Saturday, August 25, 2012

Ambleside Institute, Part II: Authority

Schoolmaster,  Norman Rockwell
Another important aspect of Charlotte Mason's method is her understanding of authority.  Dr. St. Cyr talked briefly about three ways of interacting with our children:


I. Authoritarian or Autocratic Discipline

The authoritarian (or, as CM calls it, "autocratic") stance is best illustrated by the phrase, "Because I said so."  This is the parent/teacher who tries to coerce the child to certain behaviors by his or her own power.  Using fear, intimidation, praise, reward, shame,  or even love as tools to overpower the child's personality and accomplish his goal, this instructor sets up a power struggle between the child and himself (or herself).  Charlotte Mason describes this approach to governance in School Education:

Authority is not uneasy; captious, harsh and indulgent by turns. This is the action of autocracy, which is self-sustained as it is self-derived, and is impatient and resentful, on the watch for transgressions, and swift to take offence. Autocracy has ever a drastic penal code, whether in the kingdom, the school, or the family. It has, too, many commandments. 'Thou shalt' and 'thou shalt not,' are chevaux de frise about the would-be awful majesty of the autocrat. The tendency to assume self-derived power is common to us all, even the meekest of us, and calls for special watchfulness; the more so, because it shows itself fully as often in remitting duties and in granting indulgences as in inflicting punishments

II.  Permissiveness

On the other extreme lies the permissive parent.  This is the parent who allows the child to do his own will, who often under the excuse of kindness and sympathy permits a child to shirk his duty, who fails to insist upon respect or obedience.  This parent can be motivated by a desire to avoid conflict or can be undisciplined himself.  A permissive approach, while seeming quite different than an authoritarian approach, actually has the same fundamental problem: a lack of recognition of the true Authority (that is, God) over the parent and a failure to willingly submit to that Authority.  The permissive parent/teacher does as he or she chooses in allowing or not allowing behaviors in children; he indulges his own whims instead of submitting to the True Authority and accepting his responsibility and duty.

The sense of must should be present with children; our mistake is to act in such a way that they, only, seem to be law-compelled while their elders do as they please. The parent or teacher who is pestered for 'leave' to do this or that, contrary to the discipline of the house or school, has only himself to thank; he has posed as a person in authority, not under authority, and therefore free to allow thebreach of rules whose only raison d'être is that they minister to the well-being of the children. (Philosophy of Education, ch. 4)

Charlotte Mason gives an example of this misguided permissiveness in Home Education. The mother has worked hard to teach her son to shut the door upon leaving the room.  Unfortunately, she fails to maintain the standard she has set:

vol 1 pg 124
Now that Johnny always shuts the door, his mother's joy and triumph begin to be mixed with unreasonable pity. 'Poor child,' she says to herself, 'it is very good of him to take so
much pains about a little thing, just because he is bid!' She thinks that, all the time, the child is making an effort for her sake; losing sight of the fact that the habit has become easy and natural, that, in fact, Johnny shuts the door without knowing that he does so. Now comes the critical moment. Some day Johnny is so taken up with a new delight that the habit, not yet fully formed, loses its hold, and he is half-way downstairs before he thinks of the door. Then he does think of it, with a little prick of conscience, strong enough, not to send him back, but to make him pause a moment to see if his mother will call him back. She has noticed the omission, and is saying to herself, 'Poor little fellow, he has been very good about it this long time; I'll let him off this once.' He, outside, fails to hear his mother's call, says, to himself––fatal sentence!––'Oh, it doesn't matter,' and trots off.
Next time he leaves the door open, but it is not a 'forget.' His mother calls him back in a rather feeble way. His quick ear catches the weakness of her tone, and, without coming back, he cries, 'Oh, mother, I'm in such a hurry,' and she says no more, but lets him off. Again he rushes in, leaving the door wide open. 'Johnny!'––in a warning voice. 'I'm going out again just in a minute, mother,' and after ten minutes' rummaging he does go out, and forgets to shut the door. The mother's mis-timed easiness has lost for her every foot of the ground she had gained.

