Part IV: Some habits of mind — some moral habits.
Mason reiterates that while she has the utmost respect for mothers and how their unique knowledge of their own children well-equips them, she believes that there is also a science of education that mothers can learn from and thus bring their parenting even more into line with natural and divine law.
She points to habit as an example; learning how habits work has confirmed what many people already figured out — that if you put in a little effort up front to establish good habits, it makes things run more smoothly.
Nevertheless, it’s understandable to be overwhelmed thinking of all the effort we’ll need to expend to help our kids develop all the habits we want them to have. But — the work of training habits becomes a habit, too, so that it becomes easier and more natural the more the mother attends to it. And only one habit is to be trained at a time — just keeping watch over the others. And one might decide on some minimal list of habits to train overall. AND kids’ strongest habits will be the ones that they absorb just from what the family naturally and unconsciously models — such as order and neatness, grace and courtesy.
I. The habit of attention
This is a loooooong section!
Mason illustrates the importance of attention by contrasting the professional and educated person who can easily grasp the most important points about a story and restate them with greater clarity, with the uneducated person whose mind and responses wander.
I see her point — but (showing my rather postmodern bent) I also see great value in letting a story be a story and not just a padded vehicle for various propositions or statements, and in letting people follow some of the apparently random paths their wandering leads them to. I still, for example, think the best Bible study I have ever been in was the one in which the group simply read a short passage, commented and inquired and wondered about it, then went on to read the next. Some of the least enjoyable and fruitful Bible studies I’ve been in have been the most structured and pointed ones that had no room for tangents and also seemed to have no room for the fullness and breadth and depth of the passage at hand.
She goes on to talk about trains of associations — one idea, story, memory, object, etc, makes us think of another, and that makes us think of another, and so on. She sees that such associations have value in helping us recall things, but that it is not good to be at the mercy of associations — we must learn to think what we want to when we want to, and not be derailed by associations unless we choose to follow their train. I would prefer Mason to show more appreciation for the wonder of associations and where they can lead us, but I suppose this admission of their occasional value is good enough — ha!
About the child who is thinking about many things other than the lesson at hand, she says he is wasting time, developing a habit of wandering attention, and reducing his power of mental effort. I know that Charlotte Mason makes a lot of allowances for developmental readiness, so that, for instance, lessons are kept quite short and are varied in order not to overly tax a child’s attention. So I have to read this bit with that in mind — it’s not like she’s expecting a six-year-old to cheerfully and capably attend to an hour’s lecture. She’s just trying to make the point that attention can and should be intentionally developed. Still — my impulsive response to this paragraph is to think that something might well be done about the lesson — the lesson could be more interesting, or the timing / scheduling different — the fault may not be entirely or at all with the child.
Mason continues, talking about how one can and should train attention in babies and young children by calling their attention back to each thing as soon as they are distracted from it. So the baby who drops one toy, the mom should pick it up and comment on it, drawing the child’s attention back. I heartily disagree. In recent months I’ve discovered RIE and Aware Parenting, both of which advocate much more stepping back and observation of babies and young children, not trying to interfere with their choices except in matters of safety, and certainly not trying to keep them paying attention to one toy or another.
Mason’s image of a mother going on and on about a daisy — describing its parts, colors, explaining its name, comparing its habits to the child’s, etc — does not seem to me likely to keep a child’s interest, but rather to overwhelm her with authority and pressure to conform to the mother’s intentions.
Next, though, she moves into what makes a LOT more sense to me. She talks about how, if a child is dawdling or daydreaming over a lesson, it is time to stop the lesson and move on to something else — especially something quite different, which may or may not be another lesson. Later the child can return to the one she was dawdling over. Here she also talks about keeping the lessons interesting, varied in what kind of thinking or effort is needed, and suited to the child’s age and abilities. She talks about motivating the child by appeal to excellence and making progress, love of parents, sense of duty, and — especially — desire for knowledge. I’m honestly not sure how much motivation is the parent’s job — but I agree that love of knowledge and excellence should not be trumped by desire for rewards or other extrinsic factors.
Mason argues for a tight schedule — with a definite time and duration for each lesson. She says it’s good to learn that one time is NOT as good as another, and that something undone in its proper time may not be done well in another time. To what extent is that true? It bothers me — sounds like factory training.
She says the natural reward of doing good work in a timely fashion is to have more leisure time — so if a lesson has twenty minutes allotted and is completed — and done well — in ten, then the child can use the remaining ten minutes as he pleases.
As for competition, or the desire to excel, or the desire for better grades — she seems to think such things may not be so bad in themselves, and may be appropriate since the world is like that, but that a) it’s better to give grades for conduct instead of cleverness, so that all can achieve, and b) it’s good to help kids appreciate another’s success and have consideration for another’s loss, so that no one either gloats or is bitter, and c) ultimately, the desire for knowledge is sufficient and can be clouded by things like competition and grades.
In the same way, while the occasional appeal to love and relationship might help a child keep at his work, such appeals must be kept to a minimum. For one thing, a child who doesn’t want to seem unloving, might “end in being untrue” (145).
As for duty, Mason reminds us that attention is not a faculty or operation of the mind, but is an act of will to bring the mind’s powers to the subject at hand — and that this act of will is a duty. In helping a child develop the habit of attention, we teach him that minds naturally flit from one idea to another, and that they can and must dutifully overcome this natural tendency.
It is inattention, she goes on to say, that makes schoolwork wearisome — the more a child dawdles or then tries to hurry, the more the incomplete lesson burdens her. Parents and teachers should take care that a child never does a lesson except whole-heartedly, always on the lookout for inattention. One way to combat the dawdling tendency is simply to limit the amount of time allowed for the work. When the time is over, lessons done or undone, something else is done — some fun together thing such as a family game.
Mason argues that homework before high school age is unnecessary. I agree.
Finally, she closes the section by talking about natural and relative consequences, which make punishment much less necessary. Natural consequences are those that happen without any action on the parent’s part. Sometimes the parent cannot allow the natural consequence — such as letting a child who neglects lessons remain ignorant — and instead must judiciously choose some related consequence. This requires the mother to first guess at the nature of the fault involved — read into the behavior to the heart — and then aim a consequence at that fault. Which sounds good in theory, but is quite dangerous, as no one knows anyone else’s heart at all except God.