Ambleside Blog

The Meaning of Must

There is a human tendency to think of life as a grand abstraction rather than as a set of objectives to be completed in definite hours. In her book, 168 Hours, Laura Vanderkam suggests:

If you want to be a writer, you must dedicate hours to putting words on a page…
To be a mindful parent, you must spend time with your child….
If you want to sing well in a functioning chorus, you must show up for rehearsals…
If you want to be healthy, you must exercise…

Reading this text, I was struck by the use of the word must as a necessary corollary to the wants listed. I am reminded of Charlotte Mason’s words to parents:

“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.”

This recognition of must is another human principle at work. Must in living means, I live under authority, I live in relationship and I live responsibly.

Most adults feel the constraining must in the daily workplace. But what about the musts in our leisure time, in our relationships, in the nagging list of “to do” we carry with us from week to week, year to year?  Some might feel put off by the question because they feel entitled to their free time after being responsible all day at work.

What adult plans on being unhealthy, on negatively bonding with others, on watching hours upon hours of television, or on hurling angry commands at her children?  If we want to be healthy, we must eat well and exercise. If we want to have friendships that make deposits into your life, we must choose friends that deal with the stresses of life maturely. If we want to have an intellectual life and engage in actives that nourish us, we must not watch television for endless hours. If we want meaningful time with our children, we must engage in conversation and share life together.

To have personal integrity must, must have meaning.

Ambleside's Difference

My homeschooling is much different now that I am working with Ambleside Schools.  The three biggest differences are because of the training, the curriculum and the application.  All of these have had a positive impact to our homeschooling and family in general.

The first improvement in our homeschooling occurred because of the training that I attended at Ambleside.  The 3-day Internship allowed me to actually observe the realities of teaching using Charlotte Mason's method as well as to explore deeper the fundamental underpinnings of her philosophy.  The Summer Institute was a 6-day immersion in the Ambleside method.  I was able to sit as an Ambleside student for the first 4 days and then I along with my fellow classmates were given an opportunity to teach two subjects using what we have learned.  One of the subjects was disciplinary, I chose 2nd Grade Arithmetic and the other was inspirational, I chose 4th Grade Science.  Also, for my continued growth I have had the opportunity to have on-going weekly consultations with Maryellen St. Cyr, the founder of Ambleside Schools.  We have been consulting for a year and a half now and I have grown much as a teacher, mother and a person because of it.

Secondly, my homeschooling is improved now because I use the Ambleside curriculum.  Since I teach 3 different grades (K, 3rd & 4th) I group some subjects together.  For example we use 3rd Grade Science, Literature and History but are using Kindergarten Literature for Read Aloud.  We also study Froebel together with all grades.  In arithmetic, spelling and grammar we are on different levels but I have learned how to master the teaching of 3 grade levels during the same time slot.  It is quite fun and beneficial to all the children to see what their siblings are learning.  In using the Ambleside curriculum I don't have to spend so much time piecing together my own course of study and I know that my children are receiving a comprehensive curriculum rich in living ideas and true to the philosophy.  Plus, I delight in the material as well.  It is so interesting and enjoyable to teach.  I am blessed as a homeschooling mother to be able to teach through all the grades, thus eventually using the entire curriculum over the course of our home education.

Third, I feel that finally I am really applying Miss Mason's philosophy.  Before Ambleside, I had read much of Charlotte Mason's original writings, other related Charlotte Mason books; I was in a Charlotte Mason Homeschool Support group and even Co-led a Charlotte Mason group.  But, even with all of this so-called "experience", I had not fully grasped the foundational ideas and practices of Charlotte Mason.  I struggled with how to practically apply her philosophy.  It wasn't until I observed real teachers teaching real children using this philosophy that my mind began to open to an understanding of how this was done.  It made such a difference to me to actually see this philosophy in action!  I now have a much better understanding of the fundamental ideas behind Miss Mason's philosophy and how to apply them to real life and real homeschooling in the 21st century.

I own much gratitude to Bill and Maryellen St. Cyr, the Ambleside teachers and administrators and all the many people who are involved in the work of promoting a living education to all children across the world through Ambleside Schools International.

