Inspiring Children: the life of the mind grows upon ideas


Chapter IV of Parents and Children by Charlotte Mason continues with the role of parents as inspirers. She states that the life of the mind grows upon ideas and it is the duty of parents to sustain, nourish and keep alive their child’s inner life with ideas just as they sustain their bodies with food.

‘Sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.’
This was a common saying in the 19th Century and has been attributed to a number of people including the writer William Makepeace Thackeray, and the poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The idea is that the destiny of child is determined by his parents in the sense that they (or others to whom they delegate) are the ones who are the first to sow into a child’s life.

So what are we to sow?


It is the only educational seed we have in our possession. Sowing a seed and waiting for it to sprout and grow is a faith step in the natural world – the seed has no resemblance to the mature plant. When we sow an ‘idea’ we also take a step of faith.

CM briefly mentions some of the educational theories underpinning the work of people such as Pestalozzi and Froebel and the ‘pleasing and easy’ belief that education is formative; that the role of the educator is to develop the ‘faculties.’

The problem she saw was that all our thoughts about education are wrong and rest on false foundations and that the most complete and adequate definition of education that we have is:
Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.

Parents are very jealous over the individuality of their children; they mistrust the tendency to develop all in the same plan; and this instinctive jealousy is right (!!).

Charlotte Mason, writing this book over a hundred years ago, believed that our fear of our children developing like peas in a pod because of systematic educational efforts directed towards the drawing out of faculties were groundless:

We may believe that the personality, the individuality, of each of us, is too dear to God, and too necessary to a complete humanity to be left at the mercy of empirics (experimentation).

I wonder what CM would say about this now. She died in 1923 and a year later H.L. Mencken wrote the following:

“…the aim of public education is not to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. … Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim …is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States… and that is its aim everywhere else.”

This is something Charlotte Mason touched on in the last book of her Home Schooling Series, A Philosophy of Education, where she mentions the ‘new gospel of education.’ She recognised this Utilitarian theory was immoral, at the same time as its advocates were convinced Utopia was on its way.

The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto, pg 145

The utilitarian, utopian model of education has become firmly embedded in the years since Charlotte Mason made her observations on the individuality of the child.

Parents: not ‘modellers’ but ‘inspirers.’

When I was just starting out as a mother I wanted to find a mentor; someone who’d blazed the trail ahead of me, had homeschooled and had grown children; someone who was at the stage where they were enjoying the fruit of all their hard work. I didn’t find that person, but I learnt from many imperfect people and often they were walking a completely different path to my own. I wanted a model, but God gave me inspirers and I see the wisdom of that now.

You may go through years of so-called ‘education’ without getting a single vital idea; and that is why many a well-fed body carries about a feeble, starved intelligence…

We may have ‘finished our education’ without ever having experienced that vital stir which marks the inception of an idea. So we leave school…
We shut up our books and our minds, and remain pigmies in the dark forest of our own dim world of thought and feeling.

What an awful thought!

The Mind Grows Upon Ideas

Idea – a live thing of the mind…An idea strikes us, impresses us, seizes us, takes possession of us, rules us…

We form an ideal (an embodied idea) – and this exercises the very strongest formative influence upon us: “An idea struck me…”

…is it not marvellous that, recognising as we do the potency of ideas, both the word and the conception it covers enter so little into our thought of education?

An idea may exist as an Appetency (desire, longing, affinity)

Ideas may invest as an atmosphere, rather than strike as a weapon. An Appetency may be a clear, definite form, or an instinct; a vague longing towards something.
The educator’s ministry is to excite this longing towards something…

Indefinite ideas that manifest themselves in a longing, an affinity or a desire, are held in that thought-environment which surrounds the child as an atmosphere. This atmosphere emanates from his parents. I was reminded, though, that Susan Schaeffer Macaulay in her beloved book, For the Children’s Sake, explored the role we may play in providing this atmosphere, not only for our own children, but others. I had a teacher when I was about ten years old who did this for me. Her direction and inspiration allowed me to develop those vague affinities that have grown and stayed with me since. I admit this is a drop in the bucket compared to what could be accomplished in a home environment where these principles are practiced, but nonetheless, it could be a crucial factor for a child who didn’t have that advantage.

In the end we shall find that only those ideas which have fed his life are taken into the being of the child; all the rest is thrown away, or worse, is like sawdust in the system, an impediment and an injury to the vital processes.

Education is a life; that life is sustained on ideas; ideas are of spiritual origin…

CM reminds us that the child has affinities with evil as well as good, so we take care to prevent the wrong ideas from gaining a foothold. An initial idea gives birth to others so we need to take care they get the right primary ideas. It is the duty of parents to nourish a child’s inner life with ideas just as they nourish his body with food, whereas it is the child’s responsibility to ‘dig’ for his own knowledge.


14 thoughts on “Inspiring Children: the life of the mind grows upon ideas

  1. There are so many things to comment on. I did not know that anyone was writing philosophies about homeschooling a hundred years ago.I taught in public school for several years and I have to say that the attitude by both educators and parents, generally speaking, is that children are wards of the state and it is not the responsibility of the parents to raise them. I was unpopular in not supporting this idea.I cannot stand H.L. Mencken but he is correct in his assessment of public schools, not to mention that they have successfully eliminated God from the public square due to acting as though he doesn't exist in the public schools.I am going to look up the books by the authors you have written about. Very fine review!Finally, while I don't want my children mindlessly imitating me, I think modeling can be an effective foundation for learning and behavior but yes! we must inspire children to spring from that board and eventually climb the cognitive ladder to higher level thinking skills.Reading quality literature is also a great springboard.Thanks for a good post!


  2. This was a wonderful post, Carol. I appreciate your humble spirit behind each word. Like you, I have found inspirers in all places, and like you, I believe that those sparks are lit in many places. This is a great reminder to remember the blessings of home education, and to humbly make the best of our precious time with our children.


  3. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Sharon. It was Susan Schaeffer Macaulay's book that brought Charlotte Mason into the spotlight after years of oblivion. The fact that she was a Christian was probably the main reason her ideas didn't become more widely known. I wasn't familiar with Mencken so did a bit of browsing to find out what I could. I was surprised to read what he said regarding public education.


  4. Carol this is a thoughtful post as always!Ideas are much more exciting and fruitful than \”outcomes\”.It is an interesting idea the difference between modelling and inspiring… much to think about:)Margaret


  5. Ideas are much more exciting and fruitful than \”outcomes\” – oh yes! The modelling & inspiring idea – Sharon made good observation above & I agree, much to think about. Thanks for your comment, Margaret. I always value your opinion and thoughts. X


  6. That is a very interesting concept, but on reflection I find it a truth. This week it seemed I accidentally ignited an intense curiosity and desire to study Revelations { certain parts; the mark of the beast etc } in my 9 year old. It's amazing watching a child become so interested in an adult concept and want to learn and discuss it.


  7. Pingback: For the Family’s Sake: Ch 6 | journey & destination

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s