A Journey Through Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles: Principle 5b & 7 – Part 2
Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments – [the second being] the discipline of habit…
By “education is a discipline,” we mean the discipline of habits, formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or body. Physiologists tell us of the adaptation of brain structures to habitual lines of thought, i.e. to our habits.
You do not have to search far on the internet or in bookstores to find helpful advice in ways to develop habits. In fact, I highly recommend Atomic Habits by James Clear as a very practical and research-based method of developing habits. In my last post, I discussed Mason’s “why” and “what” of habit training. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend that you do before you read on. Today I am discussing “how.” Since this is part of my study of Charlotte Mason’s 20 principles, I am choosing to limit this discussion to what stood out to me from what she said. It is by no means comprehensive but a very good starting place for a mother to think about how to train her children in the habits discussed in my previous post.
Begin with the person
Habit training begins with Mason’s first principle, “Children are born persons.” They have desires and affections, conscience and a sense of duty, just as we do. They have both physical and intellectual characteristics and skills that are inherited or learned through family culture. They are particular ages with strengths and weaknesses. We take who they are as a person into account first. Then…
Teach them to do what is right
“…[it is] as much the parent’s duty to educate his child into moral strength and purpose and intellectual activity as it is to feed him and clothe him; and that in spite of his nature, if it must be so.” Vol 1, p103
Considering a child’s age, abilities, and dispositions, children are often not capable or naturally inclined to compel themselves at first to do and think the right thing. They need us to show them the way first, require them to do what is right, and lead them toward right thinking and doing for themselves as they grow in maturity.
“He depends upon his parents; it rests with them to initiate the thoughts he shall think, the desires he shall cherish, the feelings he shall allow. Only to initiate; no more is permitted to them; but from this initiation will result the habits of thought and feeling which govern the man––his character, that is to say.”
As mothers, there are many ways that we already naturally do this. We see the sins, flaws, and vices of our children and we take pains to correct and educate them in right behavior to replace the wrong. For example, it is often automatic for a mother to tell a child, “say please” before giving them something that they have asked for, and “say thank you” when they have received it. Then, when they have learned the required responses (habits of manners), we no longer prompt them with “say please.” Instead, we ask, “what do you say?” requiring them to think and remember for themselves what the required way of asking for something is. Once we have proceeded with this for a short while, we then do not need to prompt with words at all. We simply withhold that which the child has asked for until they have remembered to ask with the required “please” and responded equally to the receiving of the thing with the required “thank you.” This is very natural for a mother to do. The training of manners becomes a habit and part of the atmosphere of the home.
Reduce the strain of decision
“The effort of decision, we have seen, is the greatest effort of life; not the doing of the thing, but the making up of one’s mind as to which thing to do first.”p119
When we show the children that we expect a certain behavior every time, we take the decision making out of the equation. For example, if we want them to develop a habit of making their bed in the morning, we must take the decision away from the children whether or not they will choose to make their bed in the morning. There is no choice. They must. It is required. That is it. No more discussion. I find checklists especially invaluable for this kind of training in habits of cleanliness, neatness, and order around the home. This dovetails nicely with James Clear’s third principle of behavior change: Make it easy. “You just need to get your reps in.” (Atomic Habits, p143) By removing the effort of decision and requiring a certain behavior everyday, you are helping the children practice a behavior which becomes an automatic habit.
“Here, no doubt, come in the functions of parents and teachers; they should be able to make the child do that which he lacks the power to compel himself to. But it were poor training that should keep the child dependent upon personal influence. It is the business of education to find some way of supplementing that weakness of will which is the bane of most of us as well as of the children.” Vol 1, p99-100
Expect them to do it for themselves
Mason touches on this idea over and over and over again. We train our children with the expectation that they can and should do it for themselves. This is true in math as much as it is true in learning to make themselves a nutritious lunch. Our family motto has become “never do for a child what they can do for themselves.” If Mason herself didn’t say it, the idea is firmly rooted in this principle of training children to do the work of learning for themselves.
