Ambleside Blog

Instructing in the Beauty Sense

Last time, we spoke of the Beauty Sense, a formative force rarely considered in its potent ability to shape the character of children. The Beautiful, together with the Good and the True are servants to one another, each drawing to the others, as it draws us to itself. Charlotte Mason speaks of imagination with the trained eye and ear, as central to the perception of beauty.

 He must needs have Imagination with him to travel there, but still more must he have that companion of the nice ear and eye, who enabled him to recognize music and beauty in words and  their arrangement. The æsthetic Sense, in truth, holds the key of this palace of delights. There are few joys in life greater and more constant than our joy in Beauty, though it is almost impossible to put into words what Beauty consists in; color, form, proportion, harmony––these are some of its elements.[1]

These elements of Beauty speak of perfection—completeness and are often spoken of with Truth and Goodness, forming a triad.

They have been called “transcendental” on the ground that everything which is is in some measure or manner subject to denomination as true or false, good or evil, beautiful or ugly. But they have also been assigned to special spheres of being or subject matter—the true to thought and logic, the good to action and morals, the beautiful to enjoyment and aesthetics.[2]

Humans are created for and called to the transcendent, to climb over or move beyond, to excel, surpass, and surmount. And when this does not happen, something has gone wrong. Bill calls it a malformation. The malformed soul does not delight in the good, beautiful and true, but the biting, brutal, and base. The question before each of us as educators, both parents and teachers is,  how do we rightly form the hearts and minds of students of all ages?

At Ambleside, we hold as a first principle that Education is the "Science of Relations" that our hearts and minds, our affections and desires are formed by the relational world which surrounds us, be it books and things, family and friends or social media and pop culture, trends and technology. Many years ago, a parent at the Ambleside School of Ocala said to me, “We are the sum total of the books we read, the ideas we entertain, and the people we befriend.”

In the cultivation of the beauty sense, books hold the same primacy of place that do art and music. Mason said that in order to have a richly-stored imagination we must read much.[3] Students read thousands of pages a year in Ambleside Schools beginning with a thousand plus pages in kindergarten read mostly by the teacher, and culminating with eight to nine thousand pages each year  of high school. They read books described  as living, books filled with beautiful, vivid language, creating scenes for imagination, ideas of life, the knowledge of God and man, conduct and duty, a storehouse of thought wherein we may find all the great ideas that have moved the world.

Given the right book, cultivating the sense of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth begins with: Expectation and Attention— “Everyday moments of epiphany are bestowed on everyone. Our role is to simply pay attention.”[4]  When opening a living book, a revelation, a manifestation of a new idea or truth awaits the reader. This truth can take the form of a clear conscious thought or of a yearning of the heart. One must participate in a careful reading of the text, assimilating its language and responding to its Idea. We read to know, to know both mind and heart, to know in Goodness, in Truth, and in Beauty.

At Ambleside, a student cannot help but give his/her attention. At any given time in, any given subject, the student may be called upon to read, narrate or discuss. Throughout the day, living readings in fiction and non-fiction, citizenship, geography, history, Scripture, and science are thoughtfully engaged. Student are not left listless or passive. Each is engaged.  Each experiences the reciprocity of giving and receiving insights from the author and from classmate. Each  is all attention.

The manner by which a teacher cultivates the Beauty Sense is exemplified in the following three examples:

Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s, The Yearling, is set in the 1870’s backwoods of central Florida and tells the story of a year in the life of Jody Baxter, the only surviving child of Penny and Ora Baxter. The teacher introduces chapter two, directing the students’ attention to Penny Baxter as he introduces  the reader to the family history.

The babies were frail, and almost as fast as they came, they sickened and died. Penny (their father) had buried them one by one in a cleared place among the black-jack oaks, where the poor loose soil made the digging easier. The plot grew in size until he was compelled to fence it in against the vandalism of hogs and polecats. He had carved little wooden tombstones for all. He could picture them standing white and straight in the moonlight. Some of them had names: Ezra Jr.; Little Ora; William T.  The others bore only such legends as Baby Baxter, aged 3 mos. 6 days. On one, Penny had scratched laboriously with his pocket-knife, “She never saw the light of day.” His mind moved back down the years, touching them, as a man touches fence posts in his passing. 

Jody’s mother had accepted her youngest with something of detachment, as though she had given all she had of love and care and interest to those others. But Penny’s bowels yearned over his son. He gave him something more than his paternity. He found that the child stood wide-eyed and breathless before the miracle of bird and creature, of flower and tree, of wind and rain and sun and moon, as he had always stood…. He would act on any such occasion, he knew, as a bulwark for the boy against the mother’s sharpness.[5]

The students read the entire book in class, episode by episode, pausing after a single reading for a student to narrate, to tell back what was read. The narration includes the language, order, and details of the author.  An episode like the one above includes a bit more text as it is abbreviated here. The teacher provides thoughtful discussions concerning:              

  • What do you notice about Jody’s relationship with Pa and with Ma? Why is Ma so detached? How is Pa so attached?
  • Consider Rawling’s phrase, “He found that the child stood wide-eyed and breathless before the miracle of bird and creature, of flower and tree, of wind and rain and sun and moon, as he had always stood.” What about nature has such an effect on Jody? Specifically, what is it of bird, creature, flower, tree, wind and rain that captures Jody’s heart?
  • Words evoke an idea of these things and therefore some idea of Beauty. What words stirred this sense of beauty in you?

On readings  and discussions such as these, the class ends in  a ”settled quiet” reflecting. The reflection reaps its result some six weeks later during Ambleside’s annual Veterans’ Chapel. A veteran of the Vietnam War spoke bitterly of his experience, regarding the relational injustices from officers and administration, to the undeserving, receiving of honors and medals. 

Exiting the chapel, the sixth-grade teacher said to me, “I have some clean up to do” referring to the profound negative tone of the message. Later, he told me this story. After settling into their seats, a student raised her hand, and said, “I know why the sergeant was so angry.  He is like Ma Baxter. She lost her children and remained sad. He lost all his friends through the years of the war, and he too is sad.” The teacher said to himself, “Why did I think I was the teacher?” As Charlotte Mason notes,

We recognize the spiritual potency of the idea that we are able to bow reverently before the fact that God the Holy Spirit is Himself the Supreme Educator, dealing with each of us severally in the things we call sacred and those we call secular. We lay ourselves open to the spiritual impact of ideas, whether these be conveyed by the printed page, the human voice, or whether they reach us without visible sign.[7]

The engagement with a living book is formative for life.

The next example is from the 1845 autobiography, The Life of Frederick Douglass. In this passage, twelve-year-old Douglass responds to a passage from The Columbian Orator.

In the same book, I met with one of Sheridan’s mighty speeches on and in behalf of Catholic emancipation. These were choice documents to me. I read them over and over again with unabated interest. They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance.  The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over a conscience of even a slaveholder. What I got from Sheridan was a bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights. The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery; but while they relieved me of one difficulty, they brought on another even more painful than the one of which I was relieved. The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers….

The idea as to how I might learn to write was suggested to me by being in Durgin and Bailey’s shipyard, and frequently seeing the ship carpenters, after hewing and getting a piece of timber ready for use, write on the timber the name of that part of the ship for which it was intended. When a piece of timber was intended for the larboard side, it would be marked thus—“L.”  When a piece was for the starboard side, it would be marked thus—“S.”…  I soon learned the names of these letters, and for what they were intended when placed upon a piece of timber in the shipyard. I immediately commenced copying them, and in a short time was able to make the four letters named. After that, when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, “I don’t believe you. Let me see you try it.” I would then make the letters I was so fortunate as to learn and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which is quite possible I should have never gotten in any other way. During this time, my copybook was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk. With these, I learned mainly how to write. I then commenced and continuing copying the Italics in Webster’s Spelling Book, until I could make them all without looking on the book…. Thus, after a long tedious effort for years, I finally succeeded in learning how to write.[8]

After a  short introduction regarding The Columbian Orator, the careful reading and narrating of the text, the teacher provides questions (not all of these questions would be necessarily discussed) concerning Douglass’ response to his plight:

  • Douglass is twelve during this time, and he is reading famous speeches, what affect does this have on his life? Why?
  • The collection of orations includes such authors as: Socrates, Cicero, Jesus, Milton, William Pitt, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and native American chiefs; how do these readings act as a force in Douglass’ life?
  • Wordsworth, you may remember describes the child as father of the man. How did Douglass’ youth prepare him for manhood?
  • Speak about the gifts of reading and writing and their importance in school and in life.

The final example is from Alcott’s Little Women. In the episode “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair,” Meg reminisces with Joe and Marmee.

