Monday, August 17, 2009

Masterly Inactivity

There are moments when my two older children, just 17 months apart, have a hard time getting along, can't find anything to do, and set out looking for trouble. In these moments, it is so tempting for me to turn to a video to occupy them. But we want movies to be a treat in our house, not a part of our regular routine. We've all read the studies that show the negative affects of tv on young children...but it is easy to fall into that morning show and just before dinner habit.
My other temptation is to try to create things for them to do. To feel the need to sit down and play with them, to invent the game, do the craft together.

This temptation, like a good movie, has its place too.

But I've found that falling into either trap as a way of life only creates more problems. When the tv show is done, they don't seem any more ready to play with one another or come up with an activity. When they depend on me to play with them, they grow rusty in using their own imaginations and thinking skills.

Though I have many goals for my children's education, one of my biggest hopes is that they will develop inner resources to approach the world He has created with curiosity. That they will have an active mind that seeks beauty and meaning even though they are just 10 months, and 3 and 4!

Charlotte Mason, the British educator I love so much, seems to have a solution for the two extremes in my parenting, ignoring the child or overly orchestrating their time. She writes that as parents
“We 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 and that we should never intermit for a moment our conscious action on the young minds and hearts about us. Our endeavours become fussy and restless. We are too much with our children, ‘late and soon.’ 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” (Vol. 3, p. 27).
Besides the fact that she quotes from my favorite Wordsworth poem, she gets to the heart of my over-parenting. Rather she suggests we think of our role as parents as "Masterly Inactivity." This is not the Rousseauian belief of leaving a child to their own innocent state of nature--our children need our care and direction, they need God's grace and mercy. Though our modern culture often shrinks from the idea of Authority, our duty is to be Masterly. With a "thinking love," we can create a family culture where all can thrive and develop under authority: "The mastery is not over ourselves [as the parent] only; there is also a sense of authority, which our children should be as much aware of when it is inactive as when they are doing our bidding" (Mason, Vol. 3, p. 28). Yet we must hold our authority with enough good humor and confidence to prevents us from discovering what the child must discover himself, from creating what the child must create herself, leading the child to true learning.

Thus, Mason teaches that children must be free to play and work but helped to have the atmosphere and space as well as the training of habit and ability to do so. An over-scheduled child will be too tired to "play." A chaotic or messy house filled with too many toys will overwhelm. A child who has only heard stories of twaddle or watched silly tv shows will lack a real imagination to imitate and create. A child who has not learned to control his hand or eye or tongue will not see beauty or nature or God's handiwork around them. "In this matter the child who goes too much on crutches never learns to walk; he who is most played with by his elders has little power of inventing plays for himself; and so he misses that education which comes to him when allowed to go his own way" (Mason, Vol. 3 p. 37).

All of this has come together for me in the last few days as we have returned from a wonderful week of travel and rest, where we had either lots of tv time or time together in activity. It was wonderful but they had forgotten how to play. Though they hadn't seen their toys in a week, they were uninterested unless their sibling picked the toy up and then a fight broke out. But I had been reading about this idea of "Masterly Inactivity." How could I help them to play on their own more?

The first example that came to mind was our dress-up box. I had not taken the time to be masterly here. It was an overly stuffed mess of clothes, purses, wands, crowns, and random toys that had been long missing. So I tried to do two masterly things . The first was to have us all clean out the box together, throwing away the broken and useless, putting toys back in the proper place. We then grouped together the possibilities of the dress-up box--a hat creates a construction worker, a stethoscope for a doctor, wings enough for a fairy, a sword a tool for a knight, etc. As we worked and imagined together, I realized they never played with their cowboy things, an animal skin vest from my husband's childhood on the ranch and a cowboy hat from his current hunting trips in the Rocky Mountains. And so in my second moment of guiding, I casually mentioned where the vest and the hat were from. DD and DS were full of questions about their Dad as we packed his things in the box. The next morning when the restlessness began, instead of turning on the tv or coming up with an activity for them, I waited. And sure enough, when I checked in again, they were happily playing cowboys! After a long time went by and they were starting to grow restless, I suggested that my cowgirl and boy take a ride on their "horses" to check the area for foxes or coyotes.G in her dad's vest from when he was 2!

