Formation of Character by Charlotte Mason – Part III



The education of older children is the main focus of Part III of Charlotte Mason’s Formation of Character where she explores the positive and negative aspects of both school and home environments and the relationship between them.

C.S. Lewis observed that, ‘Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.’

To roughly paraphrase C.S. Lewis for my purpose here, I’d say that, ‘Each educational setting (i.e. school & home) has its own outlook/perspective. Each may be good at developing some aspects of character but it has its own particular blindspots, therefore it will fail to address some areas.’ 

At different times I’ve been blind to character traits in my children. In some instances I’ve been forced to notice them when circumstances changed and all of a sudden, what had been hidden to me was brought into the full light of day. Sometimes someone else opens our eyes to see a different perspective. Someone who can be more objective than we are in the situation. Charlotte Mason’s study of character development is impartial and wise and offers help for those of us teaching at home and for those whose children are in school.

• School Life – Mason begins by pointing out some of the benefits of school life:

‘…the child finds himself in a new and very stimulating element when he goes to school. For the first time, he has to find his footing amongst his equals. At home, he has seldom had more than one equal, and that his friend––the brother or sister next him in age. Here, he has a whole class of his fellows, some stronger, some weaker than himself, working with him, shoulder to shoulder, running neck and neck with him in lessons and games. It is very exciting and delightful.’

She is careful to point out that the wise parent should check out not just what the school syllabus offers, but also its teachers, the general atmosphere and attitude of the students.

‘Lawlessness is contagious’ and every school will have a few troublemakers but the parents need to know much influence these students exert on all the others. A couple of lawless students in a classroom can change the atmosphere. The family is like a limited monarchy, whereas the school is essentially a republic where the leader is elected, and if the populace (in our case the students) don’t support him, then he has no authority or influence. I remember from my own schooling teachers who were totally ignored by their students and others who held us in the palm of their hands – the latter being few and far between.

• Examinations – regular disciplinary work is wholesome but there must also be time for leisure, exercise, and recreation. Cramming and overpressure are harmful and have no educative value. The pressure to provide school work that hinges upon an upcoming exam or test has a levelling tendency that isn’t conducive to producing individuality or character. The gifted teacher has no opportunity to inspire the student because the pressure of preparing for tests crowds out the time for ‘the refining touch.’
Masons advice in this situation was to ‘look the matter in the face: take the good the schools provide, and be thankful; take count of what they do not provide, and see that any culture or moral training which the schools fail to offer is to be had in the home.’

Mason’s observation in the early 1900’s was that modern school life was so demanding that the situation could almost be compared to that of Sparta where the State basically took possession of the child from the age of eight. This is something to ponder about when, more than a hundred years later, children are starting school at a younger age and schools are taking on responsibilities that in the past were assigned to parents.
Parents give up the government of their children to a school, or throw the child upon its own government. Neither situation is proper for the child.

‘…parents gradually lose hold of them…the young people set up a code of their own…many parents, with the diffidence of good people, are ready to believe that their children get something better at school than they have power to give; that, in fact, all proper and suitable training is given there, and they just make a merit of not interfering…
This absorption in school life is the more complete because the young people are, for the time, conscious of no want which the school does not supply.’

• Home Training
– Mason discusses physical, intellectual, moral, religious, and cultural training, and the duty of parents to educate their children. This duty doesn’t end when children start school. Parents need to supplement what is weak or missing. She also remarked that girls often do well when their fathers have a hand in their education.

• Team sports provide a valuable service but the training afforded is incomplete because it plays upon natural desires for power, friendship, respect and physical movement. When these desires are played upon the child may appear well-behaved, ‘yet he has little sense of duty, feeble affections, and dispositions left to run wild, wanting the culture which should train mere disposition into character.’

When attempts are made to stimulate people en masse, it is through their desires. They want work or play or power, money or land, and whoever plays upon any one of these desires gets the popular ear…mmm, sounds like politics.

Parents are encouraged to make an effort with their own intellectual pursuits because ‘once a boy begins to look down on the intellectual status of his parents, the entire honour and deference he owes them are at an end.’ Ouch! This should give us a shot in the arm. We really do need to keep our minds well-stocked and well-oiled so that we can keep up with our young people as they grapple with culture, ideas, decisions, and choices. This idea is echoed elsewhere in Charlotte Masons’ writing and also in this Parents Review article about Mother Culture.

