Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Child's First Liberty

A Child's First Liberty

The liberty of the person who can make himself do what he ought is the first of the rights
that children claim as persons. (Charlotte Mason)

We are all either slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness. (Paul of Tarsus)

Ask the typical American child, “What is it like to be an adult?” And, the great majority will respond, “You get to do what you want.” Undoubtedly, such a statement fails to describe the lives of the vast majority of adults who must submit to the dictates of their employment, consider the needs of spouse and children, labor to cut the grass and clean the house, in summary, who must live a life structured more by needful responsibility than by whimsical desire. Yet, if this be the case, how is it that so many children have an image of adulthood which is so patently false. And, what are the consequences for children who possess such a conception. Are we not setting them up for lives of irresponsibility, frustration and unhappiness?

Perhaps our children are picking up on our own adolescent fantasy, the dream that doing whatever one wants whenever one wants is both a realistic possibility and the secret to happiness. Despite all the advertisements to the contrary, it is simply not possible to always “have it your way,” nor is it even desirable. After all, so many of our desires are merely reflections of well marketed, passing fads. And, so many more of our desires are nothing but momentary cravings. How often do we find ourselves wanting that which does not fulfill? The third piece of chocolate cake is more likely to make us sick than to satisfy. Yet still we want it. Do not life’s truest and deepest satisfactions (deepening knowledge, loving relationship, and fruitful labor) often require us to forego the indulgence of momentary desire? And isn't it true that whimsical, self-indulgent desire is much more the tyrant than the liberator.

If indeed living by chance desire rather than higher principal is a form of bondage, how do parents and teachers foster the higher life? Consider that no child is born knowing how to orient to the world, knowing what to think and what not to think, what to do and what not to do. Children possess a generalized sense that there is a right and wrong but little knowledge of what is right and wrong. They look to primary care-givers to inform them as to the basic rules of life. And, their primary care-givers will convince them of one of the following:
· Life is about doing what I want.
· Life is about doing what is right and good.
As in most of life’s endeavors, there are errors to be made on the right and on the left. From time to time, we encounter the adult with an authoritarian bent, who seeks excessive, arbitrary control over children. Such a stance is indeed destructive. The “because I want you to” or “because I said so” of an adult is a poor substitute for the peaceful, patient, and principled pursuit of that which is right and good. Children can never joyfully accept a parenting strategy based upon the premise that adults get to do what “they want” but children must conform and obey. Children raised in such an environment almost always respond in either fearful dependency or angry rebellion. A recognition of the equal dignity of both children and adults but the relative ignorance and moral weakness of children (as compared to the mature adult) implies the following responsibilities for each:
· Neither adult nor child is free to orient life around the principle of “I want”
· Both adult and child are constrained by the “must” of pursuing what is right and good.
· It is the responsibility of parents and teachers to inform children as to what is right and good and then to hold them accountable to it.
· It is the responsibility of children to trust and obey their parents and teachers.
· It is the responsibility of parents and teachers to be worthy of such trust and obedience.
· Parents and teachers are worthy of such trust and obedience when they submit their own lives to that which is right and good. Parents and teachers become unworthy of trust and obedience when they orient their lives around the principle of “I want”.
We must not use the sins of the few as a means to obfuscate and justify the sins of the many. The majority parenting style tends to change with the day’s fashion. And, authoritarianism is certainly not fashionable. Rather, our contemporary culture endorses a kind of parental libertarianism. Consider the following true stories:
· Arriving at their new home, a couple invited their five year old son to look over the house and choose his room. The boy promptly chose the master suite, leaving his parents to a much smaller bedroom. The parents moved their things into the smaller room.
· A mother was in the habit of allowing her eight year old daughter to choose, without limitation, her own clothes. One cold December day, the little girl decided she wanted to wear her bikini swimsuit. Scantily clad, the girl pranced around all day, both inside and out.
· A father spent in excess of two hours trying to reason with his four year old daughter as to why it was good to put on shoes and socks before going outside. In the end, he gave up in exasperation and simply carried his shoeless daughter to the car.
· A teacher rewards her students with a piece of candy every time a student does that which he ought.
Arguably, none of these adults are wicked. All possess a sincere, good will for their children. But all behaved quite foolishly, potentially undermining the well being of the very children they love. Intentional or not, adults are constantly providing children with life lessons. In each of these stories, a child was instructed with the following lesson: “What a little boy or little girl wants is what matters most.” A little boy should have the room he wants regardless of parents’ greater need for space and privacy. A little girl should be able to wear whatever she wants regardless of considerations of its appropriateness. A little girl should be able to do what she wants unless convinced otherwise. There is no need to trust and obey. Students need not do what they ought unless adequately bribed. Children learn such lessons well.
Many adults have rightly rejected the stance that life for children is about what I, the adult, want. Unfortunately, many have made the new focus to be what the child wants. Pity the thirty year old who desperately holds onto the illusion that life is about doing only that which self “wants”, unless suitably convinced or suitably bribed. And remember that “the boy is author to the man”.
At Ambleside schools, we are very intentional in our efforts to ensure a consistent message.
· Life is not about what teachers “want”.
· Life is not about what students “want”.
· Life is about what is “right and good”.
We encourage all parents and teachers to do the same. Consider the following excerpt from Charlotte Mason’s essay, Concerning Children as Persons:
The child who has learned that, by persistent demands, he can get leave to do what he will, and have what he likes, whether he do so by means of stormy outcries or by his bewitching, wheedling ways, becomes the most pitiable of all slaves, the slave to chance desires; he will live to say with the poet:
“Me this unchartered freedom tires’
I feel the weight of chance desires.”

Indeed, he already feels this weight, and that is why he is fretful and discontented and finds so little that is delightful in his life. Let him learn that “do as you’re bid” is a child’s first duty; that the life of his home is organized on a few such injunctions as “be true,” “be kind,” “be courteous,” “be punctual,” and that to fail in any of these respects is unworthy and unbecoming; more, let him be assured that such failures are of the nature of sin and are displeasing to God, and he will grow up to find pleasure in obedience, and will gradually gather the principles which should guide his life.
Education as formation not mere information
A monthly publication of Ambleside Schools International
For the purposes of advancing a renewal in education
in accord with the principles of Charlotte Mason

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