Saturday, March 07, 2009

the place of the letting out of the waters

To put the thing on no higher grounds, what happy days for herself and her children would the mother secure if she would keep watch at the place of the letting out of waters! If the mother settle it in her own mind that the child never does wrong without being aware of his wrong-doing, she will see that is not too young to have his fault corrected or prevented. Deal with a child on his first offence, and a grieved look is enough to convict the little transgressor; but let him go on until a habit of wrong-doing is formed, and the cure is a slow one; then the mother has no chance until she has formed in him a contrary habit of well-doing. To laugh at ugly tempers and let them pass because the child is small, is to sow the wind.
(Childrens' Faults are Serious, from Preliminary Considerations in Home Education by Charlotte Mason)

This passage puzzled me for a long time and I still don't think I quite understand it, but maybe the biblical sources for the metaphors will help a little. Here they are:

The beginning of strife is like letting out water, So abandon the quarrel before it breaks out. Proverbs 17:14
For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind. Hosea 8:7
From what I read, "watching at the place of the letting out of the waters" is a bit like "a stitch in time saves nine" or "nipping something in the bud" (from The Common Room).

Sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind is a bit like "what goes around comes around" or "you reap what you sow".

Both seem to imply that something that is not dealt with in the beginning can grow and grow and take on a life of its own, especially if it's a charged issue that involves an ugly temper .... the examples CM gives are things like vindictiveness, hostility, greed. Those things disrupt the way a community functions very quickly. The way I am understanding Charlotte Mason's thoughts on habits, you have a choice: deal with something directly before it has made its tracks in the mind and manners, or wait and deal with a fully grown manifestation of the same thing. The first time a small child grabs or hits, it's partly simple inexperience and passion. But the more the child confirms his initial action by repeating it, the harder it may be to deal with it, and the more branches it may put out into other areas of life (to mix metaphors, again!)

This would be true of everyone, not just of children. In fact, it is under the heading of "Despise Not" the children that she puts this passage -- she thinks that ignoring faults because they belong to small-sized persons is to disrespect them.

Maybe this is the way in for me. I always dreaded becoming the mom who was constantly watching like a nervous hawk for every little infraction. Thinking in terms of "sowing the wind" can lead, for some people, to a kind of catastrophizing which is a cognitive distortion (see a very good discussion on "how we think" at Real Learning). If I see a child have a temper tantrum and immediately imagine the adult trashing his cubicle or ranting at his co-workers, I am not likely to deal sensibly with the present angry and often panicky toddler. Instead, I may add the burden of my anger and panic to his own. Talk about sowing the wind, and adding to the strife, then! And where is the serenity and loving vigilance there?

So I think she has to be talking about a parental attitude that is much more temperate and clearsighted. Remembering that Charlotte Mason thought things like observation, and attentiveness, and habit formation were good for children because they were good for adults helps me picture a watchfulness that is calm and loving and positive, not tense and strained.

In the post I linked to above, the Deputy Headmistress talks about the difference between a reaction and a response, and that probably sums up what I'm trying to say. Reaction is a default ("acting back"), while response comes from our true selves (an "answer", which implies intentionality). Sure, I see that, and it's helpful.

I probably still have some difficulties with the way I could imagine this passage being seen and acted upon. I definitely think it probably has to be balanced out by reference to other passages in Charlotte Mason's books. But I like the idea that being respectful of even the smallest children means not just laughing about and dismissing their childish follies. Sure, sometimes it's healthy to start by laughing, and sometimes difficult not to, but not healthy to stop there! From my perspective, it's always valuable to think "why" a child is acting as he is, especially as faults generally make a child unhappy, and how to help him overcome them. The Montessori posts on the sidebar are descriptions of the ways I usually try to approach childhood difficulties. Probably other people with different temperaments would have slightly different modes of approach.

And this habit of keeping a watch on the place of the letting out of the waters -- I suppose it isn't so different from the kind of proactive, purposeful work one does to keep one's own life or household running smoothly. A lot of times, I can keep busy putting out fires -- reacting and stressing myself out -- when a little bit of pre-emptive planning and foresight would have, yes, "nipped the thing in the bud" and let me respond appropriately with all my resources around me. This counts for mothering, too.

In the end, of course, one hopes that the children will be able to seamlessly transition into picking up the reins themselves -- that they will learn to keep a peaceful but steady watch on their own habits. I suppose this is why the Church recommends nightly examens for even younger children and a habit of reflecting on the day and making resolves. I remember finding a little piece of paper that one of my children had written on -- the child in question had put down a consideration of a particular personal fault and a resolution targeted towards doing better. Charlotte Mason warns (as does the Church) that there is a kind of introspective soul-searching that is unhealthy, kind of like scraping at a wound, but a simple process of reflection and resolution is almost indispensable in trying to live a Christian life. In the early childhood days a parent should bear a lot of the burden for directing a child's habits, but later on the child should be able to carry on the process for himself, so he or she doesn't become a sort of automaton, a "bundle of habits" mostly operating in reflex mode.

So what I'm trying to remember, both for my own personal character and the way I handle things in my family and household, is to be aware of "the place of the letting out of the waters" and avoid letting things escalate into whirlwinds or full gushing waters of contention because I wasn't keyed into dealing with them while they were still small. But if something has gotten into a full spate of wind or water, for various reasons, it is healthier not to waste time regretting, but rather, as CM says, work on changing the habit of wrongdoing into a contrary habit of well-doing.

That's where I am now, on this.

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

Willa, this is good stuff! (Wanna bring it over to the RP group?)

I think that one huge (HUGE) advantage of this happening in childhood is the acquiring of a very high level of sensitivity to one's own movements. I mean to say, if we learn early to nip things in the bud, then we learn to watch out for the buds, and we learn it as a way to keep tabs on ourselves. Then, if gradually over time, the parent openly declares what is happening, and transfers the consciousness of this bud-watching overtly ... well, then the job will have been done. The child turns into a grownup who watches for buds instead of wondering - long after the easier time of pruning - where all the shoots and new plants of the infestation of nastiness has come from.