This is the fourth post in a series explaining Charlotte Mason’s 20 principles in the context of the Restored Gospel.
4. These principles (i.e., authority and docility) are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, which must not be encroached upon whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire.
“All action comes out of the ideas we hold and if we ponder duly upon personality we shall come to perceive that we cannot commit a greater offence than to maim or crush, or subvert any part of a person. […] Have we considered that in the Divine estimate the child’s estate is higher than ours; thus it is ours to ‘become as little children,’ rather than theirs to become as grown men and women; that the rules we receive [from the Savior’s mortal ministry] for the bringing up of children are for the most part negative? We may not despise them, or hinder them, […] or offend them by our brutish clumsiness of action and want of serious thought; while the one positive precept afforded to us is ‘feed’ (which should be rendered ‘pasture’) ‘my lambs,’ place them in the midst of abundant food” (CM 6:80).
“A due respect for the personality of children and a dread of making them incompetent to conduct their own lives will make us chary of employing a means so dangerous, no matter how good the immediate end” (pg. 6:83).
A discussion of the proper use of authority in an LDS context would be incomplete without immediate reference to D&C 121:41-44: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; that he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.” Though this scripture is specifically about priesthood authority, I think it has obvious applications to parental authority as well.
Charlotte Mason insists that the personality (or personhood) of children must not be encroached upon by the use of fear by the teacher or parent. Rule by terror is, rather obviously, unrighteous use of authority, and so I will devote little time to it here. Instead I hope to shed light on what Charlotte Mason meant when she said the following should also not be used as tools against children: love, suggestion, influence, and manipulation of natural desires.
When Charlotte worries that love might encroach upon the personhood of children, she is essentially worried that children will be urged to behave and to learn simply to please someone they love. I find this idea fascinating—this is not a situation that would have worried me before reading Charlotte’s opinion on the subject. She worries that a child brought up to be good simply to please others “is losing that time which should make a self-dependent, self-ordered person, and is day by day becoming a parasite who can go only as he is carried, the easy prey of fanatic or demagogue. This sort of encroachment upon the love of children offers as a motive, ‘do this for my sake’; wrong is to be avoided lest it grieve the teacher, good is to be done to pleasure him; for this end a boy learns his lessons, behaves properly, shows good will, produces a whole catalogue of schoolboy virtues and yet his character is being undermined” (CM 6:82, emphasis mine).
I do not have enough parenting experience to say if Charlotte is correct to worry so; however, I do think it is very possible she’s right. One of my local Church leaders recently counseled that we seek our affirmations vertically and not horizontally (i.e., from God rather than other mortal beings); we should be eager to teach our children to do the same.
Church leaders often counsel us to seek the approval of the Lord rather than the approval of other men. For example, Elder Lynn G. Robbins explained, “Trying to please others before pleasing God is inverting the first and second great commandments. It is forgetting which way we face” (“Which Way Do You Face?“, April 2016 General Conference).
This is a tough word to understand, because modern writers no longer use the word suggestion in this context… but let me try to explain. I think if I had to pick a word that means to modern readers what suggestion meant to Ms. Mason, I’d pick insinuation. Charlotte is speaking of a subtle type of manipulation. She isn’t saying it’s never okay to suggest a course of action to a child, or give advice. Rather, there exists the possibility in a parent (or anyone who knows the child well) to use their intimate knowledge of child’s hopes and dreams, as well as fears and nightmares, to coerce a desired behavior.
If you’ve read or heard Elder Holland’s talk “How Do I Love Thee?”, you might recall what he said about this in the context of marriage. I hope it is no stretch to read his words with parenting in mind, rather than marriage.
Love is a fragile thing, and some elements in life can try to break it. Much damage can be done if we are not in tender hands, caring hands. To give ourselves totally to another person, as we do in marriage, is the most trusting step we take in any human relationship. It is a real act of faith—faith all of us must be willing to exercise. If we do it right, we end up sharing everything—all our hopes, all our fears, all our dreams, all our weaknesses, and all our joys—with another person.
No serious courtship or engagement or marriage is worth the name if we do not fully invest all that we have in it and in so doing trust ourselves totally to the one we love. You cannot succeed in love if you keep one foot out on the bank for safety’s sake. The very nature of the endeavor requires that you hold on to each other as tightly as you can and jump in the pool together. In that spirit, and in the spirit of Mormon’s plea for pure love, I want to impress upon you the vulnerability and delicacy of your partner’s future as it is placed in your hands for safekeeping—male and female, it works both ways.
Sister Holland and I have been married for nearly 37 years, just a half-dozen or so years short of twice as long as we have lived without each other. I may not know everything about her, but I know 37 years’ worth, and she knows that much of me. I know her likes and dislikes, and she knows mine. I know her tastes and interests, hopes and dreams, and she knows mine. As our love has grown and our relationship has matured, we have been increasingly free with each other about all of that.
The result is that I know much more clearly now how to help her, and, if I let myself, I know exactly what will hurt her. In the honesty of our love—love that can’t truly be Christlike without such total devotion—surely God will hold me accountable for any pain I cause her by intentionally exploiting or hurting her when she has been so trusting of me, having long since thrown away any self-protection in order that we could be, as the scripture says, “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). To impair or impede her in any way for my gain or vanity or emotional mastery over her should disqualify me on the spot to be her husband. Indeed, it should consign my miserable soul to eternal incarceration in that large and spacious building Lehi says is the prison of those who live by “vain imaginations” and the “pride of the world” (1 Nephi 11:36, 12:18). No wonder that building is at the opposite end of the field from the tree of life representing the love of God! In all that Christ was, He was not ever envious or inflated, never consumed with His own needs. He did not once, not ever, seek His own advantage at the expense of someone else. He delighted in the happiness of others, the happiness He could bring them. He was forever kind.
