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A Parent’s Business: Habit-Training, part 1

Habits are like railroad tracksHave you ever heard of a gandy dancer? I just discovered that term and am enjoying the whimsy and rhythm of it. It’s the nickname that was given to early railroad workers who laid and maintained railroad tracks in the years before the work was done by machines.

My husband recalled that it referred to the man who held a long iron pole upright with one end against the steel track. He would wiggle the pole to nudge the track into position so it could be fastened down in the exact right spot. Getting the tracks lined up was important for keeping them headed in the right direction and, thus, arriving at the expected destination, of course; but it also contributed to the smoothness of the trip.

Parents are gandy dancers. It is the parent’s business to lay down and maintain the rails of good habits in a child’s life. We need to consider well the desired destination and work hard at making the trip invitingly smooth. Charlotte Mason described the parent’s business in those terms:

“Just as it is on the whole easier for the locomotive to pursue its way on the rails than to take a disastrous run off them, so it is easier for the child to follow lines of habit carefully laid down than to run off these lines at his peril. It follows that this business of laying down lines towards the unexplored country of the child’s future is a very serious and responsible one for the parent. It rests with him to consider well the tracks over which the child should travel with profit and pleasure; and, along these tracks, to lay down lines so invitingly smooth and easy that the little traveller is going upon them at full speed without stopping to consider whether or no he chooses to go that way” (Vol. 1, p. 109).

These Are the Same

Now, I often get asked how habit-training yourself compares to habit-training your children. In many ways your job of cultivating good habits in your child is just like cultivating them in your own life. Most of the principles and practical steps are similar.

  • Focus on one habit at a time. 

  • The action or thought will run a specific neuron path in the brain. With repetition that path will run automatically, as a habit. 

  • The more often the action is repeated, the stronger the habit will become. 

  • The habit will grow strongest fastest if it is repeated without lapses. 

  • Surround your child with compelling ideas and good examples to motivate him. (But be especially careful with children not to do so in a heavy-handed manner.) 

  • The qualities of watchfulness, persistence, and tact are vital to success.


But there are also some differences between laying down the rails in your child’s life and laying them down for yourself. We’ll spend the next few weeks discussing those differences.

Laying Down the Rails for YourselfOur new book, Laying Down the Rails for Yourself: Good Habits Are Not Just for Kids, focuses on how to cultivate good habits in your own life.

One Response to “A Parent’s Business: Habit-Training, part 1”

  1. Shelly June 1, 2016 at 6:47 pm #

    Habit training is so important for our large family, but since we started summer break, we’ve grown a little lax in this area. Thanks for the reminder to continue on!

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