April 18, 2024

The Child is a Born Person in Her Context

Blue Orchard Bee Resource

The Child is a Born Person in Her Context


A long-standing goal at the Blue Orchard Bee is to improve the accessibility of our resources for all of our listeners and readers. This year will are working toward this goal by republishing some of your favorite episodes with new, fully edited transcripts. Originally from the Spring 2020 series, we're re-releasing this interview with Dr. Carroll Smith with this new and fully-edited transcript. In this interview, Danielle and Dr. Smith discuss the child as a born person.


The following video is a product of the Blue Orchard Bee and the Charlotte Mason Institute who hold a copyright. You are encouraged to share this file with your friends, family, and colleagues. Do not republish this information in any format, including electronic or digital, without permission from the Charlotte Mason Institute. Ideas suggested in these files do not necessarily reflect the views of the Blue Orchard Bee or the Charlotte Mason Institute. Information provided here is not to be perceived or construed as professional advice in matters of mental health. You are encouraged to work closely with a mental health professional provider that meets your needs.


This file comes from the Blue Orchard Bee. We ask you to respect the copyright of this file which belongs to the Charlotte Mason Institute, Andra Smith, and Danielle Merritt-Sunseri. The file is for personal use only. You may share with family, friends, and colleagues, but do not publish the material in any format, including in any electronic format such as website, blogs or otherwise, without permission from the Charlotte Mason Institute, Andra Smith, or Danielle Merritt-Sunseri. Please note the views expressed in these files do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charlotte Mason Institute, Andra Smith, or Danielle Merritt-Sunseri. It is important that you remember that information provided on this file is not intended to represent or to be construed or received as professional advice in matters of mental health.

You are encouraged to work closely with a licensed mental health provider that fits your needs. In today's session on the Blue Orchard Bee, Danielle continues her conversation with Carroll Smith on Mason's foundational principle, The Child is a Born Person. Was that concept radical? What were the concepts of her day about the child?

Did she have anything new or different to say than what was being said around her? Join Danielle as she explores this topic especially as it relates to neuroatypical children. Let's listen.


Danielle: We are here with Carroll Smith again today to continue our discussion about what's so special about Mason, what makes a Mason education, and why do we crave her so much. Last time we talked a little bit about personhood and we're going to continue on with that today. We know that Mason's first principle, as we talked about last time, is still her founding and most important principle. So Carroll, let's talk a little bit more about why this is so important for us today within our context.

Carroll: And I think it will help us to go back and look at Mason's context so that we can see why this was important to her and during her time, why it was... maybe we'll see that it was really radical or that it was revolutionary.

So that then can help us set the stage for why it's still so important to us today. And I think to do that, I want to give a little bit of a context from the Victorian time. Now the Victorians were somewhat interested in children and learning about children. The Romantics had even begun to write about children. And in fact, I think it was Wordsworth who wrote an extensive poem about his own growing up and his childhood.

"It will help us to go back and look at Mason's context so that we can see why this was important to her."

And there were others who had written about their childhoods. And so the interest in children was on the rise. But there were a number of influences going on at that time that impacted what was thought in some circles about children. So I want to read a couple of quotes that sort of set the stage for what some of the scientists, medical personnel, medical people were thinking during that time about children.

And so one of them was a very influential psychiatrist of the time called Henry Mosley. And he stated in 1867, the child, and I'm quoting, "the child is as an animal and reveals its animal nature with a little shame, as little shame faceness as the monkey indulges its passions in the face of the world." Havlok Ellis noted that the child is naturally by his organization nearer to the animal, to the savage, to the criminal than the adult. And then a leading child psychologist, James Cretan Brown, argued that children are not little 19th century men and women, but Diamond Editions.

And that kind of makes it sound really nice, but listen to the rest of it. But Diamond Editions of very remote ancestors, full of savage whims and impulses. So some of the belief at that time, as evolution was coming onto the stage more prominently, was that the child followed, human growth followed the evolutionary trail from birth to death. But what's interesting is, Charlotte Mason steps onto that page in 1886 and announces very clearly that the child is a person.

That is a completely different and a radical juxtaposition. When you look at her, beside these other people, her idea of the child was completely different. In fact, she lifted children out of the muck and mire of 19th century dehumanizing thinking about children, and put them on an equal level with adults in terms of personhood, not necessarily in terms of maturity, but in terms of personhood.

