Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child's inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food.1
Spiritual and Mental Food
Consider for a moment what we plan to offer to the child. We know that when we feed his physical body, it is important that we do not give him only calories. For proper growth, the body needs a balanced diet, providing protein, vitamins, fiber, etc.
And yet, this child is often spiritually and mentally starved. This is another reason why certain children are driven to strange and unnatural behavior. They have been deprived of the life which is their heritage.
Our Lord spoke of “abundant life.” He said, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Nor does he live by being reared on a computer printout, or scientifically planned workbooks that build skills by reading comprehension exercises based on isolated paragraphs, or any of the horrors that sometimes go under the name of “the education process.”
What a violence it would be to the child, to conscientiously apply the “habit” and “discipline” idea of education, and then to sit them down routinely to meals of sawdust!
“Let the children at the best of life!” is [late 18th Century British Educator] Charlotte Mason's challenge to us. Life includes not only living experiences, but also the best that mankind has produced in art, books, music, ideas, and many more areas.
Give Children the Best
When I was seven years old, I arrived in a war-torn Europe, straight from the rather sterile niceness of middle class mid-America. I was a very average, ordinary little tomboy girl! One afternoon I was taken into the Rijks museum, and I walked right up to Rembrandt's painting, Night Watch. Did the guards smile as a little girl tarried there for a long, long time? Nobody lectured me as to what I was supposed to know or think about this painting. I was not disturbed. I was left alone with Rembrandt. A magical contact! I still remember the paintings I saw in Holland as if I had been there last week instead of thirty-five years ago, when I commented, “If somebody would give me enough paint, I would paint a picture like that!” Adults may have smiled. But I had found a human link with a kindred spirit.
Let children feed on the good, the excellent, the great! Don't get in their way with little lectures, facts, and guided tours! Lift a preschool child onto your lap, and look together at a full-page color reproduction of some great painting, drawing, or etching. Enjoy it, talk and notice together the details the child points to. Let the child look, enjoy with you; let him respond.
Children respond to the very best music. Get Brahms, Bach, Beethoven, Elgar, and Mendelssohn records. Play one at a time to a three-year-old; maybe the child will dance, clap, smile. Let children beat drums or march.
There is no need to start them off on a watery diet of musically-poor fare. Give them the best! Let a few works become friends. Then get good seats at a concert. Sit up close. See the child stare in wonder as the violinist plays, the conductor conducts, and the choir sings. If you have taken care that at least one item in the program is familiar to the child already, you will probably feel an excited tug and hear, “Listen, they are playing our music!”
Share Good Books
A L'Abri student, who read For the Children’s Sake, returned to her Texas public school determined to use some of Charlotte Mason's ideas with her second- and third-grade classes. She began to play a few carefully chosen records regularly at rest time. Soon the children were eagerly asking for “the Vivaldi,” “the Beethoven,” “the Brahms.” They weren't aware that they were learning. Something new, a richness, had been given to them, and they enjoyed it.
Share good books with the children. It is a magic door of contact between the child and some of the most interesting and creative people our culture has enjoyed. Let them know the authors by reading to them their living books. Textbooks hardly ever fall into this category. Charlotte Mason never looked down on a child's reaction to such books. She simply devoted a great deal of effort to ensuring that the child had access to living books. Such books stimulate ideas-that electrifying confrontation that touches the center of the person. Ideas stimulate discussion, interest, and involvement.
Do not forget that the reading of the Bible will put the child into direct contact with the person of God Himself. The brief, pithy statement or narration of Scripture is often worth ten sermons! Let the words themselves sink in. Don't chew up the ideas yourself and then hand over the half-digested “food” to the child. Let him have direct ac- cess to the source.
We don't have to chart exactly what a child has “learned” from any of these sources to make it worthwhile using them. This is a different way of thinking about learning. Our job is to give the best nourishment regularly. The child takes what is appropriate to him at that time. A good example is when we enjoy a book together as a family. The nine-year-old enjoys hearing J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. He extracts nourishment for mind and spirit.
