Children Are Born Persons

A talk given this weekend at a retreat in Ambleside, Cumbria for home educating Mums following the Charlotte Mason philosophy ...

"When the light went out in my son's eyes eight years ago, and we made the radical decision to remove our boys from the school system, it was because the values of the system did not sit right with us. In our home educating, I wanted to promote different values and to build on a different foundation. First of all, these values come from my Christian faith which says that we are each created in the image of God. Therein lies our worth and value. It is not something to be earned or worked for. We are loved and accepted – just as we are. This is a grace-given truth, not dependent upon our achievements, grades or any qualifications. So my vision for education is founded upon the unique personhood and innate value of each child, and in the belief that education needs to be respectful of each individual. My vision at home would be to nurture my children to be the unique individuals God has created them to be. This is worlds apart from the values our mainstream school system currently purports. Daniel Greenberg, the co-founder of Sudbury Valley Alternative School likewise said, “The starting point for all our thinking was the apparently revolutionary idea that a child is a person, worthy of full respect as a human being.” If that idea sounds familiar to those of you gathered here, you will remember that Charlotte Mason herself, speaking one hundred years previously said that children are born persons.

My eldest son was a quirky little boy, always full of his own ideas and inventions. He used to bore or charm (I wasn’t always sure which) visitors to our home with drawing books full of his own machines and inventions. He did not stop talking and asking questions. If you had asked me when he was 3 what he would be when he grew up, I would have said an engineer.

Now, I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a person whose strengths lie in science or mathematics, which seemed to be my son’s natural languages. But when I saw the light in his eyes go out, accompanied by other anxious behaviours, I set out to try and build an education around his natural interests and all that we encountered in our life together. He was always the ultimate autonomous learner, and if I was to educate him alternatively, I somehow knew I needed to start by observing him, by listening to him, by paying attention to his questions and helping him to find answers, by respecting his personhood rather than shutting it down.

Early in our home educating journey, I was inspired by the ideas of Charlotte Mason. So much of what she said about children and learning resonated with me, and her ideas continue to undergirth my own thinking. In perceiving, understanding and respecting children as persons, I found the encouragement to embrace the wonderful freedom of home education, a freedom which allows us to take the best ideas in education that we can find and apply them to our own family and situation. The revolutionary concept of personhood respects the fact that you are you, and the children you have are the individuals that they are; not vessels to be filled, but partners in a learning journey, with ideas to be sparked and passions to be ignited. This, above any curricula, is your starting point. I want to impart the freedom of that to you this evening.

I am a great believer in child directed learning, but I am also a believer in the importance of a parent’s engagement and facilitation. It is our job to spread a rich feast before our child, and then to see where the learning journey takes us. Unschooling is far from a hands-off approach. Parents are powerful mentors, and for a growing child, to have a supporter at their side who loves them fiercely, who shows an interest in their work and ideas, who instils the belief that they can do, is a wonderful gift, a living picture if you like of a God who loves them, too. This is our job, our role, our privilege – to be at our child’s side as they discover and make sense of the world around them, with all of its joys and challenges.

The feast we lay can be filled with good things, things that interest us, things we know will interest our child, new ideas which may open up new interests, each can be a doorway to places of discovery. And as our child explores and learns, discusses and grows, they will build their own web of understanding, making connections we have not anticipated, experiencing the joy and delight of making discoveries for themselves. Our children will contribute to the feast, too – perhaps in surprising ways, that open our eyes to new ways of seeing and doing things. Their learning will often far exceed our expectations.

I have four boys, and certainly for the older two, writing was a real sticking point. They have always been reluctant writers. And readers too, to be honest. And that was hard for me. Because I love to read and write, and it grieved me to think that they were not enjoying all the other worlds into which books would take them. But, you know, it was something of a revelation for me to discover that there are people who don’t read. My husband is one of them. And there are those who come to books later in life. My brother was one of them. It is actually alright. We need to accept that other people are different from us. There are mathematical worlds to which I am not privy; concepts in physics upon which I miss out. So, I started by looking at the boys before me, and decided we would not have a battlefield; I would prioritise relationship and choose peace. We would focus on audio books and oral work, which they embraced. And those things became a part of their childhood. So they do love story, and their vocabularies are rich and wide. To my astonishment, when they need to write, they do. And their writing is better than I expect. They always had opportunities to explore ideas and respond in a variety of ways - through art, through movement, with other expressions and different technologies. This, of course, even though I was largely unaware of it at the time, is another of Charlotte Mason’s great suggestions: narration.

