They say you’re never too old to learn something new; and I say you’re never too young, either!
I’ve watched in amazement as my now nearly two-year-old son absorbs his surroundings with a vigour I wasn’t prepared for. I want to guide him in knowledge, even as he grows in stature day by fleeting day.
People have asked me how my simple, intentional approach to life translates to parenting, and today you get at least part of the answer: Charlotte Mason.
Although there are a plethora of modern-day, cutting-edge parenting gurus to learn from, my chief inspiration is a British educator who lived and wrote over a hundred years ago. Charlotte Mason advocated for educational reforms in her day, and her teaching methods and philosophy have since been adopted by schools and families both in the United Kingdom and in the United States.
You might find it odd that I credit Charlotte Mason as my main (non-parental) inspiration, since my son is still far from school aged. But if you’re familiar with Mason you know that her philosophy of education springs from her philosophy of childhood. Mason had a high view of the child as an individual, with often underestimated capacities for learning and appreciating the world around them, even from babyhood.
She also put great weight on the parents’ responsibility to guide and nurture their children, which plays out in everything from the education they select for their children, to the food they supply, to the picture books they choose for the nursery.
I was attracted to Mason’s brand of intentional parenting when I first browsed her books as a young teenager. As I’ve worked my way through Home Education again this year, I’m even more appreciative of her practical wisdom. Several things stand out to me as key values in a Charlotte Mason style approach to parenting, all of which can be implemented long before your child starts school.
5 essential Charlotte Mason principles for parenting babies and toddlers:
1. Training in obedience
“If the mother settle it in her own mind that the child never does wrong without being aware of his wrong-doing, she will see that is not too young to have his fault corrected or prevented. Deal with a child on his first offence, and a grieved look is enough to convict the little transgressor; but let him go on until a habit of wrong-doing is formed, and the cure is a slow one; then the mother has no chance until she has formed in him a contrary habit of well-doing. To laugh at ugly tempers and let them pass because the child is small is to sow the wind.” – Charlotte Mason
Your child’s obedience to you is foundational for their future education–and really, for their entire upbringing. If they do not obey you, how can you teach them anything? Every training you give them will be a battle if there is no baseline of obedience. Regardless of what disciplinary methods you choose to use, begin them (even if in a modified form) when your child is young. Be consistent in discipline and in requiring obedience.
Training Little Dude in obedience is one of the hardest things for me as a parent, because there’s no wiggle room for me to be lazy or to talk myself out of it (both of which I tend to do!). But I’ve noticed that the hard work does pay off, and in the long run gives us a more peaceful home.
2. Making quality, order, and beauty a habit
“Cleanliness, order, neatness, regularity, punctuality, are all ‘branches’ of infant education. They should be about the child like the air he breathes, and he will take them in as unconsciously.” – Charlotte Mason
Mason laments the poor quality of many of the educational and entertainment materials available to children in her day. I’m afraid not much has changed! But there are good options, if you take time to bring them into your home.
One of Little Dude’s Christmas presents this year was a gorgeous edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Steveson. He’s captivated by Tasha Tudor’s detailed illustrations, and it’s evident that he enjoys listening to the rhythms of the poems–he already has his favourites!
Besides emphasizing quality in your child’s books and toys, you can encourage their sense of order by showing them how to put back their toys properly (and that every toy has a place). Teach them rituals and habits like washing hands before a meal or doing simple chores. In every habit that you teach them, teach them to be thorough and detailed. Resist the urge to let your child take shortcuts, and resist the urge to do everything for them.
3. Lots of time outdoors
“For we are an overwrought generation, running to nerves as a cabbage runs to seed; and every hour spent in the open is clear gain, tending to the increase of brain power and bodily vigour, and to the lengthening of life itself. They who know what it is to have fevered skin and throbbing brain deliciously soothed by the cool touch of the air are inclined to make a new rule of life, “Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.” – Charlotte Mason
Charlotte Mason believed that lots of time spent outdoors will help a child’s imagination, curiosity, and confidence to blossom. She pressed for children (and their parents!) to be outside as much as possible.
Your child can learn to love nature long before they can walk! When Little Dude was a newborn, I carried him in my arms and walked my parents’ property every day. In the early days he usually just slept while I watched the play of leaf and cloud shadows over his sweet little face, and breathed the air in deeply myself.
As he got older and more alert I let him experience his surroundings by helping his feet to touch the soft moss or brushing a flower petal against his hand. When he learned to crawl and walk I let him explore freely, testing his limits and more or less choosing where he wanted to go.
There is beautiful wonder in store for both of you if you take your child outdoors. Enjoy a picnic together, use the opportunity to teach him new words, or simply let him entertain himself while you read a book or journal. You’ll probably find that he’s less fussy when he’s inside and sleeps better at night after a day with plenty of fresh air.
4. Directed Exploration
“They must be let alone, left to themselves a great deal, to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens; for of the evils of modern education few are worse than this–that the perpetual cackle of his elders leaves the poor child not a moment of time, nor an inch of space, wherein to wonder–and grow. At the same time, here is the mother’s opportunity to train the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and to drop seeds of truth into the open soul of the child, which shall germinate, blossom, and bear fruit, without further help or knowledge of hers.” – Charlotte Mason
Mason encourages parents to give their children lots of free reign to explore and learn, but also take opportunities to direct their attention and teach them in the moment. For instance, during your outside time your child might roam around, but when they come back to you as “home base” you can take a minute to point out the billowy clouds that are hanging above you in the sky.
You might help your child to notice
- the weather (is it scorching hot? light and crisp?)
- the sounds you hear (cars starting, planes overhead, geese squawking, leaves crunching)
- the way something feels (rough tree bark, sticky mud)
- the shadows cast by trees and clouds
- directions and distances (a faraway hill, squirrels up in the trees, ants down between the blades of grass)
Mason recommends being specific, but keeping your explanations short and not overwhelming your child with these teaching moments. Give them a starting point and they’ll begin to observe more closely of their own accord.
5. Yourself as an example
“Every day, every hour, the parents are either passively or actively forming those habits in their children upon which, more than upon anything else, future character and conduct depend.” – Charlotte Mason
As I pour over Charlotte Mason’s writings, I’m continually reminded that if we want to be intentional about parenting our children we need to be authentic. How can we expect them to flourish in all of these noble things if we’re not intentional about developing them in ourselves? If you want your children to learn about nature, you must know it yourself. If you want them to be careful and detailed, you need to model that behaviour yourself. If you want them to love beauty, they should see you appreciating it, too.
Cultivate your mind, interests, and habits. You aren’t too old to change, and you can bet your children are never too young to learn from your example.
P.S. There is a lot of good information online about Charlotte Mason’s teaching methods, but I encourage you to read her own words, if at all possible. The language in her books will sometimes remind you of a Victorian novel, but they are well worth a read. You can occasionally find copies of the books on Amazon, but you can always read the text online in a pinch!