Habits Q & A: Introduction to Habit Training

Recently I had the privilege of discussing habits with a lovely group of ladies in the Philippines. They had some great questions about habit training, and I thought that some of you might be dealing with similar situations and some of the same questions. So over the next months, I will be sharing some of their questions and my answers here so you can join the conversation.

In this series we’ll talk about 

  • How to use consequences
  • Can you do habit training with special needs? 
  • How to do habit training with multiple children in the family
  • Can you start with an older child? 
  • How do you train the will? 
  • What do you do about bad habits? 
  • What to do in the early years with preschoolers
  • How do you know when to move on to the next habit? 

and many other practical, everyday situations. 

Before we jump into the questions, though, I want to give a quick overview of habit training according to Charlotte Mason, so we can all start on the same page.

Charlotte said,

“The mother who takes pains to endow her children with good habits secures for herself smooth and easy days; while she who lets their habits take care of themselves has a weary life of endless friction with the children.”

Home Education, p. 136

Two wonderful benefits of habit training are nestled within that sentence. When we put forth the effort to intentionally instill good habits of thinking and behaving in our children, we as parents get smooth and easy days and our children get an endowment for life. They will be reaping the dividends of those efforts for years to come. This is a long-term investment that can have far-reaching effects.

In fact, Charlotte believed that habit training makes up one-third of your child’s education. Sometimes we slip back into the mentality of education as (1) reading, (2) writing, and (3) arithmetic. But education is much bigger than that. When you view your child as a whole person, and your job is to educate that whole person, it makes sense that education is made up of (1) the influence of the atmosphere of your home, (2) the internal guide rails of good habits intentionally put in place, and (3) the living ideas that take root and grow in that child’s mind and heart. Good habits make up one-third of that education.

How to Cultivate Habits

So how do we cultivate those good habits in a child’s life? The key is repetition. Charlotte told us 100 years ago, and modern science has confirmed today, that when you repeat a certain action or think a certain thought, that repeated action or thought creates a physical track in your brain—the neurons fire in a certain path. And the more often that action is repeated, the deeper that path becomes embedded. Eventually those neurons fire automatically without any conscious thought on our part, and the action has become a habit.

God created our brains to do that automatically so we wouldn’t have to put forth conscious effort and mental energy for things that we do every day. You probably don’t stand in the bathroom and give all of the effort of your thoughts to brushing your teeth. Most likely you’re thinking about other things as you go through the motions. The action of brushing your teeth has become a habit, freeing up your conscious mind to focus on What needs to get done today? What are the kids up to? Do I hear something?

Scientists tell us that close to 50% of what we do every day is done out of habit, which frees our brain to think about other things. So the more good habits we can help our children cultivate, the easier it will be for them in life. Effort invested now in repeating desired actions or thought patterns will set up helpful tracks in their brains that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. The key is repetition.

Charlotte encouraged us to focus on one habit and go to work repeating it as often as possible, with no lapses, for six to eight weeks. That’s how long it takes to get a good start on that mental track.

How to Motivate for Good Habits

Now, during those weeks of working on that one habit, we want to encourage the children and motivate them to keep going. Eventually that action will become automatic, but in those beginning stages, you have to put forth conscious effort to get that track started. Charlotte specifically mentioned three ways we can motivate our children as we’re working on habits.

First, we can motivate them with living examples. Real people who already have that habit instilled in their lives can be powerful motivators. If you know of someone near you like that, great! Make sure your child spends time with that person. But don’t overlook the power of living examples in books too. One of the reasons Charlotte used living books is because they present real-life situations and showcase the good choices (or bad choices) that the character made. So when your child forms a relation with Heidi and gets to know her through that book, he reads about how she treated older people around her. Her grandfather, whom everyone else held at arm’s length; Peter’s blind grandmother, whom most people had forgotten about; the doctor, who was grieving the loss of a child—Heidi treated each of those older people with respect and sincere love. And that living example can be a powerful motivator for your own child to cultivate a habit of respect. Books, poems, song lyrics, Bible verses, famous quotations—all of those can contain living examples to motivate your child toward good habits.

The second motivation that Charlotte talked about was encouragement. She gave the example of a little girl who is sent to her room to put on her shoes. (You can find this example in Home Education, page 120.) Now, this girl is working on cultivating the habit of attention, keeping her mind focused on what she’s doing and not getting distracted or dawdling. She gets one shoe on, and then she starts to get distracted. And at that moment Mom comes to her room to check on her progress. As Mom looks in the door, that movement catches the little girl’s eye. 

“She is constrained to look up, and her mother’s eye is upon her . . .”

But notice the next phrase that describes what that mother’s face looks like: “hopeful and expectant.”

It’s so easy for us to give our children the “warning” eye or the “evil” eye instead, isn’t it? But Charlotte wanted us to remember that those first attempts to instill a good habit take effort, and we will motivate our children far better if we offer hopeful encouragement, expectant encouragement: “You can do this! I know it’s hard, but you can do this.”

Then the third motivation that Charlotte mentioned was consequences. These can be good consequences or bad ones, but they should relate to the habit that we are trying to instill. A natural good consequence would be, If you get your work done well and early, you have some free time. That’s a natural result. On the flip side, a natural bad consequence would be, If you rush through your work and do it sloppily, you need to do it again until it’s right.

Sometimes those consequences are easy to come up with; other times, they can be perplexing. So that’s the first topic we’re going to focus on in our Habit Q & A series. I hope you’ll join me for every post.

Resources for Habit Training

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about Charlotte Mason and all she said about habit training, take a look at our Laying Down the Rails resources. We have several, designed to help with different aspects of this important responsibility of habit training.

For the quick-start guide that will get you up and running in habit training in less than an hour, watch this video of the live workshop I have presented to thousands of parents: Laying Down the Rails: The Power of Good Habits in Your Home School

If you want a complete reference book for parents, detailing everything Charlotte said about habit training, you’ll find it in Laying Down the Rails.

Use that book on its own or combine it with Laying Down the Rails for Children. This two-volume set is a wonderful collection of inspiring stories, Bible verses, poems, quotations, and family activities that will offer those living examples that motivate your children in the midst of habit training.

Then, many parents have asked for help with cultivating good habits in their own lives. So for that aspect, or to help your high schooler learn how to instill his own good habits, I recommend you read and discuss the book Laying Down the Rails for Yourself. A live video recording of the Habit Training Yourself workshop is also available.

As you can see, habit training is an important part of, not just a Charlotte Mason education, but of preparing our children for success in life. I encourage you to get started instilling good habits today, then join me as we delve into some specific questions in the upcoming Habits Q & A series.