Self Care for Kids: Charlotte Mason’s “Change Your Thoughts” Helps Point the Way

It’s January. The holidays and the holiday excitement is wearing off and the weather is cold and rather unpleasant to be out in for long on most days. We are looking at another six weeks or so before the weather turns nice and the evening dark is after 6 pm. The children are bursting with energy and see few outlets or much likelihood of there being many outlets for the next several weeks. Moods are volatile. Little kids vary between wild play and tears, followed by “I don’t know what to do” and mother must not only manage her own mood and emotions but try to help them find their way.

These middle years with six to ten year olds are tricky. They aren’t little people who could be given naps and for whom a dance party would serve as a sufficient outlet for energy when coupled with carrying laundry hampers and moving chairs (heavy work). These bigger children want purposeful work and purposeful play. They still need rest but even there they want to feel like they are doing something. Yet the doing can’t always be work or something they perceive as work and I find I have to be very aware of when the things they are doing begin to feel onerous instead of joyous.

Over the past several months I’ve been reading Charlotte Mason’s volume Parents and Children as well as listening to the workshops from The CMEC’s Conference on Formation of Character. Mason’s advice on helping children to “change their thoughts” when they are feeling fussy or struggling with some aspect of life seems to me to be an important key to happy winter days.

Changing your thoughts isn’t denying the feelings but instead giving yourself a bit of a break from them so that later you can distinguish whether things were really as bad as you felt in the moment.

For example: the 10 year old likes to go and read Tintin books for an hour or so in the afternoon. As he and his sister are constant companions, she tends to feel very abandoned by him during this time and unable to find any absorbing occupation of her own. This comes out in wails of “nobody likes me anymore”, ” I just don’t know what to do” and so on. Since she is quite capable of playing by herself for hours and since she knows that her family does indeed like her, this is a good opportunity to teach her to change her thoughts and do something she finds pleasant until her brother has finished his reading time.

I am trying to keep a little list of pleasant things for her to do, so that I can cheerfully suggest one and get her started as soon as she starts to feel unhappy. That way she comes to associate his reading time with a pleasant time for herself. My hope is that as she grows older she will learn which activities help her to feel settled and then able to tackle life again. She is young so we don’t really go back later and talk about why she was upset as I find that at this age too much introspection is likely to cause a kind of brooding attitude. I may say something cheerfully like ” Wasn’t it nice that you got some time with Mary (her doll) this afternoons? Did she like the supper you cooked for her while Jack was reading?” . That kind of statement I think helps her to see that she can choose to have a pleasant time herself.

Similarly, for the nine year old I am trying to find little ways to infuse his regular duties and recreations with fresh interest so he finds them absorbing and can see the joy in them. Recently I saw that he was finding his helping around the household to be a burden rather than a delight. Part of the reason was that he saw that he was being far more diligent than some of his older siblings and he felt like he was lifting their load as well as his own. He’s happy to do that if one of them is ill but felt that he shouldn’t being doing “their work”. There was some resentment and also some anxiety as he really does like things to be clean and tidy and was starting to feel like the only way that would happen was if he did it all.

He is older so we did have a little talk about not being resentful of those whom we see not working as hard as we do. I told him that I really appreciate his helpfulness and reliability and then I encouraged that attitude by offering to pay him a dollar for any day in which he cleaned up after himself and did ten helpful things without my having to ask or to follow up and see that the things were done. He is trying to save up enough money to buy his first beehive and the necessary equipment for beekeeping so the thought that he could earn towards that goal helped him to shift his thoughts away from ” I’m working and my siblings aren’t ” to ” If I do these jobs and do them well, I’ll be closer to having bees”. That attitude shift in turn has eased his relationships with his siblings.

This approach of helping children to change their thoughts through self care or a change in incentive definitely takes some forethought on my part as well as time to observe the children. I find that it increases my need to be present and yet not necessarily actively engaged until the moment of crisis. When I do find that place of “masterly inactivity” (another Charlotte Mason idea) though I can quickly steer away from the point that leads to tears and help the child change their thoughts and manage their moods and emotions. The child feels loved and supported and the household is happier. Slowly they are starting to recognize the points at which they need to act to change their own thoughts and the kinds of actions that will help to do that. It is my prayer that these skills will carry into adulthood and help them to manage their lives in happy and fruitful ways.

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