Attention, Please – Way of the Will, part 5

In this final installment of our Way of the Will series, let’s look at how the habit of attention affects your child’s success in strengthening his will to do what is right even when he doesn’t feel like it. The habit of attention is necessary to help him distinguish between “I want” and “I will” and to enable him to change his thoughts as needed. Here’s more on that connection.

One of my daughters recently took a co-op music class. Unfortunately, one of her classmates constantly disrupted class by sharing his thoughts about everything. It seemed no matter what we were doing, it would remind him of something and he had to tell about it. In detail. With examples.

Unable to Concentrate

That child has a large obstacle to overcome before he can strengthen his will to serve him well in his future life. “Much must go before and along with a vigorous will if it is to be a power in the ruling of conduct. For instance, the man must have acquired the habit of attention, the great importance of which we have already considered. There are bird-witted people, who have no power of thinking connectedly for five minutes under any pressure, from within or from without. If they have never been trained to apply the whole of their mental faculties to a given subject, why, no energy of will, supposing they had it, which is impossible, could make them think steadily thoughts of their own choosing or of anyone else’s” (Vol. 1, p. 326).

A child who has no power of attention will not be able to dismiss wandering thoughts and concentrate for any length of time. The habit of attention is a necessary foundation for strengthening the will.

Remember, the will’s business is to choose, to govern the person’s passions and appetites. If the child cannot concentrate steadily on his own thoughts, or thoughts that others have offered, how will he be able to choose wisely?

A person who has not learned to put forth the effort of making himself pay attention will have a hard time putting forth effort in other areas too. He will struggle with distinguishing between “I want” and “I will,” and when the struggle is deemed too hard, he will take the easy way rather than the right way.

Form the Habit of Attention

So before you expect great things from your child along the way of the will, make sure you are helping him to form the habit of attention.

“Power of will implies power of attention; and before the parent can begin to train the will of the child, he must have begun to form in him the habit of attention” (Vol. 1, p. 326).

How? Here are some practical tips.

  • Keep lessons short. Stop a lesson before your child loses attention. He will soon develop the habit of paying attention for the whole lesson. Once that habit is set, you can gradually lengthen the duration of the lessons.
  • Vary the order of lessons. Help your child pay attention by using different parts of his brain and body, rather than over-taxing one part. For example, you might read and narrate (hear and speak), then do copywork (write), then do a picture study (look and discuss), then a math lesson (move manipulatives and think in numbers). Whatever order you want to use, employ different parts of the brain and body.
  • Don’t repeat yourself. Most children go through a “What?” stage. And when they ask, “What?,” our tendency is to repeat ourselves. We can stop that inattentive cycle.
  • Set time limits that assume full attention. Use a timer to help keep your child on task. Set the time limit to help strengthen the habit of attention, but not to frustrate.


  1. This was a great series! Do you have any tips for starting off on the right track with toddlers? I have a 15-month-old who is starting to need some encouragement towards using her will for good. 🙂

  2. This is an old post, I know, but I love reading others comments and I hope that this will help someone.

    I was re-reading some of Charlotte’s original writings that I had printed years ago. In it she said “attention isn’t something you HAVE, attention is something you DO”. That just leaped off the page at me, especially as we are struggling with ADHD in our home.
    I began to think about the term “pay attention”. This is an action verb…when you pay for something, you physically hand something over.
    It was one of those AHA moments. I didn’t even realize that I had been thinking of attention for my ds as something he didn’t have, not as something he needed to learn to do. It was one of those moments that life starts to look different and hopeful with a new, living idea.

  3. You state that we don’t need to repeat the “what”. How do we enforce the instructions given if all we get back is the what? Thank you for any further help in this area!

    • Two tips come to mind, Faith. First, if a child is in the “What?” stage and it is becoming a knee-jerk consistent reaction (read that, “Habit”), you might want to employ a proactive technique. During a neutral time (not in the heat of the moment), tell the child that you noticed he/she is struggling with paying attention, so you will start doing something to help prevent that bad habit from getting stronger. Before you give an instruction, make sure you have eye contact, then you will give the instruction and have the child repeat to you what you said. This action will hopefully help instill the good habit of paying attention, rather than reinforce the bad habit by repeating it.

      Second, you may need to let natural consequences do the talking for you. If the child refuses to pay attention, you may need to use a natural consequence to more strongly capture his attention. Simply put, if he/she doesn’t obey, an appropriate related consequence can be given. Right then. Consequences speak louder than words many times.

      You can read more about replacing bad habits with good ones and using natural consequences in the free e-book Smooth and Easy Days. I hope this helps!

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