Charlotte Mason Principals of Education (with EXPLANATIONS)

Charlotte Mason wrote an awful lot; she has many books. Now, it’s really hard to read through all those books – you can do it if you like – and I would recommend that if you have the time. But it can be difficult. How you can get a head start on understanding her theory is by understanding these Charlotte Mason principles

These Charlotte Mason principles shine through in a lot of her writing. So, by understanding these 20 things you’ll be at a very big head start to understand Charlotte Mason as a whole.

Rebbecca Devitt

I hope you enjoy reading this blog post. If you want to do my course on how to homeschool, click here.

I’m very thankful to Ambleside Online who have provided loads of helpful information about Charlotte Mason including free pdfs on all of her books.

Charlotte Mason was sometimes a little difficult to understand. So, after I tell you what the principle of Charlotte Mason is, I’ll then tell you what it means. I hope my translation will help you understand the substance a little more.

Principles of Charlotte Mason Video Below

Please note that the following is a transcript of the video on Charlotte Mason Principles below. 

Principle 1

Children are born persons.

Charlotte Mason’s first principle which you will hear in many homeschool articles about Charlotte Mason, is “children are born persons.” Jean Jaques Rousseau believed that children were a black slate, and you could do whatever you wanted with them. Charlotte Mason said, “not so.” children are born persons. They’re not embryotic oysters who have the potential to become persons. They’re already born like that. So that’s her first principle.

Principle 2

They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil. *see note

The second principle of Charlotte Mason is interesting and has to be understood in context. So, Mason said, “they are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good for evil.” Now, this means that although children are born with sinful natures, they are neither all bad or all good. Children from all walks of life and backgrounds may make mistakes for good or evil. Ambleside Online has a note on this principle of Charlotte Mason because it’s one that many Christians (perhaps in Anglican/Baptist circles) will stumble over. But they say, “Principle 2 should not be understood as a theological position on the doctrine of original sin, but as a belief that even poor children who were previously thought incapable of living honest lives could choose right from wrong if they were taught.” Mason was a member of the Anglican Church, which is good to know.

Principle 3

The principles of authority on the one hand, and of obedience on the other, are natural, necessary and fundamental; but–

Mason meant that it is essential for authority and obedience to exist in the educational sphere. Essentially, it is necessary to have submission for authority for a family or a country, a group of people to run smoothly.

Principle 4

These principles are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, which must not be encroached upon whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire.

The fourth principle of Charlotte Mason dovetails on principle number three in that although there is authority, you must respect the child.

We shouldn’t use fear, love, power suggestion to make children learn their educational material. And because we can’t make them learn, we’re left with a few things, and this leads into Charlotte Mason principle number five.

Principle 5

Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments–the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas.  The P.N.E.U. Motto is: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.”

We can only train children by using their natural environment, getting them to train up good habits, and exposing them to living ideas or concepts. This is what, ‘Education is an atmosphere, discipline, and a life,’ means; that’s what that motto means.

Principle 6

When we say that “education is an atmosphere,” we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child-environment’ especially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions.It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the ‘child’s’ level.

This means we shouldn’t create an artificial environment in which a child learns. Instead they should learn through their environment. And they should learn through real life. If we don’t teach them in this way, we might be stunting our children.


Principle 7

By “education is a discipline,” we mean the discipline of habits, formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or body. Physiologists tell us of the adaptation of brain structures to habitual lines of thought, i.e., to our habits.

And so, what does “education is a discipline” mean? It simply means that we should train children to have good habits and self-control.

Principle 8

In saying that “education is a life,” the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.

So, ‘Education is a life,’ means that education should apply to the body, the soul, and the spirit. The mind needs lots of material to chew over and so we should give children a liberal or a very wide ranging curriculum, exposing them to a lot of different ideas in the curriculum.

Principle 9

We hold that the child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs.

This means a child’s mind is not just a blank slate or a bucket to be filled. The mind needs to have information to go in it to digest, just like the stomach needs food to digest to grow the body. It doesn’t need to be coaxed into learning because it is so ready to do that already.

Classical vs Charlotte Mason curriculum in a nutshell.Principle 10

Such a doctrine as e.g. the Herbartian, that the mind is a receptacle, lays the stress of education (the preparation of knowledge in enticing morsels duly ordered) upon the teacher. Children taught on this principle are in danger of receiving much teaching with little knowledge; and the teacher’s axiom is ,’what a child learns matters less than how he learns it.’

What on earth does Charlotte Mason’s Principle number 10 mean? Well, Herbart’s philosophy was that a child’s mind is pretty empty and that we as teachers need to feel that and so that puts an awful lot of stress and responsibility on parents or teachers and she says for all that, children don’t learn they don’t need to be prepared anyway to learn and children will do that anyway and so that is the point.

Principle 11

But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas. Out of this conception comes our principle that,–

…and the rest of that principle leads into the 12th principle which we’ll cover below. But what does the 11th principle mean? Essentially, it means that we give children a lot of credit for their ability to learn – their ability to digest information –  and so we give them a rich buffet of learning opportunities and experiences. And in that way, we give them more credit for what they’re able to learn by giving them a wide range of things to learn.

Principle 12

“Education is the Science of Relations”; that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of–

         “Those first-born affinities
       “That fit our new existence to existing things.”

Education is a science of relations that means that we think children can make connections on their own. They can make connections with knowledge and experiences, and therefore, we give them a liberal curriculum. We make them look at nature, science, and art, and we offer them as many living books so, stories that teach you things as they’re happy to read.