Children Must Be Taught

It is interesting to me that I so easily accept that children must be taught formal subjects like math, writing, or art, but that they should somehow know on their own, how to have good behavior.  I had this experience happen just last week.  We invited some friends over for dinner; I was busy cooking and preparing.  My husband reminded me that we ought to talk with the children about what is expected behavior for our children when their friends arrive.  I was too busy at the moment and didn't want to take the time to sit down with them and discuss appropriate behavior, so I casually called to them in the other room, "When your friends get here, remember.... be good!"  Needless to say as the friends arrived, the chaos commenced.  Now some of the children where running from room to room, going up and down the stairs, messing with the set table, etc.  To try to remedy the situation, I pulled out a board game that our family enjoys hoping to settle them all down in some quiet play.  But, once the newness of the idea wore off they were on to something else.  After our guests left and we put our children to bed, I asked my husband, "Why do our children go crazy when they have their friends over? They don't behave like this when it is just us at home and they don't behave like this with all children we have over.  What is it?"

After a bit of reflection, I believe that there were three mistakes made on my part.  First, my biggest error in this particular situation was not taking the time to sit down and explain exactly what being "good" looks like.  We have had this experience, even with the same friends, of us sitting down with our children and explaining exactly what is okay and what is not okay and I made sure that I was present in the situation to remind or correct if needed.  Not surprisingly, the time went well and was pleasant for everyone.  Second, I need to be fully present.  This is a tough one with other adults.  The adults usually want to talk with each other, many times at the neglect of the children.  When this happens, I have to remind myself that it is right for me to politely interrupt the adults to tend to my or other children when necessary.  Third, I need to watch for certain patterns of behavior with particular children and use discretion as to whom to invite and how often.

It is a primary responsibility for me as a parent to inform the ignorance and support the weakness of my children.  This situation reminded me that children have to be taught “good” behavior; they don't just know it intuitively.

Support and Encouragement

Tonight I just finished reading a few chapters in Mona Brookes' book, Drawing with Children.  I was reminded and enlightened by her comments and suggestions towards teaching children.  Although, her focus is on teaching children how to draw, her ideas are foundational and are consistent with valuing children as persons.  I was inspired and reminded of my role to encourage and support my children in their struggles both in and out the schoolroom.  I sometimes see my youngest freeze up when asked to copy an art print, my son struggle to pay attention in Sunday School or my oldest shed tears when math gets too difficult.  Just like my own need to have loving persons to support and encourage me, I am reminded of how important it is for me to be that source of support and encouragement in my own children's lives and the lives of those children around me.  As a mother especially, I have a very important role as an encourager and supporter to the children I love so dearly.

Building Joy

In the six volumes of her Home Education Series, Charlotte Mason speaks of joy over 270 times.  This is not surprising, for the consistent experience of joy is essential to a child's well-being. Through experience, parents and teachers know how difficult it is to help the sullen child move forward. Ms. Mason would take it a step farther, arguing that “The happiness of the child is the condition of his progress.” Thus, “his lessons should be joyous and that occasions of friction in the schoolroom are greatly to be deprecated.” 

It is important to distinguish between "pleasing" our students and "joy-building." There is a kind of "pleasing" which occurs when we give a child what she wants. But, this type of pleasing is ephemeral. It lasts only until the child's next "chance desire."  We have seen far too many children enslaved by their own desires, unable to accept "no", and tyrannized by the denial of any desire. Such children could never be described as "joy-full." (In no way, am I suggesting that we never grant a child her desires. It's just that such "pleasing" is secondary to more important concerns.)

There is another kind of "pleasing." It is the deep interpersonal delight, which we call joy. Joy is the first emotion sought by an infant. For a newborn, the concrete symbol of joy is the delight in a parent’s face. An infant responds to the parent’s delight with his/her own delight. Such delight stimulates and cultivates the joy centers of the brain. The face of a delighted parent symbolizes to an infant “it is good to be me (the infant) with you (the parent)”. Joy cannot be experienced apart from relationship with another.

But let us consider; the infant is exquisitely aware of every mood of his mother, the little face clouds with grief or beams with joy in response to the expression of hers. The two left to themselves have rare games. He jumps and pulls, crows and chuckles, crawls and kicks and gurgle with joy; and, amid all the play, is taught what he may not do. Hands and feet, legs and arms, fingers and toes, are continually going while he is awake; mouth, eyes and ears are agog. All is play without intention, and mother plays with baby as glad as he. (Charlotte Mason)

While joy-building must be an authentic interpersonal process and cannot be fabricated by a series of artificial steps, none-the-less, parents and teachers would do well to cultivate the following habits*:

