Charlotte Mason on the Bondage of Self-Preoccupation

Charlotte Mason on the Bondage of Self-Preoccupation1

The liberty of the person who can make himself do what he ought is the first of the rights that children claim as persons.  The next article in the child’s Bill of Rights is that liberty which we call innocence, and which we find described in the Gospels as humility.  When we come to think of it, we do not see how a little child is humble; he is neither proud nor humble, we say; he does not think of himself at all; here we have hit unconsciously upon the solution of the problem.  Humility, that childish quality which is so infinitely attractive, consists in not thinking of oneself at all.  That is how children come, and how in some homes they grow up; but do we do nothing to make them self-conscious, do we never admire pretty curls or pretty frocks?  Do we never even look our admiration at the lovely creatures, who read us intuitively before they can speak?  Poor little souls, it is sad how soon they may be made to lose the beauty of their primal state, and learn to manifest the vulgarity of display…  The principle is, I think, that an individual fall of man takes place when a child becomes aware of himself; listens as if he were not heeding to his mother’s tales of his smartness or goodness, and watches for the next chance when he may display himself.  The children hardly deserve to be blamed at all.  The man who lights on a nugget has nothing like so exciting a surprise as has the child who becomes aware of himself.  The moment when he says to himself, “It is I,” is a great one for him, and he exhibits his discovery whenever he gets a chance; that is, he repeats the little performance which has excited his mother’s admiration, and invents new ways of showing off.  Presently, his self-consciousness takes the form of shyness, and we school him diligently, “What will Mrs. So-and-So think of a boy who does not look her in the face?” or “What do you think?  General Jones says that Bob is learning to hold himself like a man.”  And Bob struts about with great dignity.  Then we seek occasions of display for children, the dance, the children’s party, the little play in which they act, all harmless and wholesome, if it were not for the comments of the grown-ups and the admiration conveyed by loving eyes.  By-and-by comes the mauvaise honte [impoverished shame] of adolescence.  “Certainly the boys and girls are not conceited now,” we say, and indeed, poor young things, they are simply consumed with self-consciousness, are aware of their hands and feet, their shoulders and their hair, and cannot forget themselves for a moment in any society but that of everyday.  Our system of education fosters self-consciousness.  We are proud that our boy distinguishes himself, but it would be well for the young scholar if the winning of distinctions for himself were not put before him as a definite object.  But “where’s the harm after all?” we ask; “this sort of self-consciousness is a venial fault and almost universal amongst the young.”  We can only see the seriousness of this failing from two points of view – that of Him who has said, “it is not the will of the Father that one of these little ones should perish,” and that, I take it, means that it is not the divine will that children should lose their distinctive quality, innocence or humility, or what we sometimes call simplicity of character.  We know there are people who do not lose it, who remain simple and direct in thought, and young in heart, throughout life; but we let ourselves off easily and say, “Ah, yes, these are happily constituted people, who do not seem to feel the anxieties of life.”  The fact is, these take their times as they come, without undue self-occupation.  To approach the question from a second point of view, the havoc wrought on nerves is largely due to this self-consciousness, more often distressing than pleasing, and the fertile cause of depression, morbidity, melancholia, the whole wretched train which make shipwreck of many a promising life.

            Our work in securing children freedom from this tyranny must be positive as well as negative; it is not enough that we abstain from look or word likely to turn a child’s thoughts upon himself, but we must make him master of his inheritance and give him many delightful things to think of: “la terre appartient à l’enfant, toujours à l’enfant, [the earth belongs to the child, always the child]” said Maxim Gorki at an educational congress held in Brussels years ago.  So it does; the earth beneath and heaven above; and, what is more, as the bird has wings to cleave the air with, so has the child all the powers necessary wherewith to realize and appropriate all knowledge, all beauty and all goodness.  Find out ways to give him all his rights, and he (and more especially she) will not allow himself to be troubled with himself.  Whoever heard of a morbid naturalist or a historian who (save for physical causes) suffered from melancholia?  There is a great deliverance to be wrought in this direction, and sentry duty falls heavily on the soldier engaged in this war.


1Charlotte Mason, “Concerning Children as Persons”, Part II