In CM’s Words: The Way of the Will

Charlotte Mason’s perspective on educating children “as persons” was what originally drew me to her philosophy of education.  She was very concerned about character development. In Volume 6, she writes:

…these men are educated as we choose to understand education, that is, they can read and write, think perversely, and follow an argument, though they are unable to detect a fallacy. If we ask in perplexity, why do so many men and women seem incapable of generous impulse, of reasoned patriotism, of seeing beyond the circle of their own interests, is not the answer, that men are enabled for such things by education? These are the marks of educated persons; and when millions of men who should be the backbone of the country seem to be dead to public claims, we have to ask,–Why then are not these persons educated, and what have we given them in lieu of education? (pp.1-2, emphasis mine)

This quote was especially striking to me after the presidential election. No matter which candidate people supported, it seemed as if there was no way to reach across “enemy lines” to find common ground. People that I had known for years lost their generous spirits. They couldn’t “detect a fallacy.” I spent much of my Facebook time debunking “meme myths” on every side of the political fence because I just couldn’t stand to watch pure propaganda get blindly shared, regardless of how I felt about the candidates. Where was the “reasoned patriotism” and who could see “beyond the circle of their own interests”? Reading this quote was as if Mason had somehow glimpsed our election cycle and described it. I still have a queasy feeling in my stomach when I think about it.

How did Charlotte Mason propose to educate our young men and women with the formation of character as the final result?  She writes,

Character is as finely wrought metal beaten into shape and beauty by the repeated and accustomed action of will. We who teach should make it clear to ourselves that our aim in education is less conduct than character; conduct may be arrived at, as we have seen, by indirect routes, but it is of value to the world only as it has its source in character. (emphasis mine)

Mason repeatedly argues against bribery, punishment, manipulation, awards, grades and similar methods of influencing behavior. She asserts that if children are provided with ideas that are suitably complex (not simplified or “dumbed down”) in the form of good books, meaningful tasks and ample time (especially in nature), there will be no need for these behavior management strategies.

I have two children with special needs, and ADHD is a “side effect” of those needs. Before I learned Mason’s methods, I would have written off many of her ideas about classroom management as wishful or naive thinking. Yet, I have found that Mason’s ideas are effective strategies for keeping my kids focused and on task. It has been a long journey to this point, and understanding the “way of the will” has been a key to our success.

Is training the will different for parents of children with special needs?

From the moment that doctors, therapists, family members and other community members recognized that my children were “different,” I received an overwhelming message:

It is your responsibility to adapt the world to your child because your child is not capable of adapting to the world.

From that point forward, every day became a battle of “Special Needs Super Mom” vs. “The World”! I bought adaptive equipment, educated every person in my children’s lives about their disabilities and ended each night feeling like a (tired) hero while my children became more and more dependent on me.

Thankfully, I chanced upon a treasure at Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon. It was a book called Brave Parenting: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Raising Emotionally Resilient Children by Krissy Pozatek, a social worker who specializes in wilderness therapy. Although Charlotte Mason first introduced me to the concept that children must do the work of learning themselves, and we cannot do it for them, Pozatek was the one who helped me picture that in a special needs context.

I look forward to sharing some of the gems from Pozatek’s book in the future, but the most important idea that I took away was this:

In The Way of the Bodhisattva, eight-century Buddhist sage Shantideva tells us that we can either lay down leather wherever we step so we don’t cut our feet, or we can make our own moccasins to protect us on our path. I adapt this metaphor to parenting in order to illustrate the widespread hovering and over-involvement parents engage in today, as many parents are busy cushioning their children from any discomfort. Unfortunately, this leather laying makes our children more dependent and less resourceful and impedes their emotional maturation process. Instead we can create a home environment that fosters moccasin building so our children have the internal resources and emotional resilience necessary to navigate their life-trail… (Preface)

Returning to the quote that I shared above by Charlotte Mason, our children need repeated experiences with directing their own actions – developing a strong will – and, as Pozatek writes, we can’t cushion every failure. We can ask questions, reflect feelings and give advice (when it is invited), but if we make all of the decisions and do all of the problem-solving for our children, they will not have the skills that they need “in the wilderness.”

If you want to watch a movie that models this kind of parenting in action, I encourage you to check out Temple Grandin. She has a fascinating story!

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