Thursday, January 31, 2013

Children are born persons. So what?

 by Megan Hoyt

The value of a child. I know I touched on this subject in an earlier blog post, but personhood is absolutely crucial to any true understanding of the Charlotte Mason method. So I'm coming around the mountain again, hopefully a teensy bit higher up and further in this time around.

Children are born -- not lizards or apes or giant sloths or butterflies or leopards or zebras. Children are born persons. But just what does that really mean? 

First, let me admit I'm still not completely sure. I suspect it has to do with value, ability of mind, and potential (see volume 6, chapter 2).

But here's something I've been pondering. What is my obligation as a teacher and a parent toward producing within my students a heart that values others as born persons? I'm probably duty bound to hone and inspire all sorts of positive character traits within their precious, malleable hearts, right? That's what the local school administrators say, anyway. They focus on a different trait each month. I've seen it on the marquees out front. Students earn awards for being the most helpful, generous, or kindhearted kid in school. Is this how we teach children to treat one another like persons -- by rewarding them with stickers and trophies when they are nice to one another? Where does that leave the kid whose natural willfulness has not quite been knocked out of him yet on the "value" chart? I can hear his negative self talk beginning even now. (Check out Creep by Radiohead for where he'll end up later in life.)

And while we're on the topic of positive attributes, is being kind more important than being thrifty? Being honest more important than being humble? The lines are rather fine and delicate, and I don't know which ones to place near the top of my behaviorism chart (sarcasm). We can all agree that producing the fruit of the spirit (love, joy, peace, kindness, long-suffering, goodness, self control) is a good idea. But Charlotte Mason doesn't advise us to "produce" anything. Our job is to present ideas, then step out of the way. This task of valuing each child coupled with the daunting task of teaching them to value others seems overwhelming to me.

It all seems to go back to the single question of personhood. We value being good and noble and magnanimous because each one of us is created in the image of God, the Creator of the universe, and thus deserves to be treated with respect, dignity, and kindness. We are valuable because we are persons.

Valuable just for being human? Hmmm.

Can't I evaluate the worth of a human being? Can I grab my jeweler's loupe and take a closer look before I pronounce value upon a child? I'm not so sure we don't do that every day we enter the classroom -- without realizing it of course!

Is "worth" even something we should evaluate? Would it be morally superior to accept that every person is of great value simply because of our shared humanity and leave it at that? But then we have the sticky business of believing Hitler and Osama bin Laden were of equal worth to Mother Teresa and Ghandi. I'm not sure I can rationalize that. 

Does it matter whether or not we do what is morally superior anyway? How do we determine right thinking from wrong thinking? Morally, ethically superior thoughts and beliefs from those that are inferior? Who gets to decide? Have you ever witnessed someone get a tongue-lashing -- maybe a department store clerk or a cashier? Have you ever been the one to dole out the tongue lashing? They deserved to be ill-treated because they opened up a new checkout line and took the guy behind you instead of you. Where does the "he deserved it" stop and the "Because I value you as a person, I am not going to criticize, ridicule, or shame you" begin? Can we train ourselves to respect even those we deem unworthy of respect? Are we always right in our accusations anyway? After all, we can't walk in that other fellow's shoes to find out if his heart's motive was to cause us harm or if he just didn't notice we were next in line at the checkout.

And how do we teach children to evaluate their decisions and beliefs based on ethical guiding principles? Can we do that without bringing faith in God or a belief in a higher power into the mix? Should we even try?

These were the questions swirling through my mind this morning after a long week of soul-searching and prayer. It all started on the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that, via the mechanism of "privacy," created an avenue for abortion on demand to be legally acceptable. As I watched friends prepare to go to the March for Life in Washington, DC, and exercise their right to peaceful assembly, and as I read through social media of the many and varied types of people who attended the March, from feminists, pagans and homosexuals to ultra conservative Catholics and evangelicals, my heart was stirred. Personhood was inspiring people to come together, to drive long distances in frigid weather and stand firmly in favor of affirming life. It moved me.

What makes a person uniquely valuable, inherently of great worth even as pre-born infants? It's our shared humanity -- that spark within that shines out through our words and deeds and yet is present from conception, perfectly packaged and waiting for life to proceed. We're like little acorns, holding within us all the potential to become sturdy trees, with leaves outstretched to the sun and roots grasping and gulping for nutrition within the shadowy soil. Hitler and bin Laden had that same potential we all have. That's how I can equalize the value of every human being and still include these two. It's what happened as they experienced life that twisted them into a contorted mess.

Newly opened acorn
And that's where we come in.

