It happens like they say it will: you blink and she’s nearly 6. Long limbs, tangled hair, tiny bruises polka dotting her shins from rope-climbing, tree-jumping. I cut her pants into shorts for the onslaught of spring, smile at the realization that every pair boasts multiple holes at the knee.
Snips and snails and puppy dog tails, our Bee.
I am often asked questions about homeschooling – how we teach her, which curriculum we use, what our future plans are for both kids’ educations. I’ve written here about the why, and have recently begun to navigate somewhat of a structured how. Ours isn’t a one-size-fits-all curriculum, but still feels organized and robust. Plenty of wiggle room for creative pursuits, for our own family interests and adventures.
(Of note: this book has been endlessly helpful in outlining a wide variety of available methods that consider both a child’s learning style and the parents’ own goals/focuses – highly recommend a flip-through if you’re considering a shift in your family’s educational path!).
For us, for now, Charlotte Mason is a clear fit. There are many aspects I love – living books (memoirs, biographies, etc) over text books, establishing character-building habits from the get-go, a general emphasis on outdoor exploration, foreign language, artistic pursuits. The formation of unique ideas rather than rote memorization of facts.
And yet, I’ll be honest: the more I learn about the method, the less worthy I feel to teach it.
Last week, I seized a chilled hour for a short walk through the neighborhood woods. I queued up a few Charlotte Mason podcasts in hopes of gaining clarity, direction, guidance – something to solidify the methodology. Make it stick, pick up some pointers. Perhaps glean some encouragement that I could, indeed, hack it.
I loop around the park, listening intently to the concept of twaddle, the idea that childrens’ literature should avoid silliness or immaturity, that sentences and ideas should be well-constructed and wise, that kids are fully capable of complexity. I smile in full agreement, recalling a favored quote from Madeline L’Engle: “If the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
Reject twaddle? Check.
I weave through old maple trees, listening to a few more short episodes on the importance of play, rhythm, clear expectations. Check, check, check. A lifelong love of learning. Check. Plenty of time spent outdoors. Semi-check (come hither, spring).
I feel buoyed, mostly, certain that these concepts reflect my deepest goals for the kids. Certain I can do this, that this is the path intended for our family.
And then I walk home, walk through the door to find the kids dancing to The Trolls soundtrack, Justin Timberlake crooning as Branch, Ken flipping potatoes and sausage for dinner.
Do trolls count as twaddle? I think, as I kiss three cheeks, unlace my sneakers.
Here’s where I’m landing, then. Like many good things in life (greasy diner menus, fringe bangs), we get a choice in the matter. It’s less about adopting a philosophy and more about adapting said philosophy, making it work, calling it yours.
In our home, here’s what we’re keeping (and losing) in our own Charlotte Mason plans for two littles under 6:
Rhythm > Routine
While I thrive in order and long to have a daily checklist of family chores completed by noon, it’s not currently my reality. Dishes are often left in the sink in favor of a neighborhood walk. Paper scraps are collected, saved for an upcycled project. Laundry piles higher on some weeks than others. We’re all imperfect humans living in close quarters with various levels of tolerance-for-mess, and I want to be mindful of that.
For us, this means throwing chore charts out the window. There’s no allowance, no reward system. It is, simply, a matter of respecting our home and the things in it, while also respecting our home and the people in it.
There are natural consequences, of course, to not completing any given request for homekeeping. If Bee’s favorite shirt isn’t in her hamper, it isn’t laundered in time for her playdate. If a special craft creation isn’t placed in the area designated for beloved artwork, it could easily end up in the recycling bin. If a certain chipper mother repeatedly asks for a tidied room and finds it untidied and ignored, she becomes decidedly un-chipper.
Still, the work gets done, inevitably. Even the most unpredictable, offbeat song offers its own version of rhythm.
Ours? Slow, quiet mornings at home with banana pancakes on the stove. Chinese lessons twice a week. Afternoon playdates, or “field trips” to the grocery, library, botanical gardens, post office. Ken teaching math at the countertop, along with a smattering of all else: why an amplifier works, the science of magnets, how to hammer a 2×4. In between, we find Bee reading on the living room floor, building obstacle courses in the sunroom, scrawling ‘Save the Tigers’ posters to hang throughout the neighborhood. There’s frog-hunting and Hamilton choreography and sock-folding, sometimes all in the same stretch of minutes.
It’s a lovely song indeed, offbeat and our own.
If you were to search nature study and Charlotte Mason, you’d likely stumble on a conglomeration of watercolor frogs, vintage botanical posters and immaculate outdoor journals. I love them all in their beauty and aspiration, and yet, for a 5-year-old girl and her indoor-inclined mother, nothing’s quite stuck yet.
Instead, we keep a few laminated field guides by our backdoor and we walk, walk, walk. We walk neighborhoods, woods, parks, gardens. We visit the nature preserve and I let the kids run around, discover things they want to slip into their pockets, take a picture of it instead. We collect fallen flower petals, learn their names. Bee gathers rocks for a collection, presses leaves into a composition book, secures it with masking tape and pens the source: maple, sycamore, oak.