Meg had told her adventures gayly and said over and over what a charming time she had had, but something still seemed to weigh upon her spirits, and when the younger girls were gone to bed, she sat thoughtfully staring at the fire, saying little and looking worried. As the clock struck nine and Jo proposed bed, Meg suddenly left her chair and, taking Beth's stool, leaned her elbows on her mother's knee, saying bravely...

"Marmee, I want to 'fess'."

"I thought so. What is it, dear?"

"Shall I go away?" asked Jo discreetly.

"Of course not. Don't I always tell you everything? I was ashamed to speak of it before the younger children, but I want you to know all the dreadful things I did at the Moffats'."

"We are prepared," said Mrs. March, smiling but looking a little anxious.

"I told you they dressed me up, but I didn't tell you that they powdered and squeezed and frizzled, and made me look like a fashion-plate. Laurie thought I wasn't proper. I know he did, though he didn't say so, and one man called me 'a doll'. I knew it was silly, but they flattered me and said I was a beauty, and quantities of nonsense, so I let them make a fool of me."

"Is that all?" asked Jo, as Mrs. March looked silently at the downcast face of her pretty     daughter, and could not find it in her heart to blame her little follies.

"No, I drank champagne and romped and tried to flirt, and was altogether abominable," said Meg self-reproachfully.

"There is something more, I think." And Mrs. March smoothed the soft cheek, which suddenly grew rosy as Meg answered slowly...

"Yes. It's very silly, but I want to tell it, because I hate to have people say and think such things about us and Laurie."

Then she told the various bits of gossip she had heard at the Moffats', and as she spoke, Jo saw her mother fold her lips tightly, as if ill pleased that such ideas should be put into Meg's innocent mind.

"Well, if that isn't the greatest rubbish I ever heard," cried Jo indignantly. "Why didn't you pop out and tell them so on the spot?"

"I couldn't, it was so embarrassing for me. I couldn't help hearing at first, and then I was so angry and ashamed, I didn't remember that I ought to go away."

"Just wait till I see Annie Moffat, and I'll show you how to settle such ridiculous stuff. The idea of having 'plans' and being kind to Laurie because he's rich and may marry us by-and-by! Won't he shout when I tell him what those silly things say about us poor children?" And Jo laughed, as if on second thoughts the thing struck her as a good joke.

"If you tell Laurie, I'll never forgive you! She mustn't, must she, Mother?" said Meg, looking distressed.

"No, never repeat that foolish gossip, and forget it as soon as you can," said Mrs. March gravely. "I was very unwise to let you go among people of whom I know so little, kind, I dare say, but worldly, ill-bred, and full of these vulgar ideas about young people. I am more sorry than I can express for the mischief this visit may have done you, Meg."

"Don't be sorry, I won't let it hurt me. I'll forget all the bad and remember only the good, for I did enjoy a great deal, and thank you very much for letting me go. I'll not be sentimental or dissatisfied, Mother. I know I'm a silly little girl, and I'll stay with you till I'm fit to take care of myself. But it is nice to be praised and admired, and I can't help saying I like it," said Meg, looking half ashamed of the confession.

"That is perfectly natural, and quite harmless, if the liking does not become a passion and lead one to do foolish or unmaidenly things. Learn to know and value the praise which is worth having, and to excite the admiration of excellent people by being modest as well as pretty, Meg."[9]

Again, students give attention to the reading, assimilate the story (taking it into mind and heart) and retell the story in a manner both true to the author and uniquely their own. The teacher prompts thoughtful discussion.

The chapter “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair” consists of seventeen pages and would not be read in a single lesson as the teacher desires to give due attention to the text through a careful reading, narration and thoughtful discussion such as:

  • What role does conscience play in Meg’s life? How can conscience be easily ignored?
  • What truths did Meg learned from this experience about herself? Others?
  • What makes Marmee’s  advice wise?  

What one reads matters. The Beauty Sense is cultivated by encountering and sharing the beautiful in the lives of literary characters such as Jody, a boy becoming a man, Frederick Douglass, a slave and his quest for freedom, and a family of girls learning how to navigate the world.

Rawlings, Douglass, and Alcott instruct the human spirit through their stories. We learn from their pages, their artistry in making alive what was imagined and remembered in their hearts and minds. These books, and books like them, are living through their characters and conflicts, romps in the natural world with fawn and friend,  through the earnest defiance of injustice to the human spirit, to the intimacy of family and friendship, challenges of loss and loneliness, hardships and slavery. Each chapter reflects and cultivates the transcendent triad of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth.


[1] Mason, Charlotte. Ourselves. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 41.
[2] The Great Ideas, A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World. Adler, Mortimer Ed. William Benton Pub.,1990.
[3]  Mason, Charlotte. Ourselves. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 50.
[4] Schleske, Martin. The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020. xiii.
[5] Rawlings, Marjorie Kinnan. The Yearling. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966. 18-19.
[6] Mason, Charlotte. Ourselves. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 42.
[7] Mason, Charlotte. Parents and Children. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 230.
[8] Douglas, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Tribecca Books. 45, 47-48
[9] Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. New York. 1994. 109-111.

On Beauty

“On Beauty | Listen to this blog as a podcast on Ambleside Flourish Podcast

These are harrowing times. A man dies under the knee of a police officer. Such things ought not to be. Crowds erupt in riot, looting, burning and killing. Such things ought not to be. How are we to understand it? What is to be done?

Listening to the voices filling the air, the pundits on the left claim the problem is the power politics and economics of the right. The pundits on the right claim the problem is the power politics and economics of the left. Violent elements are enabled and exploited. All grow in fear and in rage. Both sides suggest that if we just get the politics and economics right, all will be well. But is this true? Certainly, politics and economics matter. They matter very much. But is there something more essential, something upstream from politics and economics that must be gotten right if a virtuous politics and economics is to be possible, something that if missing will inevitably lead to corruption and decay?

In generations past, it was generally held by Americans, both thoughtful elites and commonsense citizens, that apart from the general valuing of a noble character, no political or economic system would be sufficient to establish a people in justice and freedom. Thus, there was a time when no educational institution could be deemed successful unless it cultivated a virtuous character.1 As Charlotte Mason expressed a century ago: This is familiar ground to us: we too have taught, in season and out of season, that the formation of character is the aim of the educator.2

The formation of character is at the heart of an Ambleside education. It is not the only component of an Ambleside education, but it is fundamental. To fail in the matter of character formation, is to fail completely. “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?"3 To some extent, everything we do at Ambleside relates in some way to the formation of character; be it worshipping God, obeying a teacher, serving a classmate, managing emotional distress well, giving careful attention to a painting, or delighting in the accurate solving of a mathematics' problem—all reflect and cultivate the content of one’s character.

There is an aspect of character which is rarely considered but is a far more formative guide to the heart than conscious or critical analysis could ever be. This aspect of character, this motivational power, is what Charlotte Mason recognized as “the beauty sense.” To be sure, the beauty sense has little to do with the prosaic notion of good taste in fine art or home decorating. Like Goodness and Truth, Beauty is one of the fundamental aspects of any and every created thing. Ours is a world created and sustained by the eternal Word of God. Yet, ”groaning in labor pains until now”4, it suffers from the ravages of sin. In such a cosmos, every existing thing is more or less True, more or less Good, more or less Beautiful. Compare an elegant, fragrant rose in full bloom with a wilted rose:

  • In terms of thought, the elegant rose is more truly what God had in mind when He thought of roses. 
  • In terms of action in the world, the elegant rose is a better, more complete expression of what God intended for roses to be. 
  • In terms of bringing joy, the elegant rose is better ordered to the delight God intended roses to be.

In other words, the elegant rose is objectively truer, better and more beautiful than the wilted rose. This may be difficult to accept. For a hundred years, we have been told that beauty is subjective, a matter of personal preference. The subjectivizing of beauty is a gross failure of thought and imagination. Moreover, it is extremely destructive. The subjectivizing of beauty has led to an abandonment of the responsibility to educate our children’s “beauty sense.” And today, we are seeing the tragic consequences in our streets. Contemplate:

  • A new mother and her baby hold each other, eyes locked in visual embrace, mutual smiles, rhythmic peace and joy.
  • A father and child delight in one another; bright-faced, throwing, catching, chasing after a ball, smiles and laughter.
  • Unsolicited, a good woman drops food and other needed supplies on the doorsteps of elderly and physically vulnerable neighbors. 
  • A protester steps forward to take a police officer in warm embrace, as a crowd stands awed and tensions melt.
  • A band of brothers stand side-by-side in front of a store, peacefully using their bodies to protect both the elderly owner and his livelihood.

To the well-formed soul, such images brighten the eye, inspire, bring joy, motivate virtuous living. To those who have “eyes to see”, such images are beautiful. But to the malformed, such images have no appeal. To the malformed, only the grotesque appeals; only fear, anger, bitterness motivates.

