I am that young mom, I’m sure you know her—so enamored and excited with all the richness that we will discover together in the classical feast, just anxious to get started already! My oldest child is almost four, which means I am counting down the days until our formal homeschooling can begin.
Or so I thought I was counting down the days—
Now I realize I need all of these preparatory years. These little years are the seed sowing years in my children, but maybe more importantly, in me. Although my days can seem entirely filled with answering the repeated requests for snacks, diaper changes, and more meals, all the while frequently nursing the baby, when I examine my typical day, I often have more time available than I think I do. The moments I spend sitting and nursing, or waiting for the water to boil, or sweeping under the kitchen table yet again—these moments can be used to fill my mind with images and ideas of things good, true, and beautiful. This is the time for sowing into my own heart what I hope to instill in my kids as they grow up watching me live in the world. What new things am I learning? How do I spend my time? What are my hobbies? Do I enjoy the wonder of the natural world with my children? What do I do to consider and serve my neighbors? With all this in mind, I realize I am not the woman I want to be, and I know that the way I spend my days will directly form my children’s vision of “the good life”.
Mimetic learning is a fundamental concept of classical education. Born in the image of God, our whole existence is framed by imitation: what we adore, how we create, who we become. This is all done with the telos of our imago Dei in mind: to glorify God by imitating His ways and multiplying His likeness throughout the whole world. With this goal in mind, parents labor intensely to put a feast of ideas and images before their children that are worth imitating, but we must not forget that the primary person children imitate is their mother, who lives and works and learns before them. Therefore, we cannot neglect investment in our own virtue and character. I cannot teach what I do not love myself, nor can I expect of my children what I do not practice in my own discipline. How will my children learn to seek beauty or goodness when time and time again they watch me choose convenience, sitcoms, and social media?
My affections need daily re-ordering, and my tastes need continual acclimation to what is truly good. I have much of my own learning and growing to do before my kids look to me, mother-teacher, and learn about how to rightly move in God’s world. But yet, they already are. I’m sure we’ve all had those moments when we see our child act or speak in such a way that it is as if we were looking in a mirror. They don’t miss a thing and can in some instances be our best teachers. Marmee shares this sentiment early on in the story of Little Women, when Jo asks what helped her grow in virtue she answers with this reflection on imitation:
“Your father, Jo. He never loses patience—never doubts or complains—but always hopes, and works and waits so cheerfully that one is ashamed to do otherwise before him. He helped and comforted me, and showed me that I must try to practice all the virtues I would have my little girls possess, for I was their example. It was easier to try for your sakes than for my own; a startled or surprised look from one of you when I spoke sharply rebuked me more than any words could have done; and the love, respect, and confidence of my children was the sweetest reward I could receive for my efforts to be the woman I would have them copy.”
Charlotte Mason realized the ongoing need for self-enrichment and coined the term “mother culture”, a suggested practice for classical homeschooling mothers of setting aside a short time each day to invest in their own learning and pursuit of virtue. This can look like many things, such as creative handiwork, reading, memorizing poetry, and more. The goal of this time is to envelop mom in the very beauty that she wants to share with her children, because after all, mom is a human being with a soul that needs cultivating too. Although I desire a quiet moment with a blanket and a paperback book, what works in my current season is reading ebooks on my phone while nursing, and audiobooks in my ear buds while cooking dinner or watching my kids on the playground. Loving what is good is not about schoolwork, it is about living “the good life”. For me, this has looked like working on my own nature journal sketches and watercolors alongside my kids, as well as reading my own book in the morning while they rummage through our basket of library books for the week. These are short times in the day where my children see me engaging with the very materials, ideas, and loves that I am placing before them and hoping they fall in love with, but I am leading the way by example.
These toddler and “pre”-school years are the years that will lay the foundation for our future homeschool. Although my days are full of caring for their needs, I will venture to say, the little years of toddlers and babies offer more pockets of hidden time than I dare to admit. For that reason, I must take every thought and effort captive to be formed into the woman I want my children to look to and learn from. By the conviction of the Holy Spirit, I have been reminded that I have no time to waste, I must make the most of the time at hand because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:16). And as Annie Dillard reminds us, our days are what make up our lives, and these are the days that are making me into the mother-teacher I need to be. I have deep work to do, that I may be able to say with Saint Paul, go ahead, “imitate me as I imitate Christ.”
Choosing to invest in my own pursuit of virtue will be a lifelong endeavor, requiring sacrifice and devotion. I will continue to become what I continually behold, may it look more and more like the image of Christ. Saint Paul also reminds us that the greatest imitation of Christ is to walk in humility. I am humbled to know I will never know enough, never love enough, never do enough even as my children’s teacher, and especially as their mother. But I am always willing to learn, always willing to change and grow. And always willing to repent. That is a woman I want my children to follow.