Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What about Hard Books and Uninterested Children?

When you decide to take Charlotte Mason's advice and present a feast of many, many ideas to your children through the reading of numerous living books, your children won't be able to recall a lot of the people and places that they read about while young.  At least, that is what it will seem like to you. But rest assured, many of the stories and characters, even if only snatches, are filed away in the brain helping them make connections in life that you don't always notice because you are not in your child's head. I know this is true because I witness it all the time.

The Benefits of Hard Books
I read aloud This Country of Ours to my children when they were six, seven and eight years old. A few years ago, during a family dinner conversation about American politics, my 13 year old mentioned that she didn’t remember hardly anything from that book. This bothered me a little, but not enough to mistrust the process. Charlotte Mason ideas had proven correct too many times in my home to turn back now. Four years later, that same daughter said that the history book she was reading brought back many memories of the people and events that she thought she had forgotten from This Country of Ours. “Really Mom, it’s amazing how much I can recall now.”

But even more importantly, your children are slowly over time, becoming used to complex sentence structure, rich vocabulary and noble ideas through heroic deeds. In short, they are learning how to think deeply about the things that really matter in life. This is why I have chosen to educate my children in this way. I have observed my own children develop a taste for only the best in literature and history. Now they can't tolerate twaddle and even easy books. They want the challenge of great books and thirst for deep ideas.

Reading these older, hard books also helped them to understand and enjoy poetry which for many people today, is a mysterious genre because they are not used to the complex language patterns that the poet utilizes. But our great heroes, authors and leaders of the past all know that poetry is the highest form of communication. We NEED good poets today who know how to communicate truth through this venue because it can stir the human heart like no other written form. And we all know that knowledge alone can't change a person. The knowledge must connect with the emotions.

The Consequences of Giving Up Too Soon
The problem that can arise when we are experimenting with this type of education is that the teacher gives up too soon. When the children are not as interested in these hard books as they are in the twaddle on their shelves or the movies in the cupboard and Mom isn't able to enjoy the book either because of her own unfamiliarity with the rich, wordy language and vocabulary, easier books are chosen because she wants to keep the children's interest. Some parents decide to slow down on the amount of ideas they give their children. They read fewer books, explore fewer areas but delve deeply into the life of a particular person. Or perhaps, they spend several weeks studying ships or knights because their child has an interest in them. It is possible that their children will enjoy this study very much and will even be able to recall several years later a lot of what they did. But the price you pay for this type of learning is that fewer ideas are being presented to your child's thirsty, curious mind. The fewer ideas, the narrower their lives, and the narrower their lives, the less capacity they have to relate and enjoy many other areas and therefore, people in this world. Broad interests and knowledge open greater vistas to a mind, creating more opportunities to share truth with people from all walks of life - another reason I educate my children this way.

The Importance of Delight and of Struggle
"...there is no selection of subjects, passages or episodes on the ground of interest. The best available book is chosen and read through in the course, it may be, of two or three years." C. Mason vol 6
Charlotte Mason believed the easier approach was a fatal mistake. She didn't alter her book choices because some children weren't able to enjoy the book. Book choices were NOT based upon the children's interests. They were picked because they met the standards of a living book. Don't misunderstand me here. A living book is engaging and enjoyable to most children.  We are not advocating an education with dull, hard books because they are good for you.  But just as an athlete or musician has dull moments while mastering a skill, they are necessary until the body adjusts and learns. The benefits far outweigh the difficult moments so it is worth it to them. Charlotte Mason was confident that given time, those who struggled with a book would become accustomed to the language and begin to engage more fully with the story.  The pleasure increases like a snowball rolling down a mountain. 

I know of mothers who struggled through Marshall's This Country of Ours with their children for an entire year, even two. But they eventually began to realize the amazing benefits. The positive changes that occurred in mother as well as child were beautiful to behold.  They are so happy they didn't give up.  Their capacity to enjoy digging for knowledge today made it worth the struggle, which was actually quite brief compared to the many years of delightful learning the children are now experiencing.

Next time, we will discuss some ways to help jump start a child's interest in a difficult book.

one step at a time...