How is it that both the grotesque and the beautiful have such power? While it is a great oversimplification, one can think of the human brain as having two motivational systems5 -- the love-joy system and the lust-fear-anger system. Love-joy is built upon and reinforces a life of relational wholeness. Lust-fear-anger is built upon and reinforces a life of relational deficits. At least since the Greek Classical Age, great minds have recognized that when the eye of the rightly formed soul looks out into the world and beholds Beauty, love-joy is amplified. Plato described this phenomenon in the Phaedrus:
When in like manner the soul is beginning to grow wings, the beauty of the beloved meets her eye and she receives the sensible warm motion of particles which flow towards her, therefore called emotion, and is refreshed and warmed by them, and she ceases from her pain with joy. 

Love-joy bonds are only built upon the objectively Good, True and Beautiful. Lust-fear-anger bonds are built upon the evil, false and grotesque. Beauty runs deep in the human soul, deep in the human brain; deeper than the Good and far deeper than the True. An infant recognizes the Beauty of her mother’s face before recognizing the Good and long before recognizing Truth. We know beauty when free of lust-fear-anger, our heart sees, smiles and wants to share the experience with others. This is true whether it is Beauty resonant in a Monet masterpiece, Odell Beckham’s acrobatic catch, or the September 11 rush of first responders into the Twin Towers.

We remember the words of St. Paul:
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.6

The great tragedy of a malformed beauty sense is not bad taste in art or interior decoration. It is the complete inability to recognize the true, the honorable, the just, the pure, the pleasing, the commendable, the excellent, the worthy of praise. Failing right formation, the soul delights in the brutal, the base and the bitter. Fail to cultivate the beauty sense, and our children know only the mob.


1See James Davison Hunter’s The Death of Character.
2Mason, Charlotte. School Education. 98.
3 Luke 9:25 NRSV
4Romans 8:22 NRSV
5See Allan N. Shore, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self and E. James Wilder, et. al. Joy Starts Here.
6Philippians 4:8 NRSV
*Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son 1875, Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Open Access.

“Bringing up” Children in Distressing Times (Part 2)

“Bringing up” Children in Distressing Times (Part 1)  | Listen to this blog as a podcast on Ambleside Flourish Podcast


In Part I of “Bringing up” Children in Distressing Times we heard the story of Suzie and her “big sad.” We attended to the principal’s wise attuned engagement, through which he was able to facilitate Suzie’s return to joy/peace. In doing so, the principal was careful to:

  • Remain at peace when walking into a highly charged situation.
  • Reset the emotional-relational atmosphere of the classroom/home.
  • Attune to Suzie without becoming enmeshed.
  • Honor the distress coming from Suzie’s voice without taking it too seriously.
  • Give Suzie hope. “Let me know when big sad is only this big.”
  • Give relational time. It took a while for Suzie to get beyond her big sad.
  • Take advantage of a teachable moment, without forcing it.

Building Resilience

The story of the principal and Suzie was primarily about recovery from a distressed brain state, but this is only half of the work that is to be accomplished. It is also the responsibility of parents and teachers to build resilience. Resilience is the capacity to absorb adversity without slipping into a dysfunctional, distressed brain state. The greater the resilience, the less likely a child (or anyone for that matter) is to respond adversely, regardless of what is happening in the environs. Eight practices for building resilience will be the topic of this blog.

  1. Take care of the brain by taking care of the body. Human persons are bodily beings. If our bodies are not well cared for, we do not do well. If this is true of adults, it is even more true for children. Always, but particularly in stressful times, it is essential to ensure that children get plenty of exercise, sufficient sleep, and a healthy diet, one low in simple carbohydrates. If life on sugar, caffeine, and little sleep make adults more prone to emotional outbursts, how much more is this true for children?
  2. Learn the power of redirection. Hourly, most of us have at least one  distressing thought flit across our minds. If we give this thought attention, even by arguing with it, the thought becomes increasingly more potent and distressing. In contrast, if one has learned the habit of redirecting  a thought to “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable… anything worthy of praise,”[1] these initially distressing thoughts lose their power. An alert adult can be of great assistance to a child who has not yet learned this skill. Daily, we have seen children of increasingly distressed minds relieved, when peacefully redirected by the simple task of going to get a drink of water or handing out the science books.
  3. Establish joyful routines and good order. External order supports internal order. Assuming it is not being maintained by an anxious, angry parent, routines and good order promote security and peace. Children experience a greater degree of emotional well-being when they know what to expect of each day – time to rise, time to sleep, time for meals, time for chores, time for schoolwork, time for play, time for family and time for prayer. Moving from little or no routine to joyful routine can be challenging, as is any change. The challenge is more on the part of the adults than the children. Children adapt quickly if there is gracious, peaceful reasonableness and consistency, but reasonableness and consistency on the part of adults is essential. Children disdain what they experience as arbitrary.
  4. Build grateful hearts. Some of us give most of our thought and our talk to that which is worrisome and distressing. Others give most of our thought and our talk to that which is good and appreciated. The latter are far happier people and far better equipped to deal with distress. Appreciation inoculates us against a distressed brain. One cannot feel both appreciation and distress at the same time. Children tend to catch either a worrisome or appreciative orientation from their parents, either the habit of dark thoughts or the habit of sweet thoughts. The latter are far happier children and far better equipped to deal with life’s distresses. Whether around the dinner table or as part of a bedtime routine, spending a few minutes remembering the blessings of the day nurtures a grateful heart. It  is important that such a routine not be a dead litany but an active remembering, re-experiencing, and appreciating of these blessings.
  5. Share stories, especially heart-felt stories. When we share part of our story with someone who is interested and cares, the joy in the story gets multiplied and any associated distress is reduced. Parents and teachers are in a potent place to serve children in this way. Children need us to hear them, to be open, curious, and engaged. They need a gentle, encouraging response that communicates interest, support, and empathy.
    Related is the sharing of story through a regular time of family read-a-loud from a classic story. The adventures and adversity in a worthy story  do much to inform the hearts of children,  particularly when experienced in community. As we interact around shared stories, they tell us who we are and how we do life together.
  6. Provide worthy “mind food” and worthy work. Engaging the mind with idea-rich learning and with fruitful work provides a mental and emotional satisfaction that inoculates the brain against overwhelming distress, providing something to give attention to. A child’s lament of “I’m bored,” “There’s nothing to do” and the like quickly contaminate the atmosphere, leading to distressed brains.
  7. Get out in nature. There is something emotionally healing and restorative about being out in nature, whether walking through a park or studying a plant in the yard. Even the painting of a clipped flower has some of the life-giving effects of nature.
  8. Minimize screen time. Television and video games have a powerful effect on our bodies and our minds. Such media are designed to play upon our autonomic  nervous and endocrine systems, taking advantage of the body’s heightened response to keep us tuned into the screen and out of life.Children do not leave time with TV and video games feeling emotionally refreshed; rather, they become increasingly fragile and reactive. Screens may provide a temporary distraction for children and a break for parents, but there is a price to be paid. The more time on screen, the higher the price of dissatisfaction, resulting in  vulnerabilities to all that is in the “air.”

If this is all new, these eight suggestions for building resilience may seem overwhelming. It is important to be wise. Begin by thinking about where to start?  Do what you can and build upon it. You and your children will be blessed by your efforts.

Some Final Thoughts

The ability to manage emotional distress well and stay one’s best self is a learned skill. A few may be naturals, such as the congenitally light-hearted and positive. While they seem  inoculated against distress,  most of us must learn from a trusted adult who will walk closely with us.

It is worth asking the question, How good am I at managing emotional distress and staying my best self? How good are my children at it? Are we content to leave our children to their nature? They are not capable of doing that which they do not know how to do. Are we willing to grow up ourselves and to help them grow?

Unusually distressing times such as these turn up the temperature, increasing general levels of distress. The good news is that the principles for supporting child resilience and recovery from distress remain the same, even in times like these. And such times provide opportunities for everyone’s growth. We encourage Ambleside teachers to pray regularly that whatever areas of immaturity are present in the students be brought to the fore. This is a courageous prayer. But what is the alternative? Only that a student’s weakness remains hidden and maturity elusive. This is a challenging prayer. It requires that we all grow into the kind of adults that can stay our “best selves,” even when our children are less than their “best selves,” and that we learn to respond in a manner that cultivates greater maturity for all.

May God’s grace be upon us, as we are His instruments in the loving nurture, the “bringing up” of the children given to our care.


[1] Philippians 4:8 (NRSV)
*Image courtesy of Matthew Henry all rights reserved. Creative Commons.

What A Yearling!

