We need to teach our children the difference between “I want” and “I will.”
We talked last time about the importance of helping our children learn self-knowledge and grow in self-direction. You’ll remember that Charlotte Mason used the analogy of the country of Mansoul to help students understand all that is involved in this inner life—“the powers and the perils” belonging to human nature.
And she shined the spotlight on two of those governing powers in particular: “There are two guides to moral and intellectual self-management to offer to children, which we may call ‘the way of the will’ and ‘the way of the reason’” (A Philosophy of Education, p. xxxi).
Today we want to look more closely at the first of those guides: the way of the will.
Your will, and your child’s will, has one job in the kingdom of Mansoul and one job only. The will’s job is to choose. Choose what? Choose between ideas.
Picture this: Will stands at the gate of Mansoul, like a security guard. His job is to evaluate ideas as they come to the gate and to decide if they may come in, to influence our behavior and thinking, or if they will not be allowed in. That’s his job: he must choose between the ideas that present themselves at the gate.
If Will is strong, he will welcome the ideas that benefit Mansoul and reject the ideas that are not for the best of Mansoul. Remember, we said last time that the goal of self-knowledge and self-direction is to become the best version of yourself that you can possibly be. So Will’s job is to make choices that will help you achieve that goal.
Now, we all know that some ideas that present themselves at the gate are not going to help us achieve that goal. They may look attractive and appealing, but at the root, they are ideas that can sabotage our efforts to become the best version of ourselves. And we also know that will can get tired sometimes.
You see, ideas don’t show up just once in a while; they are continually coming to the gate. Will’s job is constant, 24/7. Of course he is going to get tired at times. And when he gets tired, he’s more likely to allow in a bad idea.
You’ve probably noticed that tendency in your own kingdom of Mansoul. I think we all want to have the habit of kindness in our words and tone of voice; that’s who we like to be. But on those days when being kind isn’t easy—when it’s been a struggle to choose kindness, not just once but continue to choose it several times over the day (you know what I’m talking about)—the longer that struggle goes, the harder it becomes to keep making the right choice and giving kindness.
That’s when it’s easy to let our desires and appetites take over. Rather than choosing “I will be kind,” we give in to “I want to let off some steam!” Do you see the difference? Will has grown tired and our appetites and desires have taken control.
Charlotte believed that this is a crucial concept that children need to learn: the difference between “I want” and “I will.” When your daughter dawdles at her chores, it’s because she is allowing her “I want” to overrule her “I will.” When your son sleeps in and isn’t ready when it’s time to begin school work, it’s because he is allowing his “I want” to call the shots instead of his “I will.” When your toddler pitches a fit because it’s time to pick up the toys and put them away, he’s giving in to “I want” instead of choosing “I will.”
Do you see how that foundational idea can help a child learn a lot about himself and begin to grow in self-management, or self-direction? And “grow” is an important term in this process. The will starts out very weak in young children; they pretty much live according to “I want” when they are little. So be aware that it will take a lot of practice for their wills to grow strong enough to choose “I will.” And even then, they won’t make that right choice every time. Do you? Do I? No, even as adults who have had many more years of practice than they have. So give grace but also make sure they understand this simple yet life-changing idea that there’s a difference between “I want” and “I will.” Help them learn to distinguish between the two.
And you can also help them learn what to do when their wills have grown tired. We’ve all been there: You’re faced with a choice, you know good and well which decision would be best, but right now you just don’t want to put forth the effort to choose the best thing. Your will is tired. When you recognize that you’re in that situation, what do you do? Charlotte would advise this:
“A change of physical or mental occupation is very good, but if no other change is convenient, let us think of something else, no matter how trifling. A new tie, or our next new hat, a story book we are reading, a friend we hope to see, anything does so long as we do not suggest to ourselves the thoughts we ought to think on the subject in question. The will does not want the support of arguments but the recreation of rest, change, diversion. In a surprisingly short time it is able to return to the charge and to choose this day the path of duty, however dull or tiresome, difficult or dangerous. This ‘way of the will’ is a secret of power, the secret of self-government” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 136).
Scientists tell us that a 10- or 15-minute break is usually all it takes to give your will a new surge of energy, enough energy to stand up to “I want” and make the right choice. When your will is tired, change your thoughts. And we can help our children learn how to do this. When they are young, we can guide them into changing their thoughts. As they grow older, we can let them in on this “secret of power” and encourage them to use it for themselves.
Charlotte said, “It is time that we realised that to fortify the will is one of the great purposes of education” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 131). One of our important jobs is to help our children learn how the will works and grow in exercising it so it will become strong enough to choose what is best even when it’s hard.
But here’s an important point: just like any muscle, the will does not grow strong when it depends on a crutch. Your child’s will needs opportunities to make choices and experience the consequences of those choices. If your child depends on you to direct his every move, if he avoids making decisions for himself, his will is leaning on you as a crutch. He’s not putting forth the effort to make his own choices. So try to create opportunities for that child to make a choice and experience the consequences of it. Start with a small choice that has a relatively minor consequence. Give him practice in choosing, in exercising his will in order to strengthen it.
Might he make the wrong choice sometimes? Absolutely, yes. But those failures play a huge role in his education. And how much better for him to experience a relatively small failure in the safety and supportive atmosphere of your home than to go out into life inexperienced in making good decisions and potentially wreck his life.
In this process of educating your child and fortifying his will, we as parents are called on to do two hard things. First, we must resist a desire to always give our children what they want when they want it. If they continually live in the realm of “I want,” they will find it extremely hard to decide “I will” when they face a difficult choice. Second, we must steel ourselves to allow our children to experience hard situations when they make bad choices. We must resist the temptation to swoop in and come between the child and the consequence of a poor choice. Now, obviously, if the consequence is life threatening or physically harmful, we should intervene. But most of the time, that’s not the case; it’s the emotional pain that we want to avoid. But when we prevent our children from experiencing the consequences of their choices, we are robbing them of valuable opportunities to learn how to navigate life successfully. We are setting them up for future failure rather than for success.
Our children need the life-shaping guide, the discipline, of failure as well as of success in order to become the best version of themselves. And it all comes down to making choices. That’s what the will does.
Charlotte summarized it 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 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. (This adjunct of the will is familiar to us as diversion, whose office it is to ease us for a time from will effort, that we may ‘will’ again with added power. The use of suggestion — even self-suggestion — as an aid to the will is to be deprecated, as tending to stultify and stereotype character. It would seem that spontaneity is a condition of development, and that human nature needs the discipline of failure as well as of success.)”A Philosophy of Education, p. xxxi
That’s the way of the will, and that’s a core value of Charlotte Mason. If you would like to learn more about the way of the will, I invite you to download a free e-book on our website; it’s called The Way of the Will. In addition, you can read our other posts about the values of Charlotte Mason.