Habits Q & A: Training the Will

Let’s talk about how we can help our children learn to make good choices.

We are continuing our series answering your questions about habit training, and today’s question is all about the will. Charlotte Mason believed that training in habits and fortifying the will go hand in hand. Here’s the question:

Question: “What is the best way to train the will so I can be consistent in forming the habits of my family?”

Charlotte had a lot of helpful things to say about the will. We recently did a post on what the will is and how it works; in other words, the way of the will. You can follow the link to that post and read it; I think it will help you understand this discussion even more.

Here’s a short review: Think of Will as the gatekeeper to your mind and heart. Will stands at the door as a security guard. He has one job and that is to decide between the ideas that present themselves at the door to your mind and heart. He chooses whether to allow an idea in to influence your thinking and behavior or to reject an idea and turn it away.

Now just like other parts of your body, Will grows strong through feeding and exercise. Let me give you five quick tips for strengthening your will.

1. Feed the Will

Feed your will on good, noble, and true ideas. Those ideas, most often found in living books, will give your will solid standards to use in making decisions. You see, Will does not make those decisions and choices alone; he has an adviser named Conscience. But Conscience needs to be instructed in order to advise well. So feeding on the best ideas from Scripture and other living books helps your will and your conscience make good choices.

2. Establish Good Habits

Establish good habits that will support good decisions and take some of the stress off of your will. The beauty of good habits is that, once they are established, Will does not have to make a conscious decision about them. Those habits of thinking and behaving receive a “free pass,” as it were, to enter the door without Will’s having to make the choice. Good habits remove the effort of decision. 

So especially with younger children, as they are early into feeding and exercising their wills and are more likely to be controlled by their desires and appetites rather than by making good choices, cultivating good habits helps them continue to make progress along the right paths until their wills grow strong enough to choose what is right even when it’s hard.

Eventually, we want them to make conscious decisions for themselves—to obey, to be kind, to be orderly and clean, to put forth their best effort, etc.—but until their wills are strong enough to choose to do those things, we help them by guiding them into good habits. As they get older and their wills begin to grow stronger, we can discuss the Whys behind the habits and encourage them to make good choices. 

You see, strengthening the will is a gradual process, just as strengthening a muscle is a gradual process. It doesn’t happen overnight. But if we are faithful to feed and exercise the child’s will, we should see that child grow in making good choices. And that’s where the next tip comes in.

3. Exercise the Will

Exercise your child’s will with small choices as he is ready for them. Just as we start exercising a muscle with small weights and gradually work up to heavier weights, so it is for strengthening your child’s will. Start with small choices and let him experience the consequences of those choices—both good and bad. As he progresses in making good choices for himself in small things, you can offer a little bit bigger choices, then a little bigger, and a little bigger.

Now, let me just offer a little insight here. Some of you perhaps have a compliant child, one who doesn’t create drama, one who obeys you almost all of the time. We might tend to think that child has a strong will and is choosing to do what is right, but be careful. A compliant child might be depending on you to make all of her choices. She’s not choosing for herself; she’s waiting for you to tell her what to do. There’s a fine line, but if you have a child who is constantly asking you to make decisions for her or is avoiding making any decisions for herself, you might want to start making opportunities for her to make choices. 

One of my daughters was that way—a delightful child, very sweet. She didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so she would defer to their choices and decisions. That attitude can preserve peace in the home, yes, but it is not setting that child up for success in later life. If she continues in that vein, she will be more likely to go along with what everyone else tells her rather than making good decisions for herself. So we had to create opportunities for her to make small choices. 

One simple thing we did was that once a week we had a family movie night, so we had each child take a week to choose the movie. They would rotate through the weeks. On the weeks that it was the compliant child’s turn to pick the movie, we learned to let her know very early that day. She needed more time to think through all of the options and possible repercussions in her mind and make that decision. We tried to be careful not to give suggestions or allow the other kids to make suggestions. It had to be her decision. That was hard, but it was a step toward strengthening her will to make choices for herself. So start with small choices and give your child plenty of practice making decisions for herself.

4. Affirm Good Choices

Look for good choices and affirm them. Give your child that real-time feedback and let him know that you noticed that he just made a good choice and strengthened his will in the process. When you see your son beginning to dawdle at his math lesson, get distracted, and then make a conscious effort to bring his attention back to the lesson, congratulate him. Point it out. Let him know that he just did a hard thing and you’re seeing growth in that area of his life.

When your daughter is pulling weeds in the garden and comes in for a cold drink, then by an act of her will, chooses to go back out in the heat and continue working on those weeds, affirm that choice. Be careful not to give hints or suggestions as to what would be the best choice. That’s taking the effort of decision off of her and actually weakening her will. Instead, let her make the choice, and then you applaud the good ones every time you see one. Poor choices come with unpleasant relative consequences; good choices come with good relative consequences and encouragement.

5. Change Your Thoughts

The fifth tip is to teach your child the strategy of changing his thoughts when his will is growing tired. We talked about that strategy in the Way of the Will post that I mentioned earlier. The idea is this: When Will grows tired of making good choices and you feel your will weakening in the face of a bad idea, give Will a short break. Think about or go do something completely different from the decision at hand. Change your thoughts and focus on something pleasant and enjoyable on a completely different topic. After about 10 or 15 minutes of that, you will find that will has renewed energy and is more able to make the right choice. 

When children are little, we can guide them in this strategy. When they are older, we can share this little secret with them and explain why it works.

And that’s a key to training the will. In this, as in so many areas of education, we give the ideas gradually, a little at a time, as each child is ready for them. Then when the child is older and more experienced and has shown growth, we can explain more about the Whys behind it all and give him the understanding as well as the tools to continue on that path of success for himself.

The Parent’s Responsibility

Now, let me wrap things up with this thought: All of the tips I mentioned—feeding your will and conscience on good ideas from living books, establishing good habits that will support the will, gaining momentum by making small choices, affirming good choices, and practicing the strategy of changing your thoughts when Will feels weak—all of those tips apply to ourselves and strengthening our own wills as adults too. 

Charlotte made an observation that brings this idea home. She said,

“The will of the child is pitifully feeble, weaker in the children of the weak, stronger in the children of the strong” (Home Education, p. 103).

Did you catch that? In other words, parents who have weak wills usually turn out children with weak wills. Conversely, parents who have strong wills usually turn out children with strong wills. Now, remember how Charlotte defined a strong will. A strong will is one that is strong enough to make the right choice even when it’s hard. A strong will is not carried away or controlled by appetites, desires, or emotions. It is strong enough to withstand those distractions and choose to do what is right. That’s a strong will.

I think the parent who asked the question about training the will understands this concept. The question was “How do I train the will so I can be consistent” not “so my child will be consistent.” If we want to set our children up for success in life, with good habits and a will that is strong enough to make the right choices no matter what, we need to work right alongside them on strengthening our own wills and cultivating our own good habits. 

And isn’t that what education is all about? Education is not confined to academics for a set number of years of school work. No, education is much broader than that. True education focuses on the whole person and results in growth. And that is a lifelong process. We can grow in strengthening our wills no matter how old we are. So let’s work on it together, and cheer each other on!

If you would like to learn more about the way of the will, you can download a free e-book, called The Way of the Will, from our website.

More habit-training questions and answers are coming up in the weeks ahead. Make sure you subscribe to our weekly e-mails so you don’t miss any of them.