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When we lived near Chicago, my husband John rode his bike for long treks in all kinds of weather. He liked to take the roads that led out of our suburb and into relatively undeveloped country, because they were less traveled.
The upside of those roads was less traffic. The downside was that they had a narrow shoulder. He could count on only about 12 inches of blacktop between the outside paint line and the edge of the road where the asphalt dropped off to a ditch.
Now, most of the time that narrow shoulder wasn’t an issue. But every once in a while John would hear a rumble and a clatter and know that a big dump truck was fast approaching from behind. Those big trucks didn’t have much room on the road, so they often passed pretty close to a cyclist pedaling along on the edge. And those big side mirrors stuck out so far, that if you weren’t careful, they could knock your helmet as they passed!
John knew he would have a challenge every time he heard one of those big trucks coming up behind him. He had to make sure he kept his bike out of the way of the truck on his left and out of the ditch on his right. And he quickly learned the secret to success in that situation.
If he looked over his shoulder to keep an eye on the truck’s location, he would inevitably veer into its lane. And if he kept his eyes on the ditch that he was trying to stay out of, he usually ended up smack-dab in the middle of it.
The secret to success was to keep his eyes fastened on his front tire and focus on keeping it on that 12-inch strip of pavement. Keep it between the lines. Don’t look anywhere else.
John’s experience with those big trucks demonstrates an important principle: you move toward what you focus on. That principle holds true in many areas of life, but especially in habit-training.
I am often asked how to break a bad habit. The answer is to change your focus.
When a bad habit has taken hold in a person’s life, your focus should not be on the bad habit you want to break. Don’t stare at the ditch you’re trying to avoid. Your focus should be on the new good habit you want to instill in its place. Keep your eyes on where you want to be. You move toward what you focus on.
This is true whether you are cultivating habits in your child’s life or your own.
So if Isabella has acquired a bad habit of rushing through her kitchen duty after lunch, leaving the counters only half wiped and the floor unswept, what do you do? Well, rather than focus on the bad habit and send her into the kitchen with a warning, “I don’t want to find a half-done job when I come in there,” you focus on the good habit you want to instill.
You might sit down with her and together come up with a list of steps that will make the kitchen shine. Use descriptive language if that helps her get a good mental picture. Make the list beautiful if she is drawn toward visual beauty. Post the list in the kitchen where Isabella can see it.
Then go with her into the kitchen and do the work together. Encourage her every time you see her putting forth the effort to do one of the steps thoroughly. Help her keep her focus on the right path with your cheerful presence, your own modeling of the work well done, and your positive words. Make it as pleasurable of an experience as you can.
The thing with habits is that the more times you repeat a certain action or think a certain thought, the more deeply it becomes engrained in your brain. So repetition is a key to habit-training. Do all in your power to make sure Isabella repeats the actions and the thoughts of the desired good habit. The more she stays focused on that good path, the more the old undesirable path will fade.
Once the new path is frequently traveled, you will be able to phase out your presence little by little and enjoy the benefits of Isabella’s good habit of work in the kitchen without your supervision. But it all starts with changing your focus. Don’t fixate on the bad habit. Determine what is the opposite good habit and focus on cultivating that.
“What seems to me the fundamental law of education is no more than this: ‘Habit is driven out by habit.’ . . . Break the old custom which is assuredly broken when a certain length of time goes by without its repetition. But one habit drives out another. Lay new lines in the old place. . . . Somehow or other, the nervous tissue of the cerebrum ‘grows to’ the thoughts that are allowed free course in the mind” (Parents and Children, pp. 85–87).
You move toward what you focus on.
Focus on Good Habits
Our Laying Down the Rails family of resources will help you to focus on instilling good habits in your family. The Laying Down the Rails handbook compiles everything Charlotte Mason wrote about habits into one place. Laying Down the Rails for Children gives you motivational stories, Scripture passages, poems, etc. for each habit to share with your children. Laying Down the Rails for Yourself is a practical how-to book for adults and young adults. See all of the Laying Down the Rails resources, download free samples, and save with a bundle in our store.