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The Way of the Will

Will Power Good Habit

I was recently talking with a group of parents, and in the course of our time together, I mentioned how important it is to make sure our young adults know how the will works. Well, all of the parents in that group wanted a refresher course on the way of the will, as Charlotte Mason called it. So I thought it might be helpful to share a quick refresher with all of you.

Here’s a quick overview. And we can dive into more details if you want to. Just let me know in the comments.

Think of your child’s will (and your will) as the gatekeeper. Will stands at the doorway to your mind and heart. He is there to do one job and one job only: Will’s job is to choose. Choose what? Choose between ideas.

As you go throughout your day, all kinds of ideas come at you. Those ideas stand on the doorstep to your mind, waiting to be admitted. Will must choose which ideas are allowed in—to influence your thinking and behavior—and which ideas are turned away or rejected.

Let me give you an example. Perhaps you’ve seen the movie Inside Out. It’s a Pixar production in which they tried to illustrate what happens inside the main character’s mind as the story unfolds, so much of the movie takes place in the control room of a little girl’s mind. 

One scene in that movie epitomizes the job of Will. The little girl has had a rough time adjusting after the family moved cross country—new house, new friends, new culture; you get the idea. One afternoon, after an especially difficult day, she throws herself on her bed. Now, in the control room, one of the little guys who works there holds up a lightbulb, an idea. The idea is to run away, to run back to her old town and friends. The guy sets this idea in a little hole in the control panel. Then there is a long pause. Everybody in the control room holds their breath and watches that lightbulb. After a moment, it turns and locks into place, and the little guy says, “She took it.”

That’s it. That’s a picture of Will and his job of deciding which ideas get in to influence thinking and behavior and which are rejected. The little girl sets her mind to figuring out how to run away.

Don’t worry, it turns out all right, but that scene is such a great picture of Will’s job—making decisions about ideas.

It’s an important job, but Will does not have to do his job in isolation. Will has two helpers who stand nearby to confer and give counsel as needed. His two helpers are Conscience and Reason. Both are good counselors, but neither is infallible. 

Conscience has to be instructed. And Conscience can be faulty if it is instructed in the wrong paths. Remember Huckleberry Finn? He had been brought up to think stealing was normal; it was simply how one survived. His conscience was instructed wrongly. So Conscience is important to support Will’s efforts, but it cannot be depended on entirely.

Reason is also undependable. It needs to be trained, but even then it can be fickle. You know how you can reason yourself into or out of anything if you want it badly enough. You see, once Will has made a decision to allow an idea in—once you decide you want it—then Reason becomes a “Yes man”; he goes to work to convince Will that he made the right choice. 

So it is important to instruct our children’s consciences and train their reasons, but they also need to understand that neither one can be depended on entirely.

Now, as you can imagine, making decisions all day can be tiring. (Let me just insert here that this is one reason why habits are so important. A good habit, that has been instilled securely, doesn’t require a decision. Will doesn’t have to put forth any effort when it comes to a habit that’s already in place. So the more good habits you can get well established in your child’s life, the more advantages she will have. Her will power can be reserved for tough decisions rather than depleting it on every little action or attitude all day long.) 

You know that making decisions all day long can really drain your energy level. And it’s the same for Will. Will gets tired at times. Charlotte Mason explained:

“This much at any rate we know about the will. Its function is to choose, to decide, and there seems to be no doubt that the greater becomes the effort of decision the weaker grows the general will” 

(A Philosophy of Education, pp. 128, 129).

So what do we do when Will becomes tired and is feeling weak? Charlotte gave a couple of suggestions that have been confirmed in recent studies.

First, distract yourself mentally. Charlotte called it “changing your thoughts.” Think about something entirely different, something pleasant and refreshing to you. As you quit thinking about an idea that is putting stress on you, and begin to dwell on an idea that renews your spirit, you begin to feel stronger. Taking that mental break for even 15 minutes can re-energize your Will and make it easier to do what’s right, to choose the right decision.

Second, distance yourself. If you can distance yourself physically, that’s a great strategy. “Seek recreation” or “diversion,” as Charlotte put it. If it’s a bad idea you’re trying to reject, then fleeing from temptation can be very helpful. Put physical distance between yourself and the object that you want but know you should not take.

But even if you can’t distance yourself physically, you can still distance yourself mentally. This is another form of changing your thoughts. Try to think of that tempting idea in less-than-appealing terms. Focus on the disadvantages of that choice. This strategy can help to neutralize your emotions, which tend to complicate the decision-making process sometimes. If Will doesn’t have to deal with emotions pressuring him, his job will be much easier.

Distract yourself. Distance yourself. After that deliberate change of your thoughts, even for just 15 minutes, you will be able to come back to the decision with a re-energized Will, ready and strong enough to make a hard decision.

So often in life we have to decide between choosing what we want to do and choosing what we know we should do. “I want” vs. “I will.” We face those decisions every day. And so do our children. When they are young, we instruct their consciences and train their reasons, we help them change their thoughts, and we encourage them to make the right choices even when it’s hard. And because that work is interwoven into everyday life, our children probably don’t even realize what’s going on. As Charlotte put it,

“All this time, the will of the child is being both trained and strengthened; he is learning how and when to use his will, and it is becoming every day more vigorous and capable”

(Home Education, p. 329).

Yet,

“The gradual fortifying of the will which many a schoolboy undergoes is hardly perceptible to himself”

(A Philosophy of Education, p. 137).

So as that child grows older and becomes a young adult, he needs to be let in on the secret of the way of the will. He needs to understand the powers at work within his own mind and heart and how he can continue to grow in character by intentionally strengthening his will so it can choose to do what is right even when it’s hard.

