Too Smart for Charlotte Mason?

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?

8 thoughts on “Too Smart for Charlotte Mason?

  1. That is so dead on… I often think people yammer on about how "gifted" their kids are because they misunderstand early childhood… I know I was guilty of that with my first child. I didn't understand what amazing things young kids are so I assumed he was a genius. (I can be forgiven for being partial, I suppose.) And it takes time to learn that just because a child is capable of doing formal lessons, that doesn't mean they should! I'm also guilty of being a mom like you described in #2. It IS very hard for a certain sort of personality to stop accomplishing concrete things (my laundry is ALWAYS done) and spend time discovering things with your child. It is easier to check a completed lesson of a list. That doesn't mean it is better…
    Great post!

  2. What a great post! Most excellently expressed! It's sad that parents need "lessons" to help them interact with children. Are we that work/achievement focused? Can we not be creative and spontaneous?

    Will be a wonderful contribution to the carnival. 🙂

  3. Loved this post! I have to admit, I read the first paragraph then was called away by a child and I was walking around the house saying to myself "If moms would just get the kids outdoors and surround them with good living books and read some, casually repeat poetry, etc. no child would ever be bored!" LOL
    I agree that it is just intellectually less work to pick up someone else's lesson plans and "do school" than to take the time to notice what your child is doing and quietly enrich their environment.
    I can only think of one exception—being the mom of a son who taught himself to read at three, one of my biggest challenges was trying to keep him from reading things not developmentally appropriate for him. I never did a single "reading" lesson with him, but oh, boy did I have to stay on my toes to make sure all the books lying around were OK to be read by a 4yo! I spent a *lot* of time answering some very interesting questions when I failed at this. Also, this particular child has occasionally achieved such an intensity of interest in something that I needed to step in and diffuse that energy–it was either that or quantum physics, lol. Some kids DO have an amount of intellectual energy that would daunt even the most conscientious and interested of mothers. (My solution to this? Teach them chess! LOL)
    But I so appreciate Charlotte's wisdom in dealing with my gifted sons. I cold probably have ignored her wisdom, and possibly "pushed" them along farther intellectually, but I'm so glad we took our time, concentrated on developing the whole person, habits, discipline, handwriting <g> and all!
    Thanks for the article.
    Michelle D

  4. Thanks so much for this article. I'm the mother of one "very bright" : ) 4 year old and have been guilty of thinking he needs to be "doing school" or he will be bored.

    I just had to share with you that this comment made me chuckle: "Even Einstein got his socks dirty." My husband's voice teacher knew Einstein (he played in the Princeton orchestra under her husband) and, among several interesting stories, he recalls her telling him that Einstein seldom wore socks, even though his family urged him to do so for fear of his health.

    Kay Pelham

  5. I happen to think my son is very bright and that he always has been. It hurts to hear his uncle by marriage brag on and on about his nephew that is half my son's age and how smart this 3 year old is and then he attributes it to the fact that he attends a montessori preschool. I think it's wrong for him to do this bragging in front of my son, which would be his nephew also, and I think he should brush up on the "laid back" approach to learning that montessori does have. or at least from what I've read on it they have more exploratory type stations set up as well as "formal" lessons and the child can choose. So it's child led. I also feel his statements are an attack on the fact that we homeschool. My DS has only recently been having formal phonics/math/writing lessons but before this time I loved the ease of just many hours daily spent outdoors living and learning that way. Rainy days were for good books and games. What a great childhood, uncluttered by "formal" lessons. There's time enough for those later.Edited by noahsmom on Apr. 1, 2008 at 5:41 PM

  6. Michelle–Yes, early readers are one case where you have to "de-enrich" the environment. I'm enjoying my last few months or however long I have until someone starts reading everything lying around. 🙂 No need to rush it!

    Kay–That's funny! I didn't want to bring up his underwear–maybe I shouldn't ask. O:-)

    Noahsmom–Some people are just rude, and you can only wait and let time tell. I do suffer Montessori envy sometimes–our church rents building space to a Montessori school and I go up and poke around the classroom. But although there is lots of cool stuff up there, and I do like the way children are encouraged to explore naturally (and clean up after themselves, something we need to work more on!) they're still exploring an artificial environment rather than the real world.

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