Whatever is important to you, include it in the feast, nature study, for example. But if it is not their great passion, do not worry. You will have imparted something of what is important to you, along with the gift of quiet observation and paying attention, and it will be tucked away inside their being. My eldest son vlogs, mostly about stuff I don’t understand. But occasionally he will pause in his vlogging to note the colour of the sky, or to follow a bird’s flight or to note the trees in blossom. And I note that he notices, where many 15 year old boys would not, and I am glad.

One year, my son spent so much time vlogging that I despaired. I failed to see the technical prowess he was acquiring, the story telling skills of the cameraman, the way he was journaling his own learning and inventions, narrating in fact, in his own way. He would often be tinkering away in his chaotic shed, busy with some project or another of his own design, and I would worry he wasn’t doing enough book work. And now I can only marvel at how it is possible to be a self-taught engineer, for that is what he has become. The engineer was always in there just waiting to be fanned into flame. I know the concerns, the worry we feel that if we follow our child’s interests, if we allow a child to direct their own learning, how is it possible they will do anything we think they are supposed to? How will they acquire the skills they need to be successful?

There is a widely accepted theory of human motivation called self-determination theory, which proposes that people have three innate needs: autonomy (having control over one’s actions), competence (building mastery) and relatedness (connecting positively with other people). When these needs are fulfilled, people are able to act with intrinsic motivation, which means they will start to do things – even very challenging things – for their own sake.

But when these needs are not fulfilled, people no longer want to do things for their own sake and extrinsic motivation becomes necessary to motivate them to take action. Much of modern day parenting advice is based around the idea of extrinsic motivation, rewards and punishments, carrots and sticks. Such extrinsic motivation is clearly also fundamental to modern schooling. It has to be, because school does so little to fulfil students’ basic needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness. By giving our children choices, helping them develop real skills and enabling genuine connection with others, we are building an alternative education which will result in intrinsic motivation, and the empowerment to live a life free from manipulation.

It is easy to worry a great deal as a home educating parent about whether we are covering the right materials, whether we are reading the right books, whether we are somehow depriving our children of essential knowledge they simply must learn. Social media, as useful as it can be, can load us with images of how other people are home educating, feed our insecurities that we are not doing well enough. We can grasp at resources – and spend a lot of time, money and energy – looking round for that magic curriculum that will be the answer to all our worries, but in those moments, we would do well to remember the liberty of our free range educational path, to enjoy the learning journey that we and our children are on together, just the way we are.

It is this wholly different way of learning, this embracing of autonomy, competence and relatedness - that is perhaps the greatest curriculum of all. Charlotte Mason said, ‘Self-education is the only possible education.’ It is this deep, focused learning that has taken my eldest son from being the anxious boy I removed from school to going to Kuala Lumpur to represent the UK and winning the award for the fastest car at the F1 in Schools world finals last week. Yes, the fastest car in the world, a title he has pursued doggedly and with single-minded determination for the past six months. Our children, the unique persons that they are, have so much potential within them, each and every one. And, as mothers, we are full of potential, too - each and every one of us.

As I was thinking about what to share this evening, a picture came to my mind. It was a picture of the Free From aisle in the supermarket – You know the one? With boxes of food for special diets – Free from dairy, free from gluten, free from ....? There are many pressures and expectations we can put on ourselves as Mums, as home educators. And I want you to walk away this evening feeling encouraged and empowered and released. Free from what? From guilt? From comparison? From your own high expectations? From what do you need to be free?

Children are born persons. When Charlotte Mason said it, it was a revolutionary idea. Looking at the education system today, it is still a revolutionary idea. Charlotte Mason was a pioneer of education in her time, a progressive, a visionary. And so are we - each and every one of us. For we can see a better way; we know there has to be a better way ....

Be inspired this evening. Trust children. Listen to them. Respect the persons that they are. Trust yourself. Respect the person you are. Relax and enjoy your own unique home educating journey. Strive to be free."
© Alice Khimasia 2017