"When you look at her, beside these other people, her idea of the child was completely different."

Thus, children are worthy of studying. They're worthy of learning about them and figuring them out, because, as she said, they were made in the image of the Infinite Person. So I don't think we can claim that Mason started the whole child development movement, but we can certainly claim that she had a very different approach to understanding children than frequently that was held by people in the scientific community of her day.

So I think it's really important to see that difference and what was going on around her and what she thought about children. Now, why do I think that's an issue? Why does that make it important today? How we view the origins of children, how we understand what a person is, or if a baby is even a person, has tremendous implications for how we're going to teach them, how we will relate to them, and all of the things that we do, what we think of today as education, we have to really consider seriously, who is this person we are going to teach, and what rights do they have? Mason talks about the rights of children. Out of this Judeo-Christian context in which she built her ideas, there is a lot of that still in our educational system today. For example, the whole idea of special needs and the laws that speak to and take care of the needs of children who have special needs, and particularly our government schools. There's a whole range of laws that protect these children.

"Children are worthy of studying."

So there are a number of things like this that are really important. So I want to read another quote from an author who wrote that everybody's really familiar with during that time period. His name is Charles Dickens, and he wrote a book called Hard Times. And if you look at the very first chapter, you will see what I'm going to quote here now, and listen to the language, because he's using language that helps us understand what people thought about children.

So here goes the quote: "Now, what I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon facts. Nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to the facts, sir."

Now, if you go down to another page, Dickens has this person say, "in this life, we want nothing but facts, sir, nothing but facts. The speaker and the schoolmaster and the third person present all backed up a little and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels, then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim." So we have this image from Dickens as to how education was perceived and done when you view children as vessels, and he doesn't even refer to them as children.

He refers to them as little vessels arranged, and he even uses this word arranged in order. In other words, it is totally devoid of any kind of relationship. It is totally devoid of any kind of atmosphere, of any kind of intellectual thought, any kind of reflect any of the things that we think of that are important in education, particularly for human beings.

It's completely devoid of that. And so Dickens has given us a picture of what this kind of education looks like when you don't treat children as persons. And I think that is the reason that we still have to have today as our primary principle, Mason's idea that the child is a born person. It radically changes the way in which you teach the child. You want to say some reflective words on that?

"That holistic point of view that is so deeply embedded within the philosophy is what can be truly life changing for neuroatypical kids especially."

Danielle: Gosh, yeah. A big piece of this, you were talking about relationship and the identity of the person as Mason identified the child. And I think that that holistic point of view that is so deeply embedded within the philosophy is what can be truly life changing for neuroatypical kids especially. Of course, it is for every child, but I think for these kids especially because they're surrounded, I think by a world that doesn't quite feel like they belong in it at times. So to have that embedded within the philosophy that really focuses on them as people, as human beings that need relationship can be really life changing for them.

It brings an understanding when sometimes we get kids that have kind of those blank expressions and they just don't seem like they're connecting or kids that are experiencing really extreme amounts of frustration and anxiety gives us a clue to maybe what's going on there, I think. Intellectually, we as neuroatypical people are very different from the majority that falls underneath that bell curve. And I think if we understand that thought and practice need to touch both the intellect and the spirit, you know, Mason talks a lot about there not being any separation. And that's part of our identity as persons that the body, mind, and spirit are all connected. Then I think we can begin to appreciate the implications there that thought and practice that fail to reach our intellect will necessarily then fail to reach our spirit. And by extension, blindly utilizing thought and practice that undervalue who we are intellectually can do real harm spiritually. And I just don't think that we can really begin to understand what to do for these atypical kids until we truly own that identity.

"Blindly utilizing thought and practice that undervalue who we are intellectually can do real harm spiritually."

Carroll: Good. Those are good thoughts. I'm thinking about what you were saying about the unity of the human being. I often remember and remind myself of Francis Schaefer talking about how the fall brought about a division between ourselves and other people. So therefore our relationships with other people require work, even with our spouses. But he also talked about how that brokenness was also within ourselves. And so there's a sense that we have to actually struggle to make those that body, soul, spirit, concept work together. But I think it's even more complicated in the Christian community today by the dualistic thinking that has entered the church and that came from some very platonic ideas where the body was considered sort of like a casket or a trash can for the soul.

