Masterly inactivity is one of my favourite concepts in Charlotte Mason's philosophy of education. The phrase itself is all about balance. There is parental authority on the one hand, and a wise letting alone of children on the other -- giving them freedom to make right choices, take risks, and make discoveries on their own.
Charlotte Mason noticed that parents in her day felt a deep responsibility for the upbringing of their children. She felt this was a good thing, but that the anxiety and the "fussy and restless habit" it was causing in many parents was not helpful. (What would she have thought of the "helicopter parenting" of today?!)
"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." (Vol. 3, p. 27)
How can we as parents strike the right balance? Charlotte Mason mentions several factors, including authority, good humour, confidence in oneself and the children, and a sound mind in a sound body. I think the key element here is trust, though: trust in yourself, in your children, and most of all, in God.
"The mere blessed fact of the parental relationship and of that authority which belongs to it, by right and by nature, acts upon the children as do sunshine and shower on a seed in good soil. But the fussy parent, the anxious parent, the parent who explains overmuch, who commands overmuch, who excuses overmuch, who restrains overmuch, who interferes overmuch, even the parent who is with the children overmuch, does away with the dignity and simplicity of that relationship which, like all the best and most delicate things in life, suffer by being asserted or defended." p. 29
I'll be honest, I am anxious sometimes about whether I am doing enough for my children. I teach them many good things, and neglect others. I see things other parents neglect and worry about my own blind spots. I know I have them. Charlotte Mason reminds me that the mere fact of the relationships in our home is enough. It is enough that they live in a home where their father and mother love the Lord, love each other, and love them. It is enough that they know that we are in authority over them, however imperfectly that may be carried out from day to day. It is enough that they feel secure and loved. It is enough that they know that there is right and wrong, and that they must choose the right.
Trust Your Children
Though Charlotte Mason herself was not a parent, she knew perfectly well that children are often testing the limits, seeing how far they can go. Parents must be alert in their authority, and yet, in balance, they must also give their children the trust and freedom to choose the right.
"Every time a child feels that he chooses to obey of his own accord, his power of initiative is strengthened." p. 31
"He must be treated with full confidence, and must feel that right-doing is his own free choice, which his parents trust him to make; but he must also be very well aware of the deterrent force in the background, watchful to hinder him when he would do wrong." p. 32
This is, of course, how we live as adults. We make our own free choices, and yet we do not feel free to break the law or to hurt others, for example. As Christians, the Holy Spirit guides us and convicts us. And here is the heart of the matter.
Trust the Lord
Do we trust the Lord himself to be working in the hearts of our children? If we do not, will it not all be in vain, no matter how much anxious labour we put into it? But if we do trust Him, we can have peace, and in that peace, allow our children the freedom to be led by the Spirit instead of constantly hovered over by ourselves. We can be diligent, and yet not anxious.
"When we recognise that God does not make over the bringing up of children absolutely even to their parents, but that He works Himself, in ways which it must be our care not to hinder, in the training of every child, then we shall learn passiveness, humble and wise. We shall give children space to develop on the lines of their own characters in all right ways, and shall know how to intervene effectually to prevent those errors which, also, are proper to their individual characters." p. 35
A Personal Note
I have been thinking a lot about this lately. I have a sibling (adult) who has been making many unwise choices lately. And I have been afraid. We grew up in a stable, Christian home. We were loved. We knew what was right and wrong. My parents were not perfect parents. I notice that my husband and I are not perfect parents either, and I wonder what will become of our own children when they go out in the world and make their own choices. Is it really enough that we love them and that we do our best to nurture them in the fear of the Lord? Is it really enough to trust the Spirit to work in their hearts? Can we let go and allow them to make mistakes, even really, really bad ones? It is a sobering thought that children are born persons, and that they can choose to resist the Spirit's work, too. That they can start on a destructive path that leads far from God. That our own children will choose for themselves some day whom they will serve.
And yet I must choose this path of trust. My anxiety, my fussiness, my hovering and controlling will not add anything good. The grace of God is our only hope, whatever our children choose in the future. And we know it is Amazing Grace.