In a dating and courtship relationship, I would not have you spend five minutes with someone who belittles you, who is constantly critical of you, who is cruel at your expense and may even call it humor. Life is tough enough without having the person who is supposed to love you leading the assault on your self-esteem, your sense of dignity, your confidence, and your joy. In this person’s care you deserve to feel physically safe and emotionally secure. (“How Do I Love Thee?“, BYU Devotional, February 2000).
Now, translating these ideas into parent-speak, much damage can be done to children if they are not in tender hands! When you know someone as well as parent often knows their child, there is much opportunity for help and for harm. We must tread carefully!
With the understanding that parents are capable of using insinuation to coerce children into behaving, read the following from Charlotte Mason. “From the cradle to the grave suggestions crowd upon us, and such suggestions become part of our education because we must choose between them. But a suggestion given by intent and supported by an outside personality has an added strength which few are able to resist, just because the choice has been made by another and not by ourselves, and our tendency is to accept this vicarious choice and follow the path of least resistance. No doubt much of this vicarious choosing is done for our good, whether for our health of body or amenableness of mind; but those who propose suggestion as a means of education do not consider that with every such attempt upon a child they weaken that which should make a man of him, his own power of choice” (CM 6:129, emphasis mine).
You see, again, that Charlotte is profoundly worried that the child will reach adulthood without having learned to make their own righteous choices! She further explains, “What of a carefully laid train, all leading in the same direction, to produce perseverance, frankness, courage, any other excellent virtue? The child is even worse off in such a case. That particular virtue becomes detestable; no other virtue is inviting; and he is acquiring no strength to stand alone but waits in all his doings for promptings from without. Perhaps the gravest danger attending this practice is that every suggestion received lays the person open to the next and the next. A due respect for the personality of children and a dread of making them incompetent to conduct their own lives will makes us chary of employing a means so dangerous, no matter how good the immediate end” (CM 6:83, emphasis mine).
Again, it’s not immediately clear, when Charlotte discourages the use of influence in teaching children, what she means by the word influence. Certainly the power of good example is not to be maligned! Charlotte herself says, “No doubt such influence is inevitable; we must needs affect one another, not so much by what we do or say as by that which we are, and so far influence is natural and wholesome. We imbibe it from persons real and imaginary and we are kept strong and upright by currents and counter-currents of unstudied influence” (CM 6:83).
No, the influence Charlotte warns against is the result of a recent (in her day, anyway) trend. She explains, “Late in the last century goody-goody books were written about the beauty of influence, the duty of influence, the study of the means of influence, and children were brought up with the notion that to influence other persons consciously was a moral duty” (CM 6:83).
Ms. Mason worries that a domineering personality might drown a more naturally submissive personality in a wave of influence, “which acts not so much by well-directed word or inciting action as by a sort of atmosphere proceeding from the teacher and enveloping the taught. […] Supineness before a single, steady, persistent influence is a different matter, and the schoolgirl who idolises her mistress, the boy who worships his master, is deprived of the chance of free and independent living. His personality fails to develop and he goes into the world as a parasitic plant, clinging ever to the support of some stronger character” (CM 6:83, emphasis mine).
Again, the theme: children should be exercised in making their own choices to be good. Being coerced to do good in a wash of influence from a dominating friend means the child has no practice making good choices when left on their own.
I cannot take credit for locating this very pertinent quote from Brigham Young (thank you, DoriAnn!), but I think it highlights that Charlotte’s worry about children learning to use their agency for good should be a critical part of their mortal education.
“We read in the Bible that there is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars. In the book of Doctrine and Covenants, these glories are called telestial, terrestrial, and celestial, which is the highest. These are worlds, different departments, or mansions, in our Father’s house. Now those men or women, who know no more about the power of God, and the influences of the Holy Spirit, than to be lead entirely by another person, suspending their own understanding, and pinning their faith upon another’s sleeve, will never be capable of entering into the celestial glory, to be crowned as they anticipate; they will never be capable of becoming gods. They cannot rule themselves in the least, but James, Peter, or somebody else must control them. They can never become gods, nor be crowned as rulers with glory, immortality and eternal lives. They never can hold scepters of glory, majesty, and power in the Celestial Kingdom. Who will? Those who are valiant and inspired with the true independence of heaven, who will go forth boldly in the service of their God, leaving others to do as they please, determined to do right, though all mankind besides should take the opposite course” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 1:312, emphasis mine).
We are still taught that individual conversion to the gospel and responsibility for choices is critical. In discussing the idea of influence with my husband, he smiled and told me that during his mission, he and his fellow missionaries were often counseled to “convert people to the Gospel and not to the missionary”. The goal is to bring people (including our children) into the Church who will live the Gospel no matter who is surrounding them!
Undue Play upon Natural Desires
Charlotte considered fear, love, suggestion, and influence the most dangerous tools to use in educating children; but she considered using any desire (other than the desire for knowledge) to motivate education to be “more pervasive, if less injurious, ways of stultifying intellectual and moral growth” (CM 6:84). Human beings have a whole host of desires besides that of learning, so I will save this discussion for the next post in the series.
Jenna 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.