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It’s easy to think of the habit of obedience as an all-or-nothing prospect. Now, I would agree that we want our children to obey in everything; however, sometimes we can inadvertently overwhelm them or expect too much too soon. As in other areas of character development, we want to help our children set up good habits, and sometimes it helps to approach those habits layer upon layer.
We’re in the midst of a series on habit training. So far we’ve talked about how to intentionally plan and schedule for this important aspect of your child’s education and how to customize the specific habit that you want each child to work on. Last time we talked about the broad category of the habit of attention and how some children can easily apply that broad habit to all areas of life but others may need to approach it layer upon layer. We discussed some ways to think through specific habits that you might help a child cultivate during a focused time on attention and how you could increase or decrease the challenge of that habit for that child.
Today we want to do the same thing with another habit that Charlotte Mason recommended. Like the habit of attention, this habit is foundational. In fact, it is upon these two habits that all the other habits rest. Today we’re talking about the habit of obedience.
Now, let’s review how habits are formed. In our brains are neurons, which talk to each other. Every time we perform a certain action or think a certain thought, the neurons will fire in a certain path. The more often we repeat that action or thought, the more deeply ingrained that path becomes until, after a while, it fires automatically. It has become a habit.
So the key is the get the correct neuron path set up and firing as often as possible. We don’t want any detours shooting off that path in the wrong direction.
What does that have to do with the habit of obedience? Just this: We want to set up the neuron path for “Do what Mom or Dad says.” That’s the path we want to reinforce as often as possible.
Let’s compare this to the habit of attention. For that habit, we want to set up the neuron path of “Pay attention until this is done,” whether that’s a lesson or a task. You’ll remember, then, that we start with short lessons and tasks, setting the child up for success in reinforcing that neuron path. Once that path is ingrained, we can begin to nudge out the length of the tasks or lessons, but it won’t be a difficult thing because the habit is already in place.
It’s the same for the habit of obedience. In order to get that “Do what Mom or Dad says” path established, we start small. When your child is young, or if she has developmental or other challenges, this is the place to start in order to set her up for success—to get that neuron path running. Once it is firmly in place, you can level up and increase the challenge.
So let’s look at five different ways you can customize a habit of obedience to best fit your child, wherever she may be on that scale. When you are choosing a habit for your child to work on under that broad umbrella of “obedience,” these are some options to consider.
Level 1: A Single-Step Task Now
Start here with a young child or a child who struggles. Give a simple, quick task that can be done right away.
- Please put these two toys in the toy basket.
- Copy this word in your best handwriting.
- Get out the box of crackers, please.
Make sure the “simple” task is actually simple. If your child has to remember and perform more than one step in a certain order, it’s not a simple task. You might want to save that task for later, after the neuron path is better established. Start with simple and quick.
Level 2: A Single-Step Task Later
In Level 1, you asked your child to do something right away. She didn’t have to remember for very long. In this level, the challenge is raised a bit by adding a time delay. It’s still a simple task, but it requires remembering to do it. So it might be
- When rest time is over, put away the book you were looking at.
- Stay in your room until the clock says 7. (I know a parent who used a digital clock and taped over the minutes numbers, so only the hour number was showing. I thought that was pretty clever.)
- For older children, it might be Read your leisure book for at least 15 minutes today.
Do you see how adding a time delay increases the challenge?
By the way, you don’t have to tell your child which level you’re working on. All she needs to know is “Do what Mom or Dad says.” But it can help you set her up for success if you figure out which level of challenge will best reinforce that neuron path and then try to stay in that level during the six weeks that you’re focusing on the habit of obedience.
Level 3: A Recurring Single-Step Task
Now you can increase the challenge again with a simple task that is required every day or several times a day—a recurring task. Charlotte Mason used this level in an example she gave.
Let me give you a little background to the habit. The mother wanted her son to learn a habit of shutting the door to any room in the house. Now, this was back in the day when there was a fireplace in each room to keep it warm, and the rooms all had doors to keep the heat in. So leaving the door open would let out the heat and let in drafts of cold air. All right, with that background in mind, listen to how Charlotte described the formation of that recurring single-step habit in Home Education, pages 122 and 123:
For example, and to choose a habit of no great consequence except as a matter of consideration for others: the mother wishes her child to acquire the habit of shutting the door after him when he enters or leaves a room. Tact, watchfulness, and persistence are the qualities she must cultivate in herself; and, with these, she will be astonished at the readiness with which the child picks up the new habit.