Once a habit is established, don’t allow it to slide.
The critical moment is after a habit is established -— you might be tempted to let him off “this once. He is tired.” But this undoes everything. It teaches them to think that it’s not important.
I had a friend tell me a few weeks ago that her daughter’s track coach cautioned the team not to ease up on running over the summer break. They were to keep it up because the coach was aware of research that showed that when a physical habit, such as running, is relaxed to the point where they miss more than a week, their physical ability reverts back further than where they were when they first started. This is especially true for girls and running. To allow the relaxing of a habit will undo all the hard work of establishing the habit in the first place and may set you back even further.
It is important to remember that it doesn’t take the same amount of work to maintain a habit once established as it does to form it in the first place. It requires diligence to stay on top of it but nowhere near the same effort to maintain it. Think about your habit of brushing your teeth. When you were a 3-year-old learning to brush your teeth every day, it required all your will power plus the insistence of Mom, to brush your teeth well every day. But now that you are an adult and this habit is firmly entrenched, you no longer exert any of the energy you first did. It is now so automatic you barely think about it at all. This is true for our children as well.
Here are the steps again.
General steps to form a habit
1. Teach it.
2. Look with expectancy that they can do it. Say little and allow the child to do their own work of thinking through the steps.
3. After 2-3 weeks the habit should be formed.
4. Do not allow dawdling to come back in at this point. New brain pathways have been forged and to go back on them at this point would undo the habit forming.
When is a habit successful?
“The education of habit is successful in so far as it enables the mother to let her children alone, not teasing them with perpetual commands and directions––a running fire of Do and Don’t; but letting them go their own way and grow, having first secured that they will go the right way, and grow to fruitful purpose.” Vol 1, p134
We train them in habits first by instructing them in the way of the habit, then let them think of it and do it for themselves. Once they know how, they need to think through the steps themselves and then do them. Resist the urge to prod them for each step. Otherwise, you are training them to rely on your memory, rather than their own. If they really can’t remember then, of course, help them. But always toward the purpose of having them learn and do it for themselves.
Developing specific habits pertaining to their education
Habit of thinking
- Give them the right sort of lessons — Give them books!
“We need not labour to get children to learn their lessons; that, if we would believe it, is a matter which nature takes care of. Let the lessons be of the right sort and children will learn them with delight.” Vol 6, p99
James Clear says that the second law of behavior change is “make it attractive.” Mason is essentially saying the same thing. Make the lessons delightful. Mason believed that rich meaty ideas through well-written living books of a narrative nature are the feast that is naturally engaging and delightful to the minds of children. Ideas are stimulating food for the mind and will grow their thinking muscle.
- Sow the idea lightly and casually — Give them books!
“It is possible to sow a great idea lightly and casually and perhaps this sort of sowing should be rare and casual because if a child detect a definite purpose in his mentor he is apt to stiffen himself against it.”p102
Mason says the best way is to give the children great books with heroes of good character from which to train habits of right thinking that, over time, give rise in the children’s minds to gain the same opinion.
In Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about identity as the deepest aspect of behavior change. How you identify yourself, what you believe about yourself, has a deep impact on what you do. It is the difference between thinking, “I try to run” compared with, “I am a runner.” The person who identifies as being a runner will be more motivated to run every day than someone who just tries to run. How we identify ourselves matters. As we give living books to our children that contain ideas of honor, nobleness, compassion, faithfulness, etc. the hope is that our children will take these ideas as their own—that these ideas will become part of their identity. In other words, that virtuous ideas become part of their habit of thinking which, Lord willing, will result in good doing.
When E-age-10 (at the time) and I read about the life of Teddy Roosevelt, we were astounded at the boundless energy, the zest for life, and the sheer amount of activity he fit into any given day. Whatever you think about his politics, the ideas of working hard and using your time wisely that came out through this book have not been lost on my daughter. They continue to work, albeit under the surface, to form her habits of thinking virtuously which, Lord willing, will produce good doing.
