Concerning Children as 'Persons'

Liberty versus Various Forms of Tyranny
By Charlotte Mason
“The mystery of a person, indeed, is ever divine,
to him that has a sense for the godlike.”
– Carlyle.
“We live by admiration, hope and love!
And even as these are well and wisely fixed,
In dignity of being, we ascend.”  – WORDSWORTH


Some of us can recall our surprise when we read in the Times years ago of the discoveries made by German explorers on the site of the first capital of Assyria. Layard had long ago made us familiar with temples and palaces; but we hardly expected to learn that every house, even the smallest, appears to have contained a bath. In like manner, we are astonished to read of the great irrigation works accomplished by the people of Mexico before Cortes introduced them to our eastern world. We are surprised to find that the literature and art of ancient China are things to be taken seriously. It is worthwhile to consider why this sort of naïve surprise awakes in us when we hear of a nation that has not come under the influence of western civilization competing with us on our own lines. The reason is, perhaps, that we regard a person as a product, and have a sort of unconscious formula, something like this: Given such and such conditions of civilization and education, and we shall have such and such a result, with variations. When we find the result without the conditions we presuppose, why, then we are surprised! We do not realize what Carlyle calls “the mystery of a person,” and therefore, we do not see that the possibility of high intellectual attainments, amazing mechanical works, rests with the persons of any nation. Therefore, we need not be surprised at the achievements of nations in the far past, or in remote countries which have not had what we consider our great advantages. This concept, of the mystery of a person, is very wholesome and necessary for us in these days; if we even attempted to realize it, we should not blunder as we do in our efforts at social reform, at education, at international relations. Pope’s hackneyed line would come to us with new force, and it would be a mere matter of course that,

“The proper study of mankind is man.”

The mystery of a person is indeed divine, and the extraordinary fascination of history lies in the fact that this divine mystery continually surprises us in unexpected places. Like Jacob, we cry, before the sympathy of the savage, the courtesy of the boor: “Behold, God is in this place and I knew it not.” We attempt to define a person, the most commonplace person we know, but he will not submit to bounds; some unexpected beauty of nature breaks out; we find he is not what we thought and begin to suspect that every person exceeds our power of measurement.

I believe that the first article of a valid educational creed – “children are born persons” – is of a revolutionary character; for what is a revolution but a complete reversal of attitude? And by the time, say, in another decade or two, that we have taken in this single idea, we shall find that we have turned round, reversed our attitude towards      children not only in a few particulars, but completely.

Wordsworth had glimmerings of the truth: poets mean, not less, but a great deal more than they say; and when the poet says, “Thou best philosopher,” “Thou eye among the blind,” “haunted for ever by the eternal mind,” “Prophet, Seer blest,” and so on – phrases that we all know by heart, but how many of us realize? ï we may rest assured that he is not using poetical verbiage, but is making what was in his eyes a vain endeavour to express the immensity of a person, and the greater immensity of the little child, not any of whose vast estate is as yet mortgaged, but all of it is there for his advantage and his profit, with no inimical Chancellor of the Exchequer to levy taxes and require returns. But perhaps this latter statement is not correct; perhaps the land-tax on the Child’s Estate is really inevitable, and it rests with us parents and elders to investigate the property and furnish the returns.

Wordsworth did not search an unexplored field when he discovered the child. Thomas Traherne, a much earlier poet, is, I think, more convincing than he is; because, though we cannot look back upon our child-selves as Seers and Prophets and Philosophers, we can remember quite well the time when all children were to us “golden boys and girls;” when there was a glamour over trees and houses, men and women; when stars and clouds and birds were not only delights, but possessions; when every effort of strength or skill, the throwing of a stone or the wielding of a brush, was a delight to behold and attempt; when our hearts and arms were stretched out to all the world, and loving and smiling seemed to us the natural behaviour of everybody. As for possessions, what a joy was a pebble or a cork, or a bit of coloured glass, a marble or a bit of string! The glamour of its first invention lay upon everything we saw and touched. God and the angels, men and women, boys and girls, the earth and the sky, all belonged to us with an ineffable sense of possession. If we doubt all this, even though a glimmering conviction come to us in the pauses of our thought, why, it requires very little interpretative power to see it in the serenity and superiority of any normal baby child.