Charlotte summed it up like this:

“Children should be taught (a) to distinguish between ‘I want’ and ‘I will.’ (b) That the way to will effectively is to turn our thoughts away from that which we desire but do not will. (c) That the best way to turn our thoughts is to think of or do some quite different thing, entertaining or interesting. (d) That after a little rest in this way, the will returns to its work with new vigour”

(A Philosophy of Education, p. 128).

That’s the short refresher course on the way of the will. There is much more we could talk about; for example, what weakens the will, how to strengthen it, how the way of the will affects habit-training, which habit is crucial to developing the will. We could talk about this concept a lot. Let me know if you would like me to touch on some of those topics in future episodes.

You might also be interested in a blog post I wrote called “Charlotte Mason and the Marshmallow Test.” It illustrates some fascinating research done on the strategies I mentioned today of distracting yourself and distancing yourself.

14 Responses to “The Way of the Will”

  1. Sandi September 3, 2019 at 4:36 pm #

    So fascinating! I would love it if you would touch on this in even greater detail!

  2. Renee September 4, 2019 at 6:35 am #

    I would enjoy learning more on this as well. You gave me some timely food for thought.

  3. Amanda September 5, 2019 at 9:31 am #

    More please! And thank you so much for all the work you put in to this blog and website. You are such a blessing!

  4. Lindsay Watkins September 5, 2019 at 11:45 am #

    Yes, Sonya, please do touch on more! – what weakens the will, how to strengthen it. So often I feel like the biggest portion of our education time is spent on character development struggles that are the result of weak wills (mine included!). Thank you for your encouragement and wisdom – I always gain so much from your podcasts and materials.

  5. cindy September 5, 2019 at 3:52 pm #

    Thank you so much for this article!! I have a 3 year old boy, and he’s all boy! Right now, we’re dealing with him being too rough with people and things, even after he’s been warned repeatedly. What are some ways to strengthen the will, so that he doesn’t forget, and makes a conscious decision to do the opposite of his impulsive desires?

    • Sonya Shafer September 6, 2019 at 9:38 pm #

      We’ll discuss this more in future posts, but a few tips come to mind for you right now:

      1. Focus on stating what you expect in the positive. Rather than telling him “Don’t be too rough,” tell him to “handle gently” or “be gentle with your hands.” (You might already be doing this, but I wanted to mention it for everyone’s benefit.)
      2. Give him opportunity to practice rough and gentle. It takes a lot of self-awareness and muscle control to realize how much pressure you’re putting onto something and to regulate that pressure. So especially for a 3yo boy, give him plenty of practice. Perhaps have a punching bag-type toy that he can go to when he feels the need to be rough and tumble, so he doesn’t get frustrated with requests for gentleness. But also give him some opportunities to handle something gently, so he learns to feel the difference and realizes that he can regulate his muscles in that way.
      3. Keep those gentle interactions very short to begin with. Set him up for success by not requiring him to handle gently for an extended length of time. As he gains confidence and better muscle control, you may be able to nudge out the length that he has to exercise his will and curb his impulses; but start very short at the beginning so you don’t fatigue will.
    • Amanda September 11, 2019 at 7:02 pm #

      I have s three year old boy too. Having a box of dry beans with measuring cups and spoons to play with has helped him have better muscle control in other areas too. Also, it’s good to find some useful things for him to do with those strong arms – push a full laundry basket down the hall for mom, carry bags of groceries in from the car, etc.

  6. Alice September 5, 2019 at 6:57 pm #

    Yes I completely agree with the other comments – this is a fascinating topic! I would love to hear more.

  7. Christinawinell September 6, 2019 at 11:25 am #

    Great topic! Would love to hear more on this subject.

  8. Evanee September 6, 2019 at 6:14 pm #

    Yes! I would love to learn more – all of the further topics you mentioned sounded very helpful! I recently decided to start my habit training work with Obedience, and have been excited to see some progress, but disappointed that I have not seen more. I want to get to “full attention” and “best effort”, but felt that we needed some more Obedience training first. The will sounds like a topic that might be key to this work…

  9. Rebecca September 7, 2019 at 6:28 am #

    Thank you for this. I would be interested in more on this topic. How our school day goes depends so much on if my children will to do their work or run off to do their own thing, even just mentally.

  10. Roxy September 13, 2019 at 4:06 pm #

    I need more please! This is so helpful! Also I listened to your podcast about not repeating yourself. I need a reference to a book for good guidance in the way of natural/logical consequences.

    • Sonya Shafer September 16, 2019 at 12:48 pm #

      I’m glad is was helpful, Roxy. As I mentioned, consequences are such a personal and customized thing that it’s difficult to recommend a resource. A couple of general guidelines might at least get you started thinking along those lines.

      Usually consequences for a poor choice involve the child’s not getting something he desires or getting something he does not want. It could be an actual physical item or something that can’t be seen; for example, taking away a toy that created a distraction; receiving an earlier bedtime this evening; not getting dessert; assigning extra chores; taking away freedom by requiring the child to stay at your side for a length of time.

      Then flip those around for consequences of making a good choice: receiving something you do desire or removing something you don’t want; for example, getting more time to play with a toy; getting dessert; being allowed to stay up a little later; participating in a fun activity because the chores are all done; etc.

      Perhaps those ideas will get the ball rolling in your own creative pathway.

  11. MountainMomma October 21, 2019 at 4:59 am #

    Wonderfully helpful especially for pre-teens when they start to wrestle with their Will on a new level as they begin to take greater responsibility for their internal world. More please!

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