Let children feed on the good, the excellent, the great!
The fourteen-year-old also is fed, but extracts something different. The parents enjoy it in yet another way. There is no “right” way to react, no list of items one has to remember. Living life isn't like that. We are individuals, and we leave it that way.
The Value of Nature
Although we should give a child access to varied creative work by other people, how about seeing that he grows up with as much daily access as possible to his Lord's created works? The Bible is a direct verbal word. But we have a place also for other ways of knowing Him, for “the heavens declare the glory of God.”
Do the children know the feel of dew-fresh grass on their bare feet, and lush freshness of the shade of a leafy tree on a hot afternoon? Do they know the fun of autumn leaves, and the fairy-tale beauty of an icy morning? Wherever the child lives in the world, we should consider his contact with nature as part of his life.
How do we shortchange the child of today? We coop him up like a battery hen in a gaudy plastic cage. We “timetable” his day with “improving” activities so that he is a foreigner to himself and to the great outdoors.
We should open the door to understanding the wonder of the physical world. Science is often so highly specialized that we shy off. We should realize that the wholeness of reality is a unity which is an exciting part of life. And so we should try to see that a child can wonder at the incredibly interesting structure of God's world. Direct contact is possible and interesting: watch crystals grow, or wonder over the snowflake seen through a magnifying glass. There is wonder all around us if we'll look, touch, and try.
But there is much that we cannot see. Children naturally want to know. “What makes the light come on?” “How does the daddy's seed get into the mother?” “Why don't satellites fall down?” “Where does the snow go in summer?”
There are beautiful books which tell about the interesting world around us. If you (the adult) read the text, you can hold the small child on your lap and look at the pictures. You can then share what you have learned from your reading. (Not a whole lecture, just an interesting explanation of what is illustrated-short and to the point.)
An older child will sit fascinated as you read the text, or parts of it. Lots of discussion will follow-it keeps you on your toes!
Charlotte Mason's ideal world for children had nature at the doorstep. She felt that organized lessons should only take up the morning, so that children could freely play in and enjoy the gardens, meadows, woods, and lanes of England every afternoon .
What of children in cities, where adults fear violence and the child is not safe playing alone, especially in the parks? What of the child in the city school, where there is no nature to be seen?
Another L'Abri student has gone back to an inner city to help plan camps where children will acquire some memories of the countryside, and this is good.
A church may decide that instead of more meetings, it will bus its children into nearby countryside once a month. It is a priority that children should be allowed to enjoy God's environment. They should be taken to a safe place where they can choose to build camps, learn to swim, follow maps, paint, etc. At least one day in the month would be theirs in which to explore, jump, imagine, wonder, smell Spring coming.
A school reschedules lessons to leave the afternoon free. One group takes over a weedy patch of ground and carefully succeeds in making a city farm . Vegetables are grown, chickens lay eggs, a goat is milked. Other children reclaim a neglected park under their teacher's supervision. They help to make it beautiful, and then get to play under the trees. The adults may think it a poor exchange for a “perfect setting,” but the child's imagination ignores the traffic fumes. It's grass to play on anyway, and the leaves fall in satisfyingly crunchy piles in the Fall. Ants crawl along the path. Birds flock to a feeding table in winter.
The less a child is surrounded by nature, the more creative the adults must be to allow the child some contact with it.
Education is a life.
- Mason, Charlotte, Vol. 6, A Philosophy of Education(Tyndale House Publishers, 1989), 109.
This article is adapted from For the Children’s Sake: Foundations for Home and School by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay.
Scripture is not silent on the value of children and how parents ought to regard and guide them in wisdom.
Put simply, family discipleship is leading your home by doing whatever you can whenever you can to help your family become friends and followers of Jesus Christ.
In many respects, and certainly in spiritual matters, we are all weak and inadequate, and we need to face it.
The following prayers are from The Primer (1652) by John Owen and can be used to give children a framework for talking to the Lord in prayer.