He lay in a stupor of weariness. He hung suspended in a timeless space. He could neither go forward nor back. Something was ended. Nothing was begun.     The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings 

As my daughter and I finished reading this semester’s literature book, The Yearling, my voice unexpectedly left me, mid-sentence. I tried again, but the words were pushing the emotion out from my eyes and my voice refused to cooperate. I rolled my eyes at her while I took a deep breath and she tolerated my pause. I had tearlessly made it to the final sentence and was as surprised as she to not be able to complete it. It wasn’t really the final sentence that stood on my vocal cords, daring me to croak out the few remaining words. It was those words from earlier in the chapter that gripped my mother-soul and the knowledge of them overwhelmed me. 

Yes, I was touched with the significance of this moment, my last child finding her own way from childhood to young adult like the protagonist in the story, but it was more. Yes, the storyline overwhelmed me with the sweet reminders of the other child-to-adult transformations of her siblings, but the ache that caught my heart in my throat was still something else. 

The above excerpt, written in 1938, is an uncanny description of this current season of our lives: this timeless alone-apart, something where we all feel like we are leaving something we loved, but are not sure we treasured enough, while we are wary of what new thing may be ahead. We hang “suspended in a timeless space” where we are not in control of the tempo or the choreography of this dance through present history. 

We found ourselves in uncharted emotional, physical and spiritual waters when we were all pushed into the deep end of “distance learning” and “together-apart” and “shelter-at-home.” We faced new first times, scary transitions and questions demanding answers when we had few facts on which to base our replies. In some ways, we sent out a corporate SOS and weren’t sure who was going to hear us. 

We are still in the space between. The thing is, I don’t know of one transition that isn’t ugly. Think baby into a toddler. Think Middle School. Think puberty. And, roll your eyes, think menopause. Ugly. All ugly in their own ways. Leaving the safety of the known for the future unknown is always...rough. 

Like tightrope walkers, we have left the security of where we were as a community, with all its beauty and purpose as well as struggle and weaknesses, and we are headed on this tightrope toward the unknown, whatever is  before us. This wire is taking us from what we knew, to what is ahead, can only hold us if there is tension. Rarely do we see transformation in one simple step (except on Facebook) and never have I seen it without tension (which is usually ugly, can I get a witness?!). 

We can use that tension and decide that what we are leaving behind is left behind us. No one makes it across the tightrope if she clings to the place she just left. We need to grieve our losses in order to fully celebrate whatever our new normal will be. Goodbyes are hard but they’re harder if one refuses to acknowledge them. The Biblical call to forget “those things which are behind” doesn’t mean ignore them (Philippians 3:13). Take the time to close the door on what was, be it a specific grade, an event that was canceled, or the people you miss. 

Stepping across this transition/tightrope with confidence is difficult when we don’t always feel it is a choice. There will be a surprising crosswind or unexpected gust to make us catch our breath and question whether we can do this, make it through this. We know this walk can build our endurance (James 1:2-3). Unlike Jody in The Yearling, we have a community to lean on, a 15-year school history to support us. We have a network of other Ambleside Schools and our credentialing organization, Ambleside Schools International, sharing best practices with each other. We have the God who knows all the hairs on our heads and He can show each of us how we ought to educate our children. 

One of the satisfactory moments in The Yearling is when Jody chooses to selflessly step into his role as a household provider instead of clinging to his irresponsible childhood ways. From the hardships he and his yearling created, a young man emerges and begins to take his place serving instead of being served. Each of us has transitions we are personally “walking across” as well as those we are facing as the Ambleside community. May we keep our hearts set on the true prize before us, and remember, even though “transitions are ugly,” there is the opportunity for grace and new maturity for each of us as we live into the person God created us to be. 

 ~Dorthy Dersch 

Parent at Ambleside of Ocala /Board Member of Ambleside Schools International


Jody Lost, N.C. Wyeth, Project Gutenberg Public Domain.

“Bringing up” Children in Distressing Times (Part 1)

Listen to this blog as a podcast on Ambleside Flourish Podcast


These last weeks have been taxing. Routines have been radically altered. Freedoms have been constrained. Normal pleasures have been curtailed. For many, income has been disrupted. And perhaps most trying of all, the future is uncertain. The illusion that we are in control is being challenged. Such testing times can be stressful for parent and child alike.

In these exceptional times as in normal times, it must be remembered that every child is unique and responds to adversity uniquely. No two children do life quite the same way. No two are delighted in quite the same way. No two are distressed in quite the same way. Some are more skilled at responding to adversity, some less so; either way, there is always diversity. We see this diversity in the way children have responded to life under the threat of COVID-19. Many children, while they may be missing normal routines, outings, and community, are nonetheless at peace with the current home regime. Such children are responding with the same degree of blessedness and sinfulness as they would in “normal” times. Other children seem not to be their “normal” selves. They may be excessively clingy or selfish, perhaps unusually prone to outbursts of  tears or fits of anger. How is this to be understood? And, more importantly, what is to be done?

The Story of Suzie and the Principal

The school secretary rushed into the principal’s office and exclaimed, “The kindergarten needs your help!” Up from his desk, through the door, and down the stairs went the principal. As he approached the door of the kindergarten classroom, a piercing shriek could be heard resounding down the hall. Opening the door, the principal saw to his right, in the front of the classroom sitting on the carpet with their teacher, eleven students, all wide-eyed and slightly pale. To his left, in the back corner of the classroom stood Suzie, screaming at the top of her lungs. Immediately, the principal turned to the eleven students and calmly but clearly said, “Suzie has a very big sad, doesn’t she?” Every head nodded vigorously in agreement. “Have you ever had a very big sad?” Again, every head nodded. “It’s all going to be okay.” And eleven little bodies all released a sigh of relief.

Turning to the other side of the classroom, the principal said, “Suzie, how big is your sad? Is it this big?” holding his hands six inches apart. “This big?” holding his hands thirty inches apart. “Or this big?” stretching his hands as far apart as he could. Suzie, immediately thrust her hands as far apart as she could, all the while screaming at full throttle. “Oh, that’s hard, let me know when it’s only this big,” said the principal holding his hands thirty inches apart. He then turned to the teacher and instructed her to continue reading.

Thus, the teacher read, eleven students peacefully attended to the story, Suzie continued to scream though not quite so vigorously, and three minutes passed. The principal asked again calmly, looking deeply, inquisitively into her eyes, “Suzie, how big is your sad now? Is it this big? This big? Or this big?” Again, Suzie thrust her hands as far apart as she could, all the while continuing to scream. “Okay, let me know when it’s only this big,” said the principal holding his hands thirty inches apart. Another three minutes passed, and the principal asked again, “Suzie, how big is your sad now? Is it this big? This big? Or this big?” This time Suzie responded with something between a whine and a scream, holding her hands twenty inches apart. “Good,” said the principal, “let me know when it’s only this big,” holding his hands six inches apart. A few minutes later, the teacher finished the story, and the class got up to go outside. The principal indicated he would remain with Suzie. As the class departed, Suzie became increasingly quiet. The principal then asked a final time, “Suzie, how big is your sad?” This time she held her hands six inches apart. “Good, come sit beside me,” said the principal, and the following conversation ensued.

“That was a very big sad, wasn’t it?”
            Suzie vigorously nods her head, yes.
“Do big sads sometimes just come and jump on you like that?”
            Again, a vigorous nod.
“Tell me, Suzie, do you know when a big sad is coming? Can you feel it?”
            Again, a nod.
“When a big sad is coming, where does it start? Does it start in your stomach, your heart, your head or some other part of your body?”
            “My stomach.”
“And it spreads from there so that you don’t know what to do and can only scream?”
            Again, a nod.
“There is a way to stop the spread of the big sad.”
            “How?”
“You’ve been learning your numbers, right? Can you count to 100?”
            “Yes.”
“Show me.”
            Suzie counts from 1 to 50.

“Whoa! You know your numbers, Suzie! Now, the best way to fight the big sad, when it starts to grow, is to redirect your thinking to something else. Why don’t you try it? Next time you feel a big sad coming, instead of thinking about the big sad, think about your numbers and start counting. See how far you can count before the big sad is chased away. Are you ready to go and rejoin you class?”

            “Yes," she said.

Suzie and the principal walked hand in hand to join the class. As Suzie did so, she was all smiles, and for the remainder of the day, she was peaceful. The next day during lunch, Suzie’s teacher approached the principal, saying, “The strangest thing just happened. This morning, Suzie got that look in her eye, and I said to myself, ‘Oh no, here we go.’ But then, I heard her whispering, ‘One, two, three, four, five’ and so on. And the clouds passed without a storm.”

Before exploring the lessons to be learned, a little of the backstory would be helpful. Suzie’s teacher had instructed her students to move from their desks to the carpet for the reading of a story. Suzie asked to sit next to her teacher. As Suzie had sat beside the teacher the day before, her teacher graciously declined the request. Lacking the emotional-relational maturity to handle this disappointment well, Suzie rapidly decompensated and was soon screaming at the top of her lungs from the other side of the classroom.