Respect for parents, affection and kindness towards our children; keeping the channels open to the needs of others, and Sunday observances, are some areas covered in this section. There is an awkward stage that children go through when their sense of justice becomes exaggerated. This can develop into exaggerated self-love if allowed to go unchecked. What they need is to be able to see the rights of others as clearly as their own and have their affections turned to others. Mason quotes a Lord Lytton – “I think it wrong to let children have dogs. It spoils them for mankind.” !!! A child can give all his affection to his dog and neglect people but Mason’s attitude was basically, ‘Give the kid his dog but teach him that he holds the happiness of others in his hands.’

• Home Culture – Mason defines this not as the getting of knowledge but ‘the cultivation of the power to appreciate what is just, true, and beautiful in thought and expression,’ and that this delight doesn’t come by nature. She encourages parents to give children books of literary quality that require mental effort and that it’s better for them to re-read good books than to fill up on trivia.

• Poetry as a Means of Culture – I love Mason’s thoughts here so much that I wrote a blog post: Poetry as a Means of Intellectual Culture – Furnishing the Mind.

Shakespeare...’is not to be studied in a year; he is to be read continuously throughout life, from ten years old and onwards. But a child of ten cannot understand Shakespeare. No; but can a man of fifty?’

She observed that young people are so taken up with living that as a rule they don’t read. I’ve noticed this with some of my older children who used to be avid readers. Between study, work, church commitments, and social activities, they often don’t pick up a book until they are on holidays. One of my sons has a long commute each day to and from work so he got himself an Audible account and has been using his time in the car to get his ‘reading’ in. I encourage this by giving him an Audible gift on birthdays or for Christmas. If I find a book my older ones haven’t read, and I think it’s worthwhile, I’ll mention it to them or give it to them on their birthday.

• Table-Talk – Mason says that animated table-talk offers the best opportunity for influencing the opinions of the young:

‘…watch the eagerness with which the young catch up every remark made by their elders on public affairs, books, men, and you will see they are really trying to construct a chart to steer by; they want to know what to do, it is true, but they also want to know what to think about everything.’

Parents sometimes forget that it is their duty to give their children grounds for solid opinions but the young person will have views and hold opinions and will pick them up from others if we don’t provide a foundation. They don’t have knowledge and experience to guide them and tend to see things in black and white, but we don’t have the right to think for our children.

‘…the young people will not take ready-made opinions, therefore suppress yours; put the facts before them in the fairest, fullest light, and leave them to their own conclusions. The more you withhold your opinions, the more anxious they are to get at them.’

• Cultivating judgment – young people will find someone who will influence them and mould their opinions if their parents don’t. To maintain our influence as our children get into their teen years we should be ‘liberal, gentle, just, inclined to take large kindly views, to praise rather than to blame, but uncompromising on questions of principle, quick to put his finger on the blot, ready to forgive, but not to excuse; and, at the same time, ready to allow virtues to the man who exhibits one vice.’

This is important because young people who find some good in a person their parents decided was bad, begin to doubt their parent’s judgment. When the parents say that someone isn’t a good person but they do have some worthy character traits, they are giving a fair assessment and their child won’t feel the pull to their company.

In a nutshell: use some diplomacy and wisdom while leading your children to form fair and just opinions without laying down the law for them.

• Aesthetic Culture – concerning beauty and its appreciation, we can cultivate our children’s tastes by taking care to have harmonious surroundings in our homes and not haphazardly filling them with stuff. One beautiful work of art is better than walls cluttered with mediocre pieces. Culture flows through the eyes and the ears and cultivating the power of delight in listening to good music is of more worth than learning to play an instrument half-heartedly. Study the works of one composer for a period of time so that the child can absorb the style and be familiar with a great master’s works.

To be continued…

4 thoughts on “Formation of Character by Charlotte Mason – Part III

  1. When I read the description of “Table Talk” I thought of an interview that I once heard with Cokie Roberts. She recalled when growing up, at the dinner table every night her father would throw out her topic. Her and her brothers were expected to debate and discuss the topic. She remembered the discussions fondly.


  2. I just finished Formation of Character about a month ago. Thanks for the recap! So many important points.I look forward to your notes on The Story of Pendennis, by Thackeray. I had never heard of this book until I read Formation. I put it on my TBR list.


  3. Hi Brian, it's an ideal way to discuss important topics as it can be surprising what young people absorb from just life around them that could do with some clarifying. I think it's easy just to accept ideas without actually knowing that's what you're doing, but until you verbalise those thoughts and have them challenged by others, you may not even question wrong thinking. If that makes sense.


  4. Hi Ruth, yes, it's a pretty dense volume ideas wise. One of its best features is Mason's thoughts on the power of literature on character formation. I've read Vanity Fair by Thackeray but not Pendennis.


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