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04 June 2016

20 Principles: Children are Born Persons

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.

The very first thing that Charlotte Mason asserts when laying out her thoughts on education is that children are "born persons". Which is to say that they are not blank lumps, filled by education and training to become fully human, fully individual, at some later date. They do not slowly differentiate from all other blank babies as they experience and learn, rather they arrive from God as fully differentiated individuals. She says,

...a child is born with a mind as complete and as beautiful as his beautiful little body... his mind is the instrument of his education and that his education does not produce his mind.
-Philosophy of Education, vol. 6, p36, emphasis original.

And I find myself thinking, "Of course! Our children are not created at birth, but they are God's own spirit children, entrusted to our care. This is why our prayers begin, "Our Father in Heaven."

The doctrine is simply this: life did not begin with mortal birth. We lived in spirit form before we entered mortality. We are spiritually the children of God. This doctrine of premortal life was known to ancient Christians. For nearly five hundred years the doctrine was taught, but it was then rejected as a heresy by a clergy that had slipped into the Dark Ages of apostasy.
-Boyd K. Packer, The Mystery of Life

Mercifully, he has restored this truth in our day. This idea of man being a child of God is all throughout the Bible:

For in him we live, and move, and have our being ... For we are also his offspring.
-Acts 17:29

... all of you are children of the most High.
-Psalm 82:6

The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ ... For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son...
-Romans 8:16-17, 29

And the Bible (as well as modern scripture) also makes clear that our spirits existed before the creation of the world.

Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? ... When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
-Job 38:4,7

So of course children are born fully persons, with their own personality and their own mind. They were persons prior to conception, when they existed as Spirit children of God.

But what's beautiful about Miss Mason's work is the way that she -and the Ambleside Online moms- have spent time on this question:

"So, what?"

Children are born persons, so, what do we do about it? How should that shape the way we teach, the way we parent, and the way we interact with the little ones around us? So, what are the practical implications of this idea?

In no particular order, here are some of the practical applications that I'm mulling over this afternoon:

Being patient. This can have a lot of implications, but I'm thinking specifically of giving them enough time to think it through and come to a conclusion or decision. One of the forum moms put it so beautifully in the discussion of this principle:

This prodding for the instant correct response doesn't respect the ability of the child's mind to be able to make these connections for themselves. This is why fill-in-the-blank style comprehension questions fall so far short. And the other point it raises is that we need to give adequate time for the child's mind to work, to chew over the ideas they have heard in order to make a response. It is so easy to want the narration instantly because you have other things to move on to, but when we remember that child are born persons, we give them the time to collect their thoughts in order to share what they have heard.

There's an interesting conversation about "prodding" on the forum, Tania's comment getting right at the heart of it, but by no means the only worthy idea. Not only is it easy to want -and prod our children for- narrations (and other school work) instantly, but there's an application for this as well when dealing with behavior and discipline. Our Heavenly Father has given us a space in which to work through things, make our conclusions, and act on our choices. We ought to do the same when we are working with our own children. We need to remember: they are persons. And we need to get out of the way, rather than hovering and smothering their self-reliance, and  (all with the best of intentions) stealing opportunities to act for themselves on the opportunities they with which they are presented. Helicopter parenting - and helicopter teaching - does the child no favors at all, and it's a painfully easy trap to fall into. And a tough balancing act to not go too far the other direction and end up mired in permissiveness and its ill effects. We talk about the path to Eternal Life as a straight and narrow way -- but the scriptures, often as not, use the word strait, meaning narrow or constricted, and I frequently feel that correct action is poised, balanced on the knife's edge between two extremes. In this case, the extremes parents must avoid are being too permissive, on the one hand, and smothering the decision making process on the other; correct action will be at the sweet spot between.  In the schoolroom, this means that while we are responsible for presenting ideas, what Miss Mason calls "spreading the feast", the actual learning is the child's responsibility -- and not the parent's or the teacher's. 

Another way we can apply this idea that children are fully persons is to respect their Agency. As parents, we are charged with teaching certain things -- but we need our children's input. If they are to reach the amazing potential that is implicit in being God's offspring, then they need to be actively involved in shaping their lives, and even their educations. If that sentence feels a bit scary (it sometimes does to me) then we need to do some careful examination of both ourselves (I struggle with being a control-freak), and of the teaching our children have had this far. Ultimately, our children are self-determining, and the nearer to adulthood they get the more autonomy they will and should have. In the schoolroom, this means that while some things are required, we should also be honoring their interests, and making room for their passions.

Finally, whereas our children are God's children first, we must welcome Him into our educational process and seek His help at every step.

Neither the alphabet nor the multiplication table should be
taught without the Spirit of God.
-Brigham Young, quoted by Karl G. Maeser, Educating Zion, p2

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