Like every human person, Suzie is made for and seeks beatitude, relational blessedness. More than sensual pleasure, relational blessedness is the internal state of fruitful joy and peace, that manifests itself to the world. It is nurtured and sustained by the fruitful, joy/peace of one’s people, and ultimately by the fruitful, joy/peace of God. Sin and the “groanings”[1] of a broken world often disrupt joy/peace. When joy/peace is disrupted the human brain begins a faster than consciousness search of memory,[2] looking for a mental map that would guide back to joy/peace. While a psychologically and spiritually mature person will have many maps back to joy/peace, an immature person will have few. When a distressing event occurs and one lacks a mental map back to joy/peace, the brain reacts as if in a feverish loop, running round and round in circles, seeking an answer it simply does not have. Frontal lobes begin to darken. Executive function becomes unhinged, and the brain regresses to fight, flight, freeze or cling mode.[3] If we have been paying attention, we all will have noticed this in our children, our co-workers, our friends, our spouse, and even ourselves. A distressing event occurs, and a person ceases to be his or her usual self. There is a desperate, out of control look in the eye. Behaviors become erratic, unreasonable, angry, anxious, depressed and/or enmeshed. The mind’s elevator is no longer getting to the top floor. This is all quite normal, a common phenomenon in a fallen world. We need not become overly fretful. The question is, how are we to be helpful?

While the story of Suzie and the principal is taken from a particular school situation, it provides lessons for coming to the aid of distressed brains at home or in the classroom.

Lessons to Be Learned

  1. Remain at peace when walking into a highly charged situation. This is essential. One cannot be part of the solution if one becomes part of the problem. One cannot bring peace if caught up in the distress. We can catch a distressed brain state like the flu (or COVID-19, for that matter). When two or more share a distressed brain state, they tend to spin out, getting farther and farther from joy/peace. It is quite impossible for one who is in a distressed brain state to help another recover from a distressed brain state. Parents and teachers are called to be the “bigger brains.” This can be difficult, and there are times when one must take a personal time out or tag team with someone not in distress state. In order to get back to joy/peace before attempting to come to a child’s aid; we must take seriously Jesus’ words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”[4]
  2. Reset the emotional-relational atmosphere. Stress was in the air. The intensity was palpable. It could be seen on the faces of the other children. A distressed atmosphere amplifies distress, making it more difficult to get back to joy/peace. The principal resets the atmosphere by reassuring the other students. “Suzie has a very big sad, doesn’t she?” “Have you ever had a very big sad?” “It’s all going to be okay.” Most importantly, all the principal’s nonverbal communication—facial expressions, posture, voice tone, are reinforced by the statement, “It’s all going to be okay.”
  3. Attune without becoming enmeshed. Looking intently into Suzie’s face, the principal’s face communicates concern but not distress. He understands her. He recognizes something is happening inside Suzie that is emotionally overwhelming to her, but not to him. He feels Suzie’s distress but can peacefully handle it. This stance is reinforced by the untroubled question, “How big is your sad?When it comes to attuning with a distressed brain, there are two failings. The first is to stay coldly aloof. It is a failure to empathize, to allow oneself to be connect with what the distressed person is feeling. The second is to become enmeshed. An enmeshed brain goes beyond empathy to “unreasonable pity” and, thereby, unintentionally amplifies the distressed brain’s feelings. The coldly aloof and the enmeshed are equally incapable of aiding a distressed brain in getting back to joy/peace.
  4. Honor what comes from a distressed person’s voice but do not take it too seriously. While distressed brains desperately seek to communicate their internal reality, they cannot assess external reality very well. Suzie screams as if something terrible is happening. Objectively, this is simply not the case. But trying to convince Suzie that things really are not so bad and that she really ought not be responding in this way, would be of no help at all. Further, such talk would be to Suzie a denial of what she is experiencing. By asking, “How big is your sad?” the principal honored Suzie’s experience without buying into it. Always remember that a distressed brain has a remarkable capacity to fabricate a story for explaining to itself both its distress and its response to the distress. The story may appear ludicrous to the observer, but to the distressed brain it is absolute truth. One should never debate with a person in a distressed brain state. The reasoning part of his/her brain is simply not working. Wait until the brain gets back to joy/peace when the brain’s executive functions turn back on. Then and only then is there the possibility of a reasonable conversation. Forced attempts at “rational” conversation with a distressed little brain are usually vain attempts on the part of an increasingly distressed bigger brain to maintain control.[5]
  5. Give hope. The greater a brain’s distress, the greater the sense of despair. Perhaps the distressed brain’s biggest fear is that the distress will go on and on and on, that it will never come to an end, eventually turning into a black hole which consumes the soul. The principal’s repeated admonition, “Let me know when it’s only this big,” communicates confidence that the distress will pass. It will not go on and on. There is the expectation of a return to joy/peace.
  6. Give relational time. The return of a brain to joy/peace is a process that can be supported but cannot be controlled. Recovery takes time, sometimes more, sometimes less. It is absolutely necessary to give the needed time. One caveat: if a child is using personal distress as a manipulative tool to gain attention or to win a power struggle, it cannot be allowed to work. Most of the time in such cases, the child should be left alone, with the standing offer to return to life together, once he has “quieted his heart.”
  7. Do not force it but do take advantage of a teachable moment. When a person is in the midst of a distressed brain state, it is not a teachable moment. Distressed brains are incapable of receiving verbal instruction well, and it is counterproductive to force the matter. However, if one has successfully aided a distressed brain in getting back to joy/peace, it becomes a very teachable moment. The principal took advantage of this moment to show Suzie that she is loved (sitting beside her, walking with her to rejoin the class, holding her hand) and to instruct her in a strategy for avoiding “big sads” in the future.
  8. Change is almost never an instantaneous and complete reversal. Change usually occurs  in frequency over time. This was not Suzie’s last “big sad. ”But it was the beginning of a process by which over time Suzie’s “big sads” became fewer and of less intensity; such that two years later, by the time Suzie was in the second grade, “big sads” were largely a thing of the past.

Final Thoughts

The school classroom is the setting for the story of Suzie and the principal; nonetheless all of the ideas explored here apply as much to home life as they do to the school. Principals, teachers, and parents alike will encounter distressed “little brains.” It is all quite normal. We are not just born sinners; we are also born emotionally-relationally immature. Thus, bringing distressed “little brains” to greater maturity is part of the job description of parents and teachers. We must acknowledge that it is not always easy. It is challenging to remain the peaceful, engaged “bigger brain” which is helpful to the little ones we love.  Thus, the distress becomes an opportunity for growth not just for the “little brain” but the “bigger brain” as well.

The story of the principal and Suzie was primarily about recovery from a distressed brain state, but this is only half of the work to be accomplished.  It is also the responsibility of parents and teachers to build resilience, the capacity to absorb adversity without slipping into a dysfunctional, distressed brain state. Building Resilience will be the topic of

Part II “Bringing up” Children in Distressing Times.


[1] Romans 8:19-23 (NRSV)
[2] Our brain’s search for a mental map back to joy/peace happens so rapidly, that we are not consciously aware of it.
[3] Much of addiction seems to be a form of clinging. A distressed brain, without a map back to joy/peace and lacking a person upon whom to cling, may substitute food, drink, pornography, or videogames.
[4] John 14:1 (NRSV)
[5] Note: A distressed brain also does not remember well. A distressed brain may make an outlandish claim or engage in outlandish behavior and later deny it completely. Assuming the child is normally honest, the now calm brain is probably not actively lying but simply has no memory of what was said or done. The brain was not functioning well, and the event was not recorded in memory. Because what was said and done is now rather incriminating, it is reflexively denied. Rather than denial, children should learn to respond by professing no memory of such words or deeds.
*Image courtesy of Caleb Woods all rights reserved. Creative Commons.

Communion in Suffering

There is perhaps no rendering of Christ’s crucifixion so poignant as that of the above altarpiece. Painted by Matthias Grünewald (1512), it masterfully depicts Christ’s unbearable agony, his emaciated body writhing from the pain of nails driven through hands and feet, his broken body pitted with sores reminiscent of the bubonic plague. And yet, for all that, the painting was to serve as a source of solace and comfort. The original home of this masterpiece was the Monastery of St. Anthony, located in the town of Isenheim, Alsace, France.
 
St. Anthony’s was a monastic hospital. The principal ministry of its monks was the care of those suffering from various skin diseases, particularly the plague. Beginning with the Black Death (1347-1351), regular outbreaks of bubonic plague devastated Europe, bringing immense suffering and death. It was to places such as St. Anthony’s that the sick and dying came. Grünewald’s poignant image of the crucified Christ, pitted with plague-type sores, illustrated to patients that Jesus understood and shared their afflictions and that they, like St. Paul,1 could share in His afflictions. Perhaps, the patients and the monks of St Anthony’s knew something that we have forgotten. Perhaps, they understood that suffering is an opportunity for communion with Christ and one another and that such communion is the foundation of peace.
 
