Sometimes you leave someone else’s house and you know that they have something special. They’ve created a home where a visitor is never an inconvenience, where the mess your kids make is never any trouble, where you feel welcome, comfortable, and able to let down your guard. You sense the hospitality and friendship. It is deeply genuine, and lingers with you after you’ve left.
While it is hard to put your finger on exactly what is so special about that place, what you are feeling is the home’s atmosphere. We soak in the culture of the family and it impacts us, even when we don’t realize it.
Just as the atmosphere of your friend’s home stays with you after you’ve gone, so the atmosphere of your own home stays with your children long after they have grown up. So big is the influence of atmosphere on a child that Charlotte Mason names it as one of three (and only three) tools that can be used in a child’s education.
What does Charlotte Mason mean by atmosphere?
Atmosphere, at first, appears so abstract that it hardly seems possible that it could be an educational tool. A tool can be picked up, wielded with intention, used to achieve a purpose. How is it possible to use atmosphere like that?
To answer this question, it helps to understand what Charlotte Mason means by atmosphere. Perhaps the clearest discussion of the topic in her own works is in Towards a Philosophy of Education:
(Atmosphere) is there, about the child, his natural element, precisely as the atmosphere of the earth is about us. It is thrown off, as it were, from persons and things, stirred by events, sweetened by love, ventilated, kept in motion, by the regulated action of common sense.
Atmosphere, in short, is real life in the real world. A child has endless, and necessary, opportunities to learn and grow simply by living in community with other people and in the natural world around him.
How does atmosphere educate our children?
There are infinite things that shape our children through our home atmosphere. Let’s consider a few of them.
Our children become accustomed to how we evaluate things.
M.F. Jerrod, in the Parent’s Review magazine, which Charlotte Mason edited, discusses atmosphere at length in the article “The Atmosphere of the Home”. It’s worth reading in entirety, but one key idea of the article is that our children learn what to value through their home atmosphere.
When our children grow up and go out to see many sorts of manners, and many different standards of conduct, one of their safeguards will be in the idea they have formed of what is worth-while. Pleasure and success and admiration–they will want all these, and to almost every one of them some small triumphs will be given, and whether these are sufficient will depend on what they are accustomed to seeing valued. Let us then covet one gift for our children, that of unworldliness.
We are constantly valuing and devaluing things by our actions and words, often without realizing it. The question is, are we valuing that which God values, or that which the world values?
Our children are molded by how they are motivated.
Charlotte Mason compares a school where children are under pressure to perform well on an exam to a school where it is the children’s and the teachers’ desire to learn that motivates learning. In the first instance, there is stress, worry, and misbehavior. In the second, there is peace, a relaxed environment and joy in learning. It is no surprise that the children in the first setting effectively lose their internal desire to learn – and that this stays with them into their adult lives.
Children offered rewards for creativity are less creative. Children who grow up with extrinsic motivators have a lower sense of control over their lives, a recipe for unhappiness. Children have an intrinsic desire to learn and grow, and offering rewards for learning or punishments for failure to do so spoils it. As a consequence, our children are left without a powerful tool for achievement in later life.
Our children are prepared for the ‘real world’ by living in the ‘real world’.
There is one crucial point to keep in mind about atmosphere: it should not be contrived. There is a lot of talk these days about ‘helicopter parenting’ and even ‘lawnmower parenting’ where parents are extremely risk averse: they hover over their children to catch them the moment they stumble, or else cut down any obstacle before their child can reach it.
But preventing our children from facing adversity, from trying something new and failing, from allowing them to take risks, means that our children never learn that they are resilient. They never develop the sense that they are capable of navigating their own lives. We weaken our children when we manipulate situations to protect them from challenges and setbacks.
Of course we exercise wisdom. We keep them from situations that are actually dangerous. We are clued into their relationships with others – both adults and children – and use discretion. But by and large, we practice masterly inactivity with our children in many areas, and through a wise letting alone, allow them to test their mettle, and develop strength by trying, failing, and succeeding on their own effort.
Our home atmosphere is the means through which our children develop their taste for what has value, what is worthwhile, and how they, themselves, cope with adversity. That’s why atmosphere is educational. And that’s why it is so crucial that we use atmosphere appropriately.
We can’t fake atmosphere, but we can develop it.
The temptation with atmosphere is to assume that it is what it is, and there’s nothing much we can actually do about it. To some extent, this is true. We can’t fake our values. We may not think much about how we motivate our children. Our own concerns and fears for the success and safety of our children are easily rationalized, if we stop to consider them at all.
Despite the tacit nature of atmosphere, it is possible to evaluate it. We need to take caution: it’s easy to answer questions like, ‘What are my values?’ and ‘How do I motivate my children?’ with what we want to be true, rather than what is true. So in order to get an accurate idea of our home atmosphere, I suggest we look at what our atmosphere produces. As Jesus says,
“For a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. Luke 6:43-45
What is the fruit of our home atmosphere? Do we see evidence of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? If so, there is a good chance that our atmosphere is rooted in the right values and a respect for the personhood of those around us.
Our home atmosphere will never be perfect, and that is valuable in itself.
My home atmosphere is far from where I want it to be. Chaos descends, my frustration comes out. The fruit I bear suggests I may be an anger-and-impatience tree, rather than a love-and-self-control tree. But even in our shortcomings and our failures, there is hope.
We are not raising perfect children to live in a perfect world. When our children are grown and they leave the nest, they aren’t going to be living in community with perfect people. Learning to live with parents who fall short prepares them to live with friends, spouses, and children who fall short. This is a crucial educational function of atmosphere.
Repentance from our shortcomings speaks volumes about our values. Does our reputation matter above all else, or is humility before Christ and others of greater importance? Our children will take in our responses to our own failures.
We can trust Christ to bear fruit in our homes as we make our home in Him. “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” John 15:5. I take the promise in this verse deeply to heart. I do not have to worry about bearing good fruit. Our focus needs to be on abiding in Christ and walking in the Spirit, and the fruit will follow.
A fruitful, nurturing atmosphere that is an effective educational tool in the lives of our children starts with us. We need to cultivate the spiritual disciplines that keep us in step with the Spirit. When we are off track, we repent. We model for our children not perfection, but authentic faith. It’s this authenticity that helps our children grow into adults who can bear graciously with the shortcomings of those around them and who can appropriately navigate their own failures and setbacks.