Charlotte Mason Volume I Part IV:VIII — Part V:I

IV:VIII. Truthfulness

Lying can involve either carelessness in determining and stating the truth, or else deliberate deception.

The two kinds of carelessness can dull the sense of truth, so even such little things as saying “lots” instead of “seven” must be dealt with. Children should be trained to strict and simple veracity in all things — no embellishing stories, no spin, no exaggerating.

I hope she makes allowance for context! There are times when exaggeration and embellishment are perfectly appropriate. It seems to me more important to know when it is best to be strict and simple, and when to let loose a little, then to always be so strict.

She throws in a bit about cultivating respect and consideration, vs. aggressive self-seeking.

Next, a bit about temper — one must not excuse and then ignore bad temper as if it were a fixed characteristic; children can be trained in the habit of a good temper that assumes positive intent, isn’t self-aggrandizing, and seeks to be content in all things.

How? By catching a sour look before any complaint is made, and never allowing the least expression of sourness — not by calling attention to it or lecturing, but by distracting with some useful and natural activity or task.

Well, I agree that merely opposing sourness is an ineffective way to deal with it. Continue reading

Feeling mean

I wrote a little book for Amy today. It’s by no means perfect or even well-thought out, but it might be food for her thought.

She has been showing quite a mean streak lately, as well as accusing / complaining about others being mean. She’s been having conflicts at school and often not being able to solve them, especially with one friend in particular.

I suppose we tend to think about how to help kids deal with meanness from others more than we think about how to help mean kids.

How do we best support kids who feel mean and do mean things sometimes?

How do we maintain a positive image of the child with hope and confidence, remembering that meanness is not an inherent quality but a response to some kind of hurt or need?

How do we handle things when children get into a conflict, either with us or with another child?

I’ve been thinking about time and space, and about enzymes.

First of all, conflict isn’t a bad thing. All relationships, except the most superficial, will experience conflict. The process of working through conflict resolution can be deeply empowering and bring new depth and strength to a friendship, as each participant learns to peacefully pursue their own interests and to kindly consider the interests of the other, and to eventually arrive at a mutually satisfying solution.

It’s tempting for teachers and parents to try to solve children’s conflicts as quickly and smoothly as possible. We find them disruptive, a hindrance. We don’t often have the patience for the long and tedious give and take that conflict resolution often requires. We’d rather impose our own solution, or avoid the problem by separating the kids.

Sometimes separation is necessary, when one or both children is not in the frame of mind to participate in problem-solving. They may need time and space alone, or they may need time and space with a supportive adult or another friend, something to restore their sense of warmth and safety, goodwill, flexibility, willingness to assume positive intent, and desire for peace and friendship.

Other times separation might inadvertently teach children that conflict is bad and must be avoided, that they are incapable of resolving their own conflicts, and that they need the authoritarian intervention of an adult.

From what I remember of high school biology, an enzyme works by creating and holding a space for a reaction — a chemical process — to take place. Without the support of the enzyme, the reagents might never stay close enough long enough to finish the process.

When a teacher or parent can play the role of an enzyme — keeping the children close, supporting them in their efforts, guiding but not directing their process — kids can really arrive at good solutions. It might take a loooong time, with a lot of setbacks and stalemates along the way. It’s worth sticking it out.

It’s not easy work. No one likes to see a mean or violent streak in a child, especially their own child. We want to push away meanness and mean people, condemn them, require them to stay away until they can somehow become kind again. When we do try to stick with a kid who’s struggling with meanness, we might be tempted to think we’re enabling them, reinforcing the meanness, letting them get away with it. It’s hard enough when kids are being mean to one another — sometimes it’s even harder when they’re being mean to us — especially if they’re quite persistent!

I’m leaning on the Hand in Hand listening tools in my efforts to help Amy with her meanness struggle.

I have a listening partner for myself, so that I can work through my own feelings, triggers, upsets about her and the mean things she does. Feeling heard and supported helps clear my head a bit and make space, to restore my sense of her goodness and my desire to be on her side.

I have special time with Amy every day. I set a timer for twenty minutes, and for that whole time I’ll do anything she wants to do, as long as it’s safe. (I give myself permission to not do things that are really upsetting for me — that’s a different kind of safety issue — but I try to really be open and willing to try anything as much as I can.) Special time shows her that she’s important and interesting, that I delight in her and take interest in her interests. It builds safety and warmth and connection.

I stay-listen when she’s upset, whenever I can. I stay close, with warmth and confidence, while she cries, thrashes, yells, bangs, and so on. If I have to, I hold onto a hand that’s trying to hit or throw something. I occasionally murmur some reassurance that I’m staying with her and not leaving her, that she’s safe, and that things will be good again. It is sometimes amazing to see how she emerges from this sort of thing with renewed grace, cooperation, and peace.