Principle 13

In devising a SYLLABUS for a normal child, of whatever social class, three points must be considered:

(a) He requires much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food as much as does the body.

(b) The knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite (i.e., curiosity)

(c) Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form.

When we make a curriculum, we need to think about giving them many ideas as brain food. In giving them this, we will prevent boredom as the brain loves to think about various ideas and concepts. Also, when we look at getting books for the children, they should have high literary value and good concepts as the child’s brain responds to high-quality material like that.

Principle 14

As knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced, children should ‘tell back’ after a single reading or hearing: or should write on some part of what they have read.

This principle of Charlotte Mason’s is talking about narration. That is when a child’s heard a story or has heard an article or that sort of thing the child should tell back or narrate back what they’ve just heard. And this is based on the idea that a child does not really own or does not know information until they can reproduce it themselves in their own way.

Principle 15

A single reading is insisted on, because children have naturally great power of attention; but this force is dissipated by the re-reading of passages, and also, by questioning, summarising. and the like.

Acting upon these and some other points in the behaviour of mind, we find that the educability of children is enormously greater than has hitherto been supposed, and is but little dependent on such circumstances as heredity and environment.

Nor is the accuracy of this statement limited to clever children or to children of the educated classes: thousands of children in Elementary Schools respond freely to this method, which is based on the behaviour of mind.

And what does that mean? It means that when we insist on narration, we should only read the text once to them because children have extraordinary powers of attention. But if you re-read the passage to them, it weakens their powers of attention and makes them lazy. But if you make them do it off one reading, they can do it. And they get used to that. By asking summarizing questions or re-reading the passage you make the urgency to pay attention much less and so the child doesn’t. Also, by getting it the first time, you don’t have to waste time re-reading the passage, and you can spend that time on other knowledge exercises. Furthermore, a child doing it this way will learn more, and that is great.

Principle 16

There are two guides to moral and intellectual self-management to offer to children, which we may call ‘the way of the will’ and ‘the way of the reason.’

Children have guides that will show them the intellectual and the moral way. These are called ‘the way of the will’ and ‘the way of reason.’ And we’re going to learn about these two ways in the following two principles, which will break them down.

Principle 17

The way of the will: 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 turn our thoughts is to think of or do some quite different thing, entertaining or interesting.

(d) That after a little rest in this way, the will returns to its work with new vigour. (This adjunct of the will is familiar to us as diversion, whose 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.)

That’s a mouthful, but what does it mean? It essentially means that children must learn control instead of going “I want, I want, I want,” they say, “No, I’ve got to overcome that, and I’m going to do what I will. I’m going to overcome my base nature and have self-control, and I’m going to will to do this instead.” They must learn to distract their thoughts when they’re tempted to do something they want to do but is not correct. Then, after diverting themselves for a short time they will be able to will with renewed strength and go on and do what they must do or do the thing that is good to do, and it will be easier as they’ve been diverted.

Principle 18

The way of reason: We teach children, too, not to ‘lean (too confidently) to their own understanding’; because the function of reason is to give logical demonstration

(a) of mathematical truth,

(b) of an initial idea, accepted by the will. In the former case, reason is, practically, an infallible guide, but in the latter, it is not always a safe one; for, whether that idea be right or wrong, reason will confirm it by irrefragable proofs.

We shouldn’t lean too heavily on our reason because reason can be pretty good at helping us understand mathematical relations, but it can also trip us up when we’re looking into judgments, those sorts of things. Sometimes when we want to believe something, we will justify them. Our reasoning will gets involved and we work to justify something that isn’t right. This process of faulty justification can be seen when you see a mother who thinks their child is perfect in every way, but you can see their faults.

Principle 19

Therefore, children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas. To help them in this choice we give them principles of conduct, and a wide range of the knowledge fitted to them. These principles should save children from some of the loose thinking and heedless action which cause most of us to live at a lower level than we need.

Knowing that our reason shouldn’t be the final authority on choosing opinions and ideas, we have a very high responsibility to decide which ideas we choose or not to choose. This concept is one of the most important things we should teach in education. Children must be taught they have a great responsibility when they choose to reject or to accept certain ideas. Children with good habits and behavior and children who have had a broad liberal education with lots of knowledge will then have the tools to make these decisions well.

Principle 20

We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.

There shouldn’t be a separation between religious studies and secular studies. Everything you learn should have God intricately involved in it. Whatever they study, God is always with them. I think that the 20th principle is very important for Christian parents to understand. God should be in everything and children should be learning about God all the time, and everything should be related to God.

Conclusion on the Charlotte Mason Principles

The Charlotte Mason principles  are a great read and teach you a lot about education children in a short time. They are also a useful summary of her books. So if you don’t want to wade through multiple volumes of Mason’s work, learning these principles are a good alternative.

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Rebecca Devitt

Most adults don't particularly want to relive their schooling experience on a daily basis. They would gladly move on to a new life devoid of homework and teachers. Very, very few adults will passionately blog about their schooling some 15 years after graduating. This makes Rebecca Devitt somewhat unique. As it happens, she was homeschooled. And she loved it. Still does. And she wishes every kid could get a taste of homeschooling at its very best. Her website How Do I Homeschool, is a springboard for parents to see what a life of homeschooling could be for both them & their children. When she's not blogging Rebecca is still homeschooling her-adult-self by learning Latin, growing weird vegetables and most importantly looking after her two children Luke & Penny. She has a husband Tristan and is a participant at Wollongong Baptist Church. She's also written a book about why parents should homeschool called 'Why on Earth Homeschool'.

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