  1. Smile whenever you greet your students and use sincere voice tones.
  2. Each week, take the time to invite each student individually to tell you truthfully how he/she is doing and what he/she is thinking. Listen intently without interrupting.
  3. Take a sincere interest in really knowing each of your students. Work hard to understand their fears, joys, hopes, passions, talents, and pain.
  4. Always treat your students with dignity and respect. End discussions in a manner which affirms. (Neither deny a failure when a failure has occurred nor abandon a student to failure.)
  5. Use appropriate touch appropriately: Grasp a hand, link arms, place a hand on the shoulder, hug younger children.
  6. Discover what brings each of your students joy: A time to talk, an encouraging note, a helping hand. Custom fit attempts to bring joy.
  7.  When a student's eyes "light up", catch his/her eye. Allow yourself to share the joy and reflect it back. Joy builds as glances go back and forth.
  8. Cherish each and every student, establishing through word and actions that you are authentically glad to be with him. (If tragically there should be a student whom you do not cherish, own it as a profound defect of your own heart and humbly seek help.)

As a final note, many a marriage could be spared, many a friendship deepened, and many a working alliance strengthened by the regular practice of these "joy-building" disciplines.

*Adapted from The Life Model: Living from the Heart Jesus Gave You by Friesen, Wilder et. al.

Educating for Relationship

“Education is the Science of Relations.”
                                                           -- Charlotte Mason

When we think of relationships, we usually think of those persons whose lives have touched our lives, family, friends, and co-workers. As important as these are, we must expand our vision. For acknowledged or not, we are created for a vast array of relationships – relations with nature and number, art and music, literary characters and historical persons, our culture and the culture of foreign peoples. In all of these, we find the shadow of the eternal Word of whom it is said, “All things came into being through Him and apart from Him nothing came into being.” We are made to know more, not less; to have relationship with more not less.

How tragic when we find a child’s vision narrowed rather than expanded.

“History is boring.”

“Music is not for me.”

“I don’t like science.”

Even, “I don’t like people.”

How does the infinitely curious, confident three year old become the apathetic, skeptical eleven year old? Do we, adults, not share in the blame?

Speaking of her first grade son, a mother once told me, “My son struggles in math. In fact, our whole family does. He will never do well in math.” I thought to myself, “What a tragic belief.” I responded, “Your son has never had the opportunity to have a relationship with math. He is only six years old. This year, let’s believe in him and support him in establishing the ‘right relationship’ with math.”

This mother, herself lacking a vital relationship with mathematics, was in the process of passing on the same flawed relationship to her son. We can offer better. But, we must believe that better is possible. We must believe that, as bearers of the divine image, all children are created to know. We must be careful not to limit them because of our own fears and prejudices.

In Charlotte Mason's words:

Education considers what relations are proper to a human being, and in what ways these several relations can best be established; that a human being comes into the world with capacity for many relations; and that we, for our part, have two chief concerns––first, to put him in the way of forming these relations by presenting the right idea at the right time, and by forming the right habit upon the right idea; and, secondly, by not getting in the way and so preventing the establishment of the very relations we seek to form.

What is in the Air?

Ideas may invest as an atmosphere, rather than strike as a weapon. The idea may exist in a clear, distinct, definite form, as that of a circle in the mind of a geometrician; or it may be a mere instinct, a vague appetency towards something, . . . like the impulse which fills the young poet's eyes with tears, he knows not why: To excite this 'appetency towards something'––towards things lovely, honest, and or good report, is the earliest and most important ministry of the educator. (Charlotte Mason)

I remember a retreat I hosted almost thirty years ago – 40 high school students, a dozen college students, and my faithful parents behind the scenes, cooking and doing the dishes. On the final morning, shortly after breakfast, we began to sing. Drying his hands from the dish water, my father came out to join us. His voice still sounds in my ears, fervent and timid. (He never wanted to bring attention to himself).

           “I have decided to follow Jesus.
                        I have decided to follow Jesus.
                                    No turning back, no turning back.

           “Though none go with me still I will follow.
                        Though none go with me still I will follow.
                                   No turning back, no turning back.

            “The cross before me and the world behind me.
                        The cross before me and the world behind me.
                                   No turning back, no turning back.

An idea wrapped in a relational atmosphere. All my life, I shall carry it as one of those seeds which has shaped me.

This is not only the human condition “on retreat.” But, it is our continuous condition. We are shaped by the ideas that are seeded in us and the relational air that we breathe. And we are continuously exhaling ideas and relational air which those around us will inhale. Parent, teacher, pastor, office manager, engineer, machinist, flight attendant, temp-secretary, everyone creates a relational atmosphere and sows it with ideas. Most frequently, we do so unconsciously. The question is “What’s in the air?”

