Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Family Traits - Exercising an Interest

Family Traits - Exercising an Interest

On the margin of this blog is a favorite quotation of mine by the early American artist Benjamin West (1738-1820).

A kiss from my mother made me a painter.

     When I came across it my soul was warmed. I guess that’s what it means to find an idea, “touching.” It was then that I decided to work this quote into my talk “The Gentle Art of Learning.”  Later I placed it in the margin here.

     This spring I thoroughly enjoyed reading the children's book, Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin. One by one my children read it silently, during our home school years, which had left me out of the loop. With this said, I’ll share a coincidence. While recently reading some pages by Miss Charlotte Mason, lo and behold I met with a reference that popped off the page. Miss Mason references the above quote taking for granted that Benjamin West was common knowledge. (He served as president of the Royal Academy in London.) Anyway, in previous years the reference made no connection.

     Miss Mason refers to Benjamin West’s boyhood to illustrate what she calls “the duty of cherishing certain Family Traits.”  

“The duteous father and mother . . . who discern any lovely family trait, in one of their children, set themselves to nourish and cherish it as a gardener peaches he means to show. We know how, ‘that kiss made me a painter,’ that is, warmed into life whatever art faculty the child had. The choicer the plant, the gardener tells us, the greater the pains must he take with the rearing of it.” Parents and Children, page 76.  

      What is your child’s interest? What does he “take to” readily? In what way can you nurture this interest? Miss Mason urges us to exercise an interest.  The home school provides a wonderful freedom to do this.

       In the home school a child is not bogged down by a weighty back-pack of late afternoon homework and neither are we bogged down by seeing he does it. Even the time it takes to travel back and forth to school can be used to better advantage. I remember our bird watching from a back window while the children of the neighborhood waited for the school bus in view of a front window. It occurred to me then that before these neighborhood children crossed the threshold of the gigantic school, my children were already starting on their third lesson of the morning sitting around the kitchen table, on the comfy sofa, or at a desk. Much later, when the same neighborhood children got off the bus, my own children had already spent a couple hours with less formal activities such as drawing, origami, paper dolls, a back yard romp, roller skating, practicing their musical instrument, digging in the garden, listening to an audio story on a rainy day - girls voluntarily opening the pages of literature - in our son’s case a science magazine. 

     In his junior high years our son took a fencing class that began before school was let out. The fencing instructor had so many home taught boys attending from miles around that he could schedule it thus. He had a special rapport with them. In earnest the boys threw themselves into their fencing practice.
     The same early afternoon hours well suited our daughter’s cello teacher (who was supposed to be retired) who taught most of his students after school hours. He told me that the home taught children were his best students. They were the most enjoyable to teach. (How can I resist relaying his compliment?) Could this be because the home taught child has a parent with the energy to be more consistently attentive at hearing a daily practice – also accomplished earlier in the afternoon? Could it be that these same children, who have no after-hours homework, could give their practice better focus? And could it also be that the home taught child shows respect and nice manners to their teacher with an alert sense of humor that reacts to the teacher’s ice breaker greeting? Based on our experience and my chats with other moms, I say yes. 

Grandson at the farm park

     Family Traits cherished during childhood will often become those gifts and talents that are used in adulthood for recreation, ministry, or earning a living. Charlotte Mason wants us to make sure our students have some free time to play around with an interest and the power to pursue it. It may take some years before a Family Trait will emerge but we keep our eyes open for one along with opportunities for developing it.

Discussion is invited.

Benjamin West and his cat Grimalkin by Margaret Henry
Book Review by Karen Andreola

      When I read the name under an oil portrait in the Brandywine Museum and saw it was Benjamin West it was a pleasant surprise. I stood and gazed at it with goose bumps. Knowing something about this early American artist made me feel a connection to history.

     I was there in that big low-ceilinged kitchen at Door Latch Inn in the 18th century, where travelers could lift the latch at night, help themselves to food set out for them, warm themselves by the fire and set off again. I was there in my imagination, in the wilds of Chester County, Pennsylvania, that is, while reading the children’s story, Benjamin Westand his cat Grimalkin. 

antique foot warmer

      Margaret Henry has the writing ability to take her reader’s there. Most often travelers would join the West family at the long table set for thirty people sometimes. Their evening meals were lit by firelight and cooked by Mrs. West on the wide open hearth with the food from the West’s own farm. Benjamin is the youngest of the ten West children.   

      Never having seen a picture – because in a Quaker household pictures were “unnecessary,” the idea somehow popped into Benjamin’s head to draw one. His baby niece Sally was sleeping in her cradle and Benjamin was stuck indoors bored on a beautiful day, baby-sitting. He picked up his father’s pen and made his first picture - a sketch of Sally. 


     Subsequently, his urge to draw was strong. He soon began to draw “on anything that would hold a pen stroke or a smudge of charcoal.” He would draw when all his many chores were done. Yet, if he had any little time leftover his father seemed to come up with yet another chore for Benjamin, and drawing was put off. You see, in the West family everyone had a part to play in the workings of the farm and Inn. Among these modest Quakers, family love, tenderness, togetherness and hard work seemed all rolled up in one daily act of worship.   

