Charlotte Mason recognized three critical ingredients of a complete education when she said, "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life." Looking at the first of these, several elements of a home atmosphere contribute to the education of children.
There is more to atmosphere than white ruffled curtains fluttering in a sunny breeze and red geraniums on the window sill. These cozy things do make for a pleasant setting in a home, but they are only the beginning. It is the life-supporting atmosphere of home working in a child's life that is so important in his education. Atmosphere is one of only a few instruments the educator has at her disposal to encourage the work of thinking in the student and to stimulate healthy growth of the whole child.
Children absorb ideas from the "thought environment" we provide for them. Ideas are food for the mind. A child's mind automatically grows as he considers ideas. What is an idea? Charlotte Mason tells us:
An idea may exist in a clear, distinct, definite form as that of a circle in the mind of a geometrician or it may be a mere instinct, a vague [association] towards something . . . like the impulse which fills the young poet's eyes with tears, though he knows not why. To excite this relationship or appetite toward things lovely, honest, and of good report is the earliest and most important ministry of the educator.
How are we to impart ideas to our children? Ideas are of spiritual origin and God has made us spiritual people. Therefore, ideas are passed on from person to person - through conversation or books written by those who love their subject matter. Charlotte urges us to give children a regular feeding of ideas through sweeping tales of history, wonderful inventions and discoveries in science, lives of great men and women, and stories that radiate the moral life; as well as paintings, plays, Psalms, poems, and symphonies.
Wanted - Homemaker
Our children will pick up many ideas from the atmosphere we provide in the home. What do we need to ensure that this atmosphere inspires them on to the kinds of things we want them to learn? First, someone loving needs to be home to make it home.
We are living in a career-minded, materialistic generation that depreciates the role of a mother. But the mother is the irreplaceable foundation of a home. During World War II, when America was imprisoning Japanese families in camps, a reporter stepped up to a little Japanese-American girl waiting at a train platform. "How does it feel to be without a home," the reporter asked. "Oh," replied the little girl, "we have a home, we just don't have a house to put it in."
A Christian home provides the protecting wings of a religious atmosphere. A catechism is essential teaching for children to understand what and why one believes; but as absolutely necessary as such teaching is, it will not in itself create a religious atmosphere. In an article on atmosphere in Charlotte's original magazine, the writer said,
The test will be whether religion is the center of our life - our joy of our joy, the consolation of our sorrow, the one eminently important thing for which all others have to give way; whether we view the things of daily life primarily with reference to it, and whether all else is felt to be relatively devoid of interest and value. . . . As love and faith are the two wings of the Divine, so they are of natural religion, and it is their strong protecting wings that our children must ever feel around them.
I like what Charles Spurgeon said about the religious atmosphere of home: "When home is ruled according to God's word, angels might be asked to stay with us, and they would not find themselves out of their element." Wow, isn't this a high ideal? Don't be discouraged, dear parent, with the heavenly command, "Be ye perfect." We may not reach our ideals but it is our fervent, faithful reaching towards them that matters greatly.
Another essential ingredient in the home atmosphere is intimate communication. By this I mean the freedom to express opinions in an atmosphere in which discussion is open and far-reaching. In Charlotte Mason's philosophy of education it is an excellent thing to have an opinion of your own, provided you are not bent on sticking to it. We preserve the natural candor of children by listening with a patient sympathetic hear, and we can expect attentive listening from children if we do not scold them. A helpful book to read, for those desiring gentle encouragement to improve the atmosphere of their homes, is Henry Clay Trumbull's book Hints on Child Training (conveniently sold on page 59 of this magazine). I particularly like this paragraph from the chapter on sympathy:
A parent loses his opportunity for good to his child, if he fails to have sympathy with this child in that child's weakness and follies and misdoings. It is in every child's nature to long for sympathy at the point where he needs it most; and when he has done wrong, or has indulged evil thoughts, or is feeling the force of temptation, he is glad to turn to some one stronger and better than himself, and make confession of his faults and failures. If as he comes to his parents at such a time, he is met with manifest sympathy, he is drawn to his parents with new confidence and new trust.
Let Home Have the Greater Influence
As children grow older, they may become more and more fascinated with the world. When they are very young they may fill their pockets with rocks, acorns, pinecones, shells or feathers. When they are older they will more consciously collect impressions of the ways and happenings of the people around them. The pull of this curiosity seems to be felt most strongly in the teen years. We grown-ups may forget what once enticed us, since our fascination with the world has faded. The influence of the world over our children really depends on what standards we set at home - the standards by which the children are accustomed to measure things. God's World publications (800-951-5437) supply children with knowledge of current events while helping to temper the influence of the world by presenting the news in the light of a Christian worldview.
My family has benefited by knowing other homeschooling families because they are close families. A respect for parents, the satisfaction of learning together, a fondness for simple pleasures, good humor amidst hard work, sympathy in sorrow, the joy of worshipping together - these are a few consequences of the atmosphere of a close family. Such homes give the gift of unworldliness.
Manners - More Than Meets the Eye
In the eighteenth century, etiquette was expected from all persons of "good breeding." One needs only to read one of Jane Austen's delightful novels to become acquainted with the mannerly characters of her time. Today, however, any form of etiquette seems to belong only to these "prim and proper" Victorians. You will find an almost universal lack of manners everywhere by people who are supposedly "educated." Perhaps today the necessity to use manners is seen as infringing on the "freedom to express oneself" without constraint.
Are manners the hollow tactfulness some use on the selling floor - a kind of manipulating flattery? No, our children can have worthier reasons for exhibiting manners. Good manners can be another term for duty, for righteousness, for morality. True politeness simply consists in treating others just as you like to be treated yourself. This polite treatment comes from direct teaching, but also results from a caring home atmosphere where a child will acquire a servant's heart like that of our Savior's.
More to Education than Atmosphere
But we would have a one-sided view of education if we determined education to be an atmosphere only, just as we would if we viewed education as only that of gaining skills in the three Rs. In my next article we will look at that other powerful instrument of the educator - the formation or "discipline" of habits.
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