Charlotte Mason, Discipline, the Deputy Headmistress, and Running Wild on the Cereal Aisle

July 18, 2007 @ 2:31 pm | Filed under:

The Deputy Headmistress has a great post up today about flaws in Charlotte Mason’s approach to discipline. I appreciate the DHM’s remarks on this subject, because this is a topic that has caused me a lot of head-scratching over the years.

On the one hand, yes, I totally get what Miss Mason was after in regard to habit-training. People do mostly tend to do what they’re in the habit of doing, and if you’ve got a bad habit, a way to banish it is to practice doing a good or desirable thing in its stead. Enough persistent practice, and eventually the good thing becomes the habit, the automatic behavior.  A patient and diligent mother can make a sort of game out of this for her children, helping "lay the rails," in CM parlance, for good and socially pleasing habits. All manner of examples come to mind: not slamming doors, washing hands before meals, brushing teeth, clearing dishes from the table, making beds, and so on. These are good habits to have, and a household chugs along more smoothly and happily if such actions are routine. I’ve had great success with this principle, whenever I’ve taken the trouble to apply it. (I seem to have trouble pulling off the patient and diligent parts at the same time.)

But all those "habits" are outward, active, task-oriented. There are other "habits" which rely upon interior qualities and are affected by temperament and circumstance. As the DHM notes, Miss Mason’s recommendations for altering behaviors like tantrums, lying, and stubbornness tend toward sorrowfully raised eyebrows or a gentle application of "natural consequences"—the "natural" consequence of behaving unpleasantly around mommy being removal from mommy’s presence.

But I also think this is why CM takes discipline so lightly, as
something easy for the alert and clever mother to address with nothing
more than a look and a shake of the head. It’s always a simpler matter
to get a child to mind somebody not its parent, or not as familiar to
it than it is to get a child to be consistently obedient with Mom when
Mom is the only one around. It’s not the same as having Nurse, Cook,
Gardener, under nursemaid, parlourmaid, second housemaid and the tweeny all there, and all bowing to Mom’s authority.

I also note
that a lot of the distractions offered to redirect the attention
involve sending the child to other adults (take a message to cook, take
this package to the gardener…) Somehow I just don’t see that working
for me (The crock pot wants to see you…).

Frankly, in the days
of outhouses, chamber pots, an army of servants, nurseries on the top
floor of the house, and children constantly being supervised by a
well-trained nurse, I doubt very much that Parents’ Union mothers often
found themselves dealing with such issues as a preschooler wiping a
clumsy hand on the bathroom wall instead of washing it with soap and
water, a child stuffing the toilet with matchbox cars, pulling dresser
drawers out and dumping out all the clothes, gluing baby dolls to the
living room rug, finger painting in Mommy’s make-up or lotions, and
dumping out bottles of cooking oil on the kitchen floor while Mommy is
cooking dinner. Mommy wasn’t cooking dinner. Cook was.

A few years back, we had a rough patch when I was pregnant with Wonderboy and having some hip-joint trouble that slowed me down. This coincided with some, hmm, difficult behavior in a certain four-year-old. I procured a coach’s whistle and made a habit of simply whistling for Scott (working downstairs in the basement office) whenever the certain someone was out of line. Daddy would come barreling upstairs, and good order was restored before his foot hit the landing. But this solution did nothing to solve the real problem; there was no discipline involved, merely distraction. Distraction is a great tool for babies and toddlers but does nothing to help a four-year-old overcome a tendency toward tantrums.  I might just as well have been banishing the child to the nursery, as in one example in the DHM’s post, and letting poor Nurse cope with the tantrums herself.

A few years before that, I inadvertently launched a firestorm on the Catholic Charlotte Mason discussion list by asking for help applying CM’s discipline philosophy on a practical level with another child—again, a four-year-old!—who had certain habits (primarily, I recall, of the running-amok-in-grocery-stores variety) which were not altering under the gently grieved looks Miss Mason recommended a mother cast in such a child’s direction. The conversation quickly drifted into the spanking debate, always an explosive subject on e-lists, and was speedily and firmly curtailed, leaving me none the wiser. I wasn’t in favor of corporal punishment anyway, so the spanking arm of the discussion hadn’t seemed to apply to my situation, and the conversation died before anyone could explain to me what to do when my preschooler didn’t respond to gentle suggestion the way Miss Mason so confidently assured me she would.

I had to do what everyone else does and blunder along as best I could, learning through trial and error. Much error, I suspect. Fortunately most children seem hardy enough to survive a heavy dose of parental blundering. Certainly the four-year-old who once sent me seeking advice from strangers on the internet has become an exceedingly pleasant person. Even in grocery stores.

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5 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. sister mary martha says:

    They took our rulers away from us.

  2. Alison says:

    I often think about the same things especially in reguards to homeschooling and having a large(r than “normal”) family. With the exception of the frontier family, most people 100-1000 years ago had the help of family or servants.

    It isn’t the same now, all our machines and gadgets that make modern life MUCH eaiser don’t replace the accoutability childern 100 years ago had to people OTHER than mother and father. Hmmmm… is it any wonder we have discipline problems on both the part of childern and parents (ie parents that are offended if someone repremands their child for naughty behavior at school, or on at the park).- I digress.

    Thats why homeschooling is such an adventure that is so unique to our time… and one our mothers, much less Miss Mason, at times, don’t get 😉

  3. DeputyHeadmistress says:

    And, unfortunately, we made up for the ease of machines and convenience items by complicating our lives further.

    The Victorians washed by hand, but had fewer clothes for daily wear. Cooking was a bigger chore, but meals were simpler.

  4. Mary Beth P says:

    I struggle with this almost daily as well, and feel guilty when I’m not applying “creative, gentle” discipline techniques (like when my 18 month old dumps an ENTIRE 2 qt picher of Tang on the floor- I know, I shouldn’t even let my kids drink tang… but I digress). When you have several kids, SOMEONE is always going through a difficult stage, then all you need to do is throw in some life changes, like say a move & early pregnancy, and the house seems to explode into frequent periods of Mommy(&Daddy) losing their cool! I am thankful that kids can withstand a lot of parental blunders.

  5. sherry says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one. I bought and am reading the CM book on habit training “Laying Down the Rails” even though my children are all older. I was hoping to glean some insight into what I could do to hopefully change their behavior patterns into, oh, I don’t know, something I can tolerate on a daily basis!

    While reading the book I was thinking that it was all MY fault and I did everything wrong and they are heathens because of me! (ok, only 2 out of the 3 are heathens!)

    I can give them all the motherly warning looks I want — they’d probably just laugh.