A mother’s character is not fixed. It is a work in progress.

This entry is part 2 of 20 in the series Mother Culture Road Map

I concluded in the last post that as moms, we need to rise to the challenge of continuing our own education. Mother culture, loosely defined, is time we spend seeking out and taking in those ideas, usually through reading living books. But like most living things, our minds need a direction to grow in. If mother culture is merely about becoming more clever, then our time spent reading and thinking will only puff us up with pride and conceit. Not only would Charlotte Mason bemoan this, but it’s contrary to what the Bible teaches.

Instead, Charlotte Mason uses her second principle to orient the purpose of education, and by extension, mother culture, to a purpose far beyond accumulating facts. This purpose helps us approach mother culture with humility and teachableness. These are qualities to be desired in any student, as well as in any Christian. So, let’s consider the purpose of education so that we might align our time in mother culture to that goal.

Education is about character.

Charlotte Mason believed that the foundational purpose of education is to help students think rightly so that they can act rightly.  Karen Glass, in her book Consider This (affiliate link), puts it this way:

Education, as conceived in our earliest records and understood through many centuries, was never about intellectual achievement alone, or even primarily. The development of the intellect was meant to serve in the formation of good character, and good conduct was the desired end of wise thinking.

Charlotte Mason was so motivated by the same ideas–by the desire to instill the highest values in her pupils–that the fifth volume of her educational series was originally entitled Some Studies in the Formation of Character, which she calls the “ultimate object of education”.

Karen Glass, Consider This

Mother culture isn’t about growth for its own sake. Instead, we need to take in ideas and then put them to use in our daily lives. It’s about informing our principles so that we can love, think and act rightly. In short, mother culture is about our character.

Defining Character

Character isn’t a word we use much these days, but I heard it defined in a sermon over a decade ago. ‘Character,’ the minister said, ‘is who you are when you are under pressure’. When you don’t have time to think, but to simply respond and act, what do you learn about yourself?

Personally, I enjoy thinking about the right thing to do, but I struggle to actually do those things. I like to think that I’m the kind of mom who keeps her cool when the kids are acting up or when she’s running late. Unfortunately, circumstances show me that, a lot of the time, I’m really not. In the heat of the moment, I’m prone to frustration, annoyance, and even anger. Obviously, my character needs some work. But before that work can be done, I need to address any false beliefs I hold about character.

Misconceptions we hold about character

Charlotte Mason believed that all children could develop a good character. This stands in contrast to a predominant belief in her time that a child’s genes determined whether they would grow up to be ‘good or bad’. This is the point of her second educational principle. In our day, we don’t tend to believe that a child inherits their character through their genes. However, we still hold on to false ideas of what character is and how it is formed.

We fail to recognize our character faults.

Maybe because I have younger siblings and always felt I must set a good example, but I love to pretend that my character faults don’t exist. It’s easier, and certainly more pleasant, to ignore the fact that I’m not perfect. Surely it’s the characters of my children that need my attention and help.

I don’t think I’m alone in downplaying and ignoring my shortcomings. But so often, my failures aren’t one-off mistakes – they rise out the deepest principles of my heart. Frustration with my children comes from a belief that I deserve to have my own way. Laziness with housekeeping stems from a belief that the effort isn’t worth it, despite what it would do for my family. I know the right thing intellectually, but it doesn’t show in my actions because I don’t actively think that way habitually.

We believe our character can’t change.

If some of us tend to ignore our character completely, others of us are all-too-aware of our shortcomings. We feel stuck and unable to change.  We know that as adults, our personalities, attitudes, and mental health have been formed through both nature and nurture. For many of us, though, the education we received at school neglected the development of our character. Our families or churches may have filled the gap, but we may have spent a large portion of our time in institutions which valued conformity to a specific set of academic and career goals rather than the formation of a godly character. When we think of our bad habits, our missed opportunities, how short we have fallen, It’s tempting to believe that we can’t overcome our past.

We think that character is only shaped by our trials.

Even if we acknowledge our character and believe that it can change, I see another false belief. We think the only way character is refined or shaped is through facing trials – the refiner’s fire. If this is the case, then there is no point in mother culture. It’s only through living life that our character can be improved, and there is nothing we can proactively do. Within this mindset, we cannot connect mother culture to character development. It simply wouldn’t have any impact since we don’t gain direct experience.

