Structure! That is a loaded word for homeschoolers. Some see it as a negative way to deal with teaching children. Others see it as a necessary discipline in order to get things accomplished. Children tend to buck it. Parents have to be organized to make it happen. Let me tell you about an incredible woman who lived more than 300 years ago, who seems to have been the queen of structure.
Susanna Wesley was born in 1669 in London, England, the twenty-fifth (yes, 25th) and last child of a reverend. Her father was a devout Puritan, so much so that by the age of five, he was accustomed to reading 20 chapters of the Bible a day, which he continued until his death. Susanna grew up treasuring the books in her father’s library. At the age of 19, Susanna married Samuel Wesley and began the work of motherhood. In the following 19 years of marriage, Susanna bore 19 children, 10 of which survived. Nearly half of her babies, she buried.
Susanna was a disciplined mother who believed in structure and routine for her dear children. She taught them at home, and emphasized study of the Bible. She wrote, “The children were always put into a regular method of living, in such things as they were capable of, from their birth; as in dressing and undressing, changing their linen, etc . . .” Susanna made an art of structure. She had times for rising, school, meals, family prayer, and bedtime. Every activity was planned in Susanna’s household. Bedtime preparations began at 5:00 P.M. Dinner was served at 6:00 PM. Private scripture study began at 7:00 PM, and lights were out (I should say, candles were out) at 8:00 PM.
After 23 years of mothering, I have finally recognized what a valuable a concept this is! Life runs so much more to everyone’s liking when there is order. Family prayer is held with consistency if there is a set time for it. Bedtime can be a joy with stories and hugs instead of a wrestle with overtired children if there is a pre-determined time for it.
Structure does seem to squelch spontaneity. But I think the steadiness of day to day routine can occasionally be broken by a spur-of-the-moment exception. Where we get in trouble is when spontaneity becomes the rule, making it impossible to teach our children order. When I was struggling with one of my children’s sleeping habits, one of the concepts that I studied and that was difficult for me to implement was regularity. Children who are put to bed at the same time every evening sleep a lot better than those on an erratic schedule. When there are babies in the home, and lots of children, it can be a challenge to create order and regularity. But, it has proven to be a great blessing in my family’s life.
Susanna was not a woman of great physical strength, but her intellectual discipline was amazing. She was often sick, whether due to repeated pregnancy or other causes. But she carried on. Susanna set apart a school room in her home and taught her children 6 hours a day, 3 hours in the morning, and 3 hours in the late afternoon. The only day free from school was the Sabbath. Each day began with prayer and psalms. Each child was taught to read from the Bible by the age of 5. They also learned the basics, as well as Latin, poetry writing and music. Greek and Hebrew were taught to the children by their father in the evenings. Susanna did not allow for horseplay or loud talking during school time. Each child kept to their work diligently.
Susanna did not want her children to be educated ruffians, so she methodically taught them manners and obedience. They remained silent at the dinner table, they were not allowed to chat with servants, they played only with carefully selected companions, and they were taught to use English precisely and respectfully.
Although tender hearted and esteeming her children highly, Susanna was strict in teaching her children to obey. She writes: “In order to firm the minds of children, the first thing to be done is to . . . bring them to an obedient temper. To inform the understanding is a work of time, and must with children proceed by small degrees as they are able to bear it; but subjecting the will is a thing that must be done at once, and the sooner the better, for by neglecting timely correction they will contract a stubbornness and obstinacy which are hardly ever after conquered . . . when the will of a child is totally subdued, and it is brought to revere and stand in awe of the parents, then a great many childish follies may be passed by . . . no willful transgression ought ever to be forgiven children without chastisement, less or more, as the nature and circumstances of the offense may require.”
This may sound overwhelmingly strict in our era of casual parenting, but I think the basic meaning is exactly right. Children must learn to obey and to respect their parents, so that they may learn to be obedient to God. It is true that children must learn self-control, to subject their own will and overcome selfishness.
It always starts with us, doesn’t it? Mothers set the pattern, and then teach and train and discipline and influence the child to follow that same pattern in his own life. “The most powerful sermon any of us shall ever preach will be the sermon of our lives” (Melvin J. Ballard). Susanna decided at just 5 years old herself to spend the same amount of time in Bible reading and prayer that she spent playing. As she faithfully kept this commitment, Susanna grew into an amazing young woman, full of faith and her own profound viewpoints. As the babies came, time for recreation diminished to the point that Susanna found it necessary to make a new vow. When she was 30 years old, she determined to increase her private devotional time to 2 hours per day. Keep in mind that she had several children that she was homeschooling, plus the heavy workload that a wife carried in those days before dishwashers and washing machines. Although she had servants, I am still astounded at her workday.
Susanna focused on her children and felt that their upbringing and teaching was her first and most important concern. All of us have probably felt the desire to create teaching materials exactly fitted to our children’s needs. Susanna’s desire led her to write several handbooks on the doctrines of the Bible especially for her children. Susanna writes, “We must know God experientially for unless the heart perceive and know Him to be the supreme good, her heart’s only happiness, unless the soul feel and acknowledge that, she can have no repose, no peace, no joy, but in loving and being loved by Him.” Her faith was a legacy that she implanted in her children’s hearts.
You have probably heard about how dearly Susanna Wesley valued her children. Once visitors arrived, asking to view her jewels. At this request, Susanna called in her children. Clearly, these were Susanna’s most precious things. Susanna made it her practice to spend individual time with each chlld. This always sounds like a good idea to me, but seems to dissolve under the pressures of raising a large family. Somehow, though, Susanna managed to live it. She resolved to spend one hour alone with each of her chldren (living at home) per week. She set up a schedule:
Monday – Mollie
Tuesday – Hetty
Wednesday – Nancy
Thursday – Jacky
Friday – Patty
Saturday – Charles
Sunday – Emelia and Sukey.
Susanna yearned to know each child individually and inspire them to greater faithfulness. She viewed this commitment as an act of service to God, as well as an expression of her love for her children. She didn’t count the time she homeschooled her children as a substitute for the individual one-on-one time. She wasn’t looking to relax, but to fulfill her duty to raise her children, sacrificing her own leisure time in the process. I am reminded of the words of James E. Faust: “One of the main problems in families today is that we spend less and less time together. Time together is precious time—time needed to talk, to listen, to encourage, and to show how to do things.”
Susanna didn’t think her job was done when her children left home. She wrote countless letters advising her children how to live, and bearing her testimony to them. To her son, she wrote: “. . . for I desire nothing in this world so much as to have my children well instructed in the principles of religion, that they may walk in the narrow way which alone leads to happiness”.
Susanna’s two sons, John and Charles Wesley, became some of the most influential men of their time. After Susanna’s devoted upbringing, Charles and John left home to attend boarding school. Charles formed a club, the Holy Club, while at Oxford. The purpose of the club was for students to gather to methodically study the scriptures and pray. It was in this club that Charles and John first earned the title “methodists”. Together, they founded the Methodist church, leading the evangelical revival in the Church of England in the 18th century. John preached over 42,000 sermons and wrote 233 books. Charles is credited with 8000 hymns! Their preaching led to the founding of hospitals, orphanages, schools for the poor, and in active opposition to slavery.
If the proof is in the pudding, Susanna’s structured child rearing and child teaching methods seemed to have worked most marvelously. Every one of her children grew up to be a man or woman of outstanding character! Two of her sons made an indelible mark on the history of this earth. “Susanna trained her children to obey and in so doing, she richly molded their characters” (Dallimore, Susanna Wesley: The Mother, pg. 61).
How true it is that the “hand that rocks the cradle rules the world”.
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