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“Guide, Philosopher, and Friend”

"In urging a method of self-education for children in lieu of the
vicarious education which prevails, I should like to dwell on the
enormous relief to teachers, a self-sacrificing and greatly
overburdened class; the difference is just that between driving a horse
that is light and a horse that is heavy in hand; the former covers the
ground of his own gay will and the driver goes merrily. The teacher who
allows his scholars the freedom of the city of books is at liberty to
be their guide, philosopher and friend; and is no longer the mere
instrument of forcible intellectual feeding."

—Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education (CM Series Vol. 6), p. 32.

By "method of self-education," Charlotte means, of course, the method she developed and had seen in practice for some thirty years, the method we have been discussing here during the past several weeks.

Guide, philosopher, and friend. I was thinking about this quote and it struck me that my whole experience of motherhood has been shaped, since my oldest child was tiny, by Charlotte Mason’s ideas about how people learn and grow. I read Home Education when Jane was four years old, and my heart soared at the lovely vision of early childhood laid out in that book. We were coming out of her chemo years then and the immuno- compromised isolation that entailed, and although John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, and Sandra Dodd had sold me on homeschooling long before Jane got sick, it was Charlotte Mason who showed me in concrete images the kind of childhood I wanted to give this beloved child and her baby sister.

The other day I was writing about how well suited the CM method is to the roller-coaster ride of life with many children. The plain truth is that the more monkey wrenches are thrown into our works, the more grateful I am for the simplicity of a Charlotte Mason-style education. I am excited every single morning, honestly!, to spend another CM-inspired day with my children. On Friday afternoons I am actually sorry to put our books away for a couple of days. (The feeling is quickly swallowed by the joy of knowing we’ll have Scott home for two whole days. You know this Daddy-goes-away-to-work business is  still new to us.)

I love that my children are eager to pull the books back out first thing Monday morning; I love that they actually beg me to read Homer and Shakespeare. You understand that there is no boasting in this statement; this is not a proclamation of my own merits as mother or teacher, nor of unusual virtue or genius in my children. Charlotte Mason believed her method produced similar results in all children, regardless of social class, family background, or natural ability. "Let me try to indicate some of the advantages of the theory I am
urging," she writes, "It fits all ages, even the seven ages of man!
It satisfies
brilliant children and discovers intelligence in the dull. It secures
attention, interest, concentration, without effort on the part of
teacher or taught."

Alice sent me a note this morning about her favorite quotes from Towards a Philosophy chapter 1. (I have implored her to turn them into a post for Cottage Blessings, and if she so treats us, I’ll let you know.) She included this gem, and I won’t add my commentary on it because I am hoping she will grace us with hers. I will only say that I agree, one hundred percent.

"I have attempted to unfold (in various volumes ) a system of educational theory which
seems to me able to meet any rational demand, even that severest
criterion set up by Plato; it is able to ‘run the gauntlet of
objections, and is ready to disprove them, not by appeals to opinion,
but to absolute truth.’ Some of it is new, much of it is old. Like the
quality of mercy, it is not strained; certainly it is twice blessed, it
blesses him that gives and him that takes
, and a sort of radiancy of
look distinguishes both scholar and teacher engaged in this manner of

Related posts:
About all that reading
How Charlotte Mason keeps me sane
Accidental v. on-purpose learning
Do you write down your children’s narrations?
Reluctant narrators
Rose’s reading list
A CM term (Jane’s list)
CM on nourishing the mind
Big CM post

CM on habit-training

How Do You Defend Your Relaxed Approach?

The other day I mentioned that I’m an advocate of a non-academic early childhood. In the comments, Betsy wrote:

I have a question about your relaxed approach. I have been relying
on this for years and every one has looked at me like I have three
heads. I got into quite the discussion after Mass on day when two moms
were playing the competition game of what they were going to home
school their soon to be 3 year olds. I chimed in talking about waiting
until the child is ready and being relaxed…you should have seen the
look of horror on their face!!! How do you handle the "neglectful"
response that people seem to give me all the time.

