In my last post, I explored Charlotte Mason’s way of reason: all children should understand the limitations of human reason by learning to recognize good arguments and weak ones, so that they can become wise and virtuous learners. I explained some of Charlotte’s own suggestions for achieving this goal, and also some of the suggestions of modern commentators on the way of reason. I introduced to this conversation a tool from my own Catholic heritage (The Examen) that we can offer to children on their path toward virtue. The Examen can help our children gain awareness of their interior spiritual state so that they are less likely to be lead astray by poor reasoning, which is a tool of the devil.
In this post, I’m considering Charlotte’s way of the will, especially as a Catholic.
What Is the Way of the Will?
If I understand Charlotte correctly, the way of the will is about helping our child master his own will– to do the things he should do because they are good and virtuous instead of always doing what he wants to do. A child will want to do many things that aren’t good for him or are harmful to himself or his relationships, so we have to help him strengthen his will. Our hope is that eventually our child’s will and the virtuous choice are aligned instead of in battle, that doing the virtuous thing becomes natural to him and not an exercise in white-knuckling self-denial.
How do we accomplish this? First, we teach our child what is good, beautiful, and just. This is why Charlotte Mason recommended exposing children to experiences that reveal virtue, especially in whole, living books and religious reading. Second, we help our child get control of her appetites, impulses, and passions so that virtue can win out in a battle between what she wants to do/receive and what she should do/receive. The Catholic Church’s approach to mastering the will is identical to Charlotte’s: “Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good, and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1734) (“ascesis” means self-discipline).
Charlotte Mason’s View of the Will
Especially given the time in which she wrote and taught, Charlotte Mason was unique in that she saw the will not as something evil that needed to be squashed, but as something very good that just needed a little taming. Catholics have a similar view: the will is part of our human dignity, part of what makes us free, part of the divine image in us.
The human person participates in the light and power of the divine Spirit. By his reason, he is capable of understanding the order of things established by the Creator. By free will, he is capable of directing himself toward his true good. He finds his perfection ‘in seeking and loving what is true and good. By virtue of his soul and his spiritual powers of intellect and will, man is endowed with freedom, an outstanding manifestation of the divine image.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1704.
The will is a gift, but like all gifts we can misuse it. How do we handle it when our kids misuse the gift of the will?
Charlotte uses the term “repress” in this passage in relation to the will:
“The passions, the desires, the appetites, are there already, and the will gathers force and vigour only as it is exercised in the repression and direction of these” (Home Education, 319).
But, she does not use the term in the way child trainers use it nowadays – as an excuse to physically punish children because the child’s will is the root of evil. I believe that a child’s will is good, even when it is expressed inappropriately. The “no” a child utters to a parent in defiance is admittedly not virtuous, but his motivation is good: He is protecting his dignity and asserting what he thinks is right however misguided he might be. The same impulse for justice that leads him to assert a firm “no” now will allow him to reject invitations to evil later. Maybe in ten years he’ll say “NO!” to a drug dealer or pressure to have pre-marital sex. Blind obedience shouldn’t be our goal. The will is part of what makes us uniquely human: we have the power to choose.
Charlotte says, “Character is the result of conduct regulated by the will” (Home education, 319). She means that we have to help our child say no to the wrong things and yes to the right things. As I see it, we do this with gentle, loving guidance, not with authoritarian, scary demands of blind obedience. If we try to beat this lesson into our children, they learn to fear us. Sure, they may do the right thing out of fear. But I want to shape my child’s heart so that he does the right thing from a deep-seated sense of rightness, not because he fears the consequences that may be imposed upon him by people more powerful than himself. I want him to do the right for love and from a place of emotional freedom.
If there is any question that Charlotte doesn’t believe we should repress the will through punishment, there is this passage:
“Now we come to a divergence of opinion: on the one hand, the parents decide that, whatever the consequence, the child’s will is not to be broken, so all his vagaries must go unchecked; on the other, the decision is, that the child’s will must be broken at all hazards, and the poor little being is subjected to a dreary round of punishment and repression,” Home Education, 320.
She undoubtedly believed that a child should be not punished for asserting his will; at the same time, his will should not be allowed to rule the day. Everything a child wants is NOT good for him. But the motivation may be good, so we direct the motivation and guide the child’s heart.
We do this by helping our child get control of his impulses and passions. Here is how Charlotte imagines us accomplishing this daunting task:
Children should be taught
a) to distinguish between “I want” and “I will;”
b) that the way to will effectively is to turn our thoughts from that which we desire but do not will;
c) that the best way to our thoughts is to think of or do some quite different thing, entertaining or interesting;
d) that after a little rest this way, the will returns to its work with new vigour.
(This adjunct of the will is familiar to us as diversion, show office it is to ease us for a time from will effort, that we may ‘will’ again with added power. The use of suggestion as an aid to the will is to be deprecated, as tending to stultify and stereotype character. It would seem that spontaneity is a condition of development, and that human nature needs the discipline of failure as well as of success.) Home Education, Principle 15.
