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20 May 2016

20 Principles: Limits of Authority

This post is part of a series. Feel free to visit the series index for more thoughts on Charlotte Mason's 20 Principles of Classical Education.

It is extremely important that parents should keep in view, and counteract if need be, the tendencies of the day. On the other hand, it is well that they should understand the limitations of authority. Even the divine authority does not compel.
-Charlotte Mason, Teaching the Branches, (emphasis added)

It's wrong to force your will on someone else. There are a lot of names for this idea. Libertarian philosophy calls it the Non-Agression Principle. The Founders referred to the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable Right. I've seen some beautiful essays about Free Will from the Protestant tradition. And Mormon theology holds Agency - the power of choice - at the core of our doctrine, and teaches that, next to life itself, agency is one of the greatest gifts of God to man. Even the Atonement itself presupposes freedom of choice.

Whatever you call it, the capacity to chose is a sacred, holy thing.

It's also very unpopular in our culture right now, and it's become both ordinary and fashionable, often even seen as virtuous, to try to force others to your view and to acting on your view. So trying to parent in a way that isn't coercive and destructive of Agency -- yet still effective at teaching our children, as parents have an inescapable obligation to do -- can be very challenging and even counter-cultural.

Perhaps parents, great as they are and should be in the eyes of their children, should always keep well to the front the fact that their authority is derived. "God does not allow" us to do thus and thus should be a rarely expressed but often present thought to parents who study the nature of the divine authority where it is most fully revealed, that is, in the Gospels. They see there that authority works by principles and not by rules, and as they themselves are the deputy authorities set over every household, it becomes them to consider the divine method of government.
-Charlotte Mason, Teaching the Branches

It is interesting to me, though not terribly surprising, that what she says here is so much like what Joseph Smith said:

I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves.

It is not surprising that they should say similar things because both Joseph Smith and Charlotte Mason were seekers of Truth who knew that all Truth comes from one Source. He teaches that kind of person wherever He finds them, and His teachings are always consistent.

But what are principles? And what are these principles that we should be seeing in scripture to guide our parenting? It took me a long time to figure out how to see the principle, and it was martial arts that taught me what a principle is and how to find it.

It used to be, before we had kids, that my husband and I would go to seminars together, and our sensei, Kevin, would talk about not just looking at the current technique, but seeing deeper, finding the principle. That underlying thing, the fundamental truth about the body that would allow us to defend ourselves under a variety of attacks, and not just the particular one that we were studying that day in that class. Because every attack is different - but using the principles he was trying to communicate, you could defend yourself effectively from classes of attacks, rather than attempting to learn to counter each individual movement. We gradually became adept at finding that core, the guiding idea, that would allow us to do the various techniques successfully on a variety of body types and in a variety of conditions. This was very good for our growth as martial artists.

But when we started generalizing this idea of finding the underlying principle, and applied it to gospel topics, it revolutionized the way we look at scripture.

It changed everything because it taught us to find the why. Principles generally don't address a list either of things to do or to avoid; rather, they are the reason why we might do the things on those lists.

If you understand that a wrist lock produces a certain movement in the spine, then it's not at all a stretch to apply that same lock to the fingers, the elbow, the shoulder, or the neck, in order to produce the same overall effect on the body. That allows you to move from safe space to safe space as you neutralize the attacker's efforts to hurt you.

If you understand the purpose of tithing and the Sabbath, you don't need lengthy legalistic lists of how, precisely, you should observe those laws. If you understand that the family is central to God's plan for His children, then it's easy to figure out why marriage ought to come before sexual activity and childbearing, as well as the importance of cherishing our spouse and thus preserving the marriage. If you know that gender is a Divinely bestowed characteristic, then the distinct and complementary roles of men and women start to fall into their place in the scheme of things.

But how does that apply to parenting? To parental authority? My favorite example from the scriptures for how to parent is actually the Father's dealings with Adam and Eve in the Garden.

In the Garden, God gave Adam and Eve two rules: the first was to have children, and the second was to not eat the fruit of a particular tree. Our record doesn't say much about how much explanation they got on the first count, but He was clear about that second thing: 

...thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. 
-Genesis 2:17

Having warned them, He stepped back to give them space to choose. He allowed them to be tempted because there must actually be two options in order for choice to be meaningful -- and choice must be meaningful to produce growth. We know how the story goes: they chose poorly and ate from the Tree of Knowledge without permission. 

It is hugely instructive to see how He responds to His wayward children in the Garden. 

God (of course) does not freak out on them nor lose His cool. Although His children are behaving poorly, He maintains Himself and His own behavior. I think that this may be the element that is hardest for me to imitate; my kids know how to push my buttons, and it is sometimes hard to follow this part of the pattern of parenting He used in Eden. The good news is that, where He has given us weaknesses, He also promises to turn them to strengths if we turn to Him for help. 

The next part of our Father's response is to give Adam and Eve an opportunity to own their mistake: 

Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?
-Genisis 3:11

Owning up to what we've done is a critical step in fixing the problem: you cannot progress through the repentance process while you are in denial that there's been an error. So the fact that Adam and Eve are quick to own their mistake is an important element, and I do not doubt that it made things go better than they would have, had they denied that there had been an infraction. (Cain, for example, has a much different experience.) Of course, our Father knew all along what had happened, but He still asked the questions: Where are you? Have you eaten the fruit? What have you been doing? These questions are not because God needed information, so they must be part of the process of teaching Adam and Eve. 

Then we finally come to the consequences that our first parents experienced as a result of their disobedience. God's consequences are instructive in nature, rather than punitive. It's not the case that they've hurt Him and He's getting back at them; these consequences are designed to help them grow and do better next time. Primarily, they are "cursed" with hard work, each in the field of their primary familial responsibilities: he to provide and protect his family, she to bear and nurture their children. As work is very good for us, the older I get the more this curse looks like a gift. It will assist them to develop the self-control and other virtues that were insufficiently strong in the Garden to keep them out of trouble.

As He informs them of the consequences they will be experiencing, the Father is not browbeating, He's not guilting them, and He's not haggling. He just tells them what's going on, then puts the changes into effect. And then they move on. 

There is so much in this episode that is instructive for how to exercise parental authority! Miss Mason talks about parents as being "deputy authorities" and to me, as I've tried to fill that role it's always seemed important that the kids can see that I'm not just making the rules up arbitrarily. Our family's rules generally fall into two categories: rules to keep us safe, and rules of right conduct which are based on the standards in scripture. And our kids know that we are bound by those rules of conduct as well: we don't allow them to lie or to be idle, but we don't do those things ourselves, either. They know early on that we are responsible to God for our conduct - and responsible to Him for the teaching we give them. 

But the thing I love the most about Miss Mason's comments here is the way that she encapsulates this truth:

Even the Divine authority does not compel.

If He does not employ compulsion, how much less right have we to do so!

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