It Is Well With My Soul

Each week King and I sing a different hymn together before school. I also read a little background information about the hymn and its writer. This past week we sang, "It Is Well With My Soul" by Horatio G. Spafford. 

Horatio, his wife and four daughters were planning a trip to England in the fall of 1873. About the time they were scheduled to leave, urgent business came up for Horatio in New York, so he put his family aboard the steam ship, Ville Du Havre, without him, promising to follow soon.

On November 22, 1873 the Ville Du Havre collided with another ship and sank killing 226 passengers, including all of Horatio's daughters. Among the 47 survivors, was Horatio's wife, who was found barely alive, clinging to a piece of the wreckage. Upon arriving in England, her telegraph to Horatio read,

Saved Alone.

During his voyage to join his wife, Horatio was informed by the captain when they were sailing over the spot where his daughters perished. It was at that place, during those hours, that he said to himself,

It is well with my soul; the will of God be done.

It was out of these thoughts on that day that Horatio wrote his hymn.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll;

Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,

It is well, it is well, with my soul.



It is well, with my soul,

It is well, it is well, with my soul.


Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,

Let this blest assurance control,

That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,

And hath shed His own blood for my soul.


My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!

My sin, not in part but the whole,

Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!


For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:

If Jordan above me shall roll,

No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life

Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.


But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,

The sky, not the grave, is our goal;

Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!

Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!


And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,

The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;

The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,

Even so, it is well with my soul.

The tune for this hymn is called "Ville Du Havre" written by Phillip Bliss in 1876.

Information for the story came from Then Sings My Soul by Robert J. Morgan.

Educating for a Full Life

A first grader carefully adds three to four. Third graders diligently journey into ancient Egypt. A student shares with her parents insightful and detailed reflections on Robinson Crusoe.  These are characteristic of students who care.  When it comes to education, the first question parents and teachers must ask is not, “How much does the child know?”  But rather, “How much does he care?”

Inevitably, the student (like the adult) who cares little will fritter away the hours. She drifts from class to class, enduring one day after another, all in hopes of some afterschool or weekend thrill. Finding no joy in the ordinary, always looking for the exciting; days turn to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years. A young life is lost in passing time rather than in fully living.

Charlotte Mason spoke of a vast inheritance offered to all. We are offered the possibility of knowledge in all its varied dimensions; not knowing as mere information, but the knowing which implies relationship. Let us bring our students back to the wide room – read of the lifecycle of the frog, observe the vibrant purple of the American Beauty, digest the nature of exponents, and wrestle to understand why a blind girl sees more than we. Last week, I observed teachers doing all this and more!  

“Thou hast set my feet in a large room” should be the glad cry of every intelligent soul. Life should be all living and not merely a tedious passing of time; not all doing or all feeling or all thinking––the strain would be too great––but, all living; that is to say, we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest…. The question is not,––how much does the youth know? When he has finished his education––but how much does he care? And about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? And, therefore, how full is the life he has before him? (Charlotte Mason, School Education p.171)

Speaking of God


“Do not talk down to children.”

To a prior generation, the religious education of children consisted of indoctrination and memorization. Today, it’s likely to be silly games, treats, and a video of animated Bible stories. Our children are sold short. An insightful hearing of Scripture, a delight in the Creator, a deep communion with the living God, all are deemed beyond a child’s capacity or interest.

Perhaps we are the problem. By God’s grace, children have ears to hear. But, what do we have to say? Let us meet God in the depths of prayer, the revelations of Scripture, the wonder of creation, the kindnesses and the needs of a neighbor. And, let us hold a high view of a child's capacity. Then, we will have plenty to say. And, we will know not to say too much.

Consider the following quote:
We might gather from [misguided] educational publications that the art of education as regards young children is to bring conceptions down to their 'little' minds. If we give up this foolish prejudice, we shall be astonished at the range and depth of children's minds. And, we shall perceive that their relation to God is one of those 'first-born affinities,' which it is our part to help them to make good. A mother knows how to speak of God as she would of an absent father, with all the evidences of his care and love. She knows how to make a child's heart beat high in joy and thankfulness; as she thrills him with the thought 'my Father made them all,' while his eye delights in flowery meadow, great tree, flowing river. 'His are the mountains and the valleys, his the resplendent rivers, whose eyes they fill with tears of holy joy.' And this is not beyond children. (Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education)


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