Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Catcher in the Rye: Musings on the Formation of Character

by Megan Hoyt

"We throw them back upon their own endeavours; convict them of naughtiness, but do not convince them of goodness; make them uneasy and unhappy, so that they wince under our touch; and fail to open to them free paths to goodness and knowledge." Charlotte Mason

The Penitent Magdalen by Guido Reni
This week, I've been thinking a lot about how to help my children along toward solid character and toward an adoration for the Lord and for all things holy and pure. It's a daunting task at times -- and other times sheer bliss as I watch their tender hearts swell with joy at the goodness of God and His love for them and for all creation, really. Those are the beautiful bits. But the road is winding and long and it's so often an uphill climb. Sometimes we slip and slide down a ways and have to apply ourselves afresh to the rocky trail with renewed vigor and determination. Other times, I sit down and cry and want to give up. I feel like I'm still a child myself, constantly being molded into His image. How can I take my children's sacred souls in my war-worn hands and bring them to a place of strong character when I'm such a mess, too? Let's see what Miss Mason had to say about this, keeping in mind that we can find answers throughout the Bible, too. And so can our children!

A Disciplined Will necessary to Heroic Christian Character.––Once again, though a disciplined will is not a necessary condition of the Christian life, it is necessary to the development of the heroic Christian character. A Gordon, a Havelock, a Florence Nightingale, a St. Paul, could not be other than a person of vigorous will. In this respect, as in all others, Christianity reaches the feeblest souls. There is a wonderful Guido 'Magdalen' in the Louvre, with a mouth which has plainly never been set to any resolve for good or ill––a lower face moulded by the helpless following of the inclination of the moment; but you look up to the eyes, which are raised to meet the gaze of eyes not shown in the picture, and the countenance is transfigured, the whole face is aglow with a passion of service, love, and self-surrender. All this the divine grace may accomplish in weak unwilling souls, and then they will do what they can; but their power of service is limited by their past. Not so the child of the Christian mother, whose highest desire is to train him for the Christian life. When he wakes to the consciousness of whose he is and whom he serves, she would have him ready for that high service, with every faculty in training––a man of war from his youth; above all, with an effective will, to will and to do of His good pleasure." (Volume 1, p. 323) 

Whose he is and Whom he serves... Now I'm beginning to understand

I pulled out all the "classics" on my bookshelves the other day to see which ones I had read and which to put in my future reading pile -- which is really a messy, overflowing stack on my nightstand that slouches precariously toward me with foreboding as I tumble into bed, too tired to read. Some I smiled knowingly at -- Pride & Prejudice, Sister Carrie (if you haven't read Theodore Dreiser, you should) and all the Mennyms books. Okay, those aren't classics, but they bring back such fond memories of reading around the table with my children that they make me smile!

Then I saw Catcher in the Rye.

I had never read this book. I like Salinger's writing style, though, so I picked up Catcher in the Rye and began reading. That's when I met Holden Caulfield. Holden seemed edgy to me. He had a chip on his shoulder. As an author, I picked apart the first few chapters mercilessly. Salinger was too slow to move the plot forward, I thought. He overused the word(s) god da** for effect instead of showing us Holden's personality in other ways. I thought it was just another stupid, angsty book that only got attention because it was one of the FIRST stupid, angsty books of our era. (okay, MY era. I'm old!)

Then I got to about chapter five and found out this kid's little brother had died of Leukemia. Holden had slept in the garage the night his brother died. He had punched out all the garage windows and tried to punch out the windows of the station wagon, too. His hand was permanently damaged. He could no longer make a fist. He cherished his brother's  left-handed baseball glove and took it with him to boarding school.

Now I understood Holden Caulfield.

And it occurred to me that we all have stories. Some aren't as dramatic and terrible as Holden's, but some are even worse -- abusive fathers, molestation by priests or coaches, homelessness. I have to admit that I have judged people I've known based on their behavior toward me. If it was admirable, I judged them to be high quality people. If they were edgy or temperamental, I judged them to be low quality people. That is how I have maneuvered through life, how I've avoided being harmed by a world in turmoil, spinning through its orbit as if everything is predictable and calm while really lives are spinning out of control and often no one even knows. Or cares.

