Habits Q & A: How to Break a Bad Habit

We know we should cultivate good habits in our children, but what do we do about bad habits? We talk a lot about instilling good habits in our children’s lives, but what can we do about bad habits that are already in place? That’s the question one mama submitted in this Habits Q & A series. In fact, she asked, “Do you have a step-by-step process to correct old, bad habits?”

The good news is Yes! Charlotte Mason gave us a step-by-step process for dealing with bad habits that are already in place. Here’s the key: Don’t focus on the bad habit; focus on the good habit you want to put in its place.

Charlotte said,

“Let us remember that this bad habit has made its record in the brain. There is only one way of obliterating such record; the absolute cessation of the habit for a considerable space of time, say some six or eight weeks . . . But the only way to secure this pause is to introduce some new habit as attractive to the child as is the wrong habit you set yourself to cure.”

Parents and Children, p. 175

So here is the step-by-step process:

  • First, identify the bad habit’s root.
  • Second, think of the opposite good habit that you want to put in its place.
  • Third, practice that good habit faithfully for six to eight weeks.

Let’s walk through those steps one at a time.

1. Identify the Bad Habit’s Root

First, identify the bad habit’s root. Charlotte gave an example of a little girl who was constantly listening in on people’s private conversations, ferreting out where something was hidden, and happily volunteering to relate everybody’s business to everyone else. Here’s how she described the situation and how the mother came to realize that bad habit’s root.

“Susie is an inquisitive little girl. Her mother is surprised and not always delighted to find that the little maid is constantly on voyages of discovery, of which the servants speak to each other as prying and poking. Is her mother engaged in talk with a visitor or the nurse—behold, Susie is at her side, sprung from nobody knows where. Is a confidential letter being read aloud—Susie is within earshot. Does the mother think she has put away a certain book where the children cannot find it—Susie volunteers to produce it. Does she tell her husband that cook has asked for two days’ leave of absence—up jumps Susie, with all the ins and outs of the case. ‘I really don’t know what to do with the child. It is difficult to put down one’s foot and say you ought not to know this or that or the other. Each thing in itself is harmless enough; but it is a little distressing to have a child who is always peering about for gossipy information.’ Yes it is tiresome, but is not a case for despair, nor for thinking hard things of Susie, certainly not for accepting the inevitable. 

“Regarding this tiresome curiosity as the defect of its quality, the mother casts about for the quality, and, behold, Susie is reinstated. What ails the child is an inordinate desire for knowledge, run to seed, and allowed to spend itself on unworthy objects.

Parents and Children, p. 177

That’s the root of Susie’s bad habit: a great desire for knowledge. It takes prayer and careful consideration to trace a bad habit back to its root; for example, a habit of lying could be rooted in selfishness, in a fear of disappointing the parents, or in an overly active imagination. I don’t have space to go into all of that here, but you can read more about it for yourself in Formation of Character, beginning on page 77, in a story called “Mrs. Sedley’s Tale.” Charlotte also included stories in that same volume to help us with the bad habits of dawdling, forgetfulness, temper tantrums, moodiness, and sulking. But all of it starts with identifying the bad habit’s root.

2. Think of the Opposite Good Habit

After you’ve traced the bad habit back to its root, take it in the opposite direction and think of what that trait would look like if it were used for good. In the case of Susie, the inquisitive child, the bad habit had its root in a great desire for knowledge. That’s not a bad thing if it is used for good rather than for gossip and prying into other people’s affairs. So the new good habit would be to feed her knowledge on worthy studies and help her spend her time learning about that. Charlotte suggested,

When the right moment comes, introduce Susie to some delightful study, of Nature, for example, which will employ all her prying proclivities.

Parents and Children, pp. 176, 177

For the bad habit of lying, the opposite habit would be truthfulness. The opposite of dawdling would be attention. The key point to remember is the principle that you move toward what you focus on. When you’re riding a bike on the side of the road next to a ditch, you don’t stare at the ditch. If you focus on the ditch, you’re going to end up in it. Rather, you focus on the road in front of you: “This is where I’m going. This is where I want to be.” It’s the same for habit training. Identify the opposite good habit and focus on that.

