A Charlotte Mason Education, Books/Wide Reading, Homeschooling, Masterly Inactivity, Parenthood
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For the Children’s Sake-Please Stand Aside! by Shannon Whiteside

Implementing Charlotte Mason’s principles into my homeschool in the past several years has been a journey of releasing educational ideas that I once held dear. As I learn more through conferences, books and blogs, I fine-tune my practices to be more in line with Mason’s philosophy and methods. The most recent principle that I have been applying more intentionally is the art of standing aside and letting my children take responsibility for their education. This has been hard for me because I was a classroom teacher for seven years and my job was to be the talking head. I remember the first time I read the following quote, “Whereby teachers shall teach less and scholars shall learn more” (Vol. 6., p. 8). That did not make sense to my educational paradigm. How am I supposed to leave the analyzing, summarizing and thinking to the children? What if they miss something? What if they don’t make the connections?

Mason said that “wise and purposeful letting alone is the best part of education” (Vol. 3, p.128). This act of the teacher being a co-learner and not being the “fountain-head of all knowledge” or the “showman of the universe” is a foundational principle for Mason. You may already be implementing nature study, reading living books, and having your students narrate. However, if you don’t allow your students to take ownership of their education, then you are not adhering to a distinctively Mason education.

Mason said to “let them get at the books themselves, and do not let them be flooded with a warm diluent at the lips of their teacher. The teacher’s business is to indicate, stimulate, direct and constrain to the acquirement of knowledge . . . The less parents and teachers talk-in and expound their rations of knowledge and thought to the children they are educating, the better for the children” (Vol. 3, p. 162). A child is to “dig” knowledge for himself out of living books because what he learns on his own becomes his “possession” and is assimilated as opposed to “what is poured in his ear”(Vol. 3, p.177).

And if that wasn’t enough to persuade you to zip your lips, Mason goes on to say, “Half the teaching one hears and sees is more or less obtrusive” (Vol. 3, p.66). Do we want to be obtrusive and stand in the way of our children having a mind-to-mind meeting with the great authors, poets, painters and composers of the past and present? Most importantly, do we want to get in the way of the relationship that our students develop with God and his world? Why should we limit a child to our mind, our words, our vocabulary, and our connections?

Mason recognizes that some teachers use oral lessons because they realize the books that are used by the students are boring and dry. So it’s understandable that teachers will try to make the subject come alive with oral teaching. However, if we are using living books, then we don’t need to gather and summarize the information for our students, but just let them be. Mason said, “The child and the author must be trusted together without the intervention of the middle-man” (Vol.6, p.192). If the author does not talk about something the reader may be wondering about, the reader just needs to wait for the time being. That is part of the relationship the child is building with the author. We don’t need to step in and explain everything and most likely spoil not only the text but also a child’s chance to self-educate.

So what does the art of standing aside look like? When the child narrates, it is not the time to interrupt, make corrections or talk much. Mason rightly asserts, “The child of six has begun the serious business of his own education, that it does not matter much whether he understands this word or that, but that it matters a great deal that he should learn to deal directly with books” (Vol. 6, p.172).

When it comes to the Bible, Mason believes children should have the words of Scripture read straight to them without “distracting moral considerations” and pointing out what was bad or what was good (Vol. 6., p.337). By making the reading of Scripture a delightful time, God’s word will slowly sink in and new truths will be revealed to the child year by year, as he is ready. In picture study, the child does the work as she tells about the picture and lets the picture “ tell its tale through the medium the artist gave it” (Vol.6, p. 216). It is not the place for teachers to give extensive talks on schools of painting, or to talk about style or critical analysis. When it comes to nature study, in Home Education, Mason spends almost 100 pages explaining the importance for young children to be outdoors, gaining knowledge by themselves about the natural world and building relationships with plant and animal life.

We also need to make sure that children have the time and space to reflect and be left alone with their own thoughts. Mason also called this masterly inactivity or wise passiveness. If children are rushed to the next activity or errand as soon as lessons are done, the learning process will be affected and the children may not make those connections or internalize the ideas that were presented to them. The afternoons should be free to work on handcrafts, be outside, and engage in unstructured free play. As Mason stated, “Boys and girls must have time to invent episodes, carry on adventures, live heroic lives, lay sieges and carry forts . . . and in these affairs the elders must neither meddle nor make” (Vol. 3, p.37).

I encourage you this new school year to practice the art of standing aside. I know for me it has been hard to stay quiet and listen instead of correcting or explaining or asking too many questions. It is also hard to say “no” to all the great activities that we could participate in that would keep us away from home. But I trust the principles of Charlotte Mason based on the truth of how God created children. But most importantly, I want to practice wise passiveness because I trust God and do not want to hinder the work that he is doing in my children’s lives.



 Mason, C. M. (1989).  Home education. Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published in 1925).

 Mason, C. M. (1989).  A philosophy of education. Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published in 1925).

Mason, C. M. (1989).  Home education. Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published in 1925).

© 2014 by Shannon Whiteside


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.

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