Charlotte Mason said, "Who shall measure the range of a child's thoughts? His continual questions about God, his speculations about 'Jesus,' are they no more than idle curiosity, or are they symptoms of a God-hunger with which we are all born, and is a child able to comprehend as much of the infinite and the unseen as are his self-complacent elders?" If young children ARE born able to hunger for God, to reflect and meditate on ideas, then perhaps our limited forms of education in the early years need to be turned on their heads or at least rethought. Children are image-bearers of God. Human beings with souls. The acorn bursts open, roots seize at the earth, digging ferociously for nutrition, gasping breathlessly for water. And what that child, newly formed and hungry, finds on his desperate quest is of the utmost importance.

And we are their guides.

As teachers, moms and dads, friends, sisters and brothers, grandparents, and human beings, we have a holy responsibility toward our fellow man, woman, and child. We are obligated by our faith in God and compelled by our belief in the ethical treatment of others to value every child as a "born person," with all the gifts and talents buried within them that God and genetics have granted them. What a serious task is set before us! We can make or break a person with our words and actions. This is quite a strong power God has granted to us, this ability to use words and deeds to help form a child's view of the world (or to hinder it greatly). There really should be a warning label on this gift! "Handle with care. Brutality will render children psychologically crippled. Kindness will raise children to heights previously unknown."

I like my friend Leslie's modern paraphrase of Charlotte Mason's views on the matter: Children are born persons - they are not blank slates or embryonic oysters who have the potential of becoming persons. They already are persons. As Miss Mason says, "...the most prosaic of us comes across evidence of mind in children, and of mind astonishingly alert." We might say, "Children are born thinkers." And what are they to think about?

Velasquez' Sibyl with Tabula Rasa (blank slate)
"Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—think on these things." (Philippians 4:8)

We are not embryonic oysters! All the potential for great and high living is within every child.
"I am anxious to bring before teachers the fact that a child comes into their hands with a mind of amazing potentialities..." (vol 6, p. 38) We can either draw this tremendous potential out of our students gently, with guiding principles from Miss Mason or we can bore them to death with endless pablum-filled, regurgitated lectures. We can offer them well-written living books that spark creativity, depth of thought and feeling, and compel them to read further by inspiring their curiosity. Or we can force textbooks down their throats and give them heartburn, both literal and figurative. I'm not talking here about spoon-feeding children morals and ethics or forcing them to read stories with obvious moral themes in an effort to channel their thoughts into some sort of stilted morality -- all because we're afraid they won't value others as born persons when they grow up. We instead need to create educational paths for them to stroll down that instinctively form them into Valjeans rather than Javerts. We need to get to their hearts by whatever means possible, to challenge them to think, perceive, intuit, sense, learn, judge, and evaluate -- all while making sure we are not "preaching" to them. Tough job, eh? Not if we remember that our job is to give them ideas, then step out of the way as they grapple with them:

Charlotte Mason Community Co-op study of Michelangelo

"Education, like faith, is the evidence of things not seen. We must begin with the notion that the business of the body is to grow; and it grows upon food, which food is composed of living cells, each a perfect life in itself. In like manner, though all analogies are misleading and inadequate, the only fit sustenance for the mind is ideas, and an idea too, like the single cell of cellular tissue, appears to go through the stages and functions of a life.

Olivia remembers how to make Jacob's Ladder

We receive it with appetite and some stir of interest. It appears to feed in a curious way. We hear of a new patent cure for the mind or the body, of the new thought of some poet, the new notion of a school of painters; we take in, accept, the idea and for days after every book we read, every person we talk with brings food to the newly entertained notion.

'Not proven,' will be the verdict of the casual reader; but if he watch the behavior of his own mind towards any of the ideas 'in the air,' he will find that some such process as I have described takes place; and this process must be considered carefully in the education of children. We may not take things casually as we have done. Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science; but it is the ideas we must give, clothed upon with facts as they occur, and must leave the child to deal with these as he chooses." (vol 6, pp 39-40)

Hannah makes an Elizabethan collar
Take a look at the fruit of presenting living ideas to our children, especially those that provide an ethics framework for them:

This is how he [the poet Thomas Traherne] deals with Geography, for example:––

"When I heard of any new kingdom beyond the seas the light and glory of it entered into me. It rose up within me and I was enlarged by the whole. I entered into it, I saw its commodities, springs, meadows, inhabitants and became possessor of that new room as if it had been prepared for me so much was I magnified and delighted in it. When the Bible was read my spirit was present in other ages. I saw the light and splendour of them, the land of Canaan, the Israelites entering into it, the ancient glory of the Amorites, their peace and riches, their cities, houses, vines and fig trees . . . I saw and felt all in such a lively manner as if there had been no other way to those places but in spirit only. Without changing place in myself I could behold and enjoy all those. Anything when it was proposed though it was a thousand years ago being always present before me."

