Introduction to Charlotte Mason: “I Am, I Can, I Ought, I Will”


Look! I drew a thing. (Is handlettering drawing or writing? Both?) It’s Charlotte Mason’s motto, or at least one of the more concise paraphrases I’ve seen of it. She taught this to the students in her schools.

Here is what she wrote on the subject on page 330 of her first volume:

‘I am, I ought, I can, I will’—these are the steps of that ladder of St. Augustine, whereby we
“rise on stepping stones
Of our dead selves to higher things.”

‘I am’—we have the power of knowing ourselves.

‘I ought’—we have within us a moral judge, to whom we feel ourselves subject, and who points out and requires of us our duty.

‘I can’—we are conscious of power to do that which we perceive we ought to do.

‘I will’—we determine to exercise that power with a volition which is in itself a step in the execution of that which we will.

Here is a beautiful and perfect chain, and the wonder is that, so exquisitely constituted as he is for right-doing, error should be even possible to man. But of the sorrowful mysteries of sin and temptation it is not my place to speak here; you will see that it is because of the possibilities of ruin and loss which lie about every human life that I am pressing upon parents the duty of saving their children by the means put into their hands. Perhaps it is not too much to say, that ninety-nine out of a hundred lost lives lie at the door of parents who took no pains to deliver them from sloth, from sensual appetites, from willfulness, no pains to fortify them with the habits of a good life.

This motto has sunk deep into my heart. I suspect it has done so because each of its four parts were already there, and it rather concisely expresses what I think it is most important for me to pass onto each of my children, if I can.

I am… a child of God.

This. THIS! Nothing convinces me that a child has worth more than this phrase. All human beings are God’s children, and He loves them accordingly. He wants them all back.

The first thing I want my children to leave my home with is a knowledge of God’s love… for them, individually. I want them to have felt it. And I want them realize that God feels that way about everyone.

I am humbled to know that my children were first God’s children long before they were ever mine. He has entrusted them to my care… to lead them, guide them, walk beside them, help them find the way… to teach them all that they must do to live with God again someday.

I can… do all things in Christ who strengthens me.

One of Satan’s most successful tactics is to convince us that nothing we do matters, or at the very least, that we can’t do anything worth doing.

The third thing I want my children to leave my home knowing is how to use Christ’s Atonement, and not only for repentance. I want them to know how to access Christ’s grace.

In the LDS church, we tend to talk about grace as the “enabling power of the Atonement”. Grace enables us to do, and then to become the people we want to be, the sort of people worthy of Christ’s name.

One of my favorite Book of Mormon prophets is Nephi. His big thing is: “If God had commanded me to do all things, I could do them,” (1 Nephi 17:50) “for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Nephi 3:7). Nephi is downright gung-ho about this idea, and I love it.

I ought… to do my duty to God and others.

I never realized that the word ‘ought’ is related to ‘owe’. And what do we owe God, our Father? Well, everything.

The second thing I want my children to know before they leave my home is that when they are in the service of their fellow beings, they are only in the service of their God (Mosiah 2:17). And this service, to God and others, is what he asks from us in return for all that we owe him.

I hope they will remember how much God loves them, and feel obligated to show Him their mutual love through service.

Here is what King Benjamin told his people in Mosiah 2:21-24.

I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.

And behold, all that he requires of you is to keep his commandments; and he has promised you that if ye would keep his commandments ye should prosper in the land; and he never doth vary from that which he hath said; therefore, if ye do keep his commandments he doth bless you and prosper you.

And now, in the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him.

And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast?

I want my children to see this ‘why’ for service in the Lord’s Kingdom. It’s so important, because it’s the Christlike service that teaches us how to love others!

I will… choose the right.

I love that Charlotte sees these as rungs on a ladder, and it’s really true: these ideas move us farther along the path back to God.

This is the fourth thing I hope my children develop: the conviction to choose the right.

I had a roommate who often quoted her grandfather as saying, “Do the right thing and to hell with the consequences.” (She maintained that watering down his vulgarity would weaken the sentiment here, and perhaps she is right; thus I have left his words intact.)

I want my children to be this valiant, this unwavering, this committed to God. Heck, I’m not sure I’m quite there yet, but I’m getting there.

In conclusion

I’ve been pondering the need for a family motto for a while. Stephen R. Covey recommends something of the sort in 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, but I couldn’t think of one. And then, Sister Neill F. Marriott spoke about her own family motto in general conference not too long ago: “It will all work out.” I still couldn’t think of one that truly felt right for our family, but oh, I wanted one.

Well, Charlotte, I think I owe you yet another thank you.

I am. I ought. I can. I will.

This feels right.


6 thoughts on “Introduction to Charlotte Mason: “I Am, I Can, I Ought, I Will”

  1. This is beautiful! I especially like your art you made – whether it’s drawing or writing! (In college, a friend saw me practicing Japanese, and he asked me, “What language are you drawing?” so I think you are not the first to wonder where the distinction lies!)

    I’ve never given her motto serious thought. But this makes it make more sense to me, seeing it in its oroginal context, and then your thoughts about it.

    Plus, my kids loved the clip you included.


  2. I just stumbled upon this post and had to say how lovely it is to run into a fellow Mormon CM-er! I’m still pretty new to Charlotte Mason, but I’m loving everything about it – especially the quote that you so delightfully produced. So empowering, so simple! I look forward to following your adventures.


  3. Love this whole motto idea – and this post in particular. This is very similar to ours. It is empowering. To really know these 4 things makes a great measuring stick for what we choose to purse in our lives. Thanks for the reminder from Nephi and King Benjamin – when our children have serious arguments, I like to pull out Mosiah 4:15. Miss Mason would appreciate this because it helps our families know that we as parents have specific parental obligations that we are under to follow. 🙂


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