“We have seen the value of habit in mind and morals, religion and physical development. It is as we have seen disastrous when child or man learns to think in a groove, and shivers like an unaccustomed bather on the steps of a new notion. This danger is perhaps averted by giving children as their daily diet the wise thoughts of great minds, and of many great minds; so that they may gradually and unconsciously get the courage of their opinions. If we fail in this duty, so soon as the young people get their ‘liberty’ they will run after the first fad that presents itself; try it for a while and then take up another to be discarded in its turn, and remain uncertain and ill-guided for the rest of their days.”p104
Habit of attention
The habit of attention is giving complete attention of our minds to what it should be on at a given time so that we can know it and recollect it later. If you have ever experienced your mind wondering off when it should be listening to a sermon (or to your husband!), or giving it’s full attention to the book that you are reading, or writing a paper, you know that it requires rigorous effort of will to stay focused and give full attention to what it is you are doing. To train the habit of attention in our children now will be of great value to them, not just during their education, but in all of life.
“‘habit is ten natures,’ and we can all imagine how our work would be eased if our subordinates listened to instructions with the full attention which implies recollection” Vol 6, p 100
Steps to training habit of attention (from Vol 1, p137-148)
- Definite work in a definite time. – (Mason says 20 minutes for a child under 8) One time is not ‘as good as another.’ When it is time for math, that is what must be given complete attention for the full amount of time. Do not allow daydreaming or a wondering mind. This works in combination with…
- Short lessons – Don’t let the time for the lesson go longer than a child can keep their full attention. Mason says 20 minutes for a child under 8. Sometimes, when my children first began formal lessons, or when a new concept is particularly hard, they have needed a shorter lesson time than even this. I gradually built up the time over a few weeks as they were able to give full attention for longer. “When a child grows stupid over a lesson, it is time to put it away” vol 1, p141. This helps to strengthen the habit of attention rather than give them the opportunity to develop the habit of inattention by daydreaming. (Full disclosure – I have one child that is a daydreamer by nature. This is an area we are STILL working on. Studying this principle has shown me that I need to be extra diligent in addressing the habit of attention for this child. Educating is for the long haul, mamas. Don’t grow weary of doing good.)
- “Alternating lessons. sums first, say, while the brain is quite fresh; then writing, or reading––some more or less mechanical exercise, by way of a rest; and so on, the program varying a little from day to day, but the same principle throughout––a ‘thinking’ lesson first, and a ‘painstaking’ lesson to follow,––the child gets through his morning lessons without any sign of weariness.”(Vol 1, p142)
This is also the antidote to weariness in a lesson. If your child grows “stupid” over a lesson before you have finished the allotted time, put it away and do something completely different. Then go back to it when “wits are refreshened.”
- Use Natural Rewards.––”What is the natural consequence of work well and quickly done? Is it not the enjoyment of ampler leisure?”p143 Assign an amount of work in a given time. If they get it done early, the rest of the lesson time is theirs. My children usually choose to go onto the next lesson and accumulate their free time for the end of the school day, while others will choose to use the spare minutes straight away to do something they enjoy at the time.
- Natural Reward for the older child. — When an older child is taught to bring “ his own will to bear; to make himself attend in spite of the most inviting suggestions from without,” he should be taught to feel satisfaction and triumph in fixing his thoughts on what he ought.
- Use Natural Consequences — If a child does not give full attention to his work and does not complete definite work in a reasonably given amount of time, a natural consequence could be that he loses his free time at the end of the school day to complete the work he should have already completed due to lack of attention. This may mean that the extracurricular activity scheduled for the end of the day will have to be missed because the child did not give the attention he ought to have during class time. It would not take very long for a child to see the wisdom of definite work in a definite time :).