“How like an angel I came down!
How bright are all things here!
When first among His works I did appear,
 Oh how their Glory me did crown!
The world resembled His Eternity In which my soul did walk;
And everything that I did see
Did with me talk.
“The skies in their magnificence,
 The lively, lovely air;
Oh how divine, how soft, how sweet, how fair!
The stars did entertain my sense,
And all the works of God, so bright and pure,         
So rich and great did seem,
As if they ever must endure    
In my esteem.
“The streets were paved with golden stones,
The boys and girls were mine,
Oh how did all their lovely faces shine!
The sons of men were holy ones,
In joy and beauty they appeared to me,
And everything which here I found,
Which like an angel I did see,
Adorned the ground.” – TRAHERNE
We remember the divine warning, “See that ye despise not one of these little ones;” but the words convey little definite meaning to us. What we call “science” is too much with us. We must either reverence or despise children; and while we regard them as incomplete and undeveloped beings, who will one day arrive at the completeness of man, rather than as weak and ignorant persons, whose ignorance we must inform and whose weakness we must support, but whose potentialities are as great as our own, we cannot do otherwise than despise children, however kindly or even tenderly we commit the offence.

As soon as he gets words with which to communicate with us, a child lets us know that he thinks with surprising clearness and directness, that he sees with a closeness  of observation that we have long ago lost, that he enjoys and that he sorrows with an intensity we have long ceased to experience, that he loves with an abandon and a confidence which, alas, we do not share, that he imagines with a fecundity no artist among us can approach, that he acquires intellectual knowledge and mechanical skill at a rate so amazing that, could the infant‘s rate of progress be kept up to manhood, he would surely appropriate the whole field of knowledge in a single lifetime.

Do we ask for confirmation of what may seem to some of us an absurdly exaggerated statement of a child‘s powers and progress? Consider: in two or three years, he learns to speak a language – perhaps two – idiomatically and correctly, and often with a surprising literary fitness in the use of words. He accustoms himself to an unexplored region, and learns to distinguish between far and near, the flat and the round, hot and cold, hard and soft, and fifty other properties belonging to matter new to his experience. He learns to recognize innumerable objects by their colour, form, consistency, by what signs, indeed, we know not. As for the mechanical skill he acquires, what is the most cultivated singing as compared with articulation and the management of the speaking voice? What are skating and skiing compared with the monstrously difficult art of balancing one‘s body, planting one‘s feet and directing one‘s legs in the art of walking? But how soon it is acquired, and the unsteady walk becomes an easy run! As for his power of loving, any mother can tell us how her baby loves her long before he is able to say her name, how he hangs upon her eye, basks in her smile, and dances in the joy of her presence. These are things everybody knows; and for that very reason, nobody realizes the wonder of this rapid progress in the art of living, nor augurs from it that a child, even an infant child, is no contemptible person judged by any of the standards we apply to his elders. He can accomplish more than any of us could in a given time, and, supposing we could start fair with him in the arts he practices, he would be a long way ahead of us by the end of his second year. Let us consider a child as he is, not tracing him either, with Wordsworth, to the heights above, or, with the evolutionist, to the depths below; because a person is a mystery; that is, we cannot explain him or account for him, but must accept him as he is.

What else does the world do but accept a child as a matter of course? And is it not faddists who trouble themselves with his origins? But are we not going too fast? Do we really accept children as persons, differentiated from men and women by their weaknesses, which we must cherish and support; by their immeasurable ignorances, which we must instruct; by that beautiful indefinite thing which we call the innocence of children and suppose in a vague way to be freedom from the evil ways of grown-up people? But children are greedy, passionate, cruel, deceitful, in many ways more open to   blame than their elders; and for all that, they are innocent. To cherish in them that quality which we call innocence, and Christ describes as the humility of little children, is perhaps the most difficult and important task set before us. If we could keep a child innocent, we must deliver him from the oppression of various forms of tyranny.



