appear to be very threatening lying there, unpeeled on a table. Okay, I am not that overprotective, but I do give frequent discourses on botulism and salmonella in our kitchen. Then there are the over-doer moms who work themselves to the point of exhaustion neglecting their own needs and health. I could continue listing differing types but let’s simply say that the goal is to be an “all around Mom.” A realistic, balanced and consistent parent who cares for her children and cares for herself. Almost any busy homeschooling mother needs healthy breaks and perhaps a hobby or two. The over-doer runs from task to event, all the while attending to various needs and still, at the end of the day, thinks she has not done enough. If that describes you, try a thirty-minute break per day. Just thirty minutes to do whatever you like to do. Forget the laundry and the dishes and rejuvenate yourself with reading or walking or any relaxing uninterrupted pleasure. Additionally, if you are homeschooling to excess, you may find it beneficial to plan an entire week off at least every three months.
Now we’ll look at different types of children. One would be the “brat” and nobody likes a brat, except maybe you. Even with all the love a mother’s heart can hold, the mother of a misbehaved child can become frustrated. In the same vein there is the overindulged child who is given everything s/he ever wants and they tend to get along quite well with enabling mothers. I saw an example of this when I caught a segment of a popular television show in which two teenage children were driving new cars and possessing their own credit cards. Their monthly clothing allowance was in the hundreds. To make matters worse the mother and father ate brown bag lunches every single day. They went without, while their spoiled children lived very well.
Another type is the bored child who tends to find and get into trouble. There are also neglected kids who reach out for attention and sometimes find it in the least desirable ways. Then there are a myriad of wonderful, thoughtful children who are cooperative but still misbehave on occasion.
So what should you do? Ignore the issues? Pretend that if you don’t acknowledge the problems they will go away all by themselves? That would be similar to ignoring a toothache for a very long time. When the pain gets to be too much to bear you finally break down and see the dentist only to find out that the repair includes a root canal. Perhaps skipping routine dental visits seemed like a good idea at the time but I would wager it would not appear to be a good idea the day of oral surgery. No, ignoring problems rarely makes them go away.
Let’s imagine the brattiest little brat we can possibly conjure up in our minds. He is standing there obstinately saying those less than lovely words, “Oh Yeah! Who’s gonna make me?!” Here’s the truth, you may not be able to. No matter how much you wish you could hop into that little body and make it do anything from finish the math assignment to making the bed, the reality is you cannot. But you can allow consequences to occur. You can set up rules and boundaries before the next tantrum. Child-rearing experts across the board seem to agree on one thing — it may not look like it, but children want boundaries. They want to know the line; they want to be hemmed in to a certain extent. They want to know that somebody, other than themselves, is indeed in some kind of control. It actually frightens younger children to conclude that they are the ones in control of the world that they know.
However that is only one part of the battle. Even when a parent has been clear and the boundary lines have been drawn some children still live to push your buttons and test your rules. They seem to come by this naturally and this aspect does not seem to have an age limit.
Back in 1970, Dr. J. Dobson wrote about the same parenting tactic of disciplining children while they are still toddlers so as to avoid a rowdy and belligerent teenage rebellion. He also made a point that has stuck with me for nearly three decades now. When children commit an offense it often falls into one or two categories. It was a childish mistake, such as young child coloring on the new couch with either lipstick or permanent marker, or it was willful disobedience. Placing children’s actions into these categories has helped my own parenting to a huge extent.
Now that we have established a few frustrations that come along with parenting, let’s move on to some solutions. My first one is: Teach your children to take “No” for an answer regardless of their age. The experts agree with me on this point too. Drs. Cloud and Townsend provided a list of eight “No’s” on page 182 of Boundaries, and this philosophy is taught by many child psychologists. The list starts with the “No” of a parent and ends with the “No” of the court and/or prison system. I have thought the same exact thing for years now. Having a child who learns how to take “No” for an answer is a huge accomplishment. Who hasn’t been out with a friend and her child and experienced the playing of this game. “Can I have some chips?” “No.” “Can I have some chips?” “No.” By the time the parent and child arrive at the 11th or 12th round of “Can I” the parent breaks down and says, “Yes.” Most parenting books I have read speak to this same issue. All that is learned is how to break Mom’s will until she gives you what you want.
