Charlotte Mason Volume I Part IV:VII

VII. Some moral habits — obedience.

Obedience is not only the “whole duty of the child,” but of every person — the adult’s obedience is to law and to God, as the child’s obedience is to the parents (161).

The essence of sin is not any particular act or failure to act, but willfulness, which is the opposite of obedience; we see this in the nature of the temptations applied to Jesus in the wilderness.

Obedience is crucial for the family — the parents are God’s agents in training obedience, and every single act of disobedience condemns the parents.

Obedience must not be only outward, but must involve the child’s heart and will — the desire to do what is right. Developing this kind of obedience is what allows people to use their will to choose what is right even when tempted. The training to this kind of obedience must be gradual and sweet, and not a matter of the parent’s convenience or whim, and not a matter of bullying or coercion.

If the mom would simply start in the child’s infancy to quietly and confidently expect immediate obedience, kids will magically automatically start the habit of obedience. They only get the idea of disobedience when moms show uncertainty or insecurity about their authority.

Mason describes some incidents in which kids negotiate politely to continue something they are doing before doing something they’ve been commanded to do, and condemns the mom for yielding to the negotiations.

Again, moms can and must ‘simply’ require immediate cheerful obedience every single time and then they can sweetly avoid all struggles of will with their kids. She does at least remind moms to be sure they don’t give commands unless they intend them to be obeyed immediately and fully, and to be sure they don’t give burdensome commands.

Moms should at some point tell their kids what a great thing it is to be able to choose right even when tempted.

With this strict attention to the habit of perfect obedience, kids can actually have more freedom, not less, because nagging is unnecessary.


Oh my.

Okay — the good:

Mason emphasizes the need to be gentle and gradual rather than harsh and overwhelming in efforts in any habit training. She recognizes the need to have strict rules be few in number, truly wise and not arbitrary, and appropriate for the child. She reminds us that what matters most is the heart, a sincere willingness, rather than outward appearance only.

The less good and the bad:

As I discussed in my review of Shepherding a Child’s Heart, it is a dangerous prospect to undertake to interpret your child’s heart by your child’s behavior. What feels manipulative and defiant to us often isn’t. It feels that way because it restimulates similar moments from our own past, when we were judged manipulative and defiant, for example.

Willfulness is generally a tricky thing. A strong will can work for or against us. Being willful often means rigidly and fearfully fighting against reality — you can’t actually make any progress or change until you first accept that reality is what it is — only then can you move to make reality different or find some solution that will work with current reality.

But I think the opposite of willfulness is willingness, not obedience. Willingness is being ready to accept what comes — being adaptable, flexible, trusting, hopeful, confident, open. Obedience can indeed be in there — but willingness is the broader and more useful concept.

In the same way, I don’t think obedience is the whole duty of child or adult. I think loving God with all our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves is. Again — obedience can be in there, but it’s much too narrow a concept to be the sum of anyone’s duty.

I think the worst thing in this section is this idea that obtaining perfect obedience from our children is a very simple matter. It is not. And when it is not, it leads to plumbing supply line and escalation of punishments and more and more enmity between parent and child — wild helpless fury and the effort to dominate from the parent, along with condemnation and fear that they’re not able to do this very simple thing — and bewilderment, a sense of abandonment and betrayal, insecurity and brokenness, on the part of the child.


Mason is right that we want our children to do what is right because they love righteousness. But I think Mason is wrong to suggest that training perfect obedience from infancy is the way to achieve that goal. It’s unrealistic — sets up parents AND child for failure. I don’t mean that we should forget about discipline altogether — kids need reasonable boundaries that are firm, and firm limits set with empathy. I just think there are better ways to deal with a conflict of wills with a kid, than by obedience training. Research non-punitive parenting — there’s lots of great stuff out there. I’ve settled into Hand in Hand Parenting as my own main resource.

That said, yes, of course there are times when I get sick of reluctance and dawdling and delay and constant negotiations and “why” and “you have to!” But on the other hand, I want home to be the place to learn good negotiating skills. I want home to be where the child can speak her mind and be heard with respect and openness. I want home to be a safe and warm refuge from all the enmity of the world — where love is secure and certain, and where compassion and respect are the general pattern, and where our relationship comes before any task. I have been finding that the reluctance and delay and all mostly comes when Amy is feeling disconnected or insecure in some way. And I have been finding that when there is enough physical play, laughing, warm connections, special time, and warm listening to upsets, there is much more cooperation with tasks that must be done.


For further reading:

Do children manipulate their parents?

Partnering with your child

Setting limits with young children

I will not obey

Are obedient children a good thing?

Do you want to raise an obedient child?

Not expecting obedience but getting it anyway

First time obedience, really?


2 thoughts on “Charlotte Mason Volume I Part IV:VII

  1. Our home is not a picture of such obedience~LOL! Hand-in-Hand is not quite my style, either.

    Another thing I recently learned that blessed me~CM didn’t believe in “strong-willed” children. She actually viewed such children as “weak-willed”.

    • Right — she believed they needed to be trained to develop a stronger will, so as to choose the right even when tempted.

      I suppose the difference — or one difference — between willingness and willfulness is how the will is applied. When you try to apply your will to will things to be different, as if by wishing strongly enough you could make it happen, that’s willfulness, and it’s not only ineffective but harmful — wastes the soul’s energies, leads to frustration and heartache.

      Willingness, on the other hand, is applying the will to accepting what comes and moving with it, like that kind of martial arts you referenced once, where the fighter receives the movements of his opponent and moves with them in order to redirect and deflect them.

      I think these concepts are useful not only for making changes in the world around us, and our personal circumstances, but also in making changes in ourselves. We can’t change ourselves merely by willing ourselves to be different, to stop feeling or thinking X — but if we can receive our feelings, our internal reality, our thoughts, and move with them, we can make better progress and have more compassion and respect and grace for ourselves.

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