Hardly a day goes by in which we are not presented with an invitation to suffer, sometimes in the form of a little disappointment, slight offense or minor injury and sometimes in the form of a great injustice, profound loss or debilitating illness. Contrary to modern utopian delusions, in this world, suffering is expected. As Wesley famously quips in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.” For a more esteemed source, consider Jesus’ declaration that “While you are in the world, you will have to suffer.”2 Each of us will suffer. The question is, will we suffer well?
 
We labor against illness and other roots of human suffering. We labor to bring healing and restoration. And like Christ, we accept the suffering which is ours to bear. But how? Given the structure of the human psyche and its neurological underpinnings, we humans respond to suffering in four ways—fight, flight, freeze or communion. Few can stoically endure alone for long. Our brains are not wired for it. We may try and, depending upon our capacity, succeed for a time. But inevitably the brain will default to one of its prewired pain processing pathways.
 
The fight response is an aggressive refusal to accept the suffering which is ours. Cold fighters obsess, calculate, struggle to control the cosmos. The cold fighter’s delusion is, “If I just work smart enough and hard enough, I can avoid suffering.” Hot fighters rage against the perceived source of suffering and/or against those perceived to possess the power to make the suffering stop. The hot fighter’s delusion is, “If you just got it right, I would not suffer.” The flight response is an attempt to run from suffering, rather than control. Some take flight through distraction (TV binging, obsessing on work), others by delusion (pretending what is happening or is not happening), distancing (avoiding the person or situation) or anesthetizing (alcohol, sex, drugs). Those who freeze, either fall into depression or become numb—emotionally nonresponsive. It is as if we stop living while waiting for the suffering to pass. None of these responses work very well. Over the long term, they tend to increase personal suffering rather than decrease it. There is another way.
 
Like the monks of St. Anthony, we may discover that suffering is an opportunity for blessed communion with one another and with Christ. Such communion is the foundation of peace in the face of adversity. Our brains are designed for this kind of communion. When two or more suffering human minds commune with hope, it brings strength and comfort, if suffering human minds commune together in fear, it increases suffering. Thus, it is essential that in the shared processing of suffering the “bigger brains” bring hope. When we suffer together with Christ in hope, the suffering binds us together and empowers us.
 
While our brains are designed for communion through suffering both with God and one another, our capacity to do so is dependent upon our experience. As an Ambleside community, we are committed to growing in the skill of suffering well. We support this growth by:
  1. Attending to the stories of those who learn to suffer well. A few of the many examples from the Ambleside curriculum include the stories of Heidi (Heidi), Jody (The Yearling) and Betsy (The Hiding Place).
  2. Having communion in suffering modeled by those who are mature enough and care enough to attune with students in their suffering. This must be the normal practice of parents and teachers.
  3. Having an empathetic response to suffering as a community practice. As modeled by the monks of St. Anthony’s, communion in hope must be the community’s normal response to suffering. In Charlotte Mason’s terms, communion in suffering is to be in the air—the atmosphere.
  4. Growing in the ability to empathetically connect with God. We must practice sharing our heart with God and attending to His heart. This is one of the goals of the regular practice of Lectio Divina.
As we remember Christ’s crucifixion, may we meet with Him in His sufferings, uniting our sufferings with His. As we celebrate His resurrection, my we find comfort in His presence with us, “always, to the end of the age.”3

[1] Colossians 1:24
[2] John 16:33
[3] Matthew 28:20
**Matthias Grünewald (1510-1515), Isenheim Altarpiece, Courtesy of The Unterlinden Museum,  Public Domain.

Ambleside and COVID-19

The coronavirus has come, and the nation is mobilizing. Not, as in 1941, to the Pacific seas, the deserts of northern Africa, the fields and the forests of Europe, but to home and “social distancing.” Still, in no way are we to make light of the current crisis. It is a matter of serious concern. Witness the images coming from Italy. While, thankfully, the disease seems to be much milder in children; many of us, myself included, have elderly parents for whom this virus would be a death sentence. As a people, we must be prepared to endure significant inconvenience to protect our parents and grandparents.

From Newberg, Oregon to Ocala, Florida; from Cape Town, South Africa to Linz, Austria and Calcutta, India; Ambleside schools are closed. Students are at home. Many are engaged in home learning, Ambleside teachers supporting by phone and video conference. We hear reports of students delighting in regular, on-line connections with teacher and classmates. More importantly, we hear reports of parents making the most of this opportunity, connecting afresh with their students over great texts and worthy work, rediscovering the delights of a mind-to-mind, student-parent-text, relational engagement. Crisis is opportunity, and this crisis is an opportunity to kindle afresh a shared, family delight in learning and working together.

Four things to keep in mind:

  • Keep it simple.
  • Keep it “living.”
  • Keep it delightful.
  • Be unafraid.

Keeping it simple. Often, less is more. A few things, done carefully and well, will foster more growth than a multitude of tasks done with compliant tedium. In most cases, even with teacher support, parents will not be able to sustain the full pace and richness of the Ambleside curriculum. Thus, Ambleside schools are sending home a workload that is sufficient to keep students actively engaged and growing but not overwhelmed. If parents have the wisdom and discipline to keep the screens turned off, there will also be bonus hours for nature walks and nature painting; for reading verse and composing verse; for knitting, paper cutting and Legos; for card games and board games; for family Bible reading and family read-a-loud.

Keeping it “living.” Twaddle is the word Charlotte Mason uses to describe books and things which are to mind as cotton candy is to body. While children may desire cotton candy, even be enchanted by it, cotton candy has no nutritional value and too much of it will certainly make one sick. The same is true of twaddle. Children may desire it, even be enchanted by it, but it lacks any nutritional value for the mind and too much will certainly make one sick. A great majority of child television programs, contemporary children’s books, and videogames are twaddle. Like cotton candy, they provide little if any healthy nutriment to mind and too much will make one sick. Observant parents can easily recognize the pernicious effects of hours spent with unworthy books or in front of screens. In contrast, “living” books and things are idea rich, noble in message and beautifully crafted. They are ordered to cultivating a general sweetness and benevolence. In Charlotte Mason’s words, “The life of the mind is sustained upon ideas… When we compare the mind with the body, we perceive that three 'square' meals a day are generally necessary to health, and that a casual diet of ideas is poor and meager.”  Living books and things feed mind and soul. For suggestions of living books, you can find the ASI Reading List under the library tab on the ASI home page, www.amblesideschools.com.

Keeping it delightful. We are creatures made to delight, delight in God’s creation and God Himself, delight in family and friends, delight in good books and good things, delight in good work and good play. Of course, every person’s life has its share of distressing events, but life is meant to be a series of delights punctuated by adversity, not a series of adversities punctuated by the occasional delight. The greater the maturity of a man or woman, the more he or she can sustain delight in the good, despite distressing current events. For the well-educated, life is a delight. It is one of Charlotte Mason’s core principles that “studies serve for delight.” In preserving an atmosphere of delight, it is important to remember that stress is the great delight suppressor. Conversely, relational joy (the pleasure of sharing a moment or a task, even a difficult task, together with someone who values me and connects with me) is the great delight multiplier.

Being unafraid. Our children will be watching us, taking their emotional cues from us. When we face adversity with peaceful confidence, they learn to face adversity with peaceful confidence. When we fret, they learn to fret. But how shall we avoid our own fretting? Let us remember that we may not be in control, but God most certainly is. Let us keep our hearts stayed on Him and meditate upon the words of the psalmist.

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
    who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
    will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
    my God, in whom I trust.”

For He will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
    and from the deadly pestilence;
    He will cover you with his pinions,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    His faithfulness is a shield and buckler.

You will not fear the terror of the night,
    or the arrow that flies by day,
    or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
    or the destruction that wastes at noonday.


*Amish Country Side wallpaper Public Domain, Stylized by CAM 2020.

Good News of Great Joy

On the night of the first Christmas, shepherds were tending their flocks. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared, the radiant weightiness (glory) of the Lord shone all around, and the shepherds “feared a great fear.”1

At times, we too fear a great fear, not because of the radiant weightiness of an angel but because of the dismal weightiness of a disordered world. Too easily, our hearts become dys-eased. We fear that ours is a Darwinian world in which only the strong can thrive, a consuming world in which we are never satisfied, an overwhelming world in which we are alone.

Happily, the words of the angel come to us:

Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.2

Now, a savior who only gets us out of hell and into heaven is not savior enough. We need a good and present savior king who restores all things to their rightful place, who grants afresh our inheritance, who heals our dys-eased hearts, who strengthens  and enlivens our spirits to live joyfully in this world.

On the first Christmas, an angel announced the birth of a Savior King; good news of great joy, joy to fill the heart of every man, woman and child.

