Friday, June 27, 2014

Masterly Inactivity: What is it?

Thoughts on School Education: Chapter 3 "Masterly Inactivity" – Part 1
In this chapter, Charlotte notes the weight of responsibility we feel as parents to bring up our children "to be something more than ourselves" (p.26)  To feel the weight of that responsibility without knowing exactly what to do about it results in worry, restlessness, and anxiety.  Mason's antidote for this is what she calls masterly inactivity.  What is that, you may ask?  Perhaps it may be best to first think about what it is not.
Masterly Inactivity is not:
  • A fatalistic "what's the good of trying" attitude
  • Laziness
  • License to do whatever one wants
  • Fussy complacency
  • Giving in to children's whims
Rather, Masterly Inactivity is:
  • "Wise Passiveness" – a phrase Charlotte borrowed from the poet Wordsworth.  "It indicates the power to act, the desire to act, and the insight and self-restraint which forbid action." (p.28)
  • A sense of liberty and freedom under authority.  Masterly inactivity only "works" within the framework of rightful authority.   That 'authority must be ever-present but in repose: "But she must see without watching, know without telling, be on the alert always, yet never obviously, fussily so.  This open-eyed attitude must be sphinx-like in repose." (p.31)
  • Exercised naturally and with good-humor – not forced or contrived.
  • Exercised with self-confidence: "Parents should trust themselves more" Mason tells us. (p.29)
  • Exercised out of a 'sound-mind'.  Children pick up on our nervous, anxious state.  We need to act out of rest, peace and serenity.  
Have you read Dorothy Canfield Fisher's Understood Betsy?  We recently finished it as it is the assigned literature selection for Ambleside Online Year 2 (although absolutely still worth a read even if you aren't an AO user).  In that book we see how these two opposing states of being play out in the life of young Elizabeth Ann (Betsy).  Betsy's parents died when she was young and she has been raised by her Aunt Frances who is nervous, fussy, and controlling.  As a result, Betsy has grown to be a nervous and fussy child who lacks confidence to do just about everything.  When she is 9 years old, she is sent to live with her Aunt Abigail, Uncle Henry, and Cousin Ann.  At their farm she is looked after with love and care, but also given a great deal of freedom – Uncle Henry lets her take the reins of the horse when they are driving home with the station, Aunt Abigail lets her season the applesauce to taste although Betsy has never made it before, she is sent off to walk to school on her own on the very first day, and so on.  By the end of the book we see Betsy growing into a confident young woman.  What difference Masterly Inactivity made in her young life!
Next week we'll look at some practical ways that we can learn to live and teach and parent from this state of 'masterly inactivity'.


  1. What a great post! I've not read Understood Betsy yet. My daughter just started Year 1. So Year 2 is not that far off. :)

    1. I'm sure you will love it. It's become one of my favorites. :)

  2. I've been contemplating this idea of masterly inactivity a lot lately, and it seems to me that another huge part of it that CM doesn't really touch on much, is prayer. One way of letting go of anxiety is by placing the worry at the feet of Christ, and time after time I see that if I would just pray more and worry less things turn out just fine. And part of praying involves waiting too... waiting to see how things play out instead of rushing in to fix what appears to be broken.

    At the end of the chapter she says:

    "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."

    1. Absolutely, Lisa. I actually had so much to say on this chapter that I broke my thoughts into two separate posts, and my second post (coming Friday), touches on the aspect of prayer and trust which are absolutely essential to the "letting go" that Masterly Inactivity require. When we can trust that our children are in His hands, that gives us the freedom to let go and not try to hold on so tight. It all goes back to the idea of teaching (living, parenting) from a 'state of rest'...such a recurring theme for me right now,

  3. What wonderful ideas and thoughts from Ms. Mason. I pray to have that heart for my children. A heart free from anxiety, full of peace, and given to the gentle art of learning.

    I have found that Masterly Inactivity is essential for all children, but almost irreplaceable in the teen years. Wisely allowing them room to succeed or fail, and to face the favor or consequence of both is important to their ability to learn.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!