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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.
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?
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.