This is a review of the book For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, originally written in 1984 and reprinted in 2009 by Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois.
In this book Mrs. Macaulay presents in summary form the educational system of Charlotte Mason (a schoolteacher in England in the 1800s), along with many of her own observations and examples.
This book contains a hundred insightful bits that are of great help and encouragement to Christian homeschooling mothers as they seek to keep children’s minds alert, engaged, and interested in their school studies rather than exasperating them; but the book’s helpfulness is seriously hindered due to these helps being set amidst a hatred of authoritative teaching and preaching and an upside-down view of Christian maturity.
An error central to the book’s teaching is its denial that man is born in sin (“Children…are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil”). This fundamental error regarding children’s souls causes the book’s advice regarding how we should teach our children to be twisted.
1. Hatred of authoritative teaching and preaching
First, the book teaches an educational approach that trusts the child to choose what is right:
The PNEU schools followed a consecutive plan of Bible reading. The Gospels, the epistles, Revelation, and the Old Testament were included. The passages were carefully chosen. the child was put in touch with the men and women who found God worked into the history of their lives.
The reading was simply prepared. If there was a new name or place, this would first be explained briefly. One could look on a map to see the location, and perhaps have a short descriptive account of the place or custom. The previous reading would be briefly recalled.
Then the passage was read. It wouldn’t be too long, but it would be long enough to draw the listener into the story, ideas, or poetry. At the close, someone in the class would narrate what they had heard.
The Word of God is like fertile seed you drop into the soil. The child does not take in everything that is there. He thinks about some aspect of it. “An idea strikes him,” or he “feels” (knowledge touched with emotion). He thinks. He “chews on some part of it.”
And that is that. (93-94)
Of course, we must teach our children to choose what is right! But the book warns against actually making application yourself1. The author’s sharpest words are against the father or mother2 who teaches the child the conclusions he should draw:
- Do not forget that the reading of the Bible will put the child into direct contact with the person of God Himself. The brief, pithy statement or narration of Scripture is often worth ten sermons! Let the words themselves sink in. Don’t chew up the ideas yourself and then hand over the half-digested “food” to the child. Let him have direct access to the source. (85)
- There are many ways of applying the “Christianity that is true to the total reality.” We don’t have to make every day a sort of Sunday school lesson to achieve this. There are several dangers in that sort of approach. Too much pious talk, talk, talk. Too many “holy moments.” expecting continual religious experiences. Not letting children “be.” Not letting them wonder, puzzle, and ask. (101)
- Get out of the way. Let the child, God, and His Word be alone together. Let them work out their own relationship. (104)
- …we are not to use the teaching of history to communicate our own opinions or conclusions. (107)
- Therefore, as we ourselves focus on the moral issues in literature, history, etc., we will ensure that children are nurtured on books which open the door to their understanding in these areas. We do not preach or moralize… (120)
But it is evident that God desires and commands fathers to command their sons. Look at Abraham (“…that he may command his sons after him…”)3; His command to fathers in Deuteronomy 6; the example of the commanding and entreating father in Proverbs; Jesus’ teaching that a true son always does the deeds of his father4; and the Apostle Paul’s teaching and personal example5; and you see, first, that a true father is always commanding and teaching his son; and second, that this book’s teaching is in opposition to the Scriptures on this point.
The book has a couple of other important matters upside-down.
2.1. Understanding of Christian maturity
A recurring theme in the book is that children are not to follow our example:
Jesus lets little children remain who they are. He will meet them directly and will skillfully work into each separate life, telling them what is to be worked at, prayed about, and felt…We openly and honestly act like fellow human beings who are walking along the same road. Indeed, the child is, in many ways, to be our example. He is not to become like the grown-up church member. We are to become like the little child in our life with God. (104, 105)
Thank God for childlike faith. But there is a childishness we must leave behind as we grow up into the mature man6. The book, however, teaches that in large part children are already where they should be—but that foolishness is bound up in the heart of the adult. The book prescribes many things for the adult—constantly the author is saying, “Do this! Don’t do that!”—giving the mother sharply defined parameters for what she (and her husband) may and may not do to avoid stunting her children7; but the children get much freedom and get to frolic in nature, literature, history, and science. Children are little adults (“born persons”) who need to be let alone to explore and thrive; adults are big children who need much correction, as they naturally do poorly by their children8. This is upside-down.
Throughout the book the author stresses the importance of pampering children in just the right way: a deluxe environment that includes great books, regular time outdoors, and physical fitness.
Great books, regular time outdoors, and physical fitness are all good things—but they are not the most important things9. The apostles were never exposed to great books, yet with the prophets they are the foundation of the New Jerusalem. And what will playtime outdoors and physical fitness matter if you have not been authoritatively taught the truth of God, but it has been left to your deceitful heart? These priorities are upside-down.
In one sense the book’s failure is in the very fact that the educational system it teaches is all for the children’s sake, focusing on their present comfort instead of being faithful to call them to come and die10.
Like us, our children are sinners with deceitful hearts, and it is not safe to reject any means of help that God has given to us to use for their benefit—thank God for the life-giving rebuke, encouragement, entreaty, instruction, discipline, exhortation, and sermons He sends to us through fathers in the faith! In this sense the book’s failure is that in teaching a system that leaves our children largely unwarned (to their peril!) it is not for the children’s sake at all.
- The book does make a few exceptions, such as approving of not allowing children to hit each other.
- In implication the pastor is not exempt either.
- Genesis 18:19
- See John 8:38-40 and Philippians 2:22.
- See Philippians 3:17 and 2 Thess 3:7-9; and consider how full of commands, entreaty, and exhortation the epistles of the New Testament are!
- See Luke 18:17, 1 Cor 13:11, 1 Cor 14:20, and Col 1:28.
- For example,
As a parent, I hold an office under God. But I have no right to impose arbitrary rules upon those under me. We are all under God’s authority. We are in the same boat. There is another important sense in which this is true. Although we enjoy the good in each child, he needs to be improved. He does wrong. He either ignores or chooses against that which he knows is right. But so do I. This doesn’t soften the law. “Johnny, it is wrong to take that coin, it doesn’t belong to you.” “Sally, you can’t throw that heavy brick at Jane, however angry you feel.” But the reason is not because I say so, but because it is actually wrong, right back to infinity. We march under the same orders…It is wrong to choose an issue which goes across the natural grain and to make the child “obey” in a grim, unnatural way. A tired two-year-old may not go up to bed at the chosen time. Better to divert his attention, and carry him up warmly held in your arms. (44,45)
- When do these little darlings who need freedom, independence, and frolics in the lilies suddenly end up on the other side, where all the correction is needed?
- See Acts 4:13; 1 Timothy 4:6-8.
- See the beginning of Dietrich Bonnhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.