I am getting to how this relates to Charlotte Mason, but stay with me. So here I was, taken by this poor, helpless, hurting boy, and I suddenly had this epiphany about the entire human race. We're flawed! We're marred by life! And guess what? I'm a Holden Caulfield, too. Ouch. That realization wasn't pleasant. Have I ever harmed anyone, spoken from that wounded place within MY soul? Of course I have! I can think of two examples right now where I flipped out when someone mistreated a friend. And because of my woundedness and my introverted personality, I didn't lash out at the perpetrator or encourage that person to go make things right, which might have led to a change of heart. I went straight to my wounded friend to comfort her and then hashed it all out with several other friends until I "processed it" and moved on. That's called gossip. Yeah. Not great. I didn't tell the whole world, but then you don't have to. If you talk about something with one or two people and they tell two friends and so on and so on and so on (like that old shampoo commercial) that's all it takes to ruin someone's reputation. Don't get me wrong. I generally DON'T gossip, because the Holy Spirit Who resides in me usually quickens my heart (literally -- my heart starts racing) and I can't do it.

But then I began thinking about the person who hurt my friend. What was her story? What was her childhood like? Should I have gone to her and shared my story, told her how the grace of God wooed me to salvation ever so gently, moment by precious moment, while I was still lost in my sin? She had an abrasive, outspoken personality. I'm sort of afraid of people like that. But I could have tried to talk to her anyway. In the end, I lost her friendship completely. She was wrong to hurt my friend. Very wrong. But I had mishandled the situation and caused a rift in our tentative friendship. And no good came of the situation. It became unredeemable. I was Holden Caulfield. And so was she. And the conflict left no survivors. 

And -- lucky me -- my children got to watch me walk through that situation. Ouch. Remembering that children learn from us often by example, I cringe at the thought that I wasn't doing the best job at emulating proper behavior. I'm a work in progress.

So how DO you properly handle relationships in this fast-paced, in your face, cruel world of ours? And how do we teach our children to handle relational conflict? We are all so terribly fragile -- those of us who shudder upon reproach and those of us who lash out.

This morning, my son was watching tv with us and an anti-bullying commercial came on. The announcer asked, "What would you do?" when a boy was being teased on a school bus. Our son promptly retorted, "You pound them with your fists, and they'll learn really fast not to mess with you."

Hmmmmm. Not quite the answer I was hoping for. 

Here's what Charlotte Mason had to say about the formation of character in our children. Yes, the task falls mostly into the mother's lap, but there's more to it than mere habit training or reading great books about men and women of heroic character or even telling them Who they serve and showing them His goodness toward His beloved children.

"My peace I leave unto you" conveys a legacy to children as well as to their elders. They appropriate this peace while they are quite young, and live in gladness and at ease; but we disturb them too soon. We throw them back upon their own endeavours; convict them of naughtiness, but do not convince them of goodness; make them uneasy and unhappy, so that they wince under our touch; and fail to open to them free paths to goodness and knowledge.

That children should have the peace of God as a necessary condition of growth is a practical question. If we believe it is their right, not to be acquired by merit nor lost by demerit, we shall take less upon ourselves, and understand that it is not we who pasture the young souls. The managing mother, who interferes with every hour and every occupation of her child's life, all because it is her duty, would tend to disappear. She would see, with some amusement, why it is that the rather lazy, self-indulgent mother is often blessed with very good children. She, too, will let her children be, not because she is lazy, but being dutiful, she sees that––give children opportunity and elbow-room, and they are likely to become natural persons, neither cranks nor prigs. And here is a hope for society; children so brought up are hardly likely to become managing persons in their turn, inclined to intrude upon the lives of others, and be rather intolerable in whatever relation.

No doubt children are deeply grateful to managing parents, and we are all lazy enough to be thankful to persons who undertake our lives for us; but these well-meaning persons encroach; we are required to act for ourselves, think for ourselves, and let other persons do the same.

It is our puritan way to take too much upon us for ourselves and others: we must 'acquire merit' and they must acquire merit; and the feeding in quiet pastures, the being led beside still waters, we take to be the reward of peculiar merit, and do not see that it is a natural state and condition, proper to everyone who will claim it. lf we saw this, we should be less obtrusive in our dealings with children; we should study to be quiet, only seeing to it that our inactivity is masterly." (Formation of Character, p. 417)

I don't think Miss Mason is advocating non-action but rather telling us to celebrate with them the joy of their salvation and rejoice over them when they make right choices rather than constantly fussing over every tiny infraction and staying ever near to catch them misbehaving. Not that we shouldn't always be ready to teach and lead by example. My mother used to sing this little song to me whenever I became discouraged: 

Accentuate the positive; 
Eliminate the negative; 
Latch onto the affirmative, and
Don't mess with Mr. In Between. 
(lyrics courtesy of Johnny Mercer)


She was trying to jolly me out of a pensive mood, and it generally worked -- although I have always tended toward the melancholy by nature. Why does that little song come to me now, at age 49, whenever something is troubling me? I have no idea! It's these little things that we do as mothers (and teachers) that remain inside our children's hearts for years to come. And we never know which little thing it will be that sticks with them.