If we ask ourselves, What is the most inalienable and sacred right of a person qua person? I suppose the answer is, liberty. Children are persons; ergo, children must have liberty. Parents have suspected as much for a generation or two, and have been at pains not “to interfere” with their children; but our loose habits of thinking come in our way, and in the very act of giving their freedom to children we impose fetters which will keep them enslaved all their lives. That is because we confound liberty with license and do not perceive that the two cannot co-exist. We all know that the anarchist, the man who claims to live without rule, to be a law unto himself, is in reality the slave to certain illogical formulae, which he holds binding upon him as laws of life and death. In like manner, the mother does not always perceive that, when she gives her child leave to do things forbidden, to sit up half an hour beyond his bed-time, not to do geography or Latin because he hates that subject, to have a second or third helping because he likes the pudding, she is taking from the child the wide liberty of impersonal law and imposing upon him her own ordering, which is, in the last resort, the child’s will. It is he who is bending his mother as that proverbial twig is bent, and he is not at all deluded by the oracular “we’ll see,” with which the mother tries to cover her retreat. The child who has learned that, by persistent demands, he can get leave to do what he will, and have what he likes, whether he do so by means of stormy outcries or by his bewitching, wheedling ways, becomes the most pitiable of all slaves, the slave to chance desires; he will live to say with the poet:

“Me this unchartered freedom tires’
I feel the weight of chance desires.”

Indeed, he already feels this weight, and that is why he is fretful and discontented and finds so little that is delightful in his life. Let him learn that “do as you‘re bid” is a child‘s first duty; that the life of his home is organized on a few such injunctions as “be true,” “be kind,” “be courteous,” “be punctual,” and that to fail in any of these respects is unworthy and unbecoming; more, let him be assured that such failures are of the nature of   sin and are displeasing to God, and he will grow up to find pleasure in obedience, and will gradually gather the principles which should guide his life.

But the first duty of the parent is to teach children the meaning of must; and the reason why some persons in authority fail to obtain prompt and cheerful obedience from their children is that they do not recognize “must” in their own lives. They elect to do this and that, choose to go here and there, have kindly instincts and benevolent emotions, but are unaware of the constraining must, which should direct their speech and control their actions. They allow themselves to do what they choose; there may be little harm in   what they do; the harm is that they feel free to allow themselves.

Now the parent who is not aware that he is living in a law-ordered world, that he has to “eat the fruit of this thoughts” as well as that of his words and actions, is unable to get obedience from his child. He believes that it rests with him to say what the child may do or leave undone; and as he does not claim papal infallibility, his children find out soon enough that the ordering of their lives is in their own hands, and that a little persistence will get them ‘leave’ to do what is good in their own eyes.  People discuss the value of corporal punishment and think they see in it the way to get obedient children. It may be so, because obedience must be learned in the first three or four years of life, when the smart of a little slap arrests the child’s attention, brings tears and changes his thoughts. As a matter of fact, it is hardly possible to punish some children unless while they are quite young, because the pleasure of displaying bravado under the excitement of the punishment occupies the child’s attention to the exclusion of the fault for which he is punished. But the whole discussion is outside the question. The parent, the mother especially, who holds that her children’s rule of life must be, “children obey your parents for it is right,” certainly secures obedience, as she secures personal cleanliness, or proper habits at table, because she has a strong sense of the importance of these things. As her reward, she gains for her child the liberty of a free man, who is not under bondage to his own willfulness nor the victim of his own chance desires.

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. I wonder would it not help us in this matter to copy the pretty custom taught to some continental children? The little girl who kisses the hand of an elder lady, with a pretty curtsey, is put into the attitude proper for a child, that is, she is paying attention and not receiving it. The lady-visitor, too, it taught her place; we do not lavish loud admiration on children at the moment when they are showing deference to us; but this is a detail. 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 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,” 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.

The tyranny of self crops up in another place. The self-conscious child is very likely generous, and the selfish child is not noticeably self-conscious. He is under the tyranny of a natural desire – acquisitiveness, the desire of possession, covetousness, avarice – and he is quite indifferent and callous to the desires and claims of other people. But I need not say much about a tyranny which every mother finds ways to hold in check; only this we must bear in mind: there is never a time in the child’s life when his selfishness does not matter. We are indebted to the novelist who has produced for us that fascinating baby, “Beppino,” and has shown how the pretty, selfish, willfulness of the child develops into the vicious callousness of the man.[1] Selfishness is a tyranny hard to escape from; but some knowledge of human nature, of the fact that the child has, naturally, other desires than those that tend to self-gratification – that he loves to be loved, for example, and that he loves to know, that he loves to serve and loves to give –  will help his parents to restore the balance of his qualities and deliver the child from becoming the slave of his own selfishness. Shame and loss and deprivation should do something where more generous motives fail; and more powerful than these is a strong practical faith that the selfish child need not become, and is not intended to become a selfish man or woman.

