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What do you do when an outside influence or a busy schedule threatens to sabotage your habit-training efforts?
I want to address two more habit-training questions today.
The first is about how to handle an outside influence that is not supporting your efforts to cultivate a good habit. Here’s the question:
Question: How would you address a disobedient child mingling with your kids whom you’re training in the habit of obedience, if the child’s parents are not very particular with his prompt obedience?
It’s a tough situation that requires discernment. No one is perfect; your child will see children and adults doing things that are not a good example. That’s just life. But when that poor example is consistently before your child’s eyes and heart, we need to be careful that it doesn’t become a stumbling block to his own growth as a person.
Charlotte Mason talked about being watchful about outside influences—friends or relatives whom your child comes in contact with regularly who can sabotage your efforts at instilling a good habit. We can’t always avoid that situation, but we can seek to be aware, to be vigilant, and to take countermeasures as needed.
Here’s how Charlotte described that situation. She mentioned servants, who were a common extension of many of the families she associated with. We can easily substitute “friends” there.
Every day, every hour, the parents are either passively or actively forming those habits in their children upon which, more than upon anything else, future character and conduct depend.
And here comes in the consideration of outside influence. Nine times out of ten we begin to do a thing because we see some one else do it; we go on doing it, and—there is the habit! If it is so easy for ourselves to take up a new habit, it is tenfold as easy for the children; and this is the real difficulty in the matter of the education of habit. It is necessary that the mother be always on the alert to nip in the bud the bad habit her children may be in the act of picking up from servants or from other children.Home Education, p. 118
So let me give you three tips for dealing with outside influences.
Charlotte said to “be always on the alert to nip in the bud the bad habit.” In other words, be attentive when your children are playing with other children. I know we would love to use that time to get some other things done, but this is a training time too. It’s an important opportunity to continue instructing your child in the art of living. So arrange to be near where the children are playing. Invite the other child to come play at your house, in your yard, so you can be within earshot and step in as needed to encourage good choices. Make it a priority to be available and attentive when that child is present, but don’t feel like you have to hover or direct all their play. Instead, be the Sphinx.
You’ve seen the sphinx in Egypt. Its eyes are always open as it calmly rests on the desert sands. That’s the picture of an alert parent: calmly taking it all in. Charlotte described it this way:
Parents and teachers must, of course, be omniscient; their children expect this of them, and a mother or father who can be hoodwinked is a person easy to reckon with in the mind of even the best child. For children are always playing a game—half of chance, half of skill; they are trying how far they can go, how much of the management of their own lives they can get for the taking, and how much they must leave in the hands of the stronger powers. Therefore the mother who is not up to children is at their mercy, and need expect no quarter. But she must see without watching, know without telling, be on the alert always, yet never obviously, fussily, so. This open-eyed attitude must be sphinx-like in its repose.School Education, pp. 30, 31
So stay within earshot, calmly be on the alert, taking in all that is going on. Pray for your child as you watch, and rest firmly in your role as the authority in your house. You can, and should, stay consistent in what you expect in your domain. Explain your expectations as needed, and enforce those rules with grace. If the visiting child chooses to disobey you, he has, sadly, lost the privilege of playing at your house that day and must go home. If the parent is there but isn’t supporting your efforts, you may need to give your child an opportunity for a break. Give your child a task to do by himself for a few minutes in another part of the house. Be firm that he must do it alone; the other child may not go with him. Then walk your child to that other part of the house, talk with him briefly about what you are seeing, and encourage him to choose to obey even in this situation. Thank him for obeying you and doing this task. Then rejoin your guests as your child enjoys a little break from the bad example.
Most kids can see the difference between a child who is obedient and a child who is not. They might even ask you about it at some point. Get the conversation out in the open without being condemning. You can point out the other child’s actions with sorrow, because you realize that he is walking down a path that will lead to lifelong struggles.
Discuss the consequences of that child’s disobedience if your child witnessed them. If appropriate, discuss how that disobedience put your child in a tough situation.
Make sure the books you’re reading together as a family present examples of people who chose right and people who chose wrong and the consequences of both. For example, do you remember in Little House in the Big Woods when Laura witnessed the consequences of Charley’s disobedience? He disobeyed his father and taunted the men who were working so much that when he stepped in a wasp’s nest and really needed them, they assumed he was taunting again and ignored him. I’m not saying to get out that book and read only that section to reinforce your point. I’m saying to make sure you are giving your child a steady diet of good literature that includes both good and bad choices and their consequences. Your child will connect the dots.
