I feel like I need some sort of disclaimer at the top of this post, in case someone takes it too personally. I don’t claim to know everything. I don’t know enough to tell you what to do with your kids. I’m just exploring in my own mind the question of how far Charlotte Mason’s principles can be trusted and how serious I am about following them. My children are still very young (3.5, 2.5, and twins coming soon), so I have no real experience to draw on, and though they are bright and verbally gifted, I don’t think they’re any smarter than your kids and I can’t guarantee results. Check back in twenty years and I’ll tell you how it went. That being said . . .
I belong to a list devoted to applying Charlotte Mason’s principles for young children under the age of six: avoiding formal lessons, spending much time out-of-doors, participating in a rich home life. Every so often someone posts something along the lines of:
"Of course I *love* CM’s ideas, but my child is so gifted (long list of achievements starting in infancy) that we have to do lessons or she would be bored."
Well, maybe so. I don’t know their child. But is the world and everything in it really such a small field that a four-year-old can’t find enough to do and learn without a lesson plan? I’m twenty-nine, much smarter than even the most profoundly gifted four-year-old, and I am never bored even if nobody does lessons with me.
I can’t help but think there must be some miscommunication somewhere. Some possibilities come to mind:
1) They are seriously misunderstanding CM’s advice to think they must somehow hold back their child and prevent them from learning anything taught in school. Quite the contrary, CM expected many children to teach themselves reading, writing and arithmetic before their sixth birthday. But she expected that to grow out of the children’s interests and questions, not out of a formal scope and sequence imposed by the mother.
2) They have trouble interacting informally with their children and feel a need for lesson plans to give them some ideas, because their child is tired of being sent off to play while they do laundry. There are many perfectly good parents like this; their laundry gets done much more quickly than mine does, I’m sure. Keeping books of projects and activities around is a good idea; for many families it will be helpful to schedule a special time for Mom to sit down and do things with the kids. But that’s not the same thing as formal lessons; far better is to watch the child and suggest projects that seem likely to be a good fit. And they still need to make an effort to include the children in the laundry. Even Einstein got his socks dirty.
3) Their house is a really boring place. Modern suburban life is rather devoid of interest. There are few grown-ups to watch working. The landscaping is all the same. Buying a curriculum may seem simpler than resolving this problem, but it’s only a band-aid. If life isn’t interesting, make it more interesting. Let Mom take up a complex and absorbing hobby–and let the kids watch and help. Travel around to watch people at work and, if they seem nice, ask them questions. Go visit new parks, museums, businesses, etc. Horrify your neighbors by piling up scrap lumber and mud in the back yard for free exploration.
In the end, though, I think people still really haven’t absorbed the point of Charlotte Mason’s advice. The world is a rich, wonderful, amazing place. Learning to read and write is a tiny, tiny portion of it. A four-year-old who is ready to read–who gets read to and who has her questions answered–will learn to read without any need for a curriculum. (I did it myself, so it’s not like I’m a hereditary dimwit who’s completely clueless about the challenge of gifted children.) And if they don’t, they are not being held back while they learn a million and one other things.
For mother to turn her attention from going out and exploring, from answering the children’s questions, from hunting up new and challenging books that match the children’s interests, from teaching handcrafts and household skills, and to focus instead on introducing the three R’s, is to turn from a rich, diverse, nutritious banquet to a making sure they down their bowl of oatmeal. Indeed, perhaps a child with an abnormally strong taste for oatmeal (traditional school skills) needs extra encouragement to entice them into a more adventuresome diet (imaginative play, physical activity, out-of-door time, crafts).
The smarter a child is, the less they should need formal lessons at an early age, because they have a greater capacity to perceive, inquire, and learn without being prodded. If your child is zipping ahead, teaching themselves to read and write, asking dozens of insightful questions–why slow them down with someone else’s idea of what they should be learning?