I’m still working on the other two tools, which are more challenging for me.

One is play-listening, which is a sort of combination of things that bring laughter and things that involve physical closeness. Pillow fights, chasing games, piggyback rides, that sort of thing. Laughing is another great way to relieve emotional tension. Physical interaction reaches the limbic, emotional part of the mind — much more effective than exhortations and lectures, since kids simply don’t have access to their rational minds when they’re upset.

The other is setting limits. I’m okay with setting limits around most things, but so much of what’s challenging with Amy is verbal stuff. With an ordinary limit, like “No, we’re not going to have a snack right now; dinner will be ready in half an hour,” it’s relatively easy to first listen to how the child wants a snack, set and hold the limit that it’s not the proper time for a snack, and then listen more as the child responds to the limit. That second listening can be play-listening, stay-listening, or something else. But when you’re setting a verbal limit, like “I want you to answer me with respectful words and a respectful voice,” it’s hard to know how to hold the limit AND listen to the response. I think with verbal things the listening is more important than trying to enforce the limit. It’s possible to remain firm about expecting respect, while listening to rude responses about that expectation. But it IS challenging.

There are other good resources for this kind of work to support kids who struggle with meanness.

Here’s a great story about how two girls solved a conflict with the support of their teacher, and how the results are so much bigger than a solution to the particular conflict.

And now that I’ve finished reading Children who are not yet peaceful, I have some more quotations to share.

Author Donna recalls the conversation with three boys, one of whom was interfering with the work of the other two. The boys were too angry at first to deal with the problem directly, so everyone moves into third person:

“He’s annoying, and sometimes really mean…”
“What does he do that’s so annoying? Describe it to him clearly, and then say what you’d like instead.”
At times like these I speak in the third person of a child who has not become assimilated into the community or who has chosen a role that doesn’t benefit him or the class. I work gradually toward getting the children to communicate directly to one another. I have found that direct address can be harsher than the third person and too strong for a struggling child to bear in the beginning. Third-person discussion allows a child to stand aside and listen to both the anger and the love coming his way. It allows him to look at himself through the eyes of others without bearing the brunt of direct confrontation. My use of the third person slows down the process and makes time to introduce sensitive reflection on motives and needs, responses and remedies. (98)

“A well-informed, ever-vigilant parent with a full and valid set of childrearing ideals can produce a very neurotic child. ‘No, you can’t spend the night with Johnny. You know he watches too many violent TV shows and eats too much junk food. We don’t approve of his family. You’re lucky we don’t have computer games in this house, and we never let you have toys of violence.’

‘You want to spend the night with Travis? Let’s have him over and make homemade pizza and a big salad. Shall we have Danny and Louis over too? We can play board games tonight. Tell them to bring their roller blades for morning when it’s cool.’ This dad has set the stage for the kind of life he knows is best for his son without preaching to his child or judging others. His son will think it’s more fun to be a part of his family and easily do without the harmful things other children have” (113).

(I have a lot of growing to do in this kind of thing!)

One thing I find rather harsh in this book is the author’s attitude toward the other teachers at her own school and other schools. I wonder why there isn’t more support for the adults to make the same kinds of growth the kids are supported to make.

“Now I wished I had never sought the counsel of this teacher… I left unsatisfied and unsure that I could rely on the weak assurance I had received. Approaching a child’s development of responsibility, honesty, and truthfulness as a process is more difficult for some teachers than for others. This teacher had struggled to overcome an authoritarian personality and a confrontational manner that were both cloaked in a charismatic charm, making it difficult to recognize and address them. Why had I, by seeking advice, presented this teacher with something at which success was so unlikely?…

“Some teachers find it extremely difficult to work in a developmental way, when their personalities, education, and socialization have prepared them to work in the traditional way. Some teachers cannot make the paradigm shift, regardless of the passion fueling their desire and effort to do so” (178).

That’s pretty discouraging! What if I’m one of those people who can’t parent in a truly developmental way, even though I really want to learn to do so? Surely there are ways to provide for and support the necessary growth and change?

