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Mental Habits

Mental habits are different from Decency & Propriety Habits in that they require direct training, not just a good example. Here’s the list of Mental Habits, one of which is in Charlotte’s Top Three (the three habits she wrote about most). Can you find it?

  • Attention
  • Imagining (forming a mental picture of something that is not present)
  • Meditation (following out a subject to all its issues)
  • Memorizing
  • Mental Effort
  • Observation (seeing fully and in detail)
  • Perfect Execution (working carefully with one’s hands with an aim at “perfect”)
  • Reading for Instruction
  • Remembering
  • Thinking (logical thinking)

Four mental habits she mentioned only briefly and defined:

  • Accuracy
  • Concentration
  • Reflection (ruminating on what we have received)
  • Thoroughness (dissatisfaction with a slipshod, imperfect grasp of a subject)

Quite a list and lots to think about! Did you find one of Charlotte’s Top Three? If you chose “Attention,” you’re right. The habit of attention is one of Charlotte’s Top Three. Imagine how your home and school time would be different if your children had the habit of paying full attention the first time you told them something! Talk about smooth and easy days! Here are some of Charlotte’s practical suggestions for cultivating the habit of attention.

  1. In school work, start with short lessons (10 to 15 minutes) and increase the length only as the child has mastered full attention. Think of it like you would think about training a muscle to run a marathon: short distances first, then increase the distances as you become stronger.
  2. Use good, interesting books for lessons!
  3. Vary the order of lessons to use different parts of the brain/body alternately. “If the lessons be judiciously alternated — sums first, say, while the brain is quite fresh; then writing, or reading — some more or less mechanical exercise, by way of a rest; and so on, the program varying a little from day to day, but the same principle throughout — a ‘thinking’ lesson first, and a ‘painstaking’ lesson to follow, — the child gets through his morning lessons without any sign of weariness” (Vol. 1, p. 142).
  4. Those of you who have very young children can encourage them to look at an object longer than they are first inclined to. When they throw aside or set down an object because they’re done looking at it, take the object and show them some new facet of it or some new way to use it, thus nudging their attention span a little more.
  5. Don’t repeat yourself. This admonition can apply to both school work and everyday home life! Explain to the children that you are going to help them develop this habit of attention, so you are no longer going to repeat yourself; they must learn to listen the first time. Then your responsibility becomes to say something once and administer the consequences that naturally follow if the child doesn’t respond right away.
  6. In both school work and home life, set time limits that assume the child’s full attention on the task at hand. “The sense that there is not much time for his sums or his reading, keeps the child’s wits on the alert and helps to fix his attention” (Vol. 1, p. 142).
  7. Those of you who have older children should explain to them how a habit of inattention can hamper them all their lives, and that only they can make themselves pay attention. You can only try to help them. “As the child gets older, he is taught to bring his own will to bear; to make himself attend in spite of the most inviting suggestions from without. He should be taught to feel a certain triumph in compelling himself to fix his thoughts. Let him know what the real difficulty is, how it is the nature of his mind to be incessantly thinking, but how the thoughts, if left to themselves, will always run off from one thing to another, and that the struggle and the victory required of him is to fix his thoughts upon the task in hand” (Vol. 1, p. 145).

We’ve only touched on a few of Charlotte’s thoughts and suggestions for the habit of attention, and this post is already getting way too long! Next week we’ll talk about Moral Habits, the category that includes the other two of Charlotte’s Top Three habits.

I’m sure many of you have stories and thoughts about trying to cultivate the habit of attention — or any of the Mental Habits — in yourself and your children. Want to share them? Post your comment.

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4 Responses to “Mental Habits”

  1. Rev. Kathleen Wild January 18, 2007 at 6:24 pm #

    I am a Home-Schooler of a fifteen year old teen who has special needs. I have found some of the mental habits hard for him to grasp due to his short attention span. I have used short 15 min lessons and increased them but he is still having trouble grasping them. Any suggestions ? Thanks,Rev. Wild

    • Sonya January 18, 2007 at 7:51 pm #

      I feel like I can relate to your situation a bit, Rev. Wild. We have a special needs daughter (autism) whose attention span varies wildly from day to day. Some days she’s “on” and we can go a full fifteen minutes; other days we have to shift gears at about two minutes. I guess my only suggestion would be to keep an eye on the goal of increasing your son’s mental habits, but also keep your feet firmly planted in the reality of today.

      One suggestion of Charlotte’s that I didn’t include on the list above is to switch activities as soon as the child starts to dawdle, daydream, or tune out. She says to remove that lesson and have the child do a different lesson/activity as totally opposite to the one you removed as possible. (Similar to varying the order of lessons, but interrupting one lesson to move on as needed.) Once the child has had that nice change of pace, come back to the first lesson/activity with “freshened wits” and give it a go again. I don’t know if that suggestion would fit well with your child, but thought I’d mention it.

      Hang in there, dear Kathleen! Living each day with our special needs children is such an opportunity to experience God’s moment-by-moment grace and to practice listening to His still, small voice. It is such a comfort to rest in the fact that He knows what is going on inside our precious ones’ heads! All He requires is that we be faithful.

      Blessings to you and your family.

      Sonya

  2. Parti Perse January 31, 2007 at 4:22 am #

    I am a graduate student majoring in linguistics. Now during the preparation for my M.A. thesis, I am sufferinng from my short attention span. To complete the literature review section of my paper, I have to read and reread volumes of academic writing. Every time I have just read several lines, something quite irrelevant will run through my mind without stopping. What’s worse, I cannot deal with such a habitual reaction, which nearly drives me mad. Any suggestions? Thanks, Parti Perse.

    • Sonya January 31, 2007 at 10:16 am #

      Hi, Parti -

      It seems like you will need to strengthen your “attention muscle” in much the same way that a marathon runner strengthens and trains for a race. I’m wondering if it might be helpful for you to back up and implement Charlotte’s principle of “short lessons” in this way: Read only one or two lines then stop and narrate to yourself what you just read; i.e., put it in your own words. Then read one or two more lines and narrate. If you can get your mind trained to concentrate with full attention for those short bursts without allowing it to pop into that rut of flitting to irrelevant things, you should be able to gradually increase the amount of reading with full attention between narrations. Does that make sense?

      Now, another possibility you might look into (which isn’t necessarily a Charlotte Mason principle but might be helpful nonetheless) is seeing if another activity helps you stay “tuned in.” For example, some people’s brains just work better if there is background music or noise. For me, background music distracts me, but it helps my husband concentrate better. Other people can concentrate better if they’re moving or chewing while they read. I don’t know if any of those suggestions might be true for you, but it might be worth trying just for fun.

      Don’t give up, Parti. It sounds like you are at the place where your will is engaged and ready to put forth the effort to increase your power of attention. Go for it!

      Sonya