Let children grow up aware of the constant, immediate, joy-giving, joy-taking Presence in the midst of them, and you may laugh at all assaults of 'infidelity,' which is foolishness to him who knows his God as––only far better than––he knows father or mother, wife or child.

Let them grow up, too, with the shout of a King in their midst. There are, in this poor stuff we call human nature, founts of loyalty, worship, passionate devotion, glad service, which have, alas! to be unsealed in the earth-laden older heart, but only ask place to flow from the child's. There is no safeguard and no joy like that of being under orders, being possessed, controlled, continually in the service of One whom it is gladness to obey.3

Regardless of our current spiritual state, like the shepherds we can say to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”4  In so doing, we give Christmas to our children, to our students, and perhaps to ourselves. In so doing, we receive good news of great joy.

By design, the recent edition of Ambleside Flourish (link)  has joy as its subject. If you have not already done so, consider taking the time to download and read it.

Finally, we are so very grateful to those who continue to support ASI through prayer and financial giving. If you have not done so recently, consider visiting the ASI website and “How to Help ASI.” (link) The continued flourishing of this ministry is dependent upon the support of those who believe in it.

On behalf of Maryellen and the rest of the ASI staff, may yours be a blessed and joyful Christmas season.

Bill St Cyr
Founder and Executive Director
Ambleside Schools International
 
[1] Luke 2:9
[2] Luke 2:11 (NRSV)
[3] Mason, Charlotte. Parents and Children. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 57-58.

[4] Luke 2:15 (NRSV)

*Berchem Nicolaes Pieters (1620–1683), The Annunciation to the Shepherds, oil on canvas, Courtesy of Bristol Museum & Art Gallery of UK. PDM


Ambleside School of Fredericksburg Middle and High School Students Singing Ding Dong Merrily on High

Thanksgiving Reflections

Joining my sister on a recent trip to Boston, I took the opportunity to visit Plymouth Hall Museum and to read Of Mourt’s Relations – A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. The pilgrims’ response to a perilous journey, daily sufferings of cold, hunger and a death rate of fifty percent was inspirational and educational.  Of the eighteen couples that left England, only four survived the year intact. The rest were left as widowers and orphans. And yet, trials became their sacrifice of love, given for one another and for their God, in whose providential care they trusted.

A Shared Pilgrimage

Wednesday, the sixth of September, the winds coming east north east, a fine small gale, we loosed from Plymouth, having been kindly entertained and courteously used by divers friends there dwelling, and after many difficulties in boisterous storms, at length, by God's providence, upon the ninth of November following, by break of the day we espied land which was deemed to be Cape Cod, and so afterward it proved. And the appearance of it much comforted us, especially seeing so goodly a land, and wooded to the brink of the sea. It caused us to rejoice together, and praise God that had given us once again to see land.[1]

A Shared Grief

And in three months past, die Half our Company. The greatest part in the depth of winter, wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases which their long voyage and unaccommodated condition bring upon them. So as there die sometimes two or three a day. Of one hundred persons, scarce 50 remain. The living scarce able to bury the dead; the well not sufficient to tend the sick: there being in their time of greatest distress but six or seven who spare no pains to help them. Two of the seven were Master Brewster, their reverend Elder, and Master Standish the Captain.[2]

A Shared Thanksgiving

You shall understand, that in this little time, that a few of us have been here, we have built seven dwelling-houses, and four for the use of the plantation, and have made preparation for divers others.  We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors.  Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others.  And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.[3]

The story of the pilgrims reminded me of Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann’s reflection on our gathering at the Lord’s table, named by the early church “our offering of thanksgiving” or Eucharist:

And thus this offering to God of bread and wine, of the food that we must eat in order to live, is our offering to Him of ourselves, of our life and the whole world. “To take in our hands the whole world as if it were an apple!” said a Russian poet. It is our Eucharist. It is the movement Adam failed to perform, and that in Christ has become the very life of man: a movement of adoration and praise in which all joy and suffering, all beauty and frustration, all hunger and satisfaction are referred to their ultimate End and become finally meaningful. Yes to be sure , it is a sacrifice: but sacrifice is the most natural act of man, the very essence of his life. Man is a sacrificial being, because he finds his life in love, and love is sacrificial: it puts the value, the very meaning of life in the other and gives life to the other, and in this giving, in this sacrifice, finds the meaning and joy of life.[4]

All that we encounter, abundance and scarcity, joy and suffering, the beautiful and the ghastly, become meaningful in our sacrifice to God; it all becomes our offering.


[1] Mourt’s RelationsA Journal of the Pilgrims of Plymouth. 1622. Bedford Mass: Applewood Books, 1963. 15.
[2] Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation New York: Alfred A. Knopf 2016. 77.
[3] Mourt’s RelationsA Journal of the Pilgrims of Plymouth. 1622. Bedford Mass: Applewood Books, 1963. 81-82.
[4] Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998. 35.
*Robert McGinnisFreedom's Gate: Plimoth Plantation 1627

Child Gymnasium or Child Garden

That children should be trained to endure hardness, was a principle of the old regime. "I shall never make a sailor if I can't face the wind and rain," said a little fellow of five who was taken out on a bitter night to see a torchlight procession; and, though, shaking with cold, he declined the shelter of a shed. Nowadays, the shed is everything; the children must not be permitted to suffer from fatigue or exposure.

That children should do as they are bid, mind their books, and take pleasure as it offers when nothing stands in the way, sums up the old theory; now, the pleasures of children are apt to be made more account than their duties. Formerly, they were brought up in subjection; now, the elders give place, and the world is made for the children.[1]

In this passage, taken from the opening pages of her first book, Home Education, Charlotte Mason points to two opposite and equal errors in the bringing up or educating of children, errors present in both her time and ours. Let us name these opposite and equal errors that of the child gymnasium and the child garden. Advocates of the child gymnasium envision a high-performance child, an object meticulously shaped and hardened by the strenuous effort of parent, teacher and child. Carefully designed discrete tasks, quantitative performance metrics, and ever-increasing rigor are seen as laying the foundation for victory in a dog-eat-dog, a Darwinian world in which only the strong survive. Advocates of the child garden envision what might be termed the romantic “enthusiasm of childhood, joyous teaching, loving and lovable teachers and happy school hours for the little people.”[2] A child’s garden, a kindergarten, protected by a glass dome, affording a world of carefree delights in which never a tear is shed nor does sweat come to a brow.

There is much to be said for the romantic vision of the child garden. Indeed, fullness of life requires protection from trauma and joyous engagement with persons and things. For those who have eyes to see, it is easy to recognize the toxicity of the child gymnasium with its better than my peers, performance vision and its potential for cultivating narcissism, loneliness, chronic anxiety and depression. What is often missed, even in some Charlotte Mason circles, is that the child garden is equally capable of producing its share of narcissists, loners, chronically anxious and depressed persons. The error of the child garden is its misplaced confidence in atmosphere alone. It assumes that if a child be placed in a natural, stress free, beautiful space he or she will naturally rise above the weakness of his nature. What actually happens is that the child is “left to his nature.” Just as a high anxiety, performance orientation is a recipe for narcissism, loneliness, chronic anxiety and depression, so is leaving a child to his nature.

It is true that certain of Charlotte Mason’s writings do suggest the child garden. For example, in Home Education, she writes:

In this time of extraordinary pressure, educational and social, perhaps a mother’s first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it spent for the most part out in the fresh air. And this, not for the gain in bodily health alone––body and soul, heart and mind, are nourished with food convenient for them when the children are let alone, let to live without friction and without stimulus amongst happy influences which incline them to be good.[3]

Such passages evoke images of a bucolic childhood, prancing joyfully among fields of daffodils. And, indeed, every child should have her share, even her abundance, of prancing among the daffodils. Flowers and field, bird and beast, freely romping with peers are all part of every child’s inheritance, and the child that lacks these is deprived of a good part of what makes life rich and satisfying. But there is more to the story, later in the same book, Miss Mason writes:

The child in the Kindergarten is set to such tasks only as he is competent to perform, and then, whatever he has to do, he is expected to do perfectly. I have seen a four-years-old child blush and look as self-condemned, because he had folded a slip of a paper irregularly, as if found out in a falsehood. But mother or nurse is quite able to secure that the child's small offices are perfectly executed; and, here is an important point, without that slight strain of distressful anxiety which may be observed in children laboring to please that smiling goddess, their 'Kindergarnerin, [their child gardener].'[4]

In our day, few expect a four-year-old to do things perfectly. Partly because we fail to understand the capacities of a child and partly because we fail to understand the meaning of  completing things perfectly. When applying the adverb perfectly to the work of a child (or for that matter the work of any human person), we do not mean flawlessly. We do mean to perform a task which (1) is among the child’s  competencies and (2) is performed  in a manner or way that could not be better performed by the child. Let me repeat, when applying the adverb perfectly to the work of a child, we do not mean flawlessly. We do mean to perform a task which (1) is among the child’s  competencies and (2) is accomplished in a manner or way that could not be better accomplished  by the child.