And what Plato believed was that the body had fallen and the soul had done something wrong or had fallen and was put in this casket of a body or this dustbin of a body. And our goal or the goal of men, and when I say men, I don't mean it in the sense that typically you see it, say in the Bible or in other places where you use that one word to reference all of humankind. No, in Plato's thought, it was men only. And what these men could do, because it was really then only the princes, the elite of the men, what their goal was was to do some sort of virtue or some sort of great deed that would get them into heaven.

They could escape earth when they died and go to heaven. So how that came into the church frequently was I can do, if I do something spiritual like attend a Bible study, that's better than making sure my bathroom potty is clean. And what the different writers that I've read behind on this topic talk about is that begins to remove some things from the Lordship of Christ and leave other things under the Lordship of Christ. In other words, even in James 3, I think it is, where James talks about teachers and the importance of teachers and how they really need to be careful what they teach because they're going to be held accountable for it. If you have a dualistic view of life, you would only see that as spiritual teaching.

But if God is truly Lord of all, then it means every kind of teaching because all things that we teach belong to God, not just what we might teach in Sunday school and Sunday morning. So if you look at it as everything is under the Lordship of Christ and not divided out as some things are and some things aren't like is done in Platonic thinking, then all of life, including in what we're discussing, all children have to have their needs met. And one of the things that we know about children, not just children, but the human being, because they are image bearers, then they change from within, not without.

"There are tools that the child uses to change from within, language, imagination, reflection."

So what Dickens was saying in terms of filling those children up with empirical data, in fact, doesn't work. The child changes from within. Now, there are tools that the child uses to change from within, language, imagination, reflection.

These are various tools that human kind has to help them change from within and to learn and to grow. Now, I think it's very interesting to stop and think about those things in light of neuroatypical children. And I think you have some thoughts about language and neuroatypical children. What are your thoughts and concerns about that?

Danielle: Well, you know, language development is something that comes up a lot in the autistic community. It's something that's very central to our experience in that our language development is atypical. And it's not even the same for every autistic person. So we can't even say, okay, so if you're autistic, then this is the accommodation that you need. You might have one person that is apraxic and they are unable to speak at all. You might have another person that is less engaged verbally and they are simply more highly focused on sensory experiences.

You might have another person who is completely fascinated with words, but they struggle to use them to engage in meaningful ways. You might have another person who is prone to selective mutism, which is the loss of speech in certain situations. And then on top of all of that, there's a whole other layer because we have to keep in mind that the caregiver may not even clearly understand what is behind this atypical development that they're seeing. They may not even be aware that there is atypical development for even years into this child's education. So you can imagine why this might feel like an insurmountable obstacle within a Mason context where we talk so much about narration and the use of language. So from my perspective, I tend to think about, I guess, narration maybe a little more broadly. I try to stay focused on what was Mason getting at here.

How can we still give that to this child? And when I think about these pieces of personhood and what Mason was after, I think that she really wanted assimilation of ideas rather than that filling up of the vessel and can that vessel regurgitate what we just put in there. And so I tend to think of narration as, in essence, having the person, having the student do some personal mental work with those ideas and give them back in some way.

"I tend to think of narration as, in essence, having the person, having the student do some personal mental work with those ideas and give them back in some way."

When we have a young child, for example, that is struggling to narrate, we offer him all sorts of options that we consider to be perfectly appropriate to where he is in his development, whom we might let him draw, he might reenact with puppets. Whatever it is that is his personal mental work, we consider to be an acceptable form of narration. So I think considering atypical development, we need to think about and consider that these various broad conceptions of what narration can look like should perhaps extend beyond form 1B or even form 1 throughout the child's education, especially if the child is developing that language atypically.

I have one student, for example, who is intellectually at least a form 4. She is emotionally about a 2B and she could easily regurgitate just about anything you throw at her. But truly in the essence of the word, narrate, in what Mason I think intended, she is really only narrating at about the level of a 1A or a 2B. She sounds verbally precocious, but she really is struggling tremendously to formulate and organize and articulate and work with those ideas verbally. So the goals, those goals to feed her holistically and give her the opportunity to construct that meaning for herself is quite a challenge.

