Some times I read something that is so significant I text a picture of it to my husband, so that he can read it, too. This summer, I am reading through Charlotte Mason’s third and fourth volumes, starting with School Education. The first two chapters are on docility and authority, and Miss Mason sets up Queen Elizabeth I as an example for how authority should behave. That’s where I came across a provocative little sentence.
These are the qualities proper to every ruler of a household, a school, or a kingdom. With these, parents will be able to order and control a fiery young brood full of energy and vitality. Charlotte Mason, School Education
Fiery young brood? Got that. Full of energy and vitality? In spades. Order and control? Oh, please, tell me how!
According to Miss Mason, a lot of it goes back to a proper understanding of authority. Authoritative parenting (closely tied to respectful or gentle parenting) is gaining prominence as research is published that shows its positive effects, and bloggers and formal organizations that promote this style of parenting further their reach through the internet. By and large, I find that Miss Mason’s philosophy has close ties with respectful parenting – not surprising when both begin with the recognition of children as whole people.
In my reading around the topic (and I’ve done a fair bit), there is a lot of discussion about how to be authoritative, but not much on what it actually means to be an authority. In this section of her chapter, though, Miss Mason briefly touches on four qualities in particular that make Queen Elizabeth I an excellent example of authority for parents. These qualities have challenged me to think more deeply about my role as a parent and an authority over my children, and I hope you’ll find them insightful as well.
the meekness of one who has been given an appointed work
Does the word ‘meekness’ make you think of being a doormat, letting everyone walk all over you? That’s a modern connotation, and what I thought it meant until I did a study on the Beatitudes (‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inhereit the world’). In that study, I learned a simple definition that has stuck with me over the years: meekness is power under control.
With that in mind, Miss Mason is telling us that Queen Elizabeth I took all the liberty she had through her crown and used it to lead her country through crises and the development of a new age. (Compare this to her father, Henry VIII, who decided that his crown gave him license to marry whom he wanted, when he wanted.)
As parents, we need to understand the difference between autocracy and authority. Autocracy is self-derived. You make your own self important, and any push against your rule from your children, results in a punitive, ‘because I said so’ reaction. You have to preserve the hierarchy and prevent rebellion, otherwise you’ll find yourself overthrown by your little subjects. Conflicts with your children devolve into power struggles because you must protect your reign.
Authority, Miss Mason argues, belongs to the position, not the person. We have authority over our children because we have been placed into the office of ‘parent’, not because we are smarter, older, or stronger. What’s morae: we are commissioned to do a specific job. What is that job? While I haven’t fleshed this out completely, I imagine it has to do with ‘training a child in the way he should go (Proverbs 22:6)’. When we use our authority in order to achieve this end, we are showing meekness. We limit when and how we use our power (our size, strength, age, knowledge, etc.), because we realize we are only free to use it as far as God has authorized us to fulfill our commission.
Willingness to take advice
the readiness to take counsel with herself and with others
I have read no shortage of parenting books over the last four and a half years. I have read countless blog posts about discipline, teaching, naps, play, potty training and all other aspects of child rearing. Some I’ve agreed with, others I’ve not. The internet makes it easy to find all sorts of opinions, suggestions, and ideas. Plus, I have my mom, aunts, friends, all of whom have experience and insight to give when I hit the ‘I just don’t know what to do’ wall.
What a relief it is to know that just because I am in charge, I don’t have to figure it all out all myself. Taking wise counsel shows prudence and humility, key traits in a leader and authority figure.
I appreciate, too, that Miss Mason tells us Queen Elizabeth I took counsel with herself as well. One of my challenges as a parent is my tendency to rush to sort out a problem, without pausing to consider the best approach. These situations quickly unravel into a massive power struggle with one of my children, when a deep breath, a quick prayer, and just a moment to think would have yielded an opportunity for connecting and teaching my child.
Proper sense of purpose
the perception that she herself was not the be-all and the end-all of her functions as a queen, but that she existed for her people
Most of us probably don’t have a particular set of reasons why we had kids. It just always seemed like a pretty good idea in that vague, I-know-it-will-be-hard-but-so-worthwhile kind of way. We thought about the joy of Christmas morning, Mother’s Day presents, sweet baby snuggles, and pride in our kids’ accomplishments. By and large, though perhaps not directly, we figured that parenting would make our lives better.
And then we have kids. And we realize that parenting makes our lives better as far as it is making us into better people – and becoming a better person is typically painful. When we come up against the reality of parenting, we have two choices: to continue in ignorance and try to make parenting about feeling good about ourselves, or we can recognize that we’ve been put into our position of authority in order to serve our kids.
When I’m parenting to serve myself, rather than my kids, there is one symptom that shows itself time and time again. I begrudge parenting my kids. This is a sentiment Paul Tripp talks about in his book Parenting. (affiliate link)
I’m sure you can relate to my life here. The kids stole the cereal and dumped it out in the living room. They are out of bed at 5:30 am for the fourth day in a row. Someone has yet another sibling-induced scratch on his face – right before it’s time to leave for church. Troubles range from annoying to very serious, and are often repetitive, testing your patience more with each iteration. And don’t I just hate having to drag out the hoover, to pull myself out of bed, to console the injured and teach the guilty. I am irritated, punitive, disproportionately angry, even irrational. The reason underlying my uncharitable response is this: despite wanting kids, I begrudge the work they require. Children need to be parented, and parenting well requires laying myself aside – especially when it is hard.
In short, we have been placed in a position of authority – the position of ‘parent’ – in order to parent. It is nigh on impossible to parent well – again and again, moment after moment – when we resent the demands our children make on our time, energy, and effort.
the quick and tender open-minded sympathy which enabled her to see their side of every question as well as her own–indeed, in preference to her own
The final quality that Miss Mason gives us for a model of authority is that of sympathy – the ability to appreciate another person’s point of view on a matter, and to share in their feelings.
How quick we can be to size up a situation and react. Our child pushes a limit or blatantly crosses a line. Our voice starts to rise. The child is defiant, and certainly doesn’t seem to feel bad about what they’ve done. We are frustrated and tired. The situation spirals from a misdemeanor into a full-blown power struggle that ends with the child in his room while you fume downstairs.
But what if we looked on the original situation with sympathy? What if we saw limit pushing as a child asking for help understanding the boundaries? What if we saw naughtiness and realized we had a tired or hungry child on our hands? What if we took a deep breath, made a snack or started bed time a bit early, and decided, we’ll talk about this a little later, because we relate to feeling moody, cranky, and tired.
What if we didn’t always think about the mess involved, but tried to say yes to our kids more often? I’ll be honest. I really don’t like play-dough, and I don’t like the mess of paint. But my kids love these activities! Another part of being a sympathetic parent is a willingness to put my own agenda aside because I appreciate the excitement and joy my children get from these things.
Do the work of parenting
Meek. Humble. Purposeful. Sympathetic. I read about these ideals and it’s easy to feel a mix of overwhelm and guilt. I can see how these traits work together to provide the servant leadership our kids need, but I also know that I fall far short.
Miss Mason, I am sure was aware that there is no perfect parent. Queen Elizabeth I wasn’t a perfect queen. But that shouldn’t stop us from meditating on good examples, repenting where we need to, and striving to learn and grow. We have been called to do the hard work of parenting. Let us not shirk our commission.
Do any of these qualities surprise you? Which do you find most challenging?