V. Hindering the Children
Charlotte Mason talks in this section about ways parents unintentionally hinder their kids’ natural relationship with God. She mentions the story of Jesus saying “Let the little children come to me,” pointing out that his statement suggests that without outside interference, kids naturally come to him. I wonder if he meant that about all kids, and not just the kids that got to see him in the flesh.
Hindrances include such things as much talk about the threat of God not loving the child when he’s naughty or sending the child to hell; long boring thoughtless prayers; careless talk about spiritual things and holy words; not enough talk of “how God does love and cherish the little children all day long, and fill their hours with delight”; and the parental life not showing how much more important God is than the world (20).
VI. Conditions of Healthy Brain-Activity
Okay, I confess, parts of this section made me laugh incredulously. Oh my. Well, let us suppose that Charlotte Mason was speaking outside of her area of expertise in those parts.
Since mental activity involves the use of the brain, the health of the brain must be cared for.
It should exercise, as the rest of the body does, but with “daily habit of appropriate moral and mental work” and “regular and sustained efforts of thought or will” (21). Because the brain does not sit idle, without these things it will work in its own way, producing eccentricity. Since “wholesome mental effort, like moral, must be carried on under the discipline of rules,” children must do intellectual, moral, volitional work — to understand, “to do and to bear,” to do right even when it’s a sacrifice” (21-22).
What? What rules? And is eccentricity altogether such a bad thing? What happened to “masterly inactivity”? The idea of mental exercise is a good one — the more you think, the better you get at it — but the rest seems contrived and weirdly artificial. It makes me picture rows of children performing some kind of mental calisthenics with furrowed brows.
Next, Mason talks about the need for rest. First there’s timing — strenuous mental work is not best done right after a meal or right before bed. Lessons should be timed for when the brain is most fresh, if possible. Then there’s variety — working on one thing for a long time can get tiring, and a change in subject or type of work can be refreshing. My teacher dad used to say that you tend to remember the first and last things you study, so that studying is most effective when you take lots of good short breaks. And pressing on when your mind isn’t working well is counter-productive, even in the face of a deadline or other pressure.
Then there’s food, which should be “nutritious and easy of digestion” and varied — regular meals not spaced too far apart. Sensible, right? But then read this:
“Everybody knows that children should not eat pastry, or pork, or fried meats, or cheese, or rich, highly-flavoured food of any description; that pepper, mustard, and vinegar, sauces and spices, should be forbidden, with new bread, rich cakes, and jams, like plum or gooseberry, in which the leathery coat of the fruit is preserved; that milk, or milk and water, and that not too warm, or cocoa, is the best drink for children, and that they should be trained not to drink until they have finished eating; that fresh fruit at breakfast is invaluable; that, as serving the same end, oatmeal porridge with treacle, and the fat of toasted bacon, are valuable breakfast foods; and that a glass of water, also, taken the last thing at night, and the first thing in the morning, is useful in promoting those regular habits on which much of the comfort of life depends” (26).
Giggle — regular habits — POOP! Seriously, though, what’s wrong with cheese? Or seasoning? or…
But she goes on — pleasant talk at meals, as opposed to dull silence or too much excitement, promotes good digestion. And of course pleasant meals are opportunities for manners and moral training as well as for family connection. And making a thoughtful effort to provide meals that are both healthful AND enjoyable is not going to lead to food obsession; it’s the kids who don’t get enough to eat who obsess, not the ones who get to eat what they enjoy. (Tell that to my candy and carbs fanatic; I don’t forbid them, but any limit is unwelcome to her.)
Now after all this talk about nourishing the blood with food, we move on to air. With many words, Mason makes the point that it is best to breathe plenty of fresh air, which means avoiding inadequately ventilated indoor spaces with fires burning and people breathing, and being outside as much as possible, not just for an hour’s walk each day. Besides, in the early years, children learn more effectively by exploring, especially in nature, instead of through lessons and words.
There should also be a lot of sun and light in general, indoors and out, and kids should have plenty of opportunity to sweat, which is one of the ways the body eliminates wastes. She talks about clothes and bedcovers needing to breathe, and argues that woolens are better than cotton and linen; I bet she would be appalled by polyester and the like.
Mason closes this section with what sounds like a nod to Maslov and his hierarchy of needs: “Intellectual, moral, even spiritual life and progress depend greatly upon physical conditions.”