A Study of Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles: Part 3

Today’s post is the third in a series of 15 as I go through Brandy Vencel’s Start Here: A Journey Through Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles. In the fall of 2016, I started a local study group (that has grown into two separate groups) to do this study together, and I’m also blogging about my studies. So, I get to process the information three times, which I’m loving.start-here-page-graphic

If you are just starting out with Charlotte Mason and trying to wrap your mind around her philosophy, I highly recommend this study, which not only covers Mason’s list of 20 progressive principles (progressive = the next builds upon the previous) but also pulls in relative modern blog posts as well as PNEU (Parents’ National Education Union) Parents’ Review Articles to help you thoroughly understand each principle. BTW, having only recently started reading PNEU articles, I feel the need to make a huge public service announcement in bold lettering:

You need to be reading the Parents’ Review Articles!

Seriously, the Parents’ Review Articles are like the blog posts of the early 1900s. They are often funny and surprisingly relative to modern issues. Sometimes the opinion of one author is juxtaposed with the opinion of another dissenting author. They add SO MUCH depth and real life examples to Mason’s philosophy (sort of how a well-written blog does today), and thanks to Brandy’s study guide, you don’t have to muddle through a sea of articles. You can click the hyperlink on the study guide pdf and go straight to the e-text on AmblesideOnline.org. I just can’t say enough that you will enjoy reading the Parents’ Review Articles.

Okay, so on to Charlotte Mason’s third principle:

The principles of authority on the one hand, and of obedience on the other, are natural, necessary and fundamental …

Notice that this sentence is incomplete. It will be finished with principle four, which I am trying my best not to discuss today. Today, I want to point out two key words: “authority” and “obedience.” Mason has a lot to say about these two concepts in chapter 4 of her Volume 6, Towards a Philosophy of Education.

Authority is Necessary

“Authority” in this context refers to “the right to command.” Mason makes a strong case for the need for authority. She says without it, society would cease to exist. She also says that authority is a necessary component of liberty, and what some might call “anarchy” is just transference of authority. We were created to desire orderliness, and when we dismiss authority we give ourselves over to chance and circumstance.

When I think of “authority,” I tend to think of the question, “Who is in charge?” It’s easy to know who is in charge in an employer-employee relationship. Maybe some have never considered that we are all both in authority and under authority in different areas of our lives simultaneously – and even within ourselves. I, personally, am (A) under God’s authority, (B) in authority over my children, (C) and under my own self-authority.

A. Obviously, as a believer, I know that God is in control over my life. I’m not going to further that discussion now except to say that I frequently tell my children that I am under God’s authority, and He has placed them under my authority.

B. I am duty-bound (by God) to be an authority figure to my children. Aha! This is a central idea that Mason returns to many times in her writings. For example, in Volume 1, Home Education, chapter 2, Mason says the family is a monarchy, and parents are the head. She warns parents against abdicating their authority and names a few tempting situations in which parents have done just that:

  1. One temptation to give up your parental authority is in order to “be liked” by your child. Sometimes it’s nice to feel like my child likes me, but I can’t fall into that trap – especially with my little ENFP (extroverted/intuitive/feeling/perceiving) child who forever tries to usurp my authority!
  2. Another temptation is to find yourself too busy to bother with authoritative actions. In this case, says Mason, another person in your household (likely one of the oldest children) will take your place as the authority figure. I don’t struggle much with this since my ENFP is only interested in his own authority and does not care to be “in charge” of the whole family.
  3. A third temptation Mason discusses is to be the too lax parent, who believes their child is essentially good and won’t stray from that path even in the absence of authority.

Even though we parents have an obligation to our children and to society to actively raise our children, authority is not to be a feather in our caps. Authority is a tool with which to serve. As we parent with authority, we model for our children how authority works. This is particularly important as they develop a sense of self-authority.

C. That leads me to discuss the fact that I am under my own self-authority. Oh, how I wish more people recognized the self-authority they have in their own lives. With today’s victim mentality, it seems no one wants to own up to the fact that they are often the source of their own pain. When you understand natural consequences, you will understand self-authority. Now, I’m not saying that life is fair or that input always equals output. But, I am saying that we all have a measure of control over our lives, and the sooner we accept it the better we are for it. And, we want to model this for our kids so that they can understand it, too.

Here’s what self-authority looks like in my life:

  • Do the laundry = clean towels available for use
  • Plan and shop for dinner ingredients = good food on the table
  • Eat healthy and exercise = feel (and perhaps look) better
  • Go to bed at a reasonable time = have energy the next day
  • Make time to read good books = have intelligent thoughts
  • (to borrow from Dave Ramsey) Go to work = get paid

This list could go on and on. Do you see how important it is for your children to catch on to the value of self-authority? Like it or not, there will come a day when our right to rule is over. If we don’t actively teach and model self-authority to our children while they are under our authority, they will struggle with it as adults, and they likely will do what their peers do with their money, time, and talent.

Obedience is Necessary

Okay, so, we have pretty well covered the idea of “authority,” but in order to be in authority you must have someone to be in obedience. “Obedience” in the context of Principle Three refers to what Mason sometimes calls “docility” or, as we might think of it, “being teachable” or “ready to learn.”

Mason says that authority and obedience are like two equal but opposing forces. The metaphor she uses in Volume 6 is that of gravity and centrifugal force. Gravity draws the earth towards the sun while centrifugal force compels the earth to go towards space. The result is a middle course – what we call an orbit. Likewise, Mason advocates a middle ground between authority and obedience.

One the one hand, too much control over a child will produce rebellion while, on the other hand, too little control will produce disorder. Mason says it’s a fine thing to let children be free, but they must also learn how to be obedient to authority – for the sake of their own happiness and for the happiness of those around them. The teacher/parent must secure “willing obedience” – not to the whim of the parent – but to the laws of the home, homeschool, classroom, etc.

Identifying Authority

It has become apparent in our home that we also have to actively help our children identify authority figures to whom our children owe their obedience. File this under Things I Never Thought I’d Have to Say:

  • Be polite to the librarian. She is in charge of the library, and you have to follow her rules.
  • Grandma is in charge while I’m gone. She is both your guest in our house and your boss today.
  • Your best friend’s mother is in charge when you are over for a playdate. Say “please” and “thank you” and eat what you are given and don’t complain.

I think this is due, in part, to how adults these days treat kids like friends. It can be confusing to a child to whom they own their obedience if no one is acting authoritative. Don’t get me wrong. I love when an adult listens to my children and treats them like humans instead of nuisances. But, I also appreciate when an adult who is in authority over my child establishes ground rules and sticks by them. Their consistency (and mine) does us all a credit because children are quick to discern between a command given by a true authority and a suggestion given by someone unwilling to follow through with consequences.

Here I’ve gone way over my self-imposed word count and haven’t even scratched a Parents’ Review Article. Perhaps that will need to be a separate post.

Other posts in this 20 Principles series:

Part 1

Part 2

Until next Friday (or so).

I’m reading:


Moderately challenging books:

Stiff books:




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