The Atmosphere a Child Breathes
A week or two ago, after a particularly atrocious day with children and school, and life, I stayed awake much of the night pondering the idea of atmosphere in the home. As I’ve written before, the responsibility of the mother for this atmosphere can occasionally feel like a real drag. Sometimes it makes me want to go screaming right over the cliffs of insanity. (Not really. Well, sort of.)
Charlotte Mason says there is no escape for parents. We create the atmosphere that affects our children – consciously and subconsciously, for the rest of their lives.
Yeah, she said that.
So as I thought and thought, and prayed and wrestled with my responsibility in the home, a few things converged in my head. As these weeks have gone by, I’ve spent much time pondering how I might possibly do things differently. Thank goodness the Lord gives strength for this mighty work. Because some days I’m drowning. And it feels like I’ll never make it. But then there’s this little thought:
“…I venture to suggest, not what is practicable in any household, but what seems to me absolutely best for the children; and that, in the faith that mothers work wonders once they are convinced that wonders are demanded of them.”
-Charlotte Mason (Emphasis hers)
I am aware that she was not talking here about atmosphere in the home, but she says this same thing so many times in her volumes, that I think I can use it interchangeably among her many ideas…
And so I’ll take you through the quotes that have been in my heart these weeks.
“We produce an environment other people have to live in. We should be conscious of the fact that this environment which we produce by our very ‘being’ can affect the people who live with us…the effect on them is something they cannot avoid…
Our conversations, attitudes, behavior, response or lack of response, hardness or compassion, our love or selfishness, joy or dullness, our demonstrated trust and faith or our continual despondency, our concern for others or our self-pity, all these things make a difference to the people who have to live in our ‘environment’. Enthusiasm and excitement infect other people: expectancy that God can intervene and do something in this moment of history and doing something practical to show that expectancy in prayer affects the attitudes other people are going to have in their troubles.”
-Edith Schaeffer, The Hidden Art of Homemaking (Emphasis hers)
Whoa. That’s serious. I’ve read that section over and over. It’s still just as hard to put into practice several years after I first came across it!
It’s so much responsibility as a wife, a mother, a follower of Jesus! Sometimes I just don’t want to think that how I handle these minutes, this hour, well, it’s shaping people. It’s changing the course of history right now. It’s real easy to think that tomorrow, tomorrow is when I’ll create a different sort of atmosphere in our home. That’s when it will be easier to achieve. Tomorrow is when I’ll be the sort of wife I know I ought to be. Or the mother that I long to be for my children. Annie Dillard has famously stated that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”.
All of this makes me want to do my best, and it reminds me that I am powerless to do this without the aid and guidance of the Holy Spirit. All of these women I’m quoting also got that. We take these ideas and beg the Lord to help us live them. Every day.
Sometimes it takes fiction to bring the point home. The Dean’s Watch is one of my favorite books. The atmosphere described throughout the book gives plenty of food for thought. (Polly is a young orphan brought on to live as a servant.) We can learn much from Polly, I think…
“The door opened and Polly came in with a heavy tray laden with the pie, warm plates and a large, brown, steaming teapot. Her face was flushed and beaming and instantly the atmosphere in the cold stuffy room was subtly changed because she was happy.”
-Elizabeth Goudge, The Dean’s Watch
I’m reading George MacDonald by C.S. Lewis. What a book! In the preface, Lewis says he wanted to write this book to show how many of MacDonald’s ideas have had a profound impact on his writing. I am certainly seeing the connection. This one struck me as pretty funny. And then not so funny.
“I appeal especially to all who keep house concerning the size of troubles that suffices to hide [the] word and face of God.”
Uh. Yeah. That’s one to think about for awhile. Here, maybe looking at a barn will help.
And then there’s the big one. The one that makes me stop dead in my tracks whenever I think of it. It makes me cry, it prods me on to be a better mother, wife, and follower of Jesus. This is the quote of quotes on atmosphere in the home. Charlotte is speaking here of ideas…the atmosphere of ideas. (In this quote she assembles ideas from the books of Isaiah, Philippians, and also a quote from S.T. Coleridge.)
“Ideas may invest as an atmosphere, rather than strike as a weapon.
‘The idea may exist in a clear, distinct, definite form, as that of a geometrician; or it may be a mere instinct, a vague appetency towards something, …like the impulse which fills the young poet’s eyes with tears, he know not why.’ To excite this ‘appetency towards something’ – towards things lovely, honest, and of good report, is the earliest and most important ministry of the educator.
How [should these ideas be] imparted? They are not to be given of set purpose, nor taken at set times. They are held in that thought-environment which surrounds the child as an atmosphere, which he breathes as his breath of life; and this atmosphere in which the child inspires his unconscious ideas of right living emanates from his parents.
Every look of gentleness and tone of reverence, every word of kindness and act of help, passes into the thought-environment, the very atmosphere which the child breathes; he does not think of these things, may never think of them, but all his life long they excite that ‘vague appetency towards something’ out of which most of his actions spring.
Oh the wonderful and dreadful presence of a little child in the midst!
That he should take direction and inspiration from all the casual life about him should make our poor words and ways the starting point from which, and in the direction of which, he develops – this is a thought which makes the best of us hold our breath. There is no way of escape for parents; they must needs be as ‘inspirers’ to their children, because about them hangs, as its atmosphere about a planet, the thought-environment of the child, from which he derives those enduring ideas which express themselves as a life-long ‘appetency’ towards things sordid or things lovely, things earthly or divine.”
-Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children (Emphasis mine)
Wow. I remember the first time I read that. It was just as terrifying, stunning and motivating as it is today. Thank goodness for the mercy of the Lord. God promises wisdom for those who will ask!
“Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing;
Learn to labor and to wait.”