Further Reading: Distinctives of a Charlotte Mason Education-Living Books by MaryEllen St. Cyr


  1. Thank you! ;) Keeping my hand to the plow!


  2. This is so encouraging. We struggled through TCOO for the first half, but by the second half did much better. I think I learned how to read it aloud (but still struggled with editing or explaining derogatory terms). It took us three years, just a chapter a week. By the end, I wished for chapters from 1917 to the present because we were enjoying the chapters on the presidents.

    My kids (ages 12 and 10) are better readers than I am, for sure. They have an attentiveness for complex writing that I still struggle with (unless reading aloud). I credit that to the early read-alouds like TCOO and the original Pilgrim's Progress and Kipling. Good stuff, even though I struggled with those books in those early years. I think I'll do better with my new kindergartner coming up.

    It is worth pushing through these books. Thanks for all your good info and experience you share with us.

  3. Oh! We are working our way through The Pilgrim's Progress right now. I was absolutely sure that my children [12, 10, 10, 8, and some more little ones] would be bored and I would have to encourage them through the process, but they love it! We've been reading hard books together for years and years, and the benefits are still coming!

  4. Wonderful!!! Thanks for sharing.

  5. I so appreciate your experienced view on this. I have been swayed more than I should it appears by the interests of my children. SInce we do not follow a particular book list I fear I may have like you said given them less ideas by letting them lead too much. May I ask, If I offer them books all living to chose from and they chose from a pre-approved list according to their interest would I be losing anything by letting them have a choice in the matter? Also, I remember reading somewhere in CM's books on education that she scrapped books that the children did not relate to. Do you recall if she scrapped it because they did not relate to it or because it was not living that they did not relate to it so she scrapped it? Maybe I have misunderstood her and slid a bit off her aim. For I allow my boys to scrap one living book for another as long as it fits into the scope of living book with ideas. I would love to hear what you think about this.

  6. Love to hear about your successes, Ladies!


    CM scrapped books that the children in her schools repeatedly were unable to narrate from and enjoy. This was from studying the reactions of many children over time as opposed to the preferences of a few children in our small homeschools. For example, This Country of Ours has proven over time to be a living book for children in general. It was written by an author who loves her subject and knows it well. The language is rich and challenging to the reader. The stories are engaging and high ideals are presented as desirable. This book is usually presented to young children as a first history book. Often, children struggle with this book for awhile. They may be bored and have a difficult time understanding the long sentences and new vocabulary. Their attention will wander. At first, they may not even be able to narrate from it very well. THIS SHOULD BE EXPECTED and not cause for worry and consternation. It will take some time for children to learn how to enjoy classic literature such as this. The habit of attention is not yet developed, but these books require close attention. This struggle is necessary and desirable in the growth of the intellect.

    Concerning your other question, I already have a post written about that and plan to put it up in a few days. I hope it helps.

  7. Thanks. I agree. I look forward to your next post on how to jump start a child's interest in a difficult book. We won't be reading This country of ours for a few years as we are on a different schedule, but Heroes by Charles Kingsley in on the docket in a few months. I am curious how that will go. In the past we have read Captains Courageous, WInd in the Willows, Treasure Island, All Sail Set, King of the Golden River, Hind's Feet in High Places and enjoyed them all with requests for more readings. They have had a steady diet of good literature for the first and Second grade level. They found A Child's History of the World too short and simple so I went to living books to longer living books last year for history.
    I have another question but I'll wait for your next post and see if you answer there.

    Thanks so much!

  8. Thanks so much for this post. My daughter is reading Pilgrim's Progress...or rather, I'm reading it to her. She is 8 years old, and struggles with understanding it and gets quite frustrated. I was almost ready to give it up and try and easier version. But you have encouraged me to not give up. Again, thank you.
    Many blessings,

  9. I thought your post dovetailed well with the thoughts Brandy shared recently
    I think part of the problem arises when we don't understand the 'why' & for me that's where going to CM's books was so important.
    Great post, thank you.

  10. Oh, hang in there, LIsa. That's such a wonderful book that we refer to over and over again as my children face life's challenges.