      There is suspense and humor in the story. Benjamin’s cat Grimalkin is not a barn cat. It keeps him company everywhere he goes. When Benjamin learns from neighboring Indians how to add color to his pictures with clay from the earth, his mother also gives him some of her wool dyes, such as Indigo. But what would Papa say? “While Papa was a man of few words, each one counted.” It was only a matter of time before Papa found out why Grimalkin had so many tuffs of hair missing. No, Grimalkin wasn’t ill. To apply color to his pictures Benjamin had been using the hair on his cat’s tail to make “hair pencils.” When a hair pencil wore out, he’d make another and another. Papa said, “No more” when he found out about the use of Grimalkin’s hair. But out of character with the usual Quaker inclinations, Papa did allow Benjamin to continue making pictures when he saw his son’s talent. What joy, and what joy when a box arrives from Benjamin’s uncle with art supplies from Philadelphia and a real paintbrush. There’s nothing quite like enthusiasm and the door of opportunity.

     Enthusiasm is one of the qualities that make this story as bright as a blue sky over a Pennsylvania pumpkin patch, as flavorful as the scrapple from Mom’s skillet. The illustrations by Wesley Dennis show lively action and lively expressions.
     The plot carries the reader along. It reveals how God blessed Benjamin West with talent. His talent shows itself through the focused effort and practice that match his desire. This is a principle that we can each apply to our lives.

    Many of the sentences are short. And although the story has Quaker “thees and thous” it would make a good chapter book for a second, third or fourth grade reader or an interesting read-aloud for a range of ages to enjoy at once.

A grandson with his cat

     I wrote this in-depth review for a parent’s knowledge. It would be a bit of a “spoiler” for the child.
     Talking to my adult children recently I discovered that each of them fondly remembers reading Benjamin West and his cat Grimalkin – and that was long before we had moved to Pennsylvania.

Thanks for visiting,
Karen Andreola 


  1. We benefit so very much from all the "yesses" we receive. Our children have tried a variety of activities over the years. If there was any way for us to say, "yes," we did! Some activities went by the wayside. Some are still pursued to this day. A couple have become foundations for college studies.

    Encouragement goes a long way. My 11 year old great-niece has just learned to ride a bicycle. A fall early in her learning process made her unwilling to even try. We were around the dinner table the other evening celebrating her achievement. A couple of grumpies in the group were making fun of her for taking so long to learn. Most of her buoyant joy left her in a rush of shame. It took several minutes for her smile to return.

    Our words matter so very much.


  2. It's one of the joys of being a mother to see different interests and talents develop. I think this story would appeal to the kitty and art fans in our household.

    I hope you're feeling better--chronic pain is so draining.



  3. Oh how I adore this book! My youngest and I read it together when he was in 2nd grade. My son felt bad for the cat.

    I agree that giving your children chances of exploring different experiences for enrichment of character and learning whom they are and what they want to do with their lives. As you stated so well that homeschooling allows more time and opportunities for these experiences.

    Your grandbabies are so precious!

  4. Tim has long said that we should say yes whenever possible. Our children have tried many different activities - never all at once and not if it took too much time away from the family.

    The ones that have stuck are music, work and hospitality. They all love art, too, some more than others.

    We've not read this Marguerite Henry book. I'll have to order it!

    Your grandsons are handsome and growing fast!


  5. Oh Andrea, this post truly warms my heart. I just finished graduating my oldest son, from high school...and he was homeschooled all the way. When he began to take piano, it was a way to fill the curriculum, but his aptitude for the instrument was evident, when I found him practicing more and more without my promptings.

    Now, 12 years later, he will be attending college in the fall with his major - you guessed it - music composition. What joy to my mother's heart, to see his talent develop more and more each time he sits in front of the instrument.

    Like you shared here, my sons have been able to enjoy so much more since being at home.

    It is a true blessing to teach them here :) m.

  6. Keeping an eye open to awareness of my children's interests and talents is one of the joys of this homeschooling momma. :) From animals, to music and art, to mathematics and technology, our oldest three who are now all married adults are fulfilling their callings as a veterinarian, a musician/artist/photographer, and a machinist. The younger two still at home are show such varied interests that it's sometimes difficult to imagine where the Lord will lead them, but resting in knowing that they were each created with unique giftings and talents makes it easy to give them the freedom (and time!) to pursue what interests the Lord has given them. Sometimes they're interests and passions are a little beyond our abilities to indulge in (daughter really wants a horse), so she spends oh-so-much-time reading many of the related works by M. Henry.

    Thanks for making us think, Karen. Praying you are having some relief from your pain.

    In HIM,


  7. Hi Ms. Karen! You've inspired me to buy this one! I've wanted to read it with my kids for years but our library doesn't have it and it just slipped through the cracks. Reading your review made me realize how much my daughter would love to read about Benjamin West and his cat because she is both a lover of art and a lover of cats. This definitely looks like a worthwhile addition to our family library. Thanks so much for the recommendation!


    P.S. Your blog is comfort food for my mother's heart. Thanks so much for sharing your heart with us. :-)
    Praying you are feeling much better soon.

  8. We had a belated Mother's Day breakfast before church this morning with my son and daughter-in-law.

    I wasn't feeling well last Sunday and they had scheduling conflicts which made this week better.

    My daughter-in-law was also homeschooled (although she is a public school elementary teacher now), and it made me smile as we talked movies, plays, music, books, and all those things we had TIME to pursue as homeschoolers.

    Oh, my... Christopher's fencing classes were across the street from the library near campus. I can't tell you how many evenings I'd go over to the library and come back to read a "new" book while hearing the clicking of the eppe swords. :)

  9. I like hearing about your children's interests met.
    Karen A.

  10. Marguerite Henry is one of my favorite authors. My parents gave each of our families a copy of this book for Christmas this year--they had read it and loved it! I read it aloud and my kids enjoyed it too.