The Need for Atmosphere and Masterly Inactivity


I had to take a little hiatus from blogging last Friday because we were having a crisis of atmosphere in our family. You see, my boys are easily lured by electronics – and chances are your kids are too. This is a constant struggle in this present age of tablets, TVs, and streaming video. Since DH has nixed the idea of an electronic-free home (and, honestly, I would miss a lot), we are constantly walking the line between using electronics as tools and resources and using electronics for distraction from life and promotion of laziness.

Charlotte Mason said that, as educators, we have only three tools at our disposal:

  1. the atmosphere of environment
  2. the discipline of habit
  3. the presentation of living ideas


I don’t know about you, but I find the discipline of habit and the presentation of living ideas so much easier to instill in my children. Yes, we sometimes deal with bad habits. Right now A8 is going through some pre-adolescent phase in which he wants to dominate and control everyone and everything. L5 has always struggled with temper tantrums, though I think he might be the most disciplined of us all because he has to deal with his natural inclination to throw a fit. From an early age we have instructed him to “choose happiness,” and you can actually see him turn his own ship around. J3 has also entered an obstinate phase, which I think is pretty normal considering his age. So, we struggle some with the habit of a cheerful attitude as well as with putting our shoes away and hanging our backpacks. It’s always a work in progress.

Living Ideas

As far as living ideas go, the boys of course pick up some twaddle-y books and videos at the library each week, but they generally gravitate towards books and films that respect their intelligence. But, when it comes down to it, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on encouraging good habits and surrounding the boys with living ideas / books.

Atmosphere: Screen Time

Oh, but atmosphere is something I wrestle with every single day.

We have finally, sort of, settled on keeping electronics completely off until after 4pm. That seems to shut down all of the begging and pleading for screen time. The problem, though, is twofold. First, DH wants to watch the morning news on TV, and he and I both check our cell phone for messages before he goes to work. This seems perfectly reasonable, except our kids see it as an exception and an open door to make their own exceptions. The same goes if I need to take a phone call or if we need to reference the Internet for school-related information.

There are screens and spoon-fed sources of entertainment everywhere, and it directly interferes with creativity and reading time. My kids love to run free and play and imagine and pretend and read books, but they will be lured in by a screen almost every time, and I think that’s normal. I heard on a podcast once a person likened this problem to a child who loves to eat watermelon. If you slice a watermelon and hand it out at a picnic, kids will go crazy. They love watermelon! But, if another person comes along handing out Kit-Kats and ice cream, kids will drop that watermelon and go for the super-sugary stuff. Whereas the water melon would be refreshing and sweet and give them more energy for the outing, the candy and ice cream will weigh them down. It’s the same with books vs. screens, active play vs. couch surfing, etc.

Atmosphere: Nagging

So, yeah, insisting on the proper atmosphere is important. Here’s the real point: We have to limit access to entertainment; otherwise, we the parents are going to find ourselves harassing our children. If the screens are off, the remotes are hidden, the tablets are put away out of sight, and the boundaries for screen time are clearly and firmly set, I don’t have to keep saying, “You need to go outside and get some exercise” or “You need to be reading more books” or “You need to be more disciplined in finishing your school work.” The atmosphere is doing the work for us (and not sounding passive aggressive in the process).

Masterly Inactivity: Boundaries

Many people confuse Charlotte Mason’s idea of “masterly inactivity” with free time or something a child does, but masterly inactivity is actually something a parent provides. When Charlotte Mason discussed “masterly inactivity” in her Volume 3 “School Education,” she defined it as children having freedom under authority. Or, in other words, the parent gives the child boundaries. Kids give the impression that they want unlimited freedom and endless treats and entertainment, but any experienced parent knows this is actually a form of child abuse. Children need boundaries to keep them safe, to keep them healthy, and to communicate love.

We recently had a serious conversation with A8 about mature content in a particular app. The app seemed innocent enough – it simulated managing a baseball team – but we had to get rid of it because user generated content had foul language. He really did not want to lose the app, but DH and I explained that we were doing it for his own protection. DH recounted for him how when he was 8 years old some boys came to his school bragging that their dads let them watch R-rated movies (Terminator, for example) and stay up until midnight. DH said at the time he felt jealous of the other boys’ apparent freedom, but he came to realize through his school years that these boys’ parents were not showing love by giving them an unfit privilege. These parents were being selfish. They wanted to watch the movie, and they didn’t care enough to protect their young child from mature content. These parents didn’t want to be bothered with parenting.

