I am in the midst of a series (you can find the link to all the posts here) going through the thoughts of Francois Fenelon about the education of a child. It really goes far deeper than basic education as we have come to view it. When Fenelon says “education” he really means the entire upbringing of a child and especially the development of a good moral character.
We are in the section of his book entitled, “Indirect Instruction – A Gentle Means.” The title alone is food for thought. I will be taking a few weeks to go through this as it is the longest section in the book and there are just so many good nuggets of wisdom to glean and share.
Fenelon begins by implying something that another great thinker and teacher spoke about – the importance of “atmosphere.” Charlotte Mason, an educator in the 1800s said that education is an atmosphere, a discipline and a life. Fenelon speaks of the need for us to consider the way we teach a child and how so much of what is around them will be absorbed into their minds as into a sponge. He warns us:
It is to be remembered that we should throw nothing into the minds at this tender age but what we would desire to remain there during life. The first images engrained on the mind, while the brain is yet impressionable, and before any thing else is written there are far the most durable.
Now, for those of you familiar with the idea of Tabula Rasa (blank slate), you will hear a ring of that here. Fenelon may be saying that he thinks a child’s mind is a blank slate. Charlotte Mason, whom I mentioned above, does not adhere to this line of thinking. She said that children are born persons and they are not buckets to be poured into nor slates to be written upon. Nevertheless, the bigger thought that Fenelon has here is interesting to ponder. What are we giving our children as their first exposures? These early things are going to leave indelible markings on them. We are setting the tone for future habits, desires and tastes. As we allow or disallow certain influences and activities, we are actually making such deep impressions. Even biological research is showing the actual “ruts” in the brain from the way we are trained up in early childhood. Since our young children are so impressionable, we don’t need to lecture them, we merely need to guard and direct their exposures in life. And, this is far easier said than done.
For example, my older son saved and worked to earn the $200 it took to buy and IPod. We are very limited in how we allow screen use in our home and this purchase was a leap in any number of ways. He had to not only provide the money for the purchase, but he had to meet some pretty strict standards and we had to be able to put a bunch of limits on its use once he owned it. Still, now we have this IPod in our home. As a result, there is much available to him that was not before. His friends who also have IPods suggest he get games and apps so there is this constant sifting of what can and can’t be included in the use of the IPod. Now, he is twelve and I know that he is in a slightly different stage of life than my five-year-old, but still, there is this pull in my heart to live by the truth outlined here by Fenelon. My husband and I want to guard and guide his exposures as they are setting the tone for future habits and tastes. I think of it much like food. Our children have always been exposed to vegetables and foods from many cultures. As a result some of their favorite foods are “Dim Sum” and “Sauteed Spinach.” Now, a child who is raised on Blue-Box Mac and Goldfish may find the foods my children currently enjoy detestable. It comes down to (in a large part) exposure. In the same way, the things they choose to enjoy and participate in later in life will often have roots in their early years. Fenelon goes on to relate:
… we so distinctly recollect, when we are old, the things which have happened to us in our youth, however distant the period may be.
Certainly we all know how deeply our childhoods made impact upon us and how our memories of those years (whether fond or difficult) are the strongest and most poignant. Think about how certain sounds or smells can bring you right back to a specific event in your own childhood. Because of this it is so important that we move a little counter-culture and not just succumb to the easy way. We need to really ask ourselves what we are allowing to influence our children and if it is the very thing we want imprinted upon them for life.
I’m surely not suggesting we all become hermits, shut the blinds and stay indoors so we can inculcate our children with only what we wish for them to know and see. This would be a very damaging way to raise a child. God created a world and He intends us to be a part of it and to experience all sorts of things – even in our formative years. What I am saying is that we need to choose wisely the books, the media, the friendships and especially our own way of behaving so that the impressions on our children in these early years are ones that will bring out lifelong habits and tastes which are life-giving and healthy.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and how you navigate these important choices.
Pie photo by Len Rizzi Child Swinging photo by USEPA Courtesy of WikiCommons; Mary Cassatt painting of mother and child