Sunday, July 22, 2007

Pride and Dignity and the Chivalric Temper

Melissa at the Lilting House wrote a thought-provoking entry on Charlotte Mason, Discipline, the Deputy Headmistress and Running Wild in the Cereal Aisles. This post isn't meant to stand in any kind of opposition to the very good points that Melissa and the DHM made, but is my continuation of the conversation and some ongoing ponderings on what CM's thoughts on discipline have meant to me through the years.

There seems to be a lot of variety in discipline. Some of it is legitimate differences in style, temperament and needs of the family. It took me almost twenty years to internalize the truth that child-rearing is essentially a relationship, and relationships are guided by principles, yes, but are not set by detailed rules. Rules may provide a reality check and a guideline for the relationship, but are not the main thing. ("Only one thing is needful...")

Furthermore, child-training or discipline or whatever you want to call it -- even the words connote different things to different people -- seems to be an almost uniquely ambiguous topic. It's not just the "S" word that Melissa mentions, in remarking that her question on an egroup resulted through no intention of her own in a firestorm controversy. It's more than that. I think it's because we discuss these things out of context. We don't see how this actually looks in the other person's home. We hear the emphases that are most important to the other person -- what's effective for me, an introvert raising introverts, may be rather different than what is effective for a different mother or different children.

A bit after I started homeschooling, I started reading Charlotte Mason's Home Education, and this part rang like a deep cathedral bell for me:

"The apostolic counsel of ‘diligence’ in ruling throws light upon the nature and aim of authority; it is no longer a matter of personal honour and dignity; authority is for use and service, and the honour that goes with it is only for the better service of those under authority. The arbitrary parent, the exacting parent, who claims this and that of deference and duty because he is a parent, all for his own honour and glory, is more hopelessly in the wrong than the parent who practically abdicates; the majesty of parenthood is hedged round with observances only because it is good for the children to ‘faithfully serve, honour, and humbly obey’ their natural rulers. Only at home can children be trained in the chivalrous temper of ‘proud submission and dignified obedience’; and if the parents do not inspire and foster deference, reverence, and loyalty, how shall these crowning graces of character thrive in a hard and emulous world?"

Chivalry. That was exactly what I was looking for.... not cringing servility, not dissipated rebellion, not half-hearted compliance to avoid punishment. Charlotte Mason talked about how the child who is called "strongwilled" is usually actually WEAK willed, with appetites and emotions running rampant over intelligence and will, with no power to make himself do what is best. (I always think the little monsters in the grocery store, and I hasten to add that sometimes the monsters are us, are just wasting their energy and will on something inferior like candy or the delights of defiance,--- it really does strike me as a sad waste, as St Augustine says--)

"For I was far from thy face in the dark shadows of passion. For it is not by our feet, nor by change of place, that we either turn from thee or return to thee. That younger son did not charter horses or chariots, or ships, or fly away on visible wings, or journey by walking so that in the far country he might prodigally waste all that thou didst give him when he set out. A kind Father when thou gavest; and kinder still when he returned destitute! To be wanton, that is to say, to be darkened in heart--this is to be far from thy face..

"I fell away from thee, O my God, and in my youth I wandered too far from thee, my true support. And I became to myself a wasteland."

Chivalry. None of my kids have reached the ideal. Nor have I, after 44 years. I have to pick myself up every day and gallop at that windmill once more, hoping that this time I will really slay a dragon or at least give the beast a significant wounding. I think chivalry, with its connotation of horsemanship, implies a quest and even a defeat, as you see in the story of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, and in Chesterton's Everlasting Man:

"But Troy falling has been caught up in a flame and suspended in an immortal instant of annihilation; and because it was destroyed with fire the fire shall never be destroyed. And as with the city so with the hero; traced in archaic lines in that primeval twilight is found the first figure of the Knight."