Right thinking about character yields action

Fortunately, all of these points are misconceptions. We can humbly acknowledge the true state of our character, have faith that it can change, and intentionally form it. When we think rightly about our character, right actions follow accordingly.

We view our character with humility

Mother culture is attractive because it gives me an excuse to read books and because it makes me feel clever. These I enjoy both of these things. But connecting mother culture to character formation convicts me that if I spend my precious free time in self-indulgence and pride, I not only missing the point, but I create a breeding ground for sin. Instead, we need to view our character as it really is: imperfect and in need of grace and growth.

Again in Consider This, Karen Glass states:

The condition of humility–of “knowing that we don’t know”–is a condition that must be present for true learning to take place. Our education should help us remain in an intellectual state of knowing that there are things we do not know…If we are humble we are teachable. If we are not humble, we are not teachable.

Karen Glass, Consider This

When we approach mother culture with an attitude of humility, we expect conviction, repentance, and growth. Mother culture can still be enjoyable, but it is also stretching and sometimes even painful, as we develop a Christlike character.  

We trust that we can and will grow in character

I don’t believe that we are at the mercy of our past. Yes, our schooling and upbringing have shaped us in meaningful ways, but it’s not the end. Our opportunity for education, for the development of a good character, still exists.

Truly, this is a key tenet in the Christian faith, embodied in the Beatitudes. After humbly acknowledging our need for character development, we then hunger and thirst for righteousness. And we have Christ’s promise: we shall be satisfied. God doesn’t leave us where we are to fester in our unworthy principles. He started a work in us, and will complete it. We are invited to participate in that work.

We develop our character through wide reading

But why can’t we trust solely to our life circumstances to refine our character? Our trials and challenges certainly do refine us. Living in community with my husband and children challenges me everyday to grow in patience. But Charlotte Mason felt that our life circumstances, our direct experiences, simply don’t have enough diversity to affect all aspects of our character. Through reading, we gain many examples that our first-hand experiences deny us. Consequently, we can use those examples to form principles and pictures of virtue that we can stand upon later.

Brandy Vencel at Afterthoughts gives a wonderful example:

And how many of us know that we can survive, for instance, famine or economic turmoil, because of the quiet heroism of Caroline Ingalls? How many of our sons will fight the dragon that they were born to fight because of Saint George and the Dragon? Great stories change us.

Brandy Vencel, Afterthoughts

In short, by reading and learning about how other people – fictional or real – face adversity, set-backs, or their own sinful nature, we develop our own ability to imitate the ideal and turn away from the reproachful.

The fruit of mother culture

Mother culture, when oriented to the purpose of character development, bears fruit. First, we, and those around us, benefit if we act rightly. When I live out the principle of appropriate authority over my children, I avoid power struggles and instead seek out how to teach my children in tense moments. What’s more, a godly character pleases God, because we become more like Him.

There is another fruit that we best understand by considering what happens if we ignore our character development. If we no longer grow, then we stagnate. In a PNEU article, an anonymous columnist makes an argument for mother culture: if mothers don’t continue learning and growing in knowledge, she will not have the wisdom or insight to provide guidance and pastoral care as they grow older. However, when our minds continue to grow, we put ourselves on a path to provide guidance and pastoral care to our children as they grow.

At the beginning of this post, I suggested that character is who we are under pressure. To quote Brandy again, who echoes this definition,

Virtuous people have a picture of virtue in their heads already. When pressure hits, they rise to the occasion because the life of their mind has prepared them to do so. We cannot overemphasize the importance of training in the life of the mind. (emphasis mine)

Brandy Vencel, Afterthoughts

In mother culture, we humbly recognize that, even as adults, our minds still need preparation and training. We will not cease to benefit from the molding of our character that comes from encountering living books and developing our pictures of virtue. Mother culture, rightly oriented, is not indulgent or selfish. It is an action we undertake in a humble pursuit of godliness.

Mother culture isn't about becoming smart or clever. We have to connect mother culture with the bigger picture of education: developing a godly character.
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  1. I appreciate this post so much! Having discovered Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, I have found myself greatly lamenting my own education. I have found it lacking in richness, disciplined learning, and formation of much character. But it has be a relief to me to realize that God is not done with me yet. I have come to feel that Miss Mason’s methods can reach into my life, as well as those of my children, and give me the continuing education I desire.

    1. I am so glad it’s an encouragement! I agree that it’s overwhelming to have ‘missed’ a CM education as a child, but I find so much hope in her ideas and principles for me as well as my children!

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