Instead, try living by “No means ‘No’ ” and do not say “No” unless you have to. This may not be an overnight victory for either you or the child. You may be in the habit of giving in, and I promise you, the child is in the habit of asking until you do. There is not much else to advise on this topic. You have to decide to do this and you have to be consistent in doing this. When children will not take no for an answer it may help to remind them verbally that you want them to learn how to do this. Tell them plainly that “This is exactly what I mean: I mean to tell you ‘No’.” Don’t make the mistake of saying “No” all day long out of habit, either. Think carefully before answering. Can you allow the request? Is it unreasonable? Is it feasible? Puzzle that through first within your own mind, and only if it is vitally important then tell them “No.” With practice, the both of you will change, because the old habit of wearing you down will begin to subside and will be replaced with hearing “No” and accepting “No.”
On the flip side, do not give many commands throughout the day. To quote Charlotte Mason, “Never give a command which she [mother] does not intend to see carried out to the full.” If you are going to make certain that a command is followed, then be very sparing with the number of them in any given day. It is better to give a few directions which the child knows he must obey. Neither Charlotte Mason nor I want your child in a state of perpetual orders. The two of us would prefer self-directedness for the vast majority of the day. I teach this at my house by giving my child a time period. I will say something like, “I want the dog fed and the porch swept. You have from 1:00 until 4:00.” My children know that I mean exactly what I say. They know I will want it “carried out to the full” but they have freedom to decide when to accomplish this task. Before or after they finish a game, for example. It allows them to take some responsibility and initiative.
I took this concept and used it daily as my children became old enough to clean the kitchen. We had kitchen week, meaning for one week it was going to be your chore and yours alone. The job? Clean the kitchen. How well? Enough that the health board will not condemn the house, and enough that we have clean dishes. When? Whenever you want. Anytime you see fit between waking and bedtime. Yes, the kitchen was sometimes unbearably dirty and visitors would be left to wonder what my problem was, but it taught my children something. It taught them the very same thing I have to live by. When it’s my kitchen week I can clean up little by little every day after each plate is dirtied and I usually do. Or I might be busy or lazy and wait until late in the day. Then I will have a lot of work to do at one time. This is reality. As an adult I am allowed to choose when to do my work and I let my children learn that real life lesson through experience.
Children need to learn to make their own choices under the watchful eye of their parents. If they do not learn how to make decisions they will remain helpless. If you are always telling them what to do and when to do it, they will stay in a state of dependence on you.
As far as other chores are concerned I believe the same principles apply and clarity is the key. Children thrive when they know what exactly is expected from them. Declare the chore and have them complete the chore, it’s that simple. Chore lists work well in large families. At our peak we had a family of seven and that is a lot of work — one person could easily crack under that kind of pressure. Having found the kitchen timer to be a useful tool during the school hours, I gave it a try during the house-cleaning moments. Set the timer and everybody jumps in, all at once and with concentration. This sense of fairness is also important to children. To observe mom and their fellow brothers and sisters all working feverishly for the same amount of time, really takes care of the complaints. Sometimes they clean independently without the entire group and sometimes they would fail to comply. My husband, being somewhat artistic, drew a chart using cardstock. Removable tags had each child’s name written on it and if the chore was not completed, the name was removed from a slot and placed into the hand-drawn dog house. It was cute, so cute in fact that my kids told the neighbor kids and soon other parents started asking me to see my “dog house” chore chart.
Another incentive I used was a little corkboard mounted to the kitchen wall. It had envelopes tacked to it with each child’s name. Every Monday there would be seven one-dollar bills in each child’s respective envelope. At the end of each day I would check the chart and then check the condition of the bathroom, for example. Either it had been cleaned or it had not. If it had been neglected I removed a dollar bill from that child’s envelope. It was their choice -- they would have $7.00 at the end of the week to call their own or they would have less.