M proud in his Dad's hat

They were so excited as we rode around the block on bikes.

Mind you, it takes a long time for Cowboys and Cowgirls to get around the block when they are busy scoping out tracks or signs of the fox and other predators.

It even led to impromptu nature study as my son found lots of Cicada skins and collected them as we went. When we got home, we read about Cicadas online and listened to the Cicada's call and went out again to look and listen for live ones.

Another example of the development of imagination through good books was in telling of the story of "The Lady and the Tiger."They were mesmerized and wanted to know so badly what happened in the end. We guessed together and left it at that. A few hours later when my dd was looking for something to do in that restless way, I noticed she eventually picked up her Disney Princess Figurines. She had ignored these of late, the old tales had grown stale. When I checked back in I realized, she also had her brother's soldier and toy tiger and was narrating the tale of "The Lady and The Tiger." This afforded her a long time lost in her own world of imagination.

To be "masterly" requires not only a sense of authority, but also a bit of thought, organization and planning. To be "inactive," takes the patience to allow the children to discover on their own. Perhaps my above examples then are a bit trite in the larger sense of what the term can mean for our parenting. Because what underlies an ability for a parent to be both masterly and inactive is a deep trust in The Authority who holds our very lives in His Hand:

"When we recognise that God does not make over [give over] the bringing up of children absolutely even to their parents, but that He works Himself, in ways which it must be our care not to hinder, in the training of every child, then we shall learn passiveness, humble and wise. We shall give children space to develop on the lines of their own characters in all right ways, and shall know how to intervene effectually to prevent those errors which, also, are proper to their individual characters." (Mason, Vol. 3, p. 35)

*All Mason quotes from the full text of Miss Mason's Original Homeschooling Series can be found at

**And for all wondering, little C tagged along too! She is her own delightful nature-lovin' buckaroo!


Anonymous said...

these kind of activities will make wonderful memories...something tv never gives!

Kerry said...

I only have a moment, but I hope to make it back tomorrow with some other ideas.

One thing we've enjoyed over the years (from very young ages) is listening to audio stories. You don't have to invest too much, because like a good book, kids love to hear the same ones over and over. Winnie-the-Pooh and many other classic children's literature. Even fun things like Dr. Suess (perfect for listening with the poetic style). These are great for those times when you want them to sit quietly, but without TV. They can do quiet activities (coloring, lego building, lacing cards, etc) while they listen. This could be a great activity while you are fixing dinner. They could sit at the table and do their activity while you all enjoy the story. Your library might have some books on tape to borrow.

Independently the oldest might even enjoy the ones that come with a "read along" book. Our library has many of these.

Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

This has given me so much to think about. Thank you, Amy.

Amy said...

Thanks Kerry! Would love, love, love to hear more ideas from you. I'll try to spend some time (being masterly!!!) to go to the library and set this up well! G & M both love books on tape but we mainly listen in the car and I've never tried to have them listen to longer books yet. I think having something to do with his hands would especially help my son to sit and listen. Grace on the other hand is much more happy to sit and listen. I think I see a fun series for you on your blog that would be helpful for so many :-)

Cindy said...

Awesome post and a great reminder!


Ida Red (aka Richele) said...

So wonderful! I have a tendency to want to turn on a video or create an activity when the kids get cabin fever or start to go stir crazy. I have also found that these band aid solutions never work for long and in the end teach nothing. I think Masterly Inactivity is something kids are in need of in this day. Most kids are so overloaded with activities that they can hardly entertain themselves. To be bored is and insult to oneself...a quote from Franics Bacon..I think? lol. Anyway, kids expect to be entertained these days or they are bored. Very sad. I am trying to teach my kids differently. Masterly Inactivity is one of my favorite ideas from CM philosophy. Thanks for this terrific!

Amy said...

I love the Bacon quote, I'll use that with my son today!!


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