So when it comes to that mental work, we set very intentional goals and she gives her input on that as well to help her manage and respect her challenges and to learn how to use her gifts effectively. So when she narrates, she might give me a PowerPoint. She might prepare a PowerPoint presentation for me. She might act out a dramatic scene that she's prepared about these ideas that she's read about.

We might simply engage in discussion. If she's having a hard time kind of organizing her thoughts, it might look more like a discussion than a typical narration. And she typically needs some time to work on that.

She does narrate orally and by typing after she does a reading, but even with that, if I don't want her to simply give me a monotone regurgitation, I have to give her some sort of limitation that forces her to think before she just starts spitting out. So it can look very different. Her exams look very different from the ones that Mason gave to her form three students because if I did, if I gave her those exams, it would tell me nothing. She would, she would regurgitate everything we had read the whole way back to the beginning of the term, but it may mean nothing.

Carroll: So you're, to me, you're saying again that, yes, we follow the method, but we nuance that method to meet the needs of the child because if you don't, then you are not following the first principle.

Danielle: Right, right. And we're robbing that child. I would be robbing her of all of this, this beauty, all of this, this right to construct meaning that Mason was really after.

Carroll: And I think there's another example of it. And I, I think it's the ADHD child who can sometimes have problems with visualizing inside of their head, a scene, or things that they are reading. So, you know, Mason wanted well illustrated books in form one and possibly form two.

"Yes, we follow the method, but we nuance that method to meet the needs of the child because if you don't, then you are not following the first principle."

I can't remember because I'm not looking at it. But in the early years, she wanted really well-illustrated books on the curriculum. Well, if there are children who cannot imagine and they have problems creating those images in their minds, they may have to have well-illustrated books much longer than just the typical form one or form two. So again, we may have to do things that accommodate to some of these children. I, and I think even about children who have weaker or less strong, I don't know how to say it, working memory that we talked about last time. If they have to reread things to make sure sometimes that they get them, then we probably cannot expect them to complete what other children would complete in a term. And I think there are a number of ways that we can, we can accommodate that.

And again, stick to the method, but change the method, nuance the method to meet their need. And it may be that they go through history two times in 12 years rather than three times, which is the typical pattern for Mason, because they would go through history every four years. Well, a child who has to reread things sometimes, it's going to slow them up. So I think there are accommodations that we can make for neuroatypical children without giving up the philosophy. And I think even in something like the feast, well, the feast may need to be a different amount for some neuroatypical children.

"The feast may need to be a different amount for some neuroatypical children."

And actually, sometimes I think it's not even neuroatypical children, it's all children, because the feast can be so feasty in a Mason paradigm that frequently there are people, children who can't do the whole thing. And I think, and this is another issue where parents struggle because they get into shaming themselves or other people if they don't do the whole curriculum. And I don't recall it being written somewhere in the Bible that if you don't follow the whole curriculum, you're going to die and go to hell.

I don't think that's in there anyway. So I keep trying to help people understand you've got to have, I think it's Nancy Kelly who says, you got to have peace in your home. So you got to back up and say, what can my children take to? And what's reasonable for me as a person and for the children as a person and definitely for the neuroatypical children?

Danielle: Yeah, I've seen that. That became vividly clear in my home when I kind of realized that this feast is so rich that we can't digest it properly. And that desire to provide all of it is actually what's preventing them from really benefiting from it. Do you have any more on this topic that you'd like to talk about, Carroll?

Carroll: I think that's it. I just, I guess I want to reiterate that it's really important that our foundational thinking has implications then for how we teach children. In other words, who we think they are as persons then has implications for everything else. What we teach them, how we teach them, when we teach them, the whole rest of what we do in terms of education center around how we answer that question. Who are the children?

Danielle: Yeah, and I think as we continue with this work here, that's how we will tend to approach challenges and obstacles and problems. We need to always come back and be looking through this lens as our measuring stick. Why don't we wrap that up here today? Thank you so much for joining us and talking about this here today and we will see everyone back again. Thank you.

Carroll: Thank you for joining us today. This season of the Blue Orchard Bee is nearing its end. Remember these sessions will stop at the end of June and restart in September. And if you want to join the Pollinator, check out the Blue Orchard Bee page on the Charlotte Mason Institute's website. We look forward to seeing you next time.

"Our foundational thinking has implications then for how we teach children...who we think they are as persons then has implications for everything else."

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