What these little anecdotes from my life have done is bring out the next point. Immediate reinforcement — positive or negative. We get that in a Charlotte Mason house fairly consistently. A positive system designed for successful child training and the necessary system of consequences as the backup plan. To simplify the twofold system we verbally tell our children to not run into the street without looking for cars. We have tried to set them up to succeed (and live). If they obey and do not run out in front of cars, then great; if not, we have the second half. Charlotte Mason put it this way — we would have less confusion if we understood that “It is not authority which punishes:” It is the consequences of breaking whatever law that penalize us. Authority when it is “strong and benign, exists to save us by prevention, and, if needs be, by lesser and corrective penalties.” (Vol. 3, p.139) Meaning, if our child does indeed run into the street, our disciplinary reaction may seem harsh to an onlooker. They may look over and observe our verbal reprimand or they might even witness a light spank to the top of the hand. Regardless of what people standing-by think of you, it is less harsh to be disciplined by a parent than it is to be struck by a car.
As far as other disciplinary tactics are concerned, we need to use what works. Just as in the house-key analogy given earlier, no one technique will work for every family or even for every child within a family. Pain does teach. I have a healthy respect for my iron. It has taught me not to touch it anywhere but on the handle. But parents do not have to resort to physical pain when there are other avenues available. We can revoke privileges such as attending an upcoming party or restricting computer time. We can confiscate toys, games and any number of other items. The key is notifying the child of the offence and the corresponding discipline beforehand, and not resorting to empty threats. With some trial and error, I’m confident you will find a style that speaks to your child.
Name-calling and hitting siblings are other examples of things that can be addressed ahead of time and acted upon in a disciplinary fashion if committed anytime after the teaching. The best thing to do is to identify the behavior you will not accept and identify exactly what the consequence will be if and when they commit the offence. This appeals to their sense of fairness again. It’s not just that mom is cranky or in a bad mood; no, she is following the plan, she is being consistent.
So we are back to the topic of responsibility and we again turn to Cloud and Townsend. One of the first points made in the chapter on children in the Boundaries book is this: “The most important thing parents can give children is a sense of responsibility--knowing what they are responsible for and knowing what they aren’t responsible for.” Charlotte Mason wrote a similar statement. “Every effort of obedience which does not give him a sense of conquest over his own inclinations, helps to enslave him.” Instead, she tells us to “invite his co-operation, let him heartily intend and purpose to do the thing he is bidden, and then it is his own will that is compelling him, and not yours; he has begun the greatest effort, the highest accomplishment of human life — the making, the compelling of himself.” (Vol. 1 p. 328)
Having a sense of responsibility beginning in childhood and continuing into adulthood helps greatly with accepting blame for one’s own actions. People who do not learn this tend to blame other people and outside circumstances. They did not learn to search themselves for any personal level of fault. Somewhere along the line they did not learn the simple teaching that there are consequences to their actions.
What is highest accomplishment of human life? Ask a hundred people and you will get a hundred answers. Mason had her answer; it is “the making, the compelling” of one’s self and that is what adulthood is all about. Mom and Dad will not make you go to work, arrive at your appointment promptly, or remind you to pay your utility bill when you have reached adulthood and live independently.
I have always viewed children this way: The whole arrangement reminds me of a gas pedal and a clutch pedal. A precious little newborn is utterly dependant on others to feed and care for her. That is similar to a clutch pedal completely depressed and no gasoline applied. From the day of birth to the day of adult maturity a gradual process takes place. If you are familiar with standard transmissions, the goal is to get to the point where the gas pedal is engaged and the clutch is not, it has been released. An experienced driver knows how gradual that process is. Fairly quickly in the process you have let up on the clutch and started to press on the gas and the two pedals gently trade off. If not, then you risk killing the engine or jerking down the street, to everyone’s amusement, until the balanced trade-off has occurred. So it is with parenting. The dependence factor is going to subside with or without your cooperation. Why not approach the inevitable with balanced parenting?
Catherine Levison currently resides in Seattle. She is the mother of five and began home schooling in the 1980s. Her family enjoyed home education due to creative and effective techniques supplied by Charlotte Mason. Catherine’s work has been designed to give practical advice while encouraging parents to think for themselves and develop a style that fosters individuality. Her book titles include, A Charlotte Mason Education—A Home Schooling How-To Manual and More Charlotte Mason Education—A Home Schooling How-To Manual. Her latest book is A Literary Education—An Annotated Book List. For more information contact her publisher at championpress.com.■
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