Habits Q & A: Habits with Multiple Children

What’s the best way to approach habit training with multiple children in the family?

Habit training is an important part of a Charlotte Mason education and of setting our children up for success in life. We’ve already talked about how to cultivate good habits, how to think of effective consequences in habit training, and some ideas to help with children who have unique challenges. Today I want to address some questions about how to do habit training when you have more than one child. 

Here’s the first question:

Question: How do we do habit training with multiple kids? So if you have more than one kid—let’s say a grade four and a grade two and then a grade one—how do you establish habit training? Do you need to have one habit for each kid? Do you need to have them on board on just one habit? And just to take it a little further, what if you also have a child with special needs in the group? How does a mom establish good habits among all of the children?

I’ve found it helpful to pick one habit and work on the same habit with all of the children but with personalized applications of that habit. If you think about it, most of the habits that Charlotte recommended are really categories, and each one can have many different practical applications. Take, for example, orderliness. You will have different expectations and applications of orderliness for each of your children based on each one’s age, personality, and level of ability. Maybe Lisa keeps her room very orderly, but when it’s her turn to unload the dishwasher, she gets careless and just kind of tosses things back into the cupboards and the drawers. So Lisa’s application of that habit might be to put the dishes and plates and forks and such back where they belong in an orderly fashion. But David maybe is not naturally an orderly person. Every evening his room looks like a bomb went off, and he seems to get overwhelmed easily. So perhaps David’s application of orderliness will be to scoop up his toys from the floor and put them in a toy basket, or perhaps just put his dirty clothes into the clothes hamper. If you have a special needs child, he might need to focus the whole two months on learning how to put the lid back on the toothpaste tube; or if he doesn’t have the motor skills for that, maybe putting the toothpaste away each time after you’re done helping him brush his teeth. Maybe your teen driver will focus on putting the car keys back where they belong after she’s used the vehicle. Do you see how you can personalize the same habit, orderliness, for each child? 

So pick one of Charlotte Mason’s habits and start by thinking about the definition of the habit. The book Laying Down the Rails will give you all of those habits and definitions in one place. The definition of “orderliness” is “a place for everything and everything in its place.” So that habit is all about putting things where they belong. Now think out from there about each child and where they can apply that practice in a personal way. Take into consideration what they are capable of, what their “overwhelm” level is, what they’re already doing in that area, and where they might improve. You might come up with two or three different applications of orderliness for each child. That’s fine. Now rank those ideas according to priority, then focus on just the first one. If it takes all two months to get that first one up and running habitually, tuck the other two ideas away for later. One at a time. But if a child seems to catch onto that first application pretty quickly and easily, you might go ahead and expand that habit with the second idea you came up with. Show that child how she can apply the habit of orderliness in another area of her life and have her work on that area too. 

So you’re focusing on one habit for the whole family, but each habit can have a wide variety of applications. And those applications can be, and should be, personalized for each child.

The next question is related.

Question: Does working on a habit together as a whole family help in the children’s habit formations?

There are so many benefits to working on a habit all together as a family! For one thing, and this is an important one, it helps mom keep her sanity! Let’s be realistic here. Along with taking care of family members, running the household, keeping track of schedules, and making sure homeschool lessons get done and meals get served and clothes get washed and kids take baths and everything else that needs to be done, it can be overwhelming to think about cultivating several habits at once, a different habit for each child. And when you’re feeling overwhelmed, how likely are you to do it? Not very. But if you simply pick one habit and make it the focus for the next two months for everybody, that simplifies things greatly. It makes habit training feel much more doable. And when it feels doable, you’ll probably be able to do it consistently.

Another benefit is that focusing on one habit as a whole family is a great way to reinforce a sense of community and working together. In a sense it sets the tone for your family culture: These are the habits and character traits that are important to us. Remember that many of the habits that Charlotte encouraged us to cultivate are things that we would consider character traits: truthfulness, best effort, orderliness, accuracy, kindness, obedience, respect. So it’s almost like shining the spotlight on one aspect of your family culture for a couple of months just to keep it in the forefront of everyone’s mind and heart.

One more benefit comes to mind: When everyone works on the same habit at the same time, you get a built-in sense of accountability. Everybody knows what everybody is working on. And that can offer wonderful teachable moments about learning and growing, and about giving grace to each other as we learn and encouraging each other as we grow. You want to keep it a positive experience as much as possible. Don’t allow that accountability factor to degenerate into a critical spirit or a chance to tattletale. Rather, use this whole-family endeavor to practice becoming each other’s cheerleaders. Sure, the habit this month might be easier for Lisa and harder for David; but guess what, in a couple of months the shoe might be on the other foot. So it’s a great opportunity to discuss how each person has different tendencies and strengths and weaknesses, and how we can use those differences to complement and help each other, rather than to tear each other down.

The book Laying Down the Rails for Children will help you do habit training as a whole family. It is a companion to Laying Down the Rails, which gives you all of the habits, their definitions and what Charlotte said about each one. Laying Down the Rails for Children contains wonderful stories, Bible verses, poems, quotes, and family activities for each habit that Charlotte recommended. Just pick the habit that you want to work on and think through some possible application ideas for each child. You’ll find a place at the beginning of each habit in the book to jot down your thoughts. Then as you’re all practicing that chosen habit and its applications as often as possible over the next two months, gather as a family once or twice a week and share one of that habit’s motivating stories or poems or activities from the book. It’s a great way to keep everybody focused and motivated on the habit that you’re all working on. 

We have lots more habit questions to cover in upcoming posts. Be sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss any!