woman sitting in a chair with lets kicked out and arms behind her head
The Boldness to Do Nothing typography
by Amy Fischer
“We ought to do so much for our children, and are able to do so much for them, that we begin to think everything rests with us and that we should never intermit for a moment our conscious action on the young minds and hearts about us. Our endeavours become fussy and restless.”
— Charlotte Mason, School Education

like to think I am a confident, calm sort of person who weighs decisions thoughtfully, then carries them out with assurance. For example, when my eldest son was a baby, my husband and I started to think about homeschooling. By the time he was one, I knew what curriculum I wanted to use. A few years later, the deadline to register for school came and went. I watched my friends make their way to school with their young children, but I never wavered in our choice.

I tend to look at these definitive moments of going against the flow of culture, like the decision to homeschool, and view them as moments of courage and bravery.
I am bold.
Setting out on an atypical, less well-traveled path brings a sense of dangerous quests with dragons to be slain. Like the culture I live in, I equate dramatic and decisive action with virtue. Consequently, I expect my fears to be well-defined with clear-cut, action-oriented remedies.

Quests and dragons are in short order for a homeschool mom. Yet, even in the simple, daily difficulties, my value for action and productivity leads me to assume that doing something is the answer to every problem. I see this both in my parenting in general and my homeschool specifically. For example, my children squabble over a toy, and I know they are about to come to blows, so I decide who gets to play with the toy and when. Other times, my eldest son struggles with a math problem. As an adult, it would be easy for me to show him how to solve the problem, and so my fingers inch toward the abacus. The impulse to act appears in family devotions as well. We might read a Psalm, a beautiful prophecy of Christ, but no one seems to get it. My immediate thought is that they must need me to explain it.

…daily acts of courage look a lot like that: holding my ground and standing firm, resisting the temptation to act out of fear and anxiety, and cultivating an assured faith.”
kids running around having fun
On the surface, these scenarios are unproblematic. My motherly logic says that I should help my children get along with their siblings, understand their school lessons, and know the Gospel. My deepest desire is to help my children through their struggles and see them develop positive relationships and good understanding. Rather than looming dragons, my fears linger around the consequences of not helping: they might never overcome their challenges or see truth, and missed opportunities will permanently set them back. I fear that they will resent my failure to do all I could to secure their success.

But is my inclination to step in and help the right one? When I examine the messages my actions give my children, I come away doubting. If I resolve every sibling conflict, I teach my children that they cannot reconcile with other people independently. If I prod my son through his math lessons, giving hints and tips the whole way through, I show him that he cannot successfully grapple with complex concepts. Every worksheet becomes a testimony to the work I did for him that he could not manage by himself. Explaining every verse of the Bible, complete with cross-references, moral points, and directions for application, teaches my children that God’s word is inaccessible unless they have my assistance.

I am not the only parent who finds it difficult to let their children struggle. William Stixrud and Ned Johnson’s The Self-driven Child and David Epstein’s Range explore the consequences of intensive parenting, addressing the misdirected love many modern parents have for their children. Out of love for their children, parents intervene when children face disappointments in everything from sports to exams, negotiating rosters and grades. Pained by academic struggles, they simplify homework problems so that their children reach the correct solutions with ease. Full of hope, they put their children into hobbies, clubs, and sports that comprise the perfect college application. Yet far from giving children more happiness and success, these efforts leave children unprepared for lives that will include hardship, friction, and disappointments.

These books are clear: the active deed is not necessarily correct, and success in life, whether personal or vocational, does not depend on a painless childhood. Instead, children need tools to cope with the challenges they will eventually face. By acting out of fear of immediate struggle, I do my children more harm than good, teaching them lessons that undermine my very hopes for them. If I remove every obstacle that stands between my children and success, I prepare them to live in a world that does not exist, one free of setbacks and challenges. Instead of setting them up for future success, I deny them experiences that teach them how to navigate the world as it is and will continue to be, long after I can smooth their course and ease their troubles.

Stixrud and Johnson give parents this commendation: “Don’t try to carpet the world when it’s far easier to give out slippers.” In other words, I cannot change the nature of the world my children inhabit, but I can help them develop resilience to thrive in it. To do this, my children need both my support and my self-restraint. I have to swallow my fears and allow my children to struggle.

I choose boldness once more.
British education philosopher Charlotte Mason called this confident and relaxed parental attitude masterly inactivity. Writing in 1904, she stated that “[masterly inactivity] indicates the power to act, the desire to act, and the insight and self-restraint which forbid action.” Masterly inactivity, she wrote, recognizes that struggles and challenges have an essential purpose. These bumps in the road are how our children gain practical, first-hand experience in decision making, coping with disappointment, and developing their internal motivation. The most effective lessons do not come out of a curriculum, but through parents, in wisdom, stepping out of the way and letting their children tackle the obstacles life brings their way.

In short, if I want my children to grow up with the ability to thrive in a complex world, I need to surrender my desire to fix their problems and accept that just because I can help does not mean that I should. My children need to learn patience by waiting their turn for a toy. My son needs to understand that with effort and diligence, he can solve his math problems. When I refrain from over-explaining Scripture, my boys learn that they can access, grasp, and enjoy it for themselves. As simple as these lessons are, the messages are fundamental. They teach my children that they have the fortitude to overcome hardship.

Masterly inactivity is not selfish, lazy, or passive. Miss Mason is clear that parents need the wisdom to know when to intervene and take a burden from their child. But more often than not, masterly inactivity takes an attitude of faith, trusting that most of these challenges and obstacles will leave my children strengthened and better equipped for whatever life brings their way. Instead of anxiously smoothing their path, I can embrace these lessons that I could never teach my children on my own.

Self-restraint does not come easily to me. Whether math, Bible lessons, or even sibling rivalry, I often find myself intervening. Moment by moment, I am anything but the confident, self-assured mother watching her friends take their children to school. But on a much smaller scale, daily acts of courage look a lot like that: holding my ground and standing firm, resisting the temptation to act out of fear and anxiety, and cultivating an assured faith.

Amy Fischer headshot

my Fischer is a home-schooling mom of three boys, living as an American ex-pat in the northwest of England. She writes about home education and the Charlotte Mason philosophy at her blog, aroundthethicket.com. You’ll also find her co-hosting the Thinking Love podcast, which explores homeschooling, Charlotte Mason, the early years, and more, at www.thinkinglove.education.