A Study of Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles: Part 4

Motivating a child to learn can be quite a challenge, and modern parenting as well as modern education practices will suggest to you plenty of methods. From sticker charts and meaningless awards to the threat of constant assessment and grade comparison, there are plenty of ways to manipulate a child into performing – for a time.


Today’s post is all about the restrictions we need to place on ourselves as parents and educators so that we don’t set up a pattern of manipulating our children into obedience. This is the fourth in a series of 15 blog posts as I go through Brandy Vencel’s Start Here: A Journey Through Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles. Brandy’s fourth lesson covers Mason’s fourth principle (as it builds upon principles one through three):

These principles [of authority and obedience] are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, which must not be encroached upon whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire.

In principle three, Mason stresses the need for authority and obedience in the life of a child. Principle four is simply a continuation – or maybe an explanation – of how best to achieve the balance of authority and obedience. If you’re confused about the roll of authority and obedience, you can see my previous post here and read Mason’s writings (free on AmblesideOnline.org).

Principle four really is a warning of what not to do, and in that way this may come across as a negative post. My apologies. Principle five, if you want to read ahead, tells what you can do.

Seeing Children as Human

Mason begins in chapter five of her sixth volume by saying we would be better educators if we would re-frame how we see children. This was written at a time when the popular view of children was that they were less than human – as in, children are becoming human, and “being human” is the same as “being an adult.” The 17th century education philosopher John Locke, for example, had said children are a “blank slate” waiting to be filled. Rather than seeing children as incomplete and undeveloped beings, Mason urges us to see children as “born persons” with possibilities of the same greatness as any adult. She also reminds us God places children above adults by commanding us to have faith like theirs.

Avoiding Manipulation

The reason Mason wants us to re-frame how we see children is because our interactions with children are built upon what we believe about them. If we believe a child is a blank slate waiting to be filled – or like a chess piece to be moved at our whim – then we will go about their education in that manner. In principle four, Mason warns us not to manipulate a student’s love and desire to please in order to motivate them because it takes away their natural desire to learn and hinders them from developing their own personalities. Teaching by manipulation not only exerts an immoral control over another person, but it also cannot be maintained forever. The manipulated child will only allow himself or herself to be controlled for a time, and as his or her personality develops rebelion and resentment will ensue. Rather than manipulating a child into learning, Mason instructs us to encourage their love of learning and natural curiosity. In Volume 6, she says:

The desire for knowledge (curiosity) is the chief agent in education: but this desire may be made powerless like an unused limb by encouraging other desires to intervene, such as the desire for place (emulation), for prizes (avarice), for power (ambition), for praise (vanity).

Ways Children are Often Manipulated

Desire for Place (emulation): Competition can be a fun way to encourage effort, but too much emphasis on competition can kill the love of learning. I, personally, believe it’s important for children to know how to compete, how to win graciously, and how to lose tactfully. The world is full of competition, so those are important skills. However, a student who only puts out effort when a trophy is hanging in the balance is not learning for the love of knowledge. Competition has usurped that love. (Brandy’s studyguide points to a few Parents’ Review Articles that expound on the virtues and downfalls of competition.) I think it is important that a competition is fairly judged, because a child who is unfairly evaluated will begin to shun competition altogether. Competition can, obviously, backfire if a child begins to value winning above all else, but it can also backfire when there are too many awards. When the market becomes flooded with ribbons, trophies, and certificates, children begin to notice that winning is meaningless.

Desire for Prizes (avarice): When Mason bemoans the use of prizes as manipulation, she refers specifically to scholarships and how the love of learning can be replaced with “I have to get a scholarship.” By extension, this also covers the tendency for educators to “teach to the test,” which not only changes what we teach but also how we teach. Time is often wasted (and a child’s natural curiosity is squashed) by cramming for exams. Children who are manipulated in this fashion will begin to despise the whole business of education. Sadly, these may be the children who finish their education and never read a book again. (The Smithsonian recently reported that one in four U.S. American adults did not read a single book in the past 12 months!) The desire for prizes can also refer to exchanging goods (treats, money, etc.) for services (completing school lessons). I know people who pay their child to read. Seriously.

Desire for Power (ambition): Leadership and ambition are often considered desirable traits. We want our children to be leaders and to “have drive,” but we must be careful that the desire to be powerful doesn’t become an obsession. People who love power will sometimes provoke others into needing a leader so that they can come to power. Mason says in Volume six:

Power is good in proportion as it gives opportunities for serving; but it is mischievous in boy or man when the pleasure of ruling, managing, becomes a definite spring of action. Like each of the other natural desires, that for power may ruin a life that it is allowed to master; ambition is the cause of half the disasters under which mankind suffers. The ambitious boy or man would as soon lead his fellows in riot and disorder as in noble effort in a good cause; and who can say how far the labour unrest under which we suffer is inspired and inflamed by ambitious men who want to rule if only for the immediate intoxication of rousing and leading men?

When it comes to leadership, I think the best approach is to model servant-leadership and not dictatorship. I think it is also valuable to teach a child to master their own character (self-control) rather than dominate others.

Desire for Praise (vanity): For some children, the desire to be praised is an easy manipulation. Often this begins by worshiping a favorite teacher (i.e. teacher’s pet) and eventually moves on to idolizing stronger personalities, which can set a child up to become a slave to the approval of others. Vanity and the desire to be accepted can also make a child susceptible to peer pressure. Withholding love and approval in order to get schoolwork done is a manipulation that will only work for a short time. At some point, a child will either rebel and no longer care for a teacher’s approval, or a child will continue seeking approval from sources that aren’t worthy of emulation. It’s far better to talk up the lesson and stir up curiosity – “Remember we were reading about Pago [a fictional hermit crab] and how he was carried off by a seagull? I wonder how he’s going to survive that! Let’s read the next chapter and find out.” – than to dangle our approval over a child’s head. The dreaded sticker chart falls into this category. Some children will do anything for a gold star!

*Do Your Best, Teacher

Teaching through manipulation is a common pitfall, and we are probably all guilty of appealing to our child’s desire for emulation, avarice, ambition, and vanity. I think the important lesson for we parent-educators to remember is to keep rewards of all kinds in their proper place, never leaning on those desires to get the work done. These manipulations can become a vicious cycle that replaces our child’s natural curiosity and destroys his or her desire to learn for the sake of knowledge. Stick to Mason’s learning tools – reading and narrating books, observing the natural world, appreciating art – and let your own sense of wonder be a guiding light to your student.

Other posts in this 20 Principles series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Until next Friday (or so).

I’m reading:


Moderately challenging books:

Stiff books:


*As always, I am a champion of public education as well as home education (and other types of private education). I know education methods are not always left up to the teacher (or even the local school administration) — but I wish it were!



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