In Charlotte Mason circles, we talk a lot about habits: how God made our brains to form habits automatically through repetition; what kinds of motivation work best; how long it takes to form a good habit; how to replace a bad habit with a good habit. All of this is important, because good habits give us smooth and easy days—in our home schools and in life.

We want our children to grow up with an endowment of good habits that will help them run smoothly into their adult lives. And we, as adults, need to continue to cultivate our own good habits to help eliminate the jolts and delays that bad habits can bring. That’s why I wrote Laying Down the Rails for Yourself, to encourage teenagers and adults to work on instilling good habits for themselves based on Charlotte Mason’s principles and modern scientific findings.

The other day I received a great question about laying down good habits. Here is what Janelle wrote:

“I am nearly finished with reading “Laying Down the Rails for Yourself,” and am contemplating buying “Laying Down the Rails for Children” next. I love the idea of establishing better habits in all our lives, but I am wrestling with “Where does the power of the Holy Spirit fit?” How can we change our bad habits, except by His strength? . . . I know that God commands us by His Word to obey, to be kind, to use kind words, even to do things in an orderly way. But there’s a part of me that feels torn, like to just “lay down rails” is to attempt to do these things a bit in the flesh. And we know that “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” I know that even those who are not believers can and do change their habits. But I want us to be more like Him because we’re with Him, to glorify Him, and by His strength. Please help!”

These are important questions, and usually if one person asks, there are several others who have the same question. So let me share some thoughts.

Because God made people’s brains to form habits automatically, both believers and nonbelievers can put that natural law to use. I think there are four main differences between the two, though, and these differences highlight the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

  1. Why You Want to Form Good Habits — For a believer, all of life should be God-centered and gospel-focused. So two main reasons to form good habits, or replace bad ones, are to adorn the gospel of Christ (Titus 2:1–10) and to avoid or set aside anything that hinders our glorifying God and working for His kingdom purposes (Hebrews 12:1 and 1 Corinthians 10:31).
  2. Who You Depend on for the Desire to Form a Good Habit — As you mentioned, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Believers must depend on the Holy Spirit to give us the desire to do right even when we don’t feel like it. Philippians 2:13 talks about depending on God’s work within us both to desire to do His will and to have the strength to follow through and do it. We need both. Which brings up another difference . . .
  3. Who You Depend on for the Strength to Perform the Good Habit — We cannot depend on our own strength. Every believer needs to couple every step of habit training with prayer. So when we approach a new day, we ask God to help us glorify Him by doing the new habit that He has laid on our hearts. Later, when the thought crosses our mind to remind us about doing it, we thank God for that reminder and ask for the strength to act on it even if we don’t feel like it. And when we do act on it, that highlights the fourth difference . . .
  4. Who Gets the Credit When You Perform the Good Habit — We know that the strength to perform that habit didn’t come from ourselves, and so we thank God for giving us that strength. When we see the fruit of that good habit in our lives, we thank God for doing that work within us. We don’t take the credit for ourselves, because we know that without Him we can do nothing (John 15).

So every step of the habit process is focused on God, Who is at work within us and through us. He gets all the glory.

Charlotte Mason recognized the importance of depending on the Lord for strength even as you take steps to intentionally work on good habits. In relation to replacing a bad habit, she said,

“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” (Parents and Children, p. 176).

And she also touched on the idea of being intentional in training our children and careful that we don’t allow habits that will hinder their ability to glorify God and their work for His kingdom:

“This kind cometh forth only by prayer, but it is well to clear our thoughts and know definitely what we desire for our children, because only so can we work intelligently towards the fulfilment of our desire. It is sad to pray, and frustrate the answer by our own action; but this is, alas, too possible” (Parents and Children, p. 289).

May your personal habit training and the habits you cultivate in your children bring glory to God and cause all of you to grow in your relationship with Him.


  1. Wonderful post this week. Great reminder that I need to bring all things (even those that seem simple and the ones I tend to think are in my own strength) back to God and glorify Him.

    Side Note… The YouTube thumbnail is a great picture of you this week. You look amazing!!

  2. This is an excellent article. I know that CM was writing at a time when the fundamentals of the Christian faith were widely understood and assumed, so she did not need to spell things out as we might in our time. But one thing I have always wondered about is that she doesn’t seem to address the role of the flesh/sin in her discussions about habits. For instance the child who throws tantrums who needs to be corrected of his bad habit STILL has a sin nature that wants his own way and no matter how much his nurse distracts him, or how consistently he is “re-trained”, I feel like it is still likely that at some point he will really want something he can’t have and his natural/fleshly response will be a tantrum.
    Does anyone know if places where CM addresses this aspect of bad behavior?

    • No direct passages come to mind right now, Nancy. As you said, Charlotte lived at a time when Christian beliefs were widespread and common. She was mainly concerned with helping parents understand how their efforts of educating their children could undergird and support the Christian life, rather than hinder it. Her areas of focus include habit-training, instructing the conscience, and strengthening the will; and she encouraged us to do that educating with much prayer and dependence on the Lord. Only God can change a child’s heart and give him a new nature. And, of course, we know that none of us (including our children) will ever be perfect here on earth, but we can put forth the effort to do all we can to make sure our children are equipped with helpful habits, an instructed conscience that is in tune with God’s Word, and a strong will that can submit to God’s will—even when it’s hard—and depend on God’s strength.

Comments are closed.