3. Practice the Good Habit Faithfully

So (1) identify the bad habit’s root, and (2) think of the opposite good habit that you want to put in its place. Then the third step is to practice that opposite good habit faithfully in order to get it established, to get the new neuron path up and running in the brain. Let me give you several practical tips under this step.

Tip #1: Inspire your child toward the new good habit. Use an example from life or literature to demonstrate what the new habit can do for her.

Take a moment of happy confidence between parent and child; introduce, by tale or example, the stimulating idea; get the child’s will with you.

Parents and Children, p. 175

Tip #2: Try to reduce or eliminate the trigger for the old bad habit all you can. You want to keep the child’s thoughts so focused on the new good habit that the old neuron path just doesn’t fire. Usually, there is some kind of trigger, or cue, that starts the neuron path running. If you can eliminate the trigger for the old bad habit and fire the new good habit’s path as often as possible, that new path will become stronger and stronger as the old one weakens from disuse. In Susie’s case, for example, you might keep her supplied with sources of noble knowledge and perhaps keep her beside you, happily occupied and away from roaming around unsupervised and eavesdropping on others.

For weeks together see that Susie’s mind is too full of large matters to entertain the small ones; and, once the inquisitive habit has been checked, encourage the child’s active mind to definite progressive work on things worth while. Susie’s unworthy curiosity will soon cease to be a trial to her parents.

Parents and Children, p. 177

Tip #3: Aim for no lapses. Try to keep the streak of the new habit going. And if your child does slip back into the old habit, don’t scold or shame, but rather demonstrate your sorrow for that child’s sake. Your heart is for that child to become the best version of herself that she can possibly be, and bad habits will prevent her from enjoying that kind of growth. It’s a sad thing when a person struggles with a bad habit, a habit that is holding her back from being her best self. Share that sorrow, then encourage your child to try again.

Tip #4: Pray for your child, especially during those two months, and encourage her to rely on God’s help even while she works hard herself.

Above all, ‘watch unto prayer’ and teach your child dependence upon divine aid in this warfare of the spirit; but, also, the absolute necessity for his own efforts.

Parents and Children, p. 176

Tip #5: Watch for growth in the new habit and celebrate it! Encourage your child when you see progress. Sometimes when we’re in the midst of an ongoing struggle, we don’t see the progress we’ve made. So help your child see how far she’s come and encourage her to keep going.

Laying Down the Rails: A Charlotte Mason Habits Handbook

You can find all of these great tips and helpful stories (and more!) gathered into one place in the book Laying Down the Rails. It is the parent’s complete reference book for cultivating good habits and dealing with bad ones.

In summary, when dealing with a bad habit, keep this principle in mind: Don’t focus on the bad habit; focus on the good one that you want to put in its place. Remember, you move toward what you focus on.

4 Comments

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  1. Would you point us in the right direction with the sisters, 2 years spart, not getting along? The older one pushes the younger away saying she is bored playing with the younger (mature reader). The younger always picks at the older trying to get the older’s attention, no one to play with.

    • Hi Elyzaveta. The habit of kindness came to mind immediately. From there, also consider courtesy. It is often difficult to extend courtesy for those we are most familiar with. If after working on those habits you still see a struggle, consider self-control. Both children will need to express self-control; the sister who is frustrated and pushes her sibling away due to “boredom” as well as the sibling that wants to continually have the attention from the older.

  2. This is helpful! Sometimes I find it very difficult to identify the root of the problem.
    For example, I have a son who is constantly following his siblings, and the siblings complain about him following them all of the time. I am thinking that he needs to begin spending more time with me instead. What would you say in this situation? Does the book address situations such as these?

    • Not being in your home or having more details it is a bit difficult to know for certain how to handle the situation. Perhaps there should be some time spent with the habits of kindness, courtesy, and self-control. Perhaps your son needs help understanding and working on personal initiative (invent his own games and find things to do independent of others)?