This is the first post in a series explaining Charlotte Mason’s 20 principles in the context of the Restored Gospel.
1. Children are born persons.
“In the first place, we take children seriously as persons like ourselves, only more so.” CM 3:63
“[… M]an is homogeneous, a spiritual being invested with a body…” CM 3:68
Perhaps it isn’t immediately clear what Charlotte’s first principle means. Surely she doesn’t simply mean to say that children, are, like us, part of the human species? No! There’s a lot of depth to those four words, “Children are born persons.”
Charlotte explained what be means by person in chapter 6 of her third volume, School Education. A person consists of “the thinking, visible soul” and the “acting, visible body”. (This might put you in mind of D&C 88:15, “And the spirit and the body are the soul of man.” If Charlotte had been LDS she might have also been heard to utter that children, too, are souls.)
A person comes to us from the Lord, complete with an individual personality and idiosyncrasies. Although a person has a brain, and the brain operates according to natural laws, a person is not simply a set of neurological impulses, or merely a sack of bones, muscles, and nerves. Neither is a person simply a spirit. In Charlotte’s words, “the person includes both [body and spirit] and is more than both”.
Charlotte insists that educational philosophy is completely inadequate without a full view of a child: “[…] we do say that some educational theory which shall include the whole nature of man and the results of scientific research, in the same or a greater degree, is necessary” (emphasis mine). A child isn’t just a physical body needing physical food. There’s a soul there, worthy of respect and love, and nourishment. To ignore the needs of a child’s spirit is to give a child half an education!
Of course, as Latter-day Saints, we have an even more expanded view of what a person is. I don’t think a discussion of children as born persons would really be complete without remembering a great Truth of the Restoration: that children, like all mortal men and women, are literal children of God, and as such, have the capacity to become like God Himself.
However, I worry that we are inclined to stop there: “Oh, how nice. My child is a child of God. I already knew that.” This is such a core tenet of Latter-day Saint doctrine, that perhaps we sometimes allow it to become commonplace and unmeaningful. We must never forget what that means, though. We must never forget that the divine nature of man should influence how we treat one another, and indeed, should influence how we view and treat children!
An unattributed quote on the Church webpage Happiness in Family Life: Respect states, “Could anyone be more deserving of respect than a literal child of God? Each of us—husband and wife, parent and child—has that marvelous heritage and potential. Sometimes we lose sight of each other’s true worth. But as we give respect, our love deepens, potential blossoms, and eternal relationships grow stronger.” Yes, children are worthy of respect.
Sadly, we sometimes fall victim to the worldly idea that children, given their immaturity, aren’t really complete people until they reach adulthood, and therefore don’t really deserve our respect until then. We therefore find ourselves treating children as our inferiors. But if we see children as they truly are—our spiritual peers—we would be more careful to treat them accordingly.
Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve opined, “Our family-centered perspective should make Latter-day Saints strive to be the best parents in the world. It should give us enormous respect for our children, who truly are our spiritual siblings, and it should cause us to devote whatever time is necessary to strengthen our families. Indeed, nothing is more critically connected to happiness—both our own and that of our children—than how well we love and support one another within the family” (“What Matters Most Is What Lasts Longest ” October 2005 General Conference, emphasis mine).
Ms. Mason expressed a similar notion; she rallied against the idea that babies are like oysters, with physical needs like food and sleep but not fully sentient. “The fact is, we undervalue children. The notion that an infant is a huge oyster, who by slow degrees, and more and more, develops into that splendid intellectual and moral being, a full-grown man or woman, has been impressed upon us so much of late years that we believe intellectual spoon-meat to be the only food for what we are pleased to call ‘little minds'” (CM 3:171, emphasis mine). Certainly children do develop as they grow up, but what Charlotte is saying here is that children don’t grow into people. They are people to begin with.
She further explains: “That children are born persons,—is the first article of the educational credo which I am concerned to advance; this implies that they come to us with power of attention, avidity for knowledge, clearness of thought, nice discrimination in books even before they can read, and the power of dealing with many subjects” (CM 6:247). In other words, we are inclined to consider children to be stupid and uninterested in learning merely because they are uneducated. Let us not confuse these very different qualities, and educate them accordingly. (See also “The Child a Human Being, perhaps at his Best”, CM 2:205; “Children highly Endowed but Ignorant”, CM 2:253; “Ignorance is not Impotence”, CM 2:259.)
As President Hinckley explained, “[… A] new generation is at our feet. These are children. These too are sons and daughters of God whose time has come to take their place on earth. They are like the new growth in the park—young, tender, sensitive, beautiful, and full of promise. […] Children are the promise of the future. They are the future itself. The tragedy is that so many are born to lives of sorrow, of hunger, of fear and trouble and want. Children become the victims, in so many, many cases, of man’s inhumanity to man” (“Save the Children“, October 1994 General Conference, emphasis mine).
Unfortunately, as Ms. Mason also wrote her sixth volume, “People are too apt to use children as counters in a game, to be moved hither and thither according to the whim of the moment. Our crying need to-day is less for a better method of education than for an adequate conception of children,—children, merely as human beings, whether brilliant or dull, precocious or backward. […] All action comes out of the ideas we hold and if we ponder duly upon personality we shall come to perceive that we cannot commit a greater offence than to maim or crush, or subvert any part of a person” (CM 6:80, emphasis mine).
Later in the same volume, she laments, “We must reverence or despise children; and while we regard them as incomplete and undeveloped beings who will one day arrive at the completeness of man, rather than as weak and ignorant persons, whose ignorance we must inform and whose weakness we must support, but whose potentialities are as great as our own, we cannot do otherwise than despise children, however kindly and even tenderly we commit the offence” (CM 6:238).
In conclusion, I quote from “Behold Your Little Ones” by then-Elder Gordon B. Hinckley from the October 1978 General Conference: “If I may be pardoned for suggesting the obvious, I do so only because the obvious is not observed in so many instances. The obvious includes four imperatives with reference to children: Love them, Teach them, Respect them, Pray with them and for them. […] Nor let us ever forget the need to respect these, our little ones. Under the revealed word of the Lord, we know they are children of God as we are children of God, deserving of that respect which comes of knowledge of that eternal principle.” (emphasis mine).
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Jenna Dilts is a mother of three pre-school-aged children. Last year she led a discussion of Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles on the AO forum. You can find her blogging at To Work Wonders, where she writes about the books she reads. She has aspirations to work through AO year 1 for herself.