You don’t have to be perfect to work on good habits with your children, you just need to be intentional.
This time we’re looking at another core value of Charlotte Mason. In particular, this is one of the three facets of education. Remember, we likened these three facets to a three-legged stool: you need to have all three for a balanced approach to educating your child.
“Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” We looked at atmosphere last time. Today we’re looking at discipline, and here’s how Charlotte defined that aspect:
By ‘education is a discipline,’ we mean the discipline of habits, formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or body.A Philosophy of Education, p. xvii
The discipline of habits. If you tie this leg of the stool back to the first leg—atmosphere—there’s an interesting connection.
Atmosphere is all about the first-hand experiences your child receives from daily interaction with the people and things and ideas around him. Well, discipline is all about giving your child instruction and practice in the best way to interact with those people and things and ideas around him.
Think of discipline as guide rails or guiding controls. We set those guides in place to help our children successfully navigate life with a minimum of mishaps and obstacles. Charlotte compared the discipline of habits to railroad tracks:
Habit is to life what rails are to transport cars.A Philosophy of Education, p. 101
The cars of a train can run smoothly on those rails to get where it needs to go. And it’s the same with the good habits that we cultivate in our children’s lives; they act as guide rails to help our children advance smoothly through life.
That’s why Charlotte specified that these habits should be formed “definitely and thoughtfully.” So much of what we (and our children) do each day, we do out of habit. We think certain ways, we act certain ways, because that’s how we are accustomed to think and to act. But those guide rails make up such a large part of our lives that it doesn’t make sense to leave them up to chance. Just as we try to be intentional about the atmosphere of our homes, so we try to be intentional about the habits our children form.
Some habits our children will catch from the atmosphere of our homes. We talked about atmosphere last time. If you haven’t read that post yet, I encourage you to do so. Charlotte mentioned several of “atmosphere habits” in Home Education: orderliness, a regular schedule, courtesy, and kindness, to name a few. Here’s how she put it:
We have already considered a group of half physical habits––order, regularity, neatness––which the child imbibes, so to speak, in a way. But this is not all: habits of gentleness, courtesy, kindness, candour, respect for other people, or––habits quite other than these, are inspired by the child as the very atmosphere of his home, the air he lives in and must grow by.Home Education, p. 137
How do those “atmosphere habits” work? As our children see us practicing those habits, that’s how.
Nine times out of ten we begin to do a thing because we see some one else do it; we go on doing it, and—there is the habit! If it is so easy for ourselves to take up a new habit, it is tenfold as easy for the children.Home Education, p. 118
So some habits can be caught, but some habits must also be taught and intentionally practiced. And Charlotte just gave the key to how that is done. Did you notice it? She said, “We begin to do a thing … we go on doing it, and—there is the habit!” You see, it’s all about repetition. The more often you do a certain action or think a certain thought, the more deeply that “guide” becomes imbedded in your brain.
The fact is, that the things we do a good many times over leave some sort of impression in the very substance of our brain; and this impression, the more often it is repeated, makes it the easier for us to do the thing the next time. We know this well enough as it applies to skating, hockey, and the like. We say we want practice, or, are out of practice, and must get some practice; but we do not realise that, in all the affairs of our life, the same thing holds good. What we have practice in doing we can do with ease, while we bungle over that in which we have little practice.
This is the law of habit, which holds good as much in doing kindnesses as in playing the piano. Both habits come by practice; and that is why it is so important not to miss a chance of doing the thing we mean to do well.Ourselves, Book 1, p. 208
Practice, practice, practice. We know this is crucial to improving in any sport or physical activity, and the same applies to habits. God has made our brains to form habits through repetition, through practice. That’s the key.
So decide what habits you want to cultivate in your child’s life, what guide rails would most help your child to run smoothly through life. Think about habits of attention, obedience, truthfulness, respect, initiative, best effort, self-control, gratitude, fortitude, for example.
Then don’t try to tackle them all at once. You and your child will both get overwhelmed. Just pick one habit. Start with one. Focus on practicing that one habit for two months, and get that guide rail laid in place and running smoothly. Then pick another one and go to work repeating that one, practicing that one, for two months.
One at a time. That’s how you build the guide rails of good habits. That’s how you educate your child in good character, because
The habits of the child produce the character of the man.Home Education, p. 118
Good character is formed by good habits, definitely and thoughtfully cultivated in your child’s life. The guide rails of good habits are an important part of his education as a person.
There is much more we could say about habit training. In fact, we have a whole collection of resources to help you with it. Take a look at Laying Down the Rails; the companion book full of stories and Scripture passages and poems and activities to use with your children, called Laying Down the Rails for Children; and a book to encourage you and your teenage young adult in forming your own habits, called Laying Down the Rails for Yourself.
1. Be careful not to excuse your child’s behavior.
If habits are formed through repetition and practice, then it makes sense that whatever behavior your child does repeatedly will become a habit. And that applies to bad habits too. If your child repeatedly uses a whiny voice, for example, don’t just grit your teeth, bear it, and hope he’ll somehow grow out of it one day. Remember, every time he uses that whiny voice to get what he wants, it is reinforcing that behavior in his brain. Charlotte explained it this way:
Here is an end of the easy philosophy of, ‘It doesn’t matter,’ ‘Oh, he’ll grow out of it,’ ‘He’ll know better by-and-by,’ ‘He’s so young, what can we expect?’ and so on. Every day, every hour, the parents are either passively or actively forming those habits in their children upon which, more than upon anything else, future character and conduct depend.Home Education, p. 118
So keep an eye out for unwelcome habits that are being passively formed because you’re allowing them to be laid in place through repetition.
2. You don’t have to be perfect to start laying down good habits in your child’s life.
If you’re waiting until you’ve got your act completely together and have all the good habits instilled in your own life and no bad habits at all, that’s never going to happen. We all struggle with habits, and we will be working on them our entire lives.
Our children need to see us working on good habits too. In fact, we can work on them together. If education is all about personal growth—and it is—then we want to give our children the example of lifelong learning and growing. And good habits are part of that growth.
You don’t have to be perfect to work on good habits with your children, you just need to be intentional about laying down those guide rails, the discipline of habits. That’s the path to good character and a core value of Charlotte Mason.