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Joey sits in his room and plays video games hour after hour, sulking anytime he is asked to do anything else.
Samantha pitches a fit when she is told she may not have a cookie right now.
Alex stares out the window instead of doing his math lesson.
Cassie quits halfway through washing the car, because her arms are tired.
Each of these children is struggling with a weak will. They are being ruled by their impulses and desires. They lack the strength to make themselves do what they know they should. Making hard choices, and sticking with them even when the going gets tough, requires willpower.
Modern psychologists are speaking out now—in agreement with the biblical principle that Charlotte Mason advocated—about how important self-control is to success in life.
The good news is that it is possible to strengthen your child’s willpower, to teach him the difference between “I want” and “I will,” to help her develop a will that is strong enough to make tough decisions.
Here are five main points that Charlotte Mason wrote about—and current scientists also identified—as effective ways to do that.
1. Read great books.
Enjoy books that illustrate choices and the consequences of those choices in a well-told story. Good literature usually contains many such examples skillfully woven into the plot as the narrative unfolds. Those well-written tales will involve the reader’s emotions, instruct his conscience, and illustrate timeless principles that can motivate and help him make good decisions in his own life.
2. Instill good habits.
Habitual actions don’t require decision-making, so they put little to no strain upon the will. And since most of what we do each day, we do out of habit, good habits can take the pressure off a developing will and let it conserve its strength for circumstantial decisions. Of course, the long-term goal is for the child to choose to do the action of his own volition; but until his will is strong enough to do that, habit can be a good support to the will.
Both scientists and Charlotte agree: the place to start is with the habit of attention. Being able to intentionally focus your mind on something and resist distractions is a key to success in the way of the will. The next point explains why.
3. Help him change his thoughts.
One of the most effective strategies that Walter Mischel identified in his Marshmallow Test is the one that Charlotte Mason explained in detail: When you are facing temptation and your will is struggling, distract yourself by thinking about something else.
“When the overstrained will asks for repose, it may not relax to yielding point but may and must seek recreation, diversion,—Latin thought has afforded us beautiful and appropriate names for that which we require. A change of physical or mental occupation is very good, but if no other change is convenient, let us think of something else, no matter how trifling. A new tie, or our next new hat, a story book we are reading, a friend we hope to see, anything does so long as we do not suggest to ourselves the thoughts we ought to think on the subject in question. The will does not want the support of arguments but the recreation of rest, change, diversion. In a surprisingly short time it is able to return to the charge and to choose this day the path of duty, however dull or tiresome, difficult or dangerous” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 136).
You can help your child turn his mind to something pleasant and totally different by suggesting other things to think about. In time, he will be able to use that strategy for himself.
4. Practice with small choices.
The will’s job is to choose between ideas that present themselves at the entrance to the mind and heart. Will decides which ideas to allow inside to influence actions and thoughts. So it is important to give your child opportunities to practice making choices between ideas. Choices have consequences, and your child can learn much from experiencing smaller consequences from smaller choices.
5. Affirm good choices.
When you see your child make a good choice, encourage him. When Alex turns away from the window and, by an act of his will, focuses on his math lesson again, acknowledge that decision! When Cassie takes a short break and then purposefully walks back outside to finish washing that car, congratulate her! When Joey and Samantha put forth the effort to change their attitudes, commend them!
As Charlotte put it,
“Let him know what he is about, let him enjoy a sense of triumph, and of your congratulation, whenever he fetches his thoughts back to his tiresome sum, whenever he makes his hands finish what they have begun, whenever he throws the black dog off his back, and produces a smile from a clouded face” (Home Education, p. 328).
Supporting good choices by your word and your own example is one of the greatest things you can do to help your child develop willpower.
Your child does not have to careen through life driven by his impulses. He does not have to experience the pitfalls of being a slave to his desires. You can help him develop what is being called “the engine of success.” You can help him strengthen his willpower.
Note: Walter Mischel authored a book about his findings, The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success, mentioned above. Be aware that it is written from an evolutionary worldview and includes some Freudian philosophy as psychologists try to explain the Why behind the How. Christians will have a different answer to Why the brain works as it does, but the How information is still fascinating and helpful.
More of Charlotte’s Thoughts on Willpower
The Way of the Will further explores Charlotte Mason’s sensible approach to understanding your child’s will. Written from Sonya’s heart to yours, The Way of the Will contains practical chapters will both challenge and equip you in your role as a mother. This free e-book is our gift to you.