Another liberty we must vindicate for children is freedom of thought. I do not mean that a youth should grow up like the young Shelley, chafing against the bondage of religion and law, but, rather, that, supposing all his world were ‘freethinkers,’ he should still have freedom of mind, liberty of thought, to reject the popular belief. Public opinion exerts, in fact, an insufferable bondage, and most of us sympathize with the assertion of the individual’s right to think for himself. It is a right which should be safeguarded for every child, because his mind is his glorious possession; and a mind that does not think, and think its own thoughts, is as a paralyzed arm or a blind eye. “But,” we say, “young people run away with such wild notions: it is really necessary to teach them what to think about men and movements, books and art, about the questions of the day.” To teach them what to think is an easy role, easy for them and for us; and that is how we get stereotyped classes instead of individual persons, and how we and the children fail to perform the most important function of life – the function of right thinking. We exaggerate the importance of right doing, which may be merely mimetic, but the importance of thinking and of right thinking cannot be overstated. To secure that a child shall think, we need not exercise ourselves in setting him conundrums; thinking is like digestion, an involuntary operation of healthy organs. Our real concern is that children should have a good and regular supply of mind-stuff to think upon; that they should have large converse with books as well as with things; that they should become intimate with great men through the books and works of art they have left us, the best part of themselves. Thought breeds thought; children familiar with great thoughts take as naturally to thinking for themselves as the well-nourished body takes to growing; and we must bear in mind that growth, physical, intellectual, moral, spiritual, is the sole end of education. Children, who have been made free of the Republic of Letters, are not carried away by the dernier cri, are not, in fact, the slaves of other people’s opinions, but do their fair share of that thinking which is their due service to the State.

The last tyranny that we can consider is that of superstition. We have a notion that education delivers men from this bondage; but superstition is a subtle foe and retreats from one fortress only to ensconce himself in another. We do not lay claim to higher culture than the Greeks or even the Romans possessed; indeed, various nations of antiquity could give us points, highly cultivated as we think ourselves; but it is a curious fact that no nation whose records we possess has been able to deliver itself by literature or art, or highest cultivation, from the hideous bondage of superstition. The tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, have all of them a single appalling theme, the arbitrary and reckless play of the gods upon human fortunes. Indeed, it has been well said that tragedy in a Christian age is impossible, because the hopelessness of any situation implies the ill-will of the gods; and it is cited in this connection that of Shakespeare’s three great   tragedies two are laid in pre-Christian times, and the third is brought about by a non- Christian person. This consideration throws an interesting light upon the whole subject of superstition. We do not impugn the gods any longer, but we say hard things of fate, destiny and the like; Napoleon III is far from being the only “man of destiny.” We consult crystals, hold seances, have lucky and unlucky days, read our fortunes in our palms; even astrology is practiced among us; and we believe ourselves to be half in play and hardly perceive the hold that superstition is gaining upon us. The fact would seem to be that a human being is so made that he must have religion or a substitute for it; and that   substitute, whatever form it takes, is superstition, whose power to degrade and handicap a   life cannot be over-estimated. If we would not have our children open to terrors which are very awful to the young, our resource is to give them the knowledge of God, and “the   truth shall make them free.” It is necessary to make children know themselves for spirits, that they may realize how easy and necessary is the access of the divine Spirit to their spirits, how an intimate Friend is with them, unseen, all through their days, how the Almighty is about them to cherish and protect, how the powers of darkness cannot approach them, safe in the keeping of their “Almighty Lover.”

I have considered several types of tyranny, none of which are external to the person, but all act within the bounds of his own personality, for –

“The mind is its own place and in itself
Can make a hell of heaven, a heaven of hell;”

The heaven being, I suppose, when the man is at peace with himself and when his powers are freely and wisely exercised; the hell when the person is under no interior government and his powers are allowed to run to anarchy and confusion. Parents and teachers may aid and abet either state of things, so much so, that if a child’s place is a well-ordered heaven, he has them to thank for this happy state; and if he is condemned to a ‘hell’ of unrest, fiery desires and resentments, are his parents without blame?



This essay comes from Essex Cholmondley, The Story of Charlotte Mason (Petersfield: Child Light Ltd., 2000), 220-233.

PDF of the essay.

[1] Joseph Vance by William de Morgan.

Essex Cholmondley
Child Light Ltd.