    Yes, Carol. That was a great post by Brandy.

    I have been out of town and haven't posted a reply to your second question about switching out books according to children's interests. Personally, I rarely do that. I have never read that Charlotte Mason switched out books according to the tastes and interests of each child in the classroom. She made her choices based on the earmarks of a living book. She knew that most children would heartily enjoy them and hoped that those who didn't would grow in their capacity to enjoy the books they did not care for. She knew that some would be rejected and it didn't phase her. All listened to Shakespeare being read, all listened to the same history book. She knew children would be very opinionated about their likes and dislikes. Nevertheless, she served the same helpings to all. The only requirement was that it was a great work of literature.This was a great relief to me when I was choosing books for my children. The stress of getting the right book for each child was removed. My job was simply to present them with living books, in orderly servings. My children have never suffered from this decision. It took some time to learn to attend and enjoy some hard books. If you ask any one of them, they will tell you that their education has been utterly delightful. Their appetite for knowledge is as insatiable as the day they started school.

    Yesterday, when I asked them what they thought about student choice, they each said that they were glad I didn't let them give up on the books that I insisted they continue reading. Even though some of those books weren't their favorites, those books and their ideas were referred to in later books they read. In fact, this has happened repeatedly in their education. Additionally, the ideas presented in those books helped them later in understanding the ideas from other books. I can't stress enough how often this has happened to my children--particularly in reading the classics, which are indispensable. Miss Mason understood this far better than I did. After many years of educating, it all makes perfect sense to me now.

    hope that helps,

  11. "The pleasure increases like a snowball rolling down a mountain."

    That's the bottom line isn't it? If we never put the snowball down, it never grows, in fact it melts away instead. Hard books increase our capacity to read and enjoy even harder books. It was borne out in Mason's schools, and we are seeing the same today. So often a book starts hard and ends as a pleasure. Plutarch is a case in are all the books you have listed above.

    Thanks for your nice comments today both on my blog as well as one my maths post at Brandy's. :) I appreciate your learned opinion.

  12. Anonymous21.1.13

    I must confess that years ago I was such an avid CM fan and follower. We used Ambleside Online. We quit after a year or two. I felt so betrayed because my kids didn't like the books and yet I kept hearing from my local CM group how kids should love learning and that I was destroying their love of learning. Well, we switched curriculum several times.

    CM is still in the back of my mind and has never left. I read almost everything she has written including 3 of her original works. Her methods have always made sense to me but I was driven by fear. Fear of what if. What if they never learned to write? What if they didn't like it? They didn't. What if they can't get into college? I didn't trust even though I LOVED the method and felt so drawn it.

    We my daughter has only 2 and half years left of high school and I am reaping what I have sown. While she is lovely girl school hasn't been what it could have been. At least I have more time with my boys.

    This blog article just pierces my heart. I am going to print and read it everyday when my children complain that they don't like a book. As I have got older and a little wiser, my backbone has become much stiffer.

    My daughter is looking forward to not answering questions aka sonlight and wants to read more classics, so she is a willing participent in this. Do you any advice about where or what CM skills to focus on when coming in so late?

    I am going to cross post this to the yahoo group to see if anyone else has advice also.

  13. Dear Christy, (I remember you from earlier days :)

    None of us do this perfectly. We all learn while making mistakes. I hope you will just get up and dust yourself off and once again aim for heaven.

    Your question is broad. I'm not sure how to answer it. The first ideas that come to my mind are these:

    Keep a commonplace book. Buy something beautiful and encourage her to write down some of the great ideas she is reading.

    Keep oral and written narrations going.

    If she doesn't know how to write the four types of essays and the five paragraph essay, sometime in the year (NOT at the beginning) she needs to begin learning how to do this. I use this website:

    Encourage her in the arts and music if she hasn't learned to enjoy them yet. Keep this area enjoyable and non-academic.

    Give her a nature journal and schedule it in her day to go outside and enjoy it, recording her thoughts, even prayers as well. Let her do it her way. Have her watch the watercolor journaling video that I recommend in our book shop. It is very inspiring, especially for older students.