“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
— Leo Tolstoy, opening lines of Anna Karenina
Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina Principle” claims that only one narrow path, a specific set of foundational requirements, can lead to a happy family. If Tolstoy is right, does the principle extend to a happy dinner table? Do all families who enjoy healthy, harmonious family meals follow a certain set of rules?
“Broad is the road that leads to destruction,” as the Bible tells us. To reach a state of unhappiness in a family, the ways to go wrong are limitless, it’s fairly evident. Bad parenting can take a million different forms. Clearly, avoiding certain things, such as abuse, neglect and abandonment, is non-negotiable for happiness in a family.
Broad is the way to unhealthy eating and picky eating. Ways to reach those major destinations are all over the place; they’re easy to fall upon or invent. Going wrong and hitting that enormous target comes with no effort. It’s natural to go wrong when the culture is driving us in that direction. It’s easy to shoot the arrow and hit anything but the target.
Hitting the target, on the other hand, almost always demands more than luck. It’s that straight and narrow path. Doing just about anything well requires purposefulness and a knowledge of certain principles. As we set off to uncover the rules and requirements of a happy family meal, let’s look at the basic approach to feeding a child.
Feeding your lambs
Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of raising a child can be summarized in one broad directive: “‘feed’ (which should be rendered ‘pasture’) my ‘lambs,’ place them in the midst of abundant food.” This approach to working with children is radically different from a methodology based on using punishment or rewards to coerce children into doing what we want them to do, regardless of their desires.
One of the school teachers under Miss Mason’s direction in early 20th-century England found that pasturing her “lambs,” as she called her classroom of students, brought wonderful results. One seemingly insignificant incident showed her that things were working just as they were supposed to.
This young teacher had gone out of the classroom, leaving the students reading their lesson. When she came back, they were still reading. As she reported: “I had left them in the pasture and came back and found them feeding.” What’s so amazing about that? They were still reading because they were so absorbed in what they were discovering.
They were reading willingly, with pleasure. When they were told it was time to stop reading, they probably felt reluctant to quit. I don’t imagine they slammed their books closed and jumped up with their eyes alight. I don’t see them as feeling that now, at last, it was time for fun, like a child finally swallowing the mandatory ninth bite of pureed Brussels sprouts and about to finally get to the delightful part: chocolate pudding.
Those students may have felt as I do when I read Jane Eyre. I always have a hard time putting it down, even on my fifth time through. I’ve found myself reading until four in the morning, even though I know exactly what happens next.
Those youngsters were doing what they were supposed to do because they wanted to. What they wanted to do and what they should do were aligned like two miraculous stars. Coercion was rendered unnecessary. How did the teacher achieve it?
They weren’t still reading because they were keen on getting an A. They weren’t afraid of flunking the test or scared their teacher would put them in time out or make them stay in at recess if she came back and caught them horsing around. I know that none of these reasons were in force because Miss Mason’s schools deliberately rejected relying on any such incentives.
Free within Limits
Children reading their lessons because they wanted to know and for no other motive is the ideal picture, the gold standard, of Charlotte Mason education. The children were placed in a good pasture and fed. Their needs were met. They were placed within limits, yet they were free within those limits, and they were freely, hungrily doing what was good for them.
They were driven by curiosity and a desire to know, simply and purely. They had been placed in a pasture of abundant, enticing food, and like well-pastured sheep, they were doing what came naturally to them as young human beings in that situation.
They knew their limits and their place. Care had been taken to put structures in place. The atmosphere was orderly, not chaotic. These students weren’t being coerced or manipulated or suppressed. They were content. So was their teacher.
The essentials were clearly in place in that classroom. The teacher knew her job was not to induce the students to read and to learn. Her job was to provide the ideal conditions for them to be able to satisfy their own natural hunger to know.
She had provided the ideal nourishment for their minds: the best written, most interesting, most thought-provoking book she could find on the subject at hand. She knew the principle of her mentor: that self-education is the only genuine education. The mind doesn’t learn anything that it hasn’t been stirred to desire to know.
The students had no doubt developed good habits, such as paying attention, so that a living book had a chance to capture their fancy. Their natural hunger for knowledge was allowed to function. No distractions to waste time were found in that classroom.
In the same way, when you create the right conditions, as this teacher did, you will be able to leave your children alone, like contented sheep in a pasture, and they will eat all on their own. What’s good for them is good for you. These essential conditions that will lead to the desired results.
Anna Migeon is the author of The Happy Dinner Table: The Path to Healthy, Harmonious Family Meals (2016), available on Amazon, of which this article is an excerpt. Anna’s children were born in France, where she was inspired by the sacred food traditions, delicious dishes and healthy attitudes toward eating. Her children also attended Charlotte Mason schools, where Anna learned more about raising kids who love what’s good for them. She has conducted workshops and coached parents about how to get picky kids to eat better according to Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy. Anna is also an award-winning cook (her chocolate truffles won a red ribbon at the Gillespie County Fair in 2005, even though they melted into one blob in the Texas heat). She and her French husband, Gérard, share an empty nest in San Antonio.
© 2018 Anna Migeon