Masterly Inactivity, Part II

Background information on Masterly Inactivity here.

Here’s a summary of chapter 3 of volume 3, where Mason introduces the concept of Masterly Inactivity:

Parents have a keen sense of their own responsibilities.

However, this must not become a fussy, restless habit.

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 our responsibility as parents demands constant and conscious action on the young minds and hearts about us.

The children must understand this is not an abdication of our authority, but the benign and thoughtful exercise of our authority. (“They are free under authority, which is liberty; to be free without authority is license.”)

Good Humour: not overmuch complacency, and a general giving-in. The children respond with appreciation to permission given from a place of wise, kindly authority. They respond to permission given as abject caving in by whining and wheedling for more.

Parental self-confidence in your own authority.  You dilute your authority and the simple dignity of your role by being overly fussy and anxious, by explaining, commanding, restraining, and interfering too much, as well as by excusing too much.

Have confidence in your children as well, but do not be naive or gullible. Even the nicest children have little respect for the parent ‘who can be hoodwinked. Be aware that even your children are always playing a game––half of chance, half of skill; they are trying how far they can go, how much of the management of their own lives they can get for the taking, and how much they must leave in the hands of the stronger powers.’ Do not reward this. When you give them the management of their own lives in any area (and you should do this steadily, and regularly over time), it is not good for them to see this as something they have tricked you into, a battle they have ‘won.’ They must understand it is a privilege and responsibility you have thoughtfully granted.

Serenity of spirit- the wise mother applies masterly inactivity also to herself. She need not always be doing, doing, doing, going, going, going. the mother who is nervous, anxious, worried, fretful, passes this spirit to her children. The mother should find time to rest and refresh herself.

Leisure: This is more than just free time. As CM explains it, it involves the wise and orderly organization of home and calendar- so that events do not rush up and catch us by surprise, necessitating a frantic sense of emergency as you scramble to get things done at the last minute for the science fair, the 4-H project, the scouting badge, the poem for Grandmama’s birthday, or the house ready for guests (I have failed so badly at all of these, but most especially this one, I think).

Faith: 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.

That’s my summary of chapter 3.  It’s better to read it for yourself if possible, because what strikes one person won’t necessarily be what strikes somebody else.  She closes chapter 3 with this:

“Let us next consider a few of the various phases of children’s lives in which parents and teachers would do well to preserve an attitude of ‘masterly inactivity.'”

So that’s the introduction to chapter 4.  Here are some areas where Miss Mason saw a particular need for parents to hold back:

boys and girls must have time for free playPlay:
“There is a little danger in these days of much educational effort that children’s play should be crowded out, or, what is from our present point of view the same thing, should be prescribed for and arranged until there is no more freedom of choice about play than that about work.”  She acknowledges that games, that is, team sports, certainly have some value.  But: “organised games are not play in the sense we have in view. Boys and girls must have time to invent episodes, carry on adventures, live heroic lives, lay sieges and carry forts, even if the fortress be an old armchair; and in these affairs the elders must neither meddle nor make.”

WE built a ship upon the stairs  All made of the back-bedroom chairs,	  And filled it full of sofa pillows	  To go a-sailing on the billows.

WE built a ship upon the stairs
All made of the back-bedroom chairs,
And filled it full of sofa pillows
To go a-sailing on the billows.

2. Work: Encourage initiative.  Let children stand or fall by their own efforts.  Do not continuously prod, remind, prod again. Let them fail.

3. Choosing friends: Open opposition usually gets exactly the opposite result you wanted. “In this matter, as in all others, the parent’s inactivity must be masterly; that is, the young people should read approval or disapproval very easily, and should be able to trace one or the other to general principles of character and conduct, though nothing be said or done or even looked in disparagement of the ally of the hour.”

4. Spending their own money: If it is their money, let them spend it as they like, without interference (presuming as they like does not include illegal purchases).  However, masterly inactivity doesn’t mean you do nothing- you should have been teaching them from the time they were little, giving them good principles, teaching through word and example that “the smallest income is divisible into the share that we give, and the share that we keep, and the share that we save for some object worth possessing, to be had, perhaps, after weeks or months of saving; as to the futility of buying that we may eat, an indulgence, that we should rarely allow ourselves, and never except for the pleasure of sharing with others; as to how it is worth while to think twice before making a purchase.”  The teaching is done separately. It’s not tied to their allowance or income from little odd jobs.   Over time, give them the responsibility (and enough money to cover) small personal necessities, and let them suffer the consequences should they blow their monthly deodorant allowance on downloading games.  You might suffer some consequences of that choice as well, of course, but it’s better they learn the pinch of a bad financial choice now, when it is just a pinch, rather than when they are on their own and it means eating or not eating.

Forming their own opinions: Parents should be careful about passing on their own strong opinions to their children as though they are a required belief.  As Miss Mason says, they may share your opinions for a time, “But a reaction comes, and the swinging of the pendulum is apt to carry them to a point of thought painfully remote from our own.”  See previous post on being over-earnest.  It backfires.  Be strong on principles, flexible on opinions.  Actually, you’re going to have to be flexible on a lot of things that aren’t merely opinion.  I know it’s hard, at least for some of us.  In my heart of hearts, I cannot accept that being opposed to white flour in my children’s diet is a matter of opinion. It seems to me a rather obvious stance of firm principle based on sound logic and facts.  I suppose this goes back to letting children make their own mistakes and suffer the consequences, and in some cases this flexibility is making a virtue of necessity.   In other words, you can just relax your standards and be flexible nicely and your kids will do stuff you wish they wouldn’t or you can stand firmly in place, arms akimbo and tell the children “you shall not pass” and your kids will do stuff you wish they wouldn’t, and resent you and think you’re a crank.


Spontaneity.––”We all admire spontaneity, but this grace, even in children, is not an indigenous wild-flower. In so far as it is a grace, it is the result of training,––of pleasant talks upon the general principles of conduct, and wise ‘letting alone’ as to the practice of these principles. To parents, who have in their hands the making of family customs, it belongs especially to beware––

“Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”
[Tennyson, The Passing of Arthur]”

I have nothing to say here, because I haven’t really got a good grip on what she means.=)

One other thing I do find instructive is all the areas Miss Mason does not mention as the proper place for Masterly Inactivity.  It is, again, a useful tool for the parenting toolbox. It’s not the skeleton key to success all by itself.



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