Children have great capacities, often underestimated by adults. Toddlers can learn the joy of putting away toys or helping to bring dishes from table to sink, even if it risks the occasional broken dish. And, there is some question as to whether or not a toddler who doesn’t learn to put away his toys and help with the dishes will ever learn to joyfully do so. A child’s life must be more than simply frolicking. Children should learn the delight of working to the fulness and fruitfulness in which latent capacity is turned into a competency.

In the above passage, Charlotte Mason gives two warnings. First, the child should only be left alone to perform tasks which he is competent to perform, and second, there must be no “laboring to please that smiling goddess,” be she mother or teacher. When a child is left alone with the expectation of doing that which he or she is not competent to do, the child easily becomes overwhelmed. Similarly, to make the peace, stability and security of the child-adult relationship dependent upon child performance is to dissolve joy into anxiety. We forget that performance anxiety is learned socially. It is born of the fear that if one doesn’t perform adequately there will be a rupture in a very important relationship. Such fear takes all the joy out of doing things perfectly and robs hard and careful work of its pleasure. Yet, where the relationship is secure, parent or teacher is confident that the child can master a task, and adequate support is given; in a relatively short time, the child grows from latent capacity to competency. Having mastered the task, the child is now able to complete the task perfectly, even on her own. In doing so, joy abounds. For turning latent capacity into competency is one of the great joys of life. But this is true only if there is freedom from performance anxiety.

It is essential that parents and teachers clearly understand the relationship between latent capacity and competency.

  • Latent capacity refers to one’s potential to do a thing; be it manage emotional distress well, mend a wounded relationship, clean a room, solve a particular math problem, narrate a text, or experience friendship with God. Depending upon the presence or absence of sufficiently supportive parents, teachers and tribe; these potentialities may or may not be actualized as competency.
  • Competency refers to the fulfilment of the latent capacity. One can manage emotional distress well, can mend a wounded relationship, can clean a room, can solve a particular math problem, can narrate a text and can experience friendship with God.

In every competency, there are those among us who seem to be naturals. Latent capacity is fulfilled as competency seemingly without effort and with little support. The naturally benevolent child easily mends wounded relationships. The toddler was picking up toys from the time he could walk. A second grader knows all her math facts, apparently without ever giving them any effort or attention. A four-year-old listens delightfully as mom reads a story and retells with accuracy and vivid detail. The five-year-old’s prayer life is a sweet thing to behold. They are competent without effort and with little support. These are the naturals. What is easily forgotten is that the great majority of us are not naturals. For most of us, turning latent capacity into competency requires both personal effort and a supportive teacher.

The chief error of the advocate of the child garden is a misguided trust in what comes natural to a child. The belief is that by placing a child in the right garden, latent capacity will naturally become competency. While this is true for the naturals, it is definitely not true for most of us. All too often, latent capacity fails to become joyful competency, and the child is left in peril of a less than fruitful life with its accompanying narcissism, loneliness, chronic anxiety and depression.

While the advocate of the child gymnasium recognizes that latent capacity must become competency, he misunderstands how to go about it. His conviction is that the autonomous self will grow from weakness to competency if provided the right education and motivated by reward and punishment, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. It’s true that such a regimen does work in some cases for some students. It will induce some students to better mastery of math facts or better narration skills, but it is just as likely to provoke a despising of math and a resentment of narration. And, most certainly, such a regime is unable to cultivate a capacity for managing emotional distress or mending a wounded relationship. Further, the cultivated performance orientation will not bode well for long term flourishing, given performance orientation’s predisposing one to narcissism, loneliness, chronic anxiety and depression.

What then is required if non-naturals are to be brought up by teachers (both parents and schoolteachers) from latent capacity to joyful competency? Five things:

  1. There must be a bonded, joyful, attuned relationship between teacher and student. Moving from latent capacity to competency is a transformation, and all positive human transformation requires the mentorship of a less competent mind by a stronger and wiser mind. Such mind to mind mentorship is most potent when both minds know that they belong together (bonded), are glad to be together (joy), and are fully present to each other, attending to each other’s mind (attuned).
  2. The teacher must possess the needed competencies. Some of the most important elements of any competency are unconsciously imprinted in the mind of the taught by the mind of the teacher. One does not learn how to return from distress to joy/peace by listening to instruction or reading a book. The instruction or book might prime the learning, but it does not accomplish the learning. One learns how to return from distress to joy/peace by being in a joyful, attuned relationship with someone who competently returns from distress to joy/peace. Similarly, students learn mathematics best by being in a joyful, attuned relationship with someone who competently does mathematics. And it follows that unless a student happens to be a natural, it is unlikely that he will learn mathematics from a teacher who is simply following a script in the teacher’s manual.
  3. The teacher must be confident in her students’ latent capacities. Our students know what we think of them. There is no hiding it. If we believe they can’t, they will know it and believe it. In which case, incapacity will become a self-fulfilling prophesy. As a culture, we are far  far too quick to ascribe incapacity to those who are slower than peers in acquiring competency. In reaction to our own performance anxiety, we are far too quick to label and diagnose. All to often, the diagnoses become a self-fulfilling prophesy, and the child is forever seen as incapable.
  4. Many times throughout the day, a joyful teacher must wisely support her students by working with them (but not for them) that which they are not competent to do alone. We move from latent capacity to competency, by doing with someone that which he  cannot do alone. We know this of physical rehabilitation and athletics, we must come to believe it of mind as well. A teacher asks, “What is six times seven?” “I don’t know,” responds her student. “What is six times six?” “Thirty-six” “If we add six to thirty-six what would it be?” “Forty-two.” “If six sixes are thirty-six, how many are seven sixes?” “Forty-two.” “Correct. Close your eyes and see it on the back of your eyelids, six times seven equals forty-two. Open your eyes. How many is six times seven?” “Forty-two.” The teacher engages the student briefly at lunch repeating the process, and again as all are departing after school. With joyful support, the student is able to do that which he was not competent to do alone. Over time, latent capacity becomes competency.
  5. The teacher must be diligent, day in and day out, but neither anxious nor time hurried. Students actualize their latent capacities at different rates. A teacher must not be anxious about this, for we spread our emotions like the flu. The anxious teacher is certain to infect her students, and anxious brains simply do not learn well. One learns to read fluently at four, another five, another six, and some as late as nine. It is only our Darwinian angst which makes us afraid that our student will be left behind. God knows what He is about. Time frame matters little, so long as joy and diligence remain. Neither student nor teacher will long stay the course if it be filled with anxiety. Joy is the antithesis of anxiety. Remember by joy we do not mean parties, roller-coaster rides, Disney movies or other forms of excitement. By joy, we mean the deep feeling that it is good to be me here with you, whether doing the pleasant thing or doing the difficult thing. Though time frame matters little, it is not an excuse for lack of diligence. Daily effort on the part of teacher and student must be vigorously given. There is no more place for the laissez-aller, let it all go, they will get it easily and naturally. It may be true that they eventually will. But it is far more probable that without diligence they will not. No child garden for us.   

One final note. Assuming one sees the beauty of this highly relational, intentional, growth-oriented approach, what hinders the consistent application of its method? The three most common hindrances are:

  1. Application of this method requires the teacher possess a very specific set of skills. To sustain a “bonded, joyful, attuned relationship” is an emotional-relational skill that must be developed. Some are more masterful at it, some less. The same can be said of each of the above, up to and including being “diligent, day in and day out, but neither anxious nor time hurried.” Few adults come with all the needed skills, but all can grow.
  2. There is a natural tendency to go back to Egypt. We all tend to default, particularly when too busy, too stressed or too tired, to that which we have known throughout our lives. For the great majority of us, the default is either the child garden or the child gymnasium.
  3. It is impossible to stay fully relational and diligent when one is fatigued. By biological necessity, when fatigued, our capacities to attune and to remain diligent are both marginalized. These take sustained energy. So, we must be well rested, or we will move  towards default.

At Ambleside Schools, we find both the child garden and the child gymnasium to be inadequate visions for the formation of children. The joyful bringing up of children from latent capacity to mature competency requires a different vision. It requires a vision of joyfully attuned relationships, teacher competency, confidence in latent student capacities, wise support in doing that which cannot be accomplished alone, and anxiety free diligence on the part of both teacher


[1] Mason, Charlotte. Home Education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 7.
[2] Mason, Charlotte. School Education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 56.
[3] Mason, Charlotte. Home Education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 43.
[4] Ibid,180.
*Student Art, Nature Study, Courtesy of Rocky Mountain Christian Academy.

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