In the car, she keeps a library book on birds and attempts to identify all manner of winged creatures (it rarely works; they’re far too fast, or perhaps we are). We keep a similar guide by the window with the bird feeder.
It’s piecemeal for now, no fancy bells and whistles. It’s just how I like it.
I have found that, in the realm of habit formation, like most things, my greatest teachings fall short if not learned, practiced, near-perfected myself. The beauty, of course, is that modeled behaviors often stick: prayers before meals, holding open doors for others, the minding of Ps & Qs. The curse, of course, is that other modeled behaviors often stick, too: exasperated sighs, harsh words, procrastination. And then there are the habits perfectly modeled that simply don’t stick, for whatever reason (why I can not yet convince other members of my family to properly utilize a coat-and-key rack, I will never know).
It can be fairly hit or miss when you boil it all down, and so, my own method for habit formation is simple: to practice becoming the person I want my children to become. To learn what I’m teaching. Someone quick to forgive, kind to others, fair to many, who isn’t afraid to roll up her sleeves and serve, who also isn’t afraid to put herself straight into the nap zone for twenty minutes of soul replenishment.
The rest of my habit formation skills are likely the same as yours: striking the fine balance between reminders and nags, a fair-to-moderate amount of tongue-biting. Really deep breaths along the way.
When it comes to character building, I’ve found that the greatest lessons often involve minimal interference on my part. My mantra, then: let them fail and let them figure out why. A healthy dose of listening, of nods, of letting them be. Trust, in a sense.
There is a fair amount of leadership here, to be sure. Of showing over telling, of stacking their bookshelves with strong, positive influences, of filling our dining room with the same. Of educating myself on ways to offer feedback without crushing souls; the fine art of freedom within boundaries.
The beauty, of course, is that character building is subject-less. Wisdom can be found in the story problems Ken invents for math (often including life lessons, or cautions borrowed from history). There are ample opportunities to practice patience and flexibility when a toddler brother crushes her homemade marble run. Grace abounds, every mistake and milk spill another chance to take responsibility, to make it right. To forgive again.
This book has changed a lot of the way I approach character building – valuing information over evaluation, facts over lectures, choice over compliance. I have noticed a shift not only in my kids, but also in myself and the atmosphere of our days. I suppose the result is a preference for honest relationships over perfected behaviors, for a strong foundation of communication in hopes that we can provide a soft place for our children to land. A wrestling ring for them to fall and flail while they work out what it means to be a person of integrity.
My approach to free play is likely not what Charlotte Mason intended in the 1800s, but it is straightforward at best: when playing, I do not interrupt my children (barring a safety issue). That’s mostly it. They have time and space to explore within a wide set of boundaries. If there’s a schedule to adhere to, I make it clear. If we don’t, I make that clear, too.
We’re ever-reliant on manipulatives – the best toys are rarely toys – and while it makes for a less ordered environment at times, I generally offer free reign on the use of household items. Brooms as props, spatulas as swords – yesterday, the sofa cushions became the very donkey who rode into Bethlehem some 2020 years ago.
Of course, we do rely on modern amenities, too – Spotify playlists, a science podcast – opting for an atmosphere of curiosity and imagination rather than theories and maxims.
I taught Bee to read over pistachios and BOB Books at the ripe age of three, her curiosity and love for words unable to be stifled. I don’t expect the same for Scout, nor any other child for that matter. My rule of thumb is simple: If a kid attempts to sound out the words on a t-shirt, or a street sign, or a bill on the kitchen counter, they’re ready for a few pointers.
Mostly, reading is a practice I long for my kids to love, and sometimes that means allowing them to take the reins on their own interests. Last year, Bee was gifted a set of chapter books that she delighted in, but that I found insufferable (no one ever accused me of being lukewarm about literature). The main character seemed selfish and unkind – to be fair, she was a child – and I was hesitant to allow Bee to meditate on a relative lack of virtue.
Still, Bee was reading, and reading voraciously at that, so I decided to let her explore the books on one condition: we would use the character’s decisions as a jumping off point for empathy-building. What might the girl have been feeling? What could she have done differently? What choice might have led to a better outcome?
I gave Bee a pen to cross out the insults because our family doesn’t name-call (many apologies for said defacement to my mother, the unofficial bibliosoph and written word preservationist). Bee edited accordingly, circling parts where a better decision was called for, chatting later about such over a clementine and pecans.
In a way, yes, it was an introduction to what Charlotte Mason would undoubtedly label as twaddle. And yet, it sparked an education far more than the subject matter itself. And in that regard, I welcomed the teachable moment with open arms.
Reading for us, otherwise, has meant frequent library visits and a running list of title recommendations from Ambleside. Beyond that? Bee’s got a pen and she knows how to wield it.
Of course, there are many things we’re shelving for later years, or for further exploration and experimentation. For me, the above is enough to encourage our kids to fall in love with education right where they are. If I can teach them how to learn, and not what to learn, I’ll have taught them much.
And you know, I think that includes a croony Branch every now and then.
p.s. Any other homeschoolers out there? Do say hello!