Out of Control – Way of the Will, part 2

Horse and girl

Last week we discovered that, according to Charlotte Mason, what we often call a strong-willed child is really a child with a weak will. Today let’s talk a little about how to help our children develop strong wills that can choose to do what is right even when they don’t feel like doing it.

I grew up around horses, and I distinctly remember my father warning me about letting my pony run to the barn at the end of a ride. “It will get into the habit of running to the barn,” he cautioned. “And soon you won’t be able to control it.”

Once when I was visiting some friends, we took some of their horses out for a ride. After a while we turned back for home, and I found out how scary an out-of-control horse can be. As soon as the horse I was riding saw the barn, it took off. It didn’t matter how hard I pulled on the reins or tried to turn its head. That horse was going where it wanted, and I had no way to stop it.

Carried Along

Some of our children feel the same way: rushed along by something out of their control. Charlotte explained that if the child’s will is too weak to exert the control that it should, his desire will carry him along and he will have no power to help himself. “Remove bit and bridle—that is, the control of the will—from the appetites, the desires, the emotions, and the child who has mounted his hobby, be it resentment, jealousy, desire of power, desire of property, is another Mazeppa, borne along with the speed of the swift and the strength of the strong, and with no power at all to help himself” (Vol. 1, p. 321). (Mazeppa is an opera by Tchaikovsky, which is a blood-thirsty tale of abduction, crazy love, and revenge. Not exactly the type of person we would want our children to become.)

So what can we do?

Training Opportunities

You can be sure that after that scary ride on my friend’s horse, I took extra time to work with my own pony. I would start it walking toward the barn and stop it every few steps. I would turn it in a circle outside the barn door. I would put it into a trot and urge it to keep going past the barn, rather than stopping at the doorway. In short, I did all I could to help my pony practice doing what was right even when it wanted to do something else.

Our children’s wills need training too. “The child is, in fact, hurried along without resistance, because that opposing force which should give balance to his character is undeveloped and untrained” (Vol. 1, p. 321).

We need to provide training opportunities for our children to exercise and strengthen their wills. Give them plenty of supervised practice opportunities so they get in the habit of choosing what is right. Gently but firmly walk through intentional situations that require them to repress their passions or redirect their desires.

“The passions, the desires, the appetites, are there already, and the will gathers force and vigour only as it is exercised in the repression and direction of these” (Vol. 1, p. 319).

Just as you hitch a run-away beside a steady horse to give stability and counteract its tendency to run, so we need to come alongside our children and help them regain control as necessary. And just as it is easier to regain control of a run-away before it gains speed, we need to help our children stop their run-away passions before they gain momentum. The sooner the better.

Because riding a run-away is a scary thing.


  1. Some of you have asked for some examples of intentional training. Here are a few that come to mind this morning. Feel free to add more.

    • Explain to your child that when she wants your attention and you are talking to another person, she should quietly put her hand on your arm. That little hand will help you remember that someone is waiting for you. So in the beginning stages of will training, don’t make her wait too long. Start with only a few seconds, then as her will strengthens, increase the wait time. You and your husband or friend could set up these training situations intentionally.
    • A toddler can learn to play quietly on a blanket while you do schoolwork or other work. Here is a description of how to blanket-train a child step by step.
    • Start with short tasks such as asking your child to take out the trash bag that you have already pulled, tied up, and set by the door. That task is probably something he doesn’t want to do, but help him choose to do what is right by making it short. It will probably take 30 seconds for him to pick up the bag and put it in the trash can. Then as his will gets strengthened over time, you can gradually increase the length of the task, the length of the time he has to exercise his will.

    Just a few ideas to help you get started.

  2. Love these practical applications!
    I’d love to see more of these regarding habit training…specifically regarding obedience…??..is there someplace where people have shared those kinds of ideas..??

  3. I have a child that throw temper tantrums at the age of 7. However if she thinks her friends are watching she stops herself. Any suggestions?

    • It sounds like she has the wherewithal to control her tantrums if she is motivated, Tosha. This could be a matter of her having formed the bad habit of pitching a fit. A couple of suggestions come to mind regarding replacing bad habits with good ones.

      1. During a neutral time, tell your daughter what you have noticed and why a habit of pitching a fit will be disadvantageous to her in the future. Explain that you want to work with her to replace that habit with a sweet, even temper. Try to get her will on your side.
      2. Motivate her to control herself by using encouragement and consequences. Any time you see her put forth the effort to control herself, no matter how “small” it seems, point it out and encourage her. Use both good and bad consequences as suitable to help her choose to do right.

      Our blog series on Smooth and Easy Days may give you more ideas too, Tosha.

  4. Would you be able to give more ideas for suitable “bad” consequences? Thanks so much for all your writings — this is so helpful to me!

    • At our house we had the motto “Fussing gets you nothing.” Therefore, if a child started fussing, she automatically would forfeit whatever it is she was fussing to get. If the fussing continued, more forfeitures would follow. For example, if a child was fussing because she wanted to stay up past bedtime, the answer was automatically No. I would remind her that “fussing gets you nothing; you may not stay up.” If the fussing continued, her bedtime would start to move up in 15-minute increments. If it was too late to implement the earlier time that night, it would happen the next night.
      If the child was fussing because she wanted a new toy, she automatically didn’t get it. If she continued fussing, she had to start giving up toys from her shelves for a determined amount of time.
      The key is to convey the consequences in a sad but matter-of-fact tone. Consequences yelled out of frustration are usually not considered “fair,” even if they are quite suitable to the circumstance. It helps to keep the goal in mind. You want a child who can communicate her desires in a kind voice. So encourage kind communication in your child and model it yourself. You can be kind yet firm in order to help her learn self-control.

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