We ended the talk by telling A8 that we plan to give him more freedom as he matures so that he will be prepared for adulthood and that we aren’t going to “baby” him and stunt his maturation process. The boundary shows that we care.

Masterly Inactivity: Structure

Charlotte Mason also defined “masterly inactivity” as the parent having an “element of good humor.” Parents have to walk the line between being spontaneous and ready for adventure and giving in to a child’s every whim. I interpret this as providing structure. The example Mason gives in Volume 3 is that of a child asking to call off school for the day and go blackberry picking. Perhaps a modern adaptation of this example in our home would be the boys asking if they can watch Minecraft walkthrough videos instead of “doing school” today. Children need to know and anticipate when we will be having free time and when we will be having lessons.

To be sure, there are some days when spontaneity is a good thing – or even a necessary thing – but the goal for us parents is to be prepared enough that we aren’t painted into this corner. For example, it’s a positive situation for my fellow homeschool friend to text me and say, “We are going swimming today (a school day). Would your family like to join us?” and for me to announce to the boys that school is off for the day because we are going swimming with friends. It would not be a positive situation for us to do that too often because we would never get to our lessons.

Spontaneity is also good for diffusing bad situations. Endlessly bad weather can be a good reason to plan a trip to play laser tag (indoors). We are often comforted by spontaneity after the death of a loved one – seeing cousins and extended family at my grandmother’s funeral service made the event a celebration of her life. My boys still talk happily about the time when they got to see “all of their cousins” (at least that side of the family) rather than feeling endlessly sad about missing their great-grandmother.

As the parent-teacher, it is our job to balance schedule with spontaneity. I announce our family and school plans frequently to the boys, and they rely on the daily structure of our school day. We start with circle time (singing, poetry, artist/composer study) at 8:30. We follow with math and handwriting. We move on to AO readings and music practice interspersed with free reading time and outdoor breaks. Without daily structure, I am setting myself up for nagging – “We need to start school soon!” “When are you going to do your math?” The atmosphere of structure keeps us moving in the right direction.

Masterly Inactivity: Confidence, Fathers, and Omniscience

Another element of “masterly inactivity” is parental self-confidence. Children need to understand their parents are in authority over them. I compare this authority to the kind of servant leadership that Jesus provided his disciples. He was patient. He saw the big picture. He led them to be their best selves. Mason compares parental authority over children to the effect of sunshine, rain, and good soil upon a seed. We must have the confidence that our children will respond to a positive atmosphere. When we confidently lead our children, they thrive. But, the parent who barks commands, makes excuses, interferes with natural consequences, and hovers over their child strains the relationship.

When the non-homemaking parent (in our house, that is DH) is home, it is important for him to also assume this role of authority. I’m sure it’s awfully tempting for him to come home and be the “fun parent” who is all spontaneity and no structure. DH and I try to present a united front to the children so that they cannot play us off each other and begin to view one of us as permissive and the other as mean (good cop / bad cop). When we announce big decisions, we do it together – or at the very least I begin with “Your father and I …” so that the children know we stand together. Mason says that parents are to be omniscient – all seeing, all knowing – or as close as they can be. We don’t have to comment or act upon every situation. In fact, it’s good to see from a distance what choice a child will make. Will he retaliate hurt feelings with violence or will he use his words to resolve conflict? Give him a chance to do the right thing.

Atmosphere: Plenty of Opportunity

I mentioned in the beginning of this post that I missed blogging last week because we had a crisis of atmosphere. What I meant is that we had to scale back screen time and take away a couple apps from A8’s tablet because they just weren’t the atmosphere we wanted to provide. To offset the change, I very purposefully took the boys on some spontaneous outings and have been looking into some more opportunities for my extroverted A8. The result was some mild sunburns and A8 planning to audition for a musical in our local community theater.

In Webb’s book “A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children,” I have recently read the chapter that discusses peer groups. I was glad to see that the book reinforces my instincts that all children, especially those who are gifted or have asynchronous development, have a need for varying peer groups. In other words, a child’s peers are not always their same age, and age is not the most important factor when finding peers. As homeschoolers, I feel we are already embracing this idea, but now I feel a little freer to encourage the boys to pursue goals and activities that aren’t necessarily “made for children” – or even predominantly “boy” activities (not that I’ve struggled much with that).

So, last night A8 and I were out until nearly 10pm at an audition workshop. He will audition for the musical on Sunday, and even if he doesn’t get chosen for the show it’s a great experience that might lead to other auditions or similar activities.

Until we meet again next Friday, be well.

I’m reading:


Moderately challenging books:

Stiff books:




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