When I first began to think about education as atmosphere, I focused mostly on the positive aspects of this principle. Children will learn to love the things their parents love simply, as in the air they breathe. I love music, my children will be surrounded by good music in our home, and they will learn to love it. I love to watch birds, and they will pick up my enthusiasm naturally. My husband and I love to read, and have hundreds of books. Of course our children will be affected by that.
I thought of the relationships the children have in the home and in the extended family, and what they learn from each.
And I admit it, I felt pressure to be intentional, to make the atmosphere in our home the best it can be. We are not naturally art lovers in this home... perhaps I need to work on learning to love it more myself. My housekeeping leaves a lot to be desired... I need to work on that for the children's sake. And there is nothing wrong with that line of thought. Education is a discipline and a life as well, after all. But we do miss something if we consider only the positive aspects of "Education is an Atmosphere."
Last month I was preparing for a Charlotte Mason meeting at my home, and I took the time to read Chapter 6 of A Philosophy of Education. I was very struck that Charlotte Mason begins this chapter on "Education is an Atmosphere" with criticism of those who are too intentional with their atmosphere. Such parents and teachers create a hothouse where children are protected from the realities of the world and surrounded by sweetness and light.
When Charlotte Mason speaks of atmosphere, she is speaking of the atmosphere in the home as it is: an "atmosphere which nobody has been at pains to constitute." (p. 96) "We all know the natural conditions under which a child should live; how he shares household ways with his mother, romps with his father, is teased by his brothers and petted by his sisters; is taught by his tumbles; learns self-denial by the baby's needs..." (p. 96)
I work hard to create good habits in our home (Education is a discipline). I try to be intentional about exposing my children to good books, art, and music (Education is a life). Still, it is freeing to know that the many imperfections and failings in our home are not outside my children's education. "By these things children live and we may not keep them in glass cases; if we do, they develop in succulence and softness and will not become plants of renown." (p. 97)
Atmosphere will be affected and changed by discipline and life, because we ourselves as persons will be affected and changed. Atmosphere is not something we create artificially. Rather, what we are as persons affects those around us. This includes both good and bad elements, of course, because that is real life.
My three boys fight sometimes (and give reluctant kisses and sorry's when I insist...). I struggle with housekeeping and lose my patience once in a while. These things, and the way we deal with them and grow over time, are all part of the real-life atmosphere in our home. And much as I strive for better things, I know that these frictions too are helping my children grow.
Charlotte Mason ends the section on atmosphere with some balance:
"There are two courses open to us in this matter. One, to create by all manner of modified conditions a hot-house atmosphere, fragrant but emasculating, in which children grow apace but are feeble and dependent; the other to leave them open to all the 'airts that blow,' but with a care lest they be unduly battered; lest, for example, a miasma come their way in the shape of a vicious companion." (p. 98-99)"Education is an Atmosphere" means that we let children experience real life in our homes, but that real life must be permeated by love and balanced by discipline and nurture.