Trading Power Struggles for Peaceful Authority in Your Parenting


"We (as parents and teachers) ought to do so much for our children, and are able to do so much for them, that we begin to think everything rests with us...Our endeavors become fussy and restless.  We try to dominate them too much, even when we fail to govern, and we are unable to perceive that wise and purposeful letting alone is the best part of education." (School Education, page 28)

This quote from Charlotte Mason highlights one of the most powerful qualities of an influential parent or teacher - a quality she calls "masterly inactivity."  It is a companion to the "peaceful authority" I discussed in an earlier blog post.  "Masterly inactivity," as Mason defines it, is the power to act, the desire to act, and the insight and self-restraint which forbid action.  

As parents, we daily have to challenge ourselves not to do for our children the work that they can, and ought, to do for themselves.  Morning routines in most of our homes reflect that conviction -children get up, dress, fix lunches, and buckle themselves and their gear in the car with little intervention.  At school, their responsibilities continue as the students take responsibility for their own learning. They listen and narrate after a single reading. They thoughtfully ponder questions about the text.  They observe carefully in nature study, picture study, and other subjects.

"Masterly inactivity" falls somewhere between the extremes of autocracy and permissiveness.  It is government characterized by "wise passiveness." In our homes, it is the peaceful redirection of an emotional child, the certain consequences for a disobedient child.  In the classroom, it is a teacher's restraint from telling the students what they don't understand, or riddling the classroom with questions that dull the mind.

Power struggles become few and far between with masterly inactivity, for a wise ruler has a peaceful presence of authority.  Children sense this authority all the time, regardless of whether they obey; when they struggle, they find empathetic support from a parent or teacher as consequences are delivered or experienced.  The adult knows the battle for authority has been won already, and comes along as a support and mentor for the child.

Good humor is an essential element here - a frank, cordial, natural disposition.  Confidence reigns -confidence in the power of authority and confidence that the children will respond to that authority. Parents and teachers are omniscient - they must "see without watching, know without telling, be on the alert always, yet never obviously, fussily so." Finally, a peaceful heart on the part of the one in authority is essential - nervousness, anxiety, and worry produce rebellious and unmanageable children.  

"The fussy parent (or teacher), the anxious parent, the parent who explains overmuch, who commands overmuch, who excuses overmuch, who restrains overmuch, who interferes overmuch, even the parent who is with the children overmuch, does away with the dignity and simplicity of that relationship which suffers by being asserted or defended." (School Education, page 29).

Parents and teachers should trust themselves more, Mason says, because the authority that belongs to them by right acts upon children as sunshine and rain on a seed, and children thrive in an atmosphere where they are free to do what they ought, but not free to do what they ought not.  From those in authority, it requires the obedience of the cross: self-denial, self-repression, self-sacrifice; children recognize it as love. (School Education, pg. 23)

Ginnie Wilcox, Head of School

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