You know, I really love it when people give me an opening like those looks of horror, Betsy. I enthusiastically grab all opportunities to jump up on my soapbox!

In my experience, if you answer skepticism with an eager flood of information, people will nearly always reframe their initial response. Quite often, the are-you-crazy looks are a gut reaction, but when the skeptic hears that you have actually put some thought and research into the issue, her response changes. She may still disagree, but at least she acknowledges that your point of view is an informed one.

So, for example, if someone said, "Are you nuts? Everyone knows that you’ve got to give kids a strong start from an early age or they’ll be behind their peers and never catch up," I’d say, "Actually, there are many educators and scholars who believe just the opposite. Have you read the works of Charlotte Mason? No? John Holt? John Taylor Gatto? Montessori? No? Oh." (Brief pause to digest this astonishing fact.) "Well, if you’re interested in how children learn, you’d probably find them quite fascinating, especially Mason; I know I do."—And then I’d launch into a brief but fact-packed description of Charlotte Mason’s vision for children under seven, emphasizing the richness of a young life filled with storytelling, nature study, cheerful housework, and song.

I have never, ever presented that picture of early childhood to someone without having the person respond positively. "Oh, that sounds so nice!" is a typical response. I really think people—especially mothers of little ones—recognize the beauty of that vision, even if they remain in disagreement over the issue of early instruction in reading and math.

You know, that touches on an important point. In such conversations (and they occur with surprising frequency), I’m truly not out to convert anyone. I don’t initiate them; but if someone opens the door I will jump through it as if there were chocolate on the other side. My aim in this kind of discourse is simply to show that there is thought behind my opinion. It’s amazing how much that relaxes people and shifts the tone of the conversation from confrontation to exchange of ideas.

What happens is that people begin to ask questions—specific questions like, "But what about math?" or "So when do you start teaching reading?" Which means I can respond with specific answers, and suddenly, instead of being on opposite sides of an abyss, we’re two interested parties discussing learning strategies. It’s a whole different kind of conversation, because it naturally leads to book and idea recommendations. ("Oh, gosh, my kids have learned so much math just from playing store or cooking. You learn a ton about fractions from making cookies!")

And that kind of conversation is just FUN.

Learning to Write: Preschoolers and Proper Pencil Grip

When it comes to early childhood education, I am firmly in Charlotte Mason’s corner. (Along with John Holt, the Moores, and the Waldorf folks, for that matter.) There’s no need to rush into early academics; in fact, I think it’s a downright bad idea. Childhood is being shortened and children are being pushed into scholarly performance at ages ever more tender: six years old, five, four, even three. A Newsweek cover article asked recently, "Are kids getting pushed too fast, too soon?" The answer for many children in this country is emphatically yes. They’re being pushed into Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic when they ought to be playing Red Rover. A young child’s "curriculum" should be mud, paint, acorns, and dough.

I believe this with all my heart, and yet here I am with my third child catapulting into reading at preschool age. I didn’t teach Beanie to read. She, like her sisters, is growing up in a print-obsessed house. (Today a mover came to give me an estimate; he said he’d never seen anyone with so many books. Gulp. "But then," he added, looking around, "you don’t have much besides books, do you?") And like her sisters, Bean has cracked the code pretty much by herself.

We read some Bob Books together over the past year, because she wanted to—and ONLY when she wanted to. She cuddled up for hundreds of read-alouds with me, Scott, or one of her big sisters. She pored over the pages of Tintin and Scooby Doo. (Re the latter: there are few joys greater than reading a comic book your own daddy wrote.) Somewhere along the way, she put the sounds together and now she is reading, really reading. Yesterday she announced that she had read Green Eggs and Ham all by herself except for one word (could), which Rose helped her with.

I have been sitting back, not pushing, not even coaxing. When she asks me to listen to her read, I do, with delight, and I praise her triumphs lavishly. When she asks me to read to her, I say yes as often as I possibly can. But I don’t require her to practice reading; I don’t tell her to read. I believe this is very important. She is five years old. She has the rest of her life for books. At her age, life ought to be more about living stories than reading them.

