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Right off the bat, some of you may be thinking, “Strengthen my child’s will? I don’t need to strengthen it. He’s a strong-willed child already!” And that may be the case, but don’t jump to any conclusions. You might want to read the other posts about the Will to make sure you know what we’re talking about.
If your child is consistently taking the easy way out, doing what he wants to do rather than what he knows he should do, Charlotte Mason would describe that child as having a weak Will. He lacks willpower. Willpower is needed in order to make hard decisions and choose what is right even when you don’t feel like it.
So let’s talk about three ways that we can help our children develop willpower, so they can be strong enough to do what they know they should, even when it’s hard.
1. Feed It
The first way to strengthen the Will is to feed it. And consistent with the rest of her methods, Charlotte would encourage us to feed the Will on ideas. The good news is that those of you who use Charlotte’s method of living books in other school subjects are already doing this.
By reading the living narratives—the engaging stories—of people in history, in the Bible, and in literature, you are giving your child the examples of others who have chosen to do hard things. Those heroic examples raise a standard and can motivate your child to want to do the same.
Now, not all men and women in history and literature made the right choices. Some of them took the easy way out and let their emotions call the shots. Some of them were weak-willed. And those examples can be just as powerful as the heroic ones, as long as the consequences of their actions are included in the story.
Choices have consequences, and consequences can be powerful motivators. One of the main reasons we make a hard choice is because we anticipate what the consequences might be. So reading about men and women and children who made choices—both good and bad—and the results of those choices—both good and bad—can instruct your child’s conscience and fortify his Will.
Give him the stories of people who struggled and overcame, those who started well but gave up, and those who didn’t even put forth the effort. As long as the consequences of those actions are included in the narrative, you will be feeding your child’s Will with those living examples.
2. Exercise It
The second way to strengthen the Will is to exercise it. And just as with any exercise routine, start small and gradually build up to the more difficult level. It doesn’t matter the age of the person, if he is not used to making hard choices and willing himself to follow through on them, you need to start with making small choices. Keep it short and not too difficult.
Again, those of you who are doing Charlotte Mason’s methods in your schoolwork already have some of this in place. You start with short lessons, so you don’t overtax the child’s ability to pay attention for the whole lesson. You give small amounts of copywork and require the child to give his best effort for that whole assignment. Now you know another reason why you are doing those practices. Be careful not to raise the bar too soon or too quickly if your child’s Will is not yet ready for the next level of difficulty. Continue to challenge, yes, but don’t frustrate or provoke your child by setting him up to fail.
Then carry through this idea of making small choices in other areas of life. Give your child opportunities to make choices throughout the day. Perhaps assign a short, relatively easy chore: maybe sweep the kitchen floor or make your bed or transfer the clothes from the washer to the dryer (and turn on the dryer), whatever it might be. And specify when it needs to be done—either right now or immediately after lunch or sometime before bed.
Notice how each of those time options levels up the difficulty a bit. If you say, “Do it right now,” the child doesn’t have to decide when, he only has to decide if he will do it. If you say, “Immediately after lunch,” he has to remember to do that when the time comes, as well as decide whether he will do it. And when you say, “Sometime before bed,” you are adding more work for the Will: the child has to determine if he will do it, when he will do it, and remember to do it.
So keep in mind that the Will is like a muscle. It needs to be exercised in order to grow strong; and the best way to do that is through consistent use, starting small and gradually building up to more difficult levels.
3. Give It a Break
The third way to strengthen the Will is to give it a break. Just as you must give your muscles a chance to rest sometimes, so it is with the Will. Making decisions all day is exhausting, especially if they are hard decisions. Will is going to get tired and find it more and more difficult to make good choices if he doesn’t get a break.
This is where good habits come into play. A habit can give Will a break. Now, habits do require an effort of the Will when they are first being cultivated. It requires a conscious decision to remember to hang up your coat when you come inside during the first few weeks, if that is a new habit you’re trying to put in place. But once that habit is established, you don’t have to think about it anymore. It doesn’t require effort on Will’s part. So Will can save that energy for the tougher decisions that come throughout the day.
The more good habits you have in place, the stronger Will can remain for hard choices. Habits conserve willpower, so that energy isn’t depleted when difficult decisions come along.
A Will that is strong enough to do what is right, even when it’s hard, is crucial to success in life. Willpower is required in so many areas: in our relationships, in how we take care of our bodies, in our work, in our finances. It takes effort to make the right choices in all of those areas, but happily, we have the power, the ability, to put forth that effort and enjoy the results. On the other side of things, we could choose to just drift along in life, driven by our desires or emotions of the moment, but that kind of life usually leads to bitter heartache and discontent and regret. Not the kind of life we want for our children.
Charlotte Mason encouraged us to strengthen our children’s wills little by little through their growing years. Then when they reach the teen years, she advised us to take one more step. Here’s what she said:
“Early in his teens we should at least put clearly before a child the possibility of a drifting, easy life led by appetite or desire in which will plays no part; and the other possibility of using the power and responsibility proper to him as a person and willing as he goes” (A Philosophy of Education, pp. 131, 132).
Explain to your teen how the will works, what strengthens it, and what to do when it’s tired. (We talked about that in the post called The Way of the Will.) Let your teen in on the secret to cultivating the willpower that is needed for success in life: feed that will with powerful living ideas and examples; give that will a break by instilling good habits; and exercise that will with regular, progressing practice in making hard decisions.
That’s how character is formed. Listen carefully to what Charlotte Mason said:
“The one achievement possible and necessary for every man is character; and character is as finely wrought metal beaten into shape and beauty by the repeated and accustomed action of will” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 129).
Do you want your child to have good character? Help him strengthen his willpower.