In modern terms she is saying that we have to teach our child the difference between his impulsive desires and what he needs in order to thrive as a Christian. We give him lots of practice in choosing the right thing so that eventually he develops good habits and the good choice becomes second nature. She tells us to teach our child how to use diversions to get his mind off the stuff he wants but doesn’t need.
I think she is recommending that we teach our child to divert himself, but when children are very young this is not possible. We know now because of breakthroughs in neuropsychology that children don’t have the cognitive ability to understand this. Many parents intuitively distract toddlers from their wayward intentions, because they know there is no point in reasoning with an 18-month old why a cookie is not good for him right now and why he should prefer the carrots. But when he’s 6, the lesson can come. The 6-year-old will still probably prefer the cookie, but at least he can now understand rationally why the carrots are a better choice.
When a child is older, I believe that we can teach him about healthy diversions, but I think there is a limitation to Charlotte’s advice which Catholic spirituality highlights.
Diversions Aren’t Always the Answer
We notice in the passage above that Charlotte recommends that we teach the child to find diversions from temptation through “entertainment” or other “interesting things”. I think this is good advice, especially with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers or when we’re dealing with relatively small issues.
However, here is a passage from renowned spiritual director Father Timothy Gallagher explaining a potential problem with using diversions to deal with temptation:
In a very real sense, it will appear easier and seem more welcome to find escape in diversion. At such times we may immerse ourselves in busyness, the media, or various gratifications of a more or less healthy nature; all of them, in this case, serve to be without when being within seems too uncomfortable (The Discernment of Spirits, 91).
The danger Gallagher is talking about immerges when we use diversions to avoid looking at our hearts, at our motivations, at the spiritual darkness within ourselves. Distractions can become addictions. The person cannot get to the root of their suffering because they are running from themselves and the diversions become crutches. Obviously Charlotte would never recommend that children engage in unhealthy or unwholesome diversions, but even relatively innocent diversions can be problematic if they impede our spiritual growth.
If our child never learns to examine his own interiority, to pay attention to his heart, then after his distraction wears off he is still left with the problem that led to the temptation in the first place.
In Ignatian spirituality, when we are in spiritual desolation (moving away from God and toward sin), we should not divert ourselves, but instead stop and ask ourselves: What is happening in my heart? How did I get here? What happened to lead me here? What is causing it? What can I do to reject it? When we reflect on it this way, we are able to separate ourselves from the temptation or darkness and look at it dispassionately.
So, I think this is something we need to be aware of when teaching our children about resisting temptations. If we lead them to believe that distracting themselves is the answer to all their problems, then they may begin to rely on that tool alone and it may not be sufficient. As they mature, we can help them make that turn inward in self-examination. During tough times, we help them to look for the root of their disquiet, for any events or choices they made that led them to where they are at. For example, if our child struggles with hitting a sibling, instead of teaching him to distract himself from his anger by reading a book, we can help him look at his heart: Why does he want to hit his sibling? Does he lack of virtue in some area that needs strengthening? Does he feel misunderstood or taken advantage of by the sibling? Is he seeking justice? Helping him examine these motivations and tensions within himself will lead him to greater self-knowledge, which will hopefully lead to greater wisdom and virtue as he grows closer to God.
Agere Contra: Spiritually Healthy Diversion
Agere contra is Latin for “to act against.” This is another spiritual tool gifted to us by St. Ignatius. It is used when we are in spiritual darkness, but also just to get control of our passions and strong desires.
In any area where we are weak or where we resist doing the right thing, then we do the exact opposite (acting against our inclinations) with great fervor. We don’t do the bad thing in an even bigger way, and we do the right thing with even greater love. For example, if we are hitting the alarm clock snooze too many times, we act against sloth by choosing to do the complete opposite: we get up early the next day, not just on time.
I remember reading about St. Therese of Lisieux’s struggle with an ornery nun who was rude and hostile toward her. Instead of returning insults or harboring a grudge, St. Therese specifically sought out ways to love this nun, to pray for her more than she prayed for anyone else. That is practicing agere contra. It’s a way of nipping in the bud any movement toward darkness. We’re basically giving the devil the middle finger.
So, in a way this is a diversion like Charlotte talks about, but it’s a specific kind of diversion: we teach our child that he can become strong not just by doing something interesting or different as Charlotte suggests, but by doing the exact opposite of the thing he’s tempted to do. So if the child wants to hit his sibling, we suggest that he hugs her and invites her to play a game. If the child struggles with hiding his dirty laundry when he is supposed to place them in the hamper, not only does he put them in the hamper but he puts his brother’s in the hamper, too.
Perhaps these lessons about agere contra are more appropriate for older kids and teens, but it’s a tool that we might like to keep in our parenting toolbox. By teaching them agere contra, we are helping our child build a spiritual backbone, which he really needs nowdays. Especially as our kids approach the teen years, having plenty of practice in acting against his inclinations will help him resist the siren of popular culture.