I believe in being supportive and leading by example. Encouragement goes a long way toward enabling children to succeed in life. It gives them confidence. Now what do I say to my teenager who thinks the answer to bullying is to beat up the bully? I'm open to suggestions!

Accentuate the Positive

You've got to accentuate the positive
eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
But don't mess with mister in between

You've got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
have faith, or pandemonium's
liable to walk up on the scene

To illustrate my last remark
Jonah in the Whale, Noah in the ark
What did they do
just when everything looked so dark?

They said we better
accentuate the positive
eliminate the negative
latch on to the affirmative
But don't mess with mister in between.


(from The Parents' Review, volume 4, "The Teaching of the Educated Mother")
What do we mean by manners? The word comes from manus, “a hand,” and may technically be said to refer to the way in which a thing is handled, and is therefore the way of performing or handling anything. We say everything depends upon how a thing is handled; almost anything can be done if it is handled rightly. What an idea of power does this not give in regard to manner, and what an important part the cultivation of manners plays in education, at home, at school, and in the world. There is a prevalent idea in England, not to be found, so far as I know, in other countries, that courteous manners may be an indication of insincerity. There is a certain class of minds upon which the best manners have this effect; they at once ask the question, “Is he or she sincere?”

When first coming in contact with this view of good manners, one is startled, and for a time carried captive by its special pleading for truth. It is asserted where no special interest in a person is felt, it is a violation of truth to greet such person, or in fact any stranger, with a smile of friendliness, or a genial, sympathetic appearance. But we must not forget, when attracted by this cold, truthful view of manners, to perceive there is a deeper principle lying below the fundamental one of Truth, and that is love. The effect of a cold, blunt manner is to produce a chilling effect on those who are acted upon, whereas the loving or genial manner creates in the recipient a feeling of pleasure akin to love, and must be really the more truthful of the two, for God is love, and has made the foundations of His universe to rest on love and truth. Kant advocates this greeting of others as though we loved them and argues its advantages are great, because it calls forth love on both sides. The difference in the children in one family in regard to manners is often marked. We say, “This child has naturally good manners, and that has no manners.”

Practically, is it not almost always the good-tempered, happy-dispositioned child who shows early in life the right mode of handling people and things, and is it not the more honest, straightforward child who gives us most trouble in the handling of people and things? The educated mother must therefore make love the ground of her instructions and example, and while she fixes the courteous child’s mode of action on this attribute of God Himself, she will be especially careful to train the uncourteous child in this simple idea of love and its eternal union with truth. What “God has joined together let not man put asunder.” …  

The educated mother must influence quietly in this matter by her own manners, and the way in which she exemplifies the principles of love and truth. Hard and unnecessary judgments of others in the presence of children are an offence to good taste and manners, and very injurious, as tending to encourage the uselessly critical spirit.

Realizing that the children of today will rapidly develop into individuals keen to learn and be taught, she will always be alive to the necessity of cultivating her own mind, and the work of self-education and improvement will go on for her while life lasts. …

Beyond this the educated mother will seek to prepare her sons and daughters for that trying period in their lives when, emerging from childhood, they stand on the threshold of woman and manhood, oppressed often by new, bewildering thoughts, and open to guidance in a peculiarly sensitive and receptive manner. …

In conclusion, the influence and teaching of the educated mother is all for righteousness; and the formation in her children of character, based on self-control and self-sacrifice, the daily object of her life.


  1. mother guidance, yes.
    mainly via habit training, yes.
    life example, yes.
    good books, yes.
    masterly inactivity, yes.
    holy spirit. YES.

    i will be thinking this over.

  2. I feel like I spent too much time identifying the problems we have instead of offering more solutions! There's so much more to be said. But this passage about acquiring peace really got to me. I do tend to treat my children as if they get demerits for the bad things they do and earn merit for the good, which leads them to fear my discipline and think of God differently than I want them to. What if we all did great things out of the natural love for God that springs up because we're in relationship with Him? Oh, the joy. I also just read the verse: We are His workmanship, created for good works in Christ." If we were created to do good works, why do we ever do bad things? And we're His workmanship and not our parents'(!)

  3. I went back and added an article I've been ruminating on all day. We train in righteousness and kindness and cheerfulness because we want our kids to be loving. Because God is love. It still hasn't all sunk in yet.

  4. It sounds to me like your mom was changing your thoughts through that song!

  5. I just read your comment Megan. Not only are we His workmanship, we are His poem. The Greek for workmanship is "poiema". Does that not blow your mind? Poetry is meant to appreciated, not graded.