A few weeks ago I was in the mountains of Colorado and noticed an unusual lamppost. This lamppost was made from a tree. But that wasn’t the unusual part. The unusual part was the complete curly-que that the tree trunk made right beneath the lamp. It looked like one of those silly straws that have a loop in the middle.
Someone had trained that tree to grow in that direction when it was just a sapling. Sure, full-grown trees can be trained to grow in certain ways, but it is so much easier to shape a tree when it is young and pliable.
Charlotte Mason expressed the same principle this way for parents: “What you would have the man become, that you must train the child to be” (Vol. 2, p. 15). The Early Years are the perfect time to concentrate on forming good habits in our children. It is never too late to instill a good habit, but how much easier it is if we instill good habits right from the start!
Of the sixty or so habits that Charlotte recommended, two should be top priority for parents of preschoolers: the habit of Attention and the habit of Obedience. Here are more of Charlotte’s thoughts on the matter.
Realize your child will not simply grow out of his faults.
Let’s face it, our little ones are often cute when they do wrong. But parents cannot afford to laugh at ugly tempers or disobedience. “They say, ‘The child is so young; he does not know any better; but all that will come right as he grows up.’ Now, a fault of character left to itself can do no other than strengthen” (Vol. 2, p. 87).
The key to instilling any habit is repetition. The more times our children do the right thing, the easier it will become. Soon they will be able to do the right thing without stopping to think about it. But if they do the right thing once or twice, then are allowed to do the wrong thing five times, we have wiped out any progress in that new habit and have to start all over again. Therefore . . .
Help your child do the good habit as many times as possible.
How does that look practically? Here’s an example for each of those two top habits.
Attention: Encourage your child to look at an object a little longer each time.
“A baby, notwithstanding his wonderful powers of observation, has no power of attention; in a minute, the coveted plaything drops from listless little fingers, and the wandering glance lights upon some new joy. But even at this stage the habit of attention may be trained: the discarded plaything is picked up, and, with ‘Pretty!’ and dumb [silent] show, the mother keeps the infant’s eyes fixed for fully a couple of minutes—and this is his first lesson in attention. Later, as we have seen, the child is eager to see and handle every object that comes in his way. But watch him at his investigations: he flits from thing to thing with less purpose than a butterfly amongst the flowers, staying at nothing long enough to get the good out of it. It is the mother’s part to supplement the child’s quick observing faculty with the habit of attention. She must see to it that he does not flit from this to that, but looks long enough at one thing to get a real acquaintance with it” (Vol. 1, pp. 139, 140).
Obedience: Expect and insist on prompt, cheerful, lasting obedience every time.
“This is the sort of thing which is fatal: The children are in the drawing-room, and a caller is announced. ‘You must go upstairs now.’ ‘Oh, mother dear, do let us stay in the window-corner; we will be as quiet as mice!’ The mother is rather proud of her children’s pretty manners, and they stay. They are not quiet, of course; but that is the least of the evils; they have succeeded in doing as they chose and not as they were bid, and they will not put their necks under the yoke again without a struggle. It is in little matters that the mother is worsted. ‘Bedtime, Willie!’ ‘Oh, mamma, just let me finish this’; and the mother yields, forgetting that the case in point is of no consequence; the thing that matters is that the child should be daily confirming a habit of obedience by the unbroken repetition of acts of obedience. It is astonishing how clever the child is in finding ways of evading the spirit while he observes the letter. ‘Mary, come in.’ ‘Yes, mother’; but her mother calls four times before Mary comes. ‘Put away your bricks’; and the bricks are put away with slow, reluctant fingers. ‘You must always wash your hands when you hear the first bell.’ The child obeys for that once, and no more.
“To avoid these displays of wilfulness, the mother will insist from the first on an obedience which is prompt, cheerful, and lasting—save for lapses of memory on the child’s part. Tardy, unwilling, occasional obedience is hardly worth the having; and it is greatly easier to give the child the habit of perfect obedience by never allowing him in anything else, than it is to obtain this mere formal obedience by a constant exercise of authority” (Vol. 1, pp. 163, 164).
Yes, we could list pages and pages of other practical tips, but start with those two. Put them into practice consistently and see how those new habits will train the direction of your child’s life.
Other Habit Training Resources
We’ve previously done two series of articles on habits. As always, you can go back and read our past posts/e-mails on our blog. If you would like to read more about habits, check out the Smooth and Easy Days series or the Laying Down the Rails series.
Charlotte’s writings are chock full of habit training counsel and practical tips. We’ve collected all that advice into one place, organized it, and added some ideas from our own experience in Laying Down the Rails: A Charlotte Mason Habits Handbook.
If the thought of a 250-page book overwhelms you right now, our quick-start habits workshop is a great place to grab the simple principles of habit-training along with lots of practical ideas to get you started. The Laying Down the Rails Workshop is available on DVD, CD, or mp3.