III.  Proper Authority

The most helpful way of correcting and guiding children is authoritative.   Charlotte Mason understood this to be:

vol 3 pg 17
Authority is neither harsh nor indulgent. She is gentle and easy to be entreated in all matters immaterial, just because she is immovable in matters of real importance; for these, there is always a fixed principle. It does not, for example, rest with parents and teachers to dally with questions affecting either the health or the duty of their children. They have no authority to allow to children in indulgences––in too many sweetmeats, for example––or in habits which are prejudicial to health; nor to let them off from any plain duty of obedience, courtesy, reverence, or work. Authority is alert; she knows all that is going on and is aware of tendencies. She fulfils the apostolic precept––"He that ruleth (let him do it), with diligence." But she is strong enough to fulfil that other precept also, "He that showeth mercy (let him do it), with cheerfulness"; timely clemency, timely yielding, is a great secret of strong government. It sometimes happens that children, and not their parents, have right on their side: a claim may be made or an injunction resisted, and the children are in opposition to parent or teacher. It is well for the latter to get the habit of swiftly and imperceptibly reviewing the situation; possibly, the children may be in the right, and the parent may gather up his wits in time to yield the
point graciously and send the little rebels away in a glow of love and loyalty. 

A crucial element of true authority is the understanding that all real authority derives from God.  The parent/teacher is under authority just as surely as the child/student is under authority.  The teacher or parent can no more do their own will than the student can do their own will.  Directing your child to study well, to do their chores, or to behave respectfully is not your option, it is your duty:
vol 3 pg 16
Authority, on the other hand, may qualify as not being self-derived and not independent. The centurion in the Gospels says: "I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, 'Go,' and he goeth; another, 'Come,' and he cometh; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he doeth it."

Here we have the powers and the limitations of authority. The centurion is set under authority, or, as we say, authorised, and, for that reason, he is able to say to one, 'go,' to another, 'come,' and to a third, 'do this,' in the calm certainty that all will be done as he says, because he holds his position for this very purpose––to secure that such and such things shall be accomplished. He himself is a servant with definite tasks, though they are the tasks of authority. This, too, is the position that our Lord assumes; He says: "I came not to do mine own will, but the will of Him that sent me." That is His commission and the standing order of His life, and for this reason He spake as one having authority, knowing Himself to be commissioned and supported.
The most wonderful aspect of this understanding of authority is that it frees us up from power struggles and conflicts.  You are not your child's dictator or controller--God is the One directing both you and your child.  You are your child's ally.  You are helping your child do the will of God, and he is helping you as well.  You are not, in fact, free to allow your child to do anything he or she wishes, to shirk their work or duty.  You must obey God and "bring [your children] up in the discipline and correction of the Lord. (Eph. 6:4)"

One question that arose in our discussion at the Institute was whether a teacher or parent could "bend" the rules or whether they had to always keep strictly to schedules and plans.   For example, a child asks if they can go blackberrying on a beautiful day instead of doing chores.   The parent remains in proper authority if he decides that blackberrying is the best use of time (it may be the only opportunity, it may be the children have been working hard inside and could benefit from fresh air and exercise) and in the best interests of the children.  The parent is being permissive if he or she simply gives in to the persistent requests because he or she is tired of hearing about it.  I would add that I think the parent is acting in an authoritarian way if he or she will not listen to reasonable requests from the children and sometimes accommodate them.  This is clearly an area that requires a lot of judgement, self-control, and prayer!

When we demonstrate to our children that we are under authority and that we are not free to do as we will, we are teaching them the most valuable spiritual lesson they can ever learn:  Thy Will be done.


  1. These are great, Caroline. We live about an hour from the Fredericksburg, TX Ambleside School and you have me really considering looking into the training. I wish I could just go visit and be a fly on the wall without committing to the training though! :)

  2. It was very worthwhile, Amanda. As I mentioned before, it is geared toward a classroom setting, but I did benefit from a real immersion in the philosophy of Charlotte Mason and also the many hours of experiencing narration techniques. One of our instructors, Janet, was from Texas and used to work at the Fredericksburg school. I haven't mentioned her in the posts yet, but I will! She was a wonderful mentor.