“Because of their galvanizing charge, I consciously avoid using certain words such as ‘truth,’ ‘lie,’ ‘liar,’ ‘admit,’ ‘confess,’ ‘blame,’ ‘ashamed,’ and ‘guilty.’ I think of the child as being in process of developing a relationship with truth and of coming to distinguish it from and prefer it to security, wishes, expediencies, and self-gratifications. Every experience a child has and every behavior he exhibits can be employed to assist him along his individual path of development, if adults use calm, clear thinking, deep respect, and loving feelings and are committed to an alliance with the child’s spirit…

“Everything a child thinks, says, and does makes perfect sense in the context of his own interpretation of his experience. For an adult to judge a child’s behavior harshly is to carve a chasm between the child and the adult. If the child attempts to leap the chasm and align himself with the adults, accepting their harsh judgments, he betrays the integrity of his interpretation of his own experience, placing the chasm within his own being. If, on the other hand, the child aligns himself with his own experience and rejects the adults’ harsh judgments, he begins living beyond the chasm and without the security of adult moral guidance. Or a child might exhaust himself straddling the chasm by feigning acceptance of adult judgment and pretending rejection of his own experience, all the while expending enormous energy holding on for dear life to his foothold in Self” (183).

Dignity (and disgust)

When we lived in Virginia, I volunteered with a middle school youth group. During the talk / discussion times, inevitably someone would be wiggly, giggly, or distracted with a neighbor. But there were no shaming stern glances or admonitions. Instead, the youth pastor would invite such a one, gently, to go out in the hall if they needed to get themselves together again. It was firm — but truly no sense of shame or scorn at all. It felt so kind, so compassionate, so respectful of the reality of being a kid, so ready to look for a solution instead of for blame.

I would love to live that kind of respect and compassion at all times. Especially in parenting, but really, at all times, with everyone.

But often enough, my first reaction to various behaviors is disapproval, even disgust. Scorn and contempt come more easily to me than I would like them to. At times — more often than I’d like — the scorn even feels like righteous indignation. I feel so certain that the behavior I find so disgusting or revolting or reprehensible or appalling really is that horrid, and — honestly — so must be the person doing the behavior.

It happens more often in parenting — how powerfully many of us have absorbed scorn and shame and revulsion from our culture’s typical ideas about childish misbehavior, especially if echoed in our personal histories.

It’s not always an intense feeling — not always some gigantic towering monster of hatred. Sometimes contempt is snide, little, hardly noticed, just a sniff and a wrinkle of the nose.

It is not easy to escape from under scorn, even in oneself. Living out of compassion and respect is not as easy as deciding to or desiring to.

Some of it is a process of changing our thinking, applying new thoughts to try to shift our perceptions and interpretations of things. The more we understand child development, for example, or how children’s emotions work, the easier it can be to shift our thinking about how we interpret what our kids do and say.

We also need to work on our emotions, not just our thinking. Practicing compassion and respect for ourselves is a good start. Allowing ourselves to feel, to have the complete experience of a feeling. Making time and space for doing good things for ourselves. Seeking out relationships that will feed our souls. Worship and prayer. Therapy. Refraining from judging ourselves. Not even judging ourselves when we notice we’re being judgmental again. Mindfulness.

Anyway… sometimes I find myself feeling scorn or contempt toward Amy, and others, and having a hard time getting out of it again. Working on it.

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?

More than words

Words line life or
Float clustered thick on the water
Or hide our skin in bubble wrap.

Let me stretch out
And feel my skin again
On the steady ground
Or in the wash of water
Buoyed, supported.

Friends, your RIE,
Your Attachment,
Your Hand in Hand —

How blessed the little ones
Touched with such intention,
Attention, devotion —

So grounded,
Centered in the body,
In the middle of the heart,
On the earth.

Linked

I often share on Facebook links to at least a few of the parenting posts I’ve read recently. Why not do the same here?

Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies blogs about the sexualization of children and about other unnecessary limitations. They also sell clothes and stuff that promote healthier ideas about gender and bodies and the like.

Here’s an older article from Rebecca Hains on how kids can often bypass the limitations that are so strident in the toy aisle and commercials, playing with the nastiest toys in the most creative and healthy ways.

How about a line of dolls with natural-looking faces and decent clothes — and they’re culturally diverse, too, and less expensive than American Girl.

And Janet Lansbury discusses reasonable limits with respect for both child and parent. I especially appreciate her emphasis on the annoyance factor:

…Since a relationship takes two, our needs and feelings are just as important as our child’s. Yes, we make many sacrifices as parents, but ultimately, the relationship has to work for both of us.

Since we are the adults in charge, we are the only ones capable of protecting our relationship from being one of resentment, dishonesty, distrust, dislike. This is why I believe in giving boundaries to prevent the “annoyance factor” — meaning whenever possible, we don’t give children the freedom to irritate us through their behavior.

…Also, when we placate children by allowing them to do what we don’t really want them to do, we end up being the ones who want to explode, and that can be dangerous.

Do we want our children to grow up believing they are annoying, unpleasant people … and very possibly fulfilling that prophecy?