Feeling as strongly as I do about the importance of delaying formal lessons until age six at the absolute earliest,* I’ve been in a bit of a quandary this past year about one aspect of Beanie’s development. She loves to draw and color, and during the past six or eight months she has been doing a fair amount of writing, too: captions for her pictures, notes to Daddy, lists of names, that sort of thing. And she has always done all this writing and drawing with the crayon or pencil gripped in her fist.

I have shown her a proper pencil grip, but I haven’t forced her to use it. She is comfortable with the fist grip and in fact gets panicky if you suggest she forego it for the finger grip—"I might ruin my picture!" she’ll say with horror. I have chosen not to worry about this, not to push, biding my time. First she was only three, then only four, now only five. But of course I cannot deny there’s been a nagging voice in my head urging me to correct her grip before the wrong way becomes a habit so firmly fixed it can only be broken with much distress.

On a friend’s advice I broke a box of crayons into small pieces, because if the writing instrument is small enough, you CAN’T grip it with your fist—only with your fingers. But nobody likes to use broken crayons, including Beanie. I tried small pieces of chalk, too, but then there was chalk dust everywhere and Wonderboy was writing on the walls and I think I got tired of chalk pretty quickly.

Recently I decided that I’d wait until our California move was behind us and we were nicely settled into our new home, and then I’d sit Beanie down and work with her on correcting her pencil grip. And still I was arguing with myself, because I knew that forcing her to hold the crayon "my" way would frustrate her, and did I mention she’s only five? And did I mention I don’t believe a five-year-old should be forced to endure penmanship lessons?

Turns out I needn’t have worried. A simple solution was sitting on my shelf all the time.

When did I buy the Handwriting Without Tears Stamp and See Screen? I don’t even remember. I think it’s been on the shelf quite a long time. I remember it seeing a lot of use in the first weeks after we got it, and then I probably cleaned it up (where "cleaned" means "scooped it up with eight hundred pieces of partially used paper and assorted coloring books and dumped it on an upstairs shelf where I wouldn’t have to deal with the mess") and forgot about it.

One of the kids found it yesterday. Basically, it’s a small Magna-Doodle. If you have the Handwriting  Without Tears wooden letter blocks, you can press them on the screen to make the letters show up. We do have those blocks, somewhere. I don’t know where. I think the whole "stamp the letter shapes" thing is probably interesting to a kid once or twice, and then it gets old. BUT. The Stamp & See Screen has a small "pen" attached by a string. VERY small—the size of a broken crayon or piece of chalk. It serves the same purpose as the Crayola fragment: you can only write with it if you hold it with your fingers in a proper pencil grip.

And hello, it’s a Magna-Doodle (-type thing)! Which equals fun. (And also: sibling squabbles.) Beanie’s in heaven because I told everyone it belongs to HER. Ah, the bliss of ownership. She happily drew faces and wrote letters all day with the loveliest pencil grip you ever saw. Which is not to say that she won’t revert right back to her fist grip when she picks up a crayon tomorrow. But now she knows that she CAN write and draw nicely with the finger grip, and I can relax about the whole thing.

I thought I’d pass on the tip in case anyone else out there is stressing over a little fist grip. But I do want to clarify that I’m not recommending you sit your little one down with the whole HWT pre-K package and require handwriting practice. I know several moms who have successfully used the HWT program with older children, and if younger kids want to play with the letter blocks as toys, great. But let it be a "may" and not a "must"—fun instead of fuss.

*About the "no lessons until age six or seven" thing: with Jane, my oldest, that is not at all the approach I took. I was eager to dive into all sorts of learning & exploration with her, and we were doing loads of rabbit-trailing when she was four and five years old. It was all very delight-directed and I always backed off the instant I saw her interest waning, but still. As she has grown, with other little ones coming up behind her—and remember she’s only eleven now, still quite young—I have gained more understanding of what Charlotte Mason was advocating for in Home Education, the book in which she lays out a vision for "educating" the child under seven—a vision rich in nature study and wholesome play, but containing no academic studies of any kind.

UPDATE on Beanie’s pencil grip here.