Change Your Thoughts – Way of the Will, part 4

Thinking boy: I am, I can, I ought, I will.

As we begin to wrap up this “Way of the Will” 5-part series, let’s look at what Charlotte called “the secret of a happy life.”

If you had been a student in one of Charlotte Mason’s schools, you would have received a badge with the student motto around the edge: “I am, I can, I ought, I will.”

Charlotte recognized that each child is a person who can do many things, and should be taught what he ought to do. But in the end the child has to decide for himself what he will do.

The Secret of a Happy Life

You see, Charlotte knew that the battle of the will is played out in a person’s thoughts. So she helped students prepare for this battle by arming them with a secret weapon: “change your thoughts.” Here’s how it works.

“The knowledge of this way of the will is so far the secret of a happy life, that it is well worth imparting to the children. Are you cross? Change your thoughts. Are you tired of trying? Change your thoughts. Are you craving for things you are not to have? Change your thoughts; there is a power within you, your own will, which will enable you to turn your attention from thoughts that make you unhappy and wrong, to thoughts that make you happy and right. And this is the exceedingly simple way in which the will acts; this is the sole secret of the power over himself which the strong man wields—he can compel himself to think of what he chooses, and will not allow himself in thoughts that breed mischief” (Vol. 1, pp. 325, 326).

Change Your Thoughts

We can help our children practice this secret weapon. When they are small, we can change their thoughts for them by redirecting their attention. “A little bit of nursery experience will show better than much talking what is possible to the will. A baby falls, gets a bad bump, and cries piteously. The experienced nurse does not ‘kiss the place to make it well,’ or show any pity for the child’s trouble—that would make matters worse; the more she pities, the more he sobs. She hastens to ‘change his thoughts,’ so she says; she carries him to the window to see the horses, gives him his pet picture-book, his dearest toy, and the child pulls himself up in the middle of a sob, though he is really badly hurt” (Vol. 1, p. 324).

As our children get older, we can let them in on the secret and coach them toward changing their own thoughts. Scripture is full of admonitions to pay attention to what we let our minds dwell upon. (See Romans 12:2 and 3, 1 Corinthians 13:5, Ephesians 4:23, Philippians 2:3–5, Colossians 3:12, and 1 Peter 1:13.) Philippians 4:8 encourages us to think on what is true, right, and lovely.

So encourage your older child to wield this weapon in his mind’s battle, coupling much prayer and much effort, until it becomes a habit. “Above all, ‘watch unto prayer’ and teach your child dependence upon divine aid in this warfare of the spirit; but, also, the absolute necessity for his own efforts” (Vol. 2, p. 176).

As our children learn the secret of changing their thoughts, they will be strengthening their wills toward what is good.

Next week we will finish this series by looking at the role that the habit of attention plays in the way of the will.


  1. Thank you for this series. I really needed it. If my parents had taught me these things when I was a child, it would be so much easier for me now! As is, I will learn them along with my own strong willed daughter.

    Thanks again!

  2. I teach my kids to have an “emergency channel” in their minds. I encourage them to memorize a hymn or poem (hymns are preferable, I think–music is so powerful) and when they encounter thoughts or attitudes they don’t like, to “turn on” their hymn to drown out the bad thoughts. This takes time, but I’ve really seen it pay off over time, in myself and in my older children. Actually, I keep more than one “emergency channel” hymn for myself–one that I call my “Prozac Hymn” that when I find myself discouraged or thinking defeating thoughts, I turn on–usually a rousing, upbeat one. And I have my “Valium hymn”–a sweet, consoling one for when I allow myself to get whipped up into an anxious state of mind. Hymns, being expressions of scriptural truth or being prayers, have a unique power, I believe, to vanquish negative thoughts and emotions.

  3. I have a “strong-willed” daughter too, and I had been scared for her until now, when I realize that that will can be directed towards right as well as wrong. Thank you for this series!

  4. This is now called CBT. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy! The more I read, the more convinced I am that this is the method I want to use with my children. Thank you for all of the wonderful resources you have provided on your website. I have spent the summer before my first year of homeschooling perusing what you have to offer. Thanks.

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