‘Johnny,’ she says, in a bright, friendly voice, ‘I want you to remember something with all your might: never go into or out of a room in which anybody is sitting without shutting the door.’
‘But if I forget, mother?’
‘I will try to remind you.’
‘But perhaps I shall be in a great hurry.’
‘You must always make time to do that.’
‘But why, mother?’
‘Because it is not polite to the people in the room to make them uncomfortable.’
‘But if I am going out again that very minute?’
‘Still, shut the door, when you come in; you can open it again to go out. Do you think you can remember?’
‘I’ll try, mother.’
‘Very well; I shall watch to see how few “forgets” you make.’
For two or three times Johnny remembers; and then, he is off like a shot and half-way downstairs before his mother has time to call him back. She does not cry out, ‘Johnny, come back and shut the door!’ because she knows that a summons of that kind is exasperating to big or little. She goes to the door, and calls pleasantly, ‘Johnny!’ Johnny has forgotten all about the door; he wonders what his mother wants, and, stirred by curiosity, comes back, to find her seated and employed as before. She looks up, glances at the door, and says, ‘I said I should try to remind you.’ ‘Oh, I forgot,’ says Johnny, put upon his honour; and he shuts the door that time, and the next, and the next.
But the little fellow has really not much power to recollect, and the mother will have to adopt various little devices to remind him; but of two things she will be careful—that he never slips off without shutting the door, and that she never lets the matter be a cause of friction between herself and the child, taking the line of his friendly ally to help him against that bad memory of his. By and by, after, say, twenty shuttings of the door with never an omission, the habit begins to be formed; Johnny shuts the door as a matter of course, and his mother watches him with delight come into a room, shut the door, take something off the table, and go out, again shutting the door.
A recurring simple task: shut the door. Modern-day examples might include
- Put your dirty clothes in the hamper when you take them off at night.
- Comb your hair every morning.
- Keep the dog’s water dish full throughout the day.
- Return library books to the designated bookshelf in the living room.
Level 4: A Multiple-Step Task
Just as we can increase the amount of time involved in paying attention, so we can increase the amount of steps involved in obeying. Once that “Do what Mom or Dad says” neuron path is established through simple tasks, you can level up to multiple-step tasks, such as
- Unload the dishwasher and put the dishes away.
- Read this passage and write a narration.
- Clean your room. (That’s definitely a multiple-step task!)
Sometimes we inadvertently put a stumbling block in a child’s way when we ask her to do a multiple-step task before she’s able to do that advanced level. I remember when I was a teenager and was watching two little boys one afternoon. We were outside playing, and I needed something from the house. I didn’t want to leave the littlest boy without supervision, so I turned to the older brother, who was still pretty young, and said, “Please go in the house and get such-and-such off the table and bring it to me.” I can still see the look on that little boy’s face. He was totally lost. He could not comprehend, let alone remember, all that I was asking him to do.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it’s easy for us to think of obedience as an all-or-nothing prospect. And while I think we can, and should, expect our children to obey in everything, we also need to make sure we are not provoking or frustrating them with unrealistic expectations. We would do well to be aware of each child’s individual growth and, just as with other habits, make sure we aren’t inadvertently overwhelming or expecting too much too soon.
Level 5: A Recurring Multiple-Step Task
One of the most challenging types of obedience involves recurring multiple-step tasks. This is the point where you can direct and expect your child to
- Do her morning chores.
- Make sure her school work is done.
- Be ready to leave for co-op on time every Wednesday.
Those broad, multi-step directives are what can contribute so much to smooth and easy days in your home. But starting there will probably only set you and your child up for frustration and conflict. This is the level that you work toward—layer upon layer, step by step—getting that neuron path established first with simple, short tasks and then gradually leveling up as the child is ready.
So when you work on the habit of obedience, make sure you think about where your child is on that broad spectrum of growth, and set her up for success by customizing the habit specifically for her. Even in habit training, we respect each child as a person. It’s not one-size-fits-all. You know your child best. Give yourself grace and do what you can to help each child take the next step of growing in good character.