Born with Possibilities

This is the second post in a series explaining Charlotte Mason’s 20 principles in the context of the Restored Gospel.

2. [Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good or evil.

“If the development of character rather than of faculty is the main work of education, and if people are born, so to speak, ready-made, with all the elements of their after-character in them certain to be developed by time and circumstances, what is left for education to do?” (CM 2:73).

“Here we have the work of education indicated. There are good and evil tendencies in body and mind, heart and soul; and the hope set before us is that we can foster the good so as to attenuate the evil; that is, on condition that we put Education in her true place as the handmaid of Religion” (CM 6:46).

“It is our business to know of what parts and passions a child is made up, to discern the dangers that present themselves, and still more the possibilities of free-going in delightful paths” (CM 6:47).

It is my observation that Latter-day Saints see this sentence and immediately think of the second article of faith: “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” Modern revelation teaches us that although “the natural man is an enemy to God” (Mosiah 3:19), “every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning; and God having redeemed man from the fall, men became again, in their infant state, innocent before God” (D&C 93:38). This is a true and important doctrine.

However, Charlotte Mason was an Anglican and didn’t know these truths; she wasn’t saying that children are born free from Original Sin. (Though, in fact, many of our non-LDS Christian friends see Principle 2 and immediately worry that she is saying that. It is a sad fact that many therefore have the first impression that Charlotte Mason must be a Godless heathen, and thus abandon her educational philosophy completely.) Well, if she wasn’t saying this in reference to the Fall of man, what was she trying to say?

Charlotte Mason’s second principle “is likely to be misinterpreted if we try to analyze it only from our 20th century vantage point. […I]t becomes necessary to look at the philosophical climate of Victorian England to understand why Miss Mason would include a statement like this in her educational principles. […W]e have to look at some of the ‘new’ science that was emerging at the time. [… S]cientists were formulating ideas about evolution, and particularly about the part that heredity played in evolution and in shaping one’s life. This idea was picked up by the philosophers and applied to children in a disturbing way. If children are born with inherited traits of character, they reasoned, then nothing can be done to change them—just as we are unable to alter their inherited hair, eye, and skin color. They are as nature made them, and it is fruitless to attempt to make of them something that they are not. A child born ‘good’ will grow up to be good, but a child born ‘bad’ will be bad. […] This belief is called ‘hereditary determinism,’ and it was so much a part of the general thought in Victorian England, that references to it may be found in not only scientific or educational writings, but in literature as well. […] If this theory were true, the efforts of parents or teachers to mold a child’s character and train him in right living would be useless or needless” (Karen Glass, “Why Did She Have to Say That?“).

Think about that for a moment. It’s horrible, isn’t it?

It was common practice in those days for most orphanages to refuse admittance to illegitimate children on these grounds: the parents broke the law of chastity, and so the child is utterly doomed to act in the same way… and therefore society shouldn’t waste resources trying to help that child. (And, researchers believe, Charlotte Mason herself was conceived out of wedlock, though her parents later married. That makes this principle intensely personal for her, doesn’t it? See “Charlotte Mason’s Parents” on the The Common Room blog.)

As if it weren’t awful enough to neglect the children of wicked parents, though, hereditary determinism also wreaked havoc upon children of good parents as well. After all, if the character of a child was destined to be amazing no matter what, why should the parents bother with the annoying task of parenting?

So when Charlotte says that children “are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good or evil,” she is begging us to take responsibility for the moral and spiritual upbringing of our children. A child born to parents of despicable character are by no means guaranteed to follow in their footsteps; they are simply wanting a moral and spiritual education in order to become good. The opposite also applies to children of righteous parents: if their parents neglect to teach them the ways of righteousness, what’s to stop them from becoming genuinely bad? She asserts, “The child’s future depends not upon his lineage so much as upon his bringing-up, for education is stronger than nature, and no human being need be given over to despair” (CM 2:159).

As Charlotte elaborates beautifully in her fifth volume, “it rests with parents to ease the way of their child by giving him habits of the god life in thought, feeling, and action, and even in spiritual things. We cannot make a child ‘good’; but, in this way, we can lay paths for the good life in the very substance of his brain. We cannot make him hear the voice of God; but, again, we can make paths where the Lord God may walk in the cool of the evening” (CM 5:141).

Of course, Gospel teachings make it abundantly clear that parents are responsible for teaching their children the ways of righteousness. In a revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith the Lord gave the following instructions to parents:

And again, inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents.

For this shall be a law unto the inhabitants of Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized.

And their children shall be baptized for the remission of their sins when eight years old, and receive the laying on of the hands.

And they shall also teach their children to pray, and to walk uprightly before the Lord. (D&C 68:25–28)

Unsurprisingly, at the time hereditary determinism was popular, our Church leaders were also hard at work combating the dangerous idea. If you have one, get out your Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith manual, and flip through it, as this he was President of the Church during this time period. (See chapters 4, 13, 27, 28, 33, 39, 43.) He makes clear the enormous influence parents (and particularly mothers) have upon children, and accordingly, the great responsibility parents have to parent and teach their children well.

In Gospel Doctrine (1919), President Joseph F. Smith wrote the following:

Our children will be just about what we make them. They are born without knowledge or understanding—the most helpless creatures of the animal creation born into the world. The little one begins to learn after it is born, and all that it knows greatly depends upon its environment, the influences under which it is brought up, the kindness with which it is treated, the noble examples shown it, the hallowed influences of father and mother, or otherwise, over its infant mind. And it will be largely what its environment and its parents and teachers make it.

… A great deal depends upon the influence under which [a child] is brought up. You will observe that the most potent influence over the mind of a child to persuade it to learn, to progress, or to accomplish anything, is the influence of love. More can be accomplished for good by unfeigned love, in bringing up a child, than by any other influence that can be brought to bear upon it. A child that cannot be conquered by the lash, or subdued by violence, may be controlled in an instant by unfeigned affection and sympathy. I know that is true; and this principle obtains in every condition of life. … Govern the children, not by passion, by bitter words or scolding, but by affection and by winning their confidence.

And that, my friends, is a perfect segue into Charlotte Mason’s third and fourth principles.

Previous Principle | Back to Overview | Next Principle


Jenna DiltsJenna Dilts is a mother of three pre-school-aged children. Last year she led a discussion of Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles on the AO forum. You can find her blogging at To Work Wonders, where she writes about the books she reads. She has aspirations to work through AO year 1 for herself.

2 thoughts to “Born with Possibilities”

  1. Thank you for this wonderful interpretation of her writings on this subject. I have read over it many times wondering. I have so much more of the understanding than I did before. I am so happy to see this blog supporting Miss Mason and and my religious beliefs. I am so grateful to have stumbled upon it.

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