Yet, chivalry is my aspiration, with all its pathos of defeat and limitations. Which is why, every time a disciplinary situation comes up in my house, I don't think simply, "How can I stop this behavior?" (usually not too difficult in itself -- after all, the children are smaller and simpler for a long long time) but "How can I help my child learn that this is not truly what he wants?" (usually HE, because I have a crew of lads and only one lassie, but she does not mind the generic "he" in certain circumstances).

I've quoted John Senior before:

"...the Camino Real of Christ is a chivalric way, romantic, full of fire and passion, riding on the pure, high-spirited horses of the self with their glad, high-stepping knees and flaring nostrils, and us with jingling spurs and the cry “Mon Joie!” –the battle cry of Roland..”

This seems to ring with the same language as Charlotte Mason above. She adds:

"By-and-by, when he is old enough, take the child into confidence; let him know what a noble thing it is to be able to make himself do, in a minute, and brightly, the very thing he would rather not do. To secure this habit of obedience, the mother must exercise great self-restraint; she must never give a command which she does not intend to see carried out to the full. And she must not lay upon her children burdens, grievous to be borne, of command heaped upon command."
There is a kind of freely chosen, noble servitude that brings with it great joy. I always picture that integrity of the heart and will and mind, like a high-stepping horse proudly and joyfully bearing the standard of the Good. This rings with my lads and lassie, and it is what I want for myself, to do what is right "because it is right", not because it is convenient --again, Charlotte Mason:

"It is only in proportion as the will of the child is in the act of obedience, and he obeys because his sense of right makes him desire to obey in spite of temptations to disobedience––not of constraint, but willingly––that the habit has been formed which will, hereafter, enable the child to use the strength of his will against his inclinations when these prompt him to lawless courses. It is said that the children of parents who are most strict in exacting obedience often turn out ill; and that orphans and other poor waifs brought up under strict discipline only wait their opportunity to break into license. Exactly so; because, in these cases, there is no gradual training of the child in the habit of obedience; no gradual enlisting of his will on the side of sweet service and a free will offering of submission to the highest law: the poor children are simply bullied into submission to the will, that is, the wilfulness, of another; not at all, ‘for it is right‘; only because it is convenient."
By the way, though this may be a side trail, I think when Charlotte Mason talks about "habits" she is using the word in a philosophical sense, as "habitus" -- "disposition". She is not talking primarily about a simple acquired reflex, though I do think she believes that these acquired reflexes help "lay the rails" for a smooth course of life. But I do not think she is confusing the simple mores of proper hygiene and manners for the "disposition" to listen and incline your ear and ponder:

Proverbs 5:1:
"My son, give attention to my wisdom, Incline your ear to my understanding;
that you may maintain discretion and your lips may preserve knowledge."
That is a habit, a disposition, something that is a precondition of a lot of what we hope for our children. A lot of my discipline, I realize, is directed towards teaching the children to listen, attend, incline, maintain, preserve. All the great behaviorial techniques in the world are like the blowing of the wind if the child is not listening, if his heart and ear are not inclined. With this basic attention to attentiveness, a mother can make some mistakes and fall short in some areas (believe ME) and still have cooperative children who really try to think "What would Mama and Daddy have me do?" and then ultimately "What would God have me do?" I think this was one reason why Charlotte Mason tended to be hesitant about recommending behavioral modifications, because so often these can be dead-ends if they are not accompanied by the kind of aspiration towards principles that she did emphasize so often.


Amy said...

This is such a wonderful post, Willa! I am always grasping at straws (or is that chasing windmills? LOL) when it comes to discipline for my diverse and challenging crew - I like how your ideas come together, and I think that even for my girls, they will understand and appreciate the notions of chivalry, etc.

Mary Vitamin (Helen) said...

Fr. Angelo,FI recently began a blog dedicated to Marian Chivalry called MaryVictrix:

You might like it!

momof3feistykids said...

What a beautiful post!

Faith said...

This is a beautiful post, Willa. I printed it out and read it to my kids. Your idea of chivalry reminds of what the National Center for Biblical Parenting calls 'honor'.

Thanks so much for this!