And in the words of Comenius: "The proper education of the young does not consist in stuffing their heads with a mass of words, sentences, and ideas dragged together out of various authors, but in opening up their understanding to the outer world, so that a living stream may flow from their own minds, just as leaves, flowers, and fruit spring from the bud on a tree."

Here are some concrete ways to show that you value a child:

1. When speaking to a small child, stoop down and look him in the eye directly. Let kindness (but firmness) blaze through your eyes to his so that your shared humanity is recognized but your distinct authority is also noted. 

2. Give the child your full attention. So many times we're reading a text, cooking dinner, running errands, or otherwise preoccupied when that moment comes that a child is ready to open up his heart and soul to us. Each precious child deserves our full and undivided attention.

3. Bring your children (students) alongside you as you learn and grow in knowledge.Your appetite and curiosity will be contagious.

4. Be careful what you say. Choose your words carefully because not only are children sponges who will pick up the words and phrases you use and run with them. They are also delicate creatures who can easily misunderstand or misinterpret the words you say. And generally speaking, they will twist their hearts into a knot, worrying over what you meant when you said thus and so. Be very clear. As Richard Mitchell said in The Underground Grammarian,
"We do the business of the mind in language." Children are born with alert minds, so please choose your words carefully. 

Tommy, second from the right, behind his sister
You may be wondering why I titled this post "Children are born persons. So what?" Well, there's a story behind the catch phrase, "So what?" My nephew Tommy has had quite a struggle in this life. He was born with a congenital heart defect and hydrocephalus. He had three or four heart surgeries and at least two brain surgeries before the age of two. He wasn't expected to live, but he surprised us all by surviving! And he is greatly treasured.  

Tommy doesn't talk much. He CAN talk, but he doesn't have a strong grasp of vocabulary and finds it difficult to grab the words he needs to communicate his thoughts and feelings to us. He struggles with typing, too, but desperately wants to be a part of our lives via social media. One of Tommy's favorite phrases is "So what?" He doesn't mean it in the typical sense (sarcasm, a challenge to whatever sentence came before). What he means is "So what does this mean for me?" He's trying to tell us he needs an authentic way to relate the knowledge to what his soul cares about. Tommy craves authenticity. He wants to know why what I'm telling him is important. He lacks much of what we consider the normal ability to evaluate, intuit, or perceive truth. So he takes everyone at their word. Interacting with Tommy is, in a way, a holy experience because he is so totally and completely open and raw and able to be harmed by the words we speak without knowing any harm was on its way.

Thomas Traherne's words ring true here:

"Our Saviour's meaning, when He said, He must be born again and become a little child that will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven is deeper far than is generally believed. It is not only in a careless reliance upon Divine Providence, that we are to become little children, or in the feebleness and shortness of our anger and simplicity of our passions, but in the peace and purity of all our soul. Which purity also is a deeper thing than is commonly apprehended. For we must disrobe ourselves of all false colours, and unclothe our souls of evil habits; all our thoughts must be infant-like and clear; the powers of our soul free from the leaven of this world, and disentangled from men's conceits and customs."(

May we all disrobe ourselves of false colors and unclothe our souls of evil habits; all our thoughts becoming infant-like and clear, the powers of our souls free from the leaven of this world. Is there someone you need to talk to today? A child you scolded impatiently or a friend you disrespected? A family member who made you so angry that you gave them "the silent treatment" for ten years? It's never too late. Call them! We are all persons, endowed supernaturally with great value. Some are diamonds in the rough while others have had their rough edges smoothed, but we are all of great value! Go find that pearl of great price that you have inadvertently marred and apply the salve of human kindness. Even if they don't choose to accept it, you will have expressed an important truth to them and to yourself. You will have said, "You are a person of great worth and potential." The rest is up to God.

"We are all citizens of one world, we are all of one blood.  To hate a man because he was born in another country, because he speaks a different language, or because he takes a different view on this subject or that, is a great folly.  Desist, I implore you, for we are all equally human....  Let us have but one end in view, the welfare of humanity; and let us put aside all selfishness in considerations of language, nationality, or religion." John Amos Comenius

1 comment:

  1. I remember distinctly my children when they were babies. How cute, cuddly and lovable they were. I never imagined that one would grow up to be my navigator on the open road and the other would be a calming presence in the middle of emotional turmoil. Children ARE people. Thanks for posting Megan!