Part of inspiring your child in this area is focusing on each person’s responsibility. Talk about how we can’t control what others do, but we can choose for ourselves what we will do. A person can choose to do right even when others don’t. That’s a key principle for life. And then, when your child does choose to do right, notice that and encourage him.
These types of inspiration should be a continual practice in your home. These stories and discussions will train his mind and heart toward what is good and noble and do the important work on the inside, so he will know that he can choose and love what he ought to choose to do. I am, I can, I ought, I will.
If that outside influence continues to be a challenge, it may come to a point where you need to protect your child. If the situation occurs only every once in a while, you may be able to use it as a learning experience and an opportunity to occasionally exercise your child’s “good-decision-making muscle.” But if the situation is constant and possibly even toxic, and you see your child floundering or even being oppressed, it’s your responsibility as the parent to step in. You may need to limit or completely eliminate contact with that other child. But even as you do that, remember that your child will be watching how you handle the situation. Try to keep an attitude of grace and compassion toward the other child and the other parent if you can. Be kind yet firm.
A Busy Schedule
Let’s move on to the second question. We know that Charlotte Mason, as well as modern scientists, encourage us to practice a new habit consistently without any lapses. That’s the quickest and most effective way to instill a new habit. But what about if you’re just too busy to watch over and check on that new practice?
Here’s the question:
Question: Charlotte Mason always emphasizes regularity in establishing habits. But how can we guard against busyness, in the sense of working parents who are not around to check on their children around the clock or unexpected circumstances and other things that can cause delay?
First, I would encourage you to acknowledge that we are not in a perfect world. Charlotte always loved to lay out the high ideals for us because we want to keep an eye on those high ideals even while we live in the reality. But remember this: habits are not just for a perfect world. If this were a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to work at instilling good habits; we would just do them. Habits are tools to help us live well in an imperfect world.
Don’t focus on what you cannot control. You may not be able to control your child’s schedule or consequences or surroundings all day long because you’re not with that child, but the Lord knows that. So don’t spend your time worrying over things that you cannot control. Be faithful in the time that you are together, so your child knows what to expect every time he or she is with you, and that habit is going to be formed. It might take longer, but it will be formed if you are consistent every time you are together.
Don’t worry about those times that you cannot control, but I would encourage you to pray over those times. Cover those times apart in prayer; cover your child in prayer. Because, even though you cannot be with him during those times, the Lord is; and the Lord can work and does work in our children’s hearts in response to our prayers even when we are not physically present.
So that’s for the times you cannot help being apart. But as far as busyness goes, and things that you do have a choice about, let me encourage you to fiercely guard those times together. Fiercely guard your schedule and your calendar. You’ve only got one shot at this. I’m not saying that to scare you; I’m saying it to encourage you in identifying your priorities. We’ve only got our kids for a few years. Mine are all grown now. My autistic daughter is still home with me and will be with me for the rest of my life, and that’s okay. That’s the Lord’s plan for me. But usually, the plan is that when the child hits those late teens, he’s probably not going to be under your roof or under your authority anymore. So you’ve only got a few years to get these habits in place. Don’t let things that are of less importance crowd out this extremely important aspect of equipping your child for life.
Picture it like this: It’s like you’re hauling around a backpack of responsibilities and activities, of busyness. If you feel that you are just too busy to focus on habits consistently, your backpack is overloaded. I encourage you to take that backpack off, sit down, empty it out on the table, and take a long, hard look at all the things that you’ve been hauling around with you. Hold each one up before the Lord and say, “Is this something you want me to be carrying around right now?”
Notice that “right now” phrase. Maybe the activity that you’re holding up is not the best fit for right now. You don’t have to throw it out forever; it might be a good fit later. But for right now, it would be better to stop hauling it around.
So after you hold everything up before the Lord, rather than saying, “Okay, let me see how I can fit it all back in”—and we use that term so often. “How do I fit it all in?”—rather than saying that, maybe it’s time to leave some of those things on the table for this season.
And that will be an ongoing conversation you have with the Lord: “What do I need to be carrying around during this season and what do I need to lay aside so that my focus can be on the people who are in my care right now, rather than on activities, possessions, and things?”
And if you need help figuring out what might need to come out of your backpack and stay on the table, talk with a trusted friend or talk with your husband, because sometimes they can give you a good outsider’s perspective. Sometimes, when you’re in the midst of the tall weeds, you can’t see the way out. You don’t see which things you can lay aside. But an outside perspective can be very helpful.
All right, we have more habit-training questions and answers coming up in future posts. If you’re new to habit training, our Laying Down the Rails family of resources will help you get up and running.