He writhes his body, arching his head back and rubbing his feet together. “It’s too hard,” he proclaims. “I can’t do it!”
Immediately, I want to lash out, “Too hard for you?! Too hard for you!? No, it’s not too hard for you. It’s too hard for me! I can’t teach you! Just read the silly prose! It’s not difficult! See: The cat sat on the floor.”
But thankfully, most days I am able to hold in my frustration and simply sit silently, pointing to the first three-letter word printed there, or almost calmly respond, “It’s OK son, I know you can do it.”
So goes the daily reading lesson that my wife or I inflict on our seven-year old son. Or, at least as I often experience it, that he inflicts on us. I think to myself, Where did we go wrong? Certainly, home education should not be this challenging.
When my wife and I first started home educating a year and a half ago using Charlotte Mason’s philosophy (and by we, I mostly mean my wife), I recall imagining that it would be something tranquil, beautiful, and blessed; that our holiness and good intentions would automatically produce children excellent both in virtue and in academics; that we were protecting our son from the big, bad world out there. Then our eldest actually took his seat in the classroom, and something close to chaos ensued. And soon my wife and I began to feel that maybe instead of protecting our son from the world out there, we needed to protect ourselves from him in our own home.
But then something happened in the past couple of months that began to soften my heart: I started reading Charlotte Mason. And I was deeply struck by a very basic, yet essential, aspect of her philosophy of education: While “all children are born persons,” they “are not all alike.” A child’s dignity lies in being made in the image and likeness of his or her Creator. But that does not mean that children are identical stencils. Rather, an aspect of God’s love for persons is that he makes each one utterly unique and individual, with unique gifts, talents, and yes, challenges.
Through Charlotte Mason, I have come to realize that what I thought would be one of my greatest assets in home educating our son—the fact that I myself was home educated—is in fact one of my biggest challenges. For I invariably compare myself and my experiences to my son. And whereas I learned to read quickly using Sing, Spell, Read, and Write and then furiously set off devouring lengthy biographies of Hall of Fame baseball players, my son still struggles to read simple sentences a year and a half into reading. And whereas I loved the challenges and excitement of learning, and was docile and correctable as a student, my son is tense, anxious, defeatist, and prone to eruptions. If I am honest with myself, the thought, Why can’t my son be more like me? is an appealing one.
But then I remember: I did not choose my natural disposition. I am naturally gifted in certain areas, and challenged in others. Nor did my son choose his natural disposition. He is naturally inclined to certain areas, and challenged in others. And if I judge him by my gifting and disposition, he will often fall short. But this is not a fair assessment from the start.
As Ms. Mason so poignantly writes: “We must know something about the material we are to work upon if the education we offer is not to be scrappy and superficial. We must have some measure of a child’s requirements, not based on his uses to society, nor upon the standard of the world he lives in, but upon his own capacity and needs.” I would add to that, and based not even upon the standard of his parents. Created utterly unique and profoundly dignified, each child deserves to be treated and educated in accordance with that dignity and individuality.
Now a year and a half into home education, I am finally beginning to be at peace with my son’s progress (or at times, apparent lack thereof) in his studies. I am beginning to see him as the individual that he is, and to shape my teaching approach to correspond to his individuality. Although there are still extremely hard days where, after listening to my wife’s lamentations, the creeping thought, Just send him to public school! comes back, my wife and I are at peace. For Ms. Mason has helped us appreciate the dignity of our son, and accept our vocation to love, serve, and witness to him. Perhaps there is no richer reward in home education than that.