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A Journey Through Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles: Principle 5b & 7 – Part 1

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.

There is so much to be said in the area of habits. In fact, Charlotte Mason herself said a lot. There was a LOT of reading for this principle, y’all! In order to unpack it in a way that was helpful to me, I organized the ideas into three different questions. Why is the idea of the discipline of habit important in education? What did Mason consider were the habits of the mind and the body? How do we initiate the formation of these habits in our homes? For the sake of length, this post will be concerned with the first two questions. The ‘how’ will be addressed in a separate post.

Why is the idea of the discipline of habit important in education?

1. It makes life easier

“But the most comfortable thing in this view of habit is, that it falls in with our natural love of an easy life. We are not unwilling to make efforts in the beginning with the assurance that by-and-by things will go smoothly; and this is just what habit is, in an extraordinary degree, pledged to effect.” Vol 1, p136

This is the most obvious and well-known reason for the establishment of habits. A plethora of self-help and productivity books have been written about habits with this purpose in mind. As Mason points out, our natural desire is to make life easier. Decision fatigue is a real thing which Mason discusses at length. She describes the strain that making a lot of decisions can have on a person. It is a burden which can easily become too much to bear. Imagine needing to make the decision every morning to get out of bed, to brush your teeth, to eat your meals, to brush your hair. For most of us, we don’t have to make the decision to do these things every day. We just do them out of habit. No mental energy has been expended to complete our morning routine and get ready for the day. We just do it. Habits take the decision out of what is to be done next. As Mystie Winkler often says, just do the right next thing.

Mason explains that we want the children to do the work of learning for themselves. Developing habits of mind and body is the best way to help them take ownership of their work, know the right next thing to do, and avoid the strain of making decisions about what the right thing to do is.

2. Habits are inevitable
Mason points out that our very natures prove that habits will form whether we purposely instill them or not. The question is, will they be good habits or bad? More often than not, left to ourselves, without any purposeful action toward establishing right habits, we will tend to establish unhelpful bad habits, naturally seeking the ease of life rather than the work of a good life. Therefore, establishing right habits is all the more important in the education of our children.

“We have lost sight of the fact that habit is to life what rails are to transport cars. It follows that lines of habit must be laid down towards given ends and after careful survey, or the joltings and delays of life become insupportable. More, habit is inevitable. If we fail to ease life by laying down habits of right thinking and right acting, habits of wrong thinking and wrong acting fix themselves of their own accord.” Vol 6, P101

3. Brain science tells us that habits restructure the brain.
Mason was greatly impressed with new brain research showing that pathways in the brain are rewired through habitual activity. The latest habit book I have read, Atomic Habits, also refers to current studies on the power of habits to the brain.

“We all know something of the genesis of a habit, and most of us recognise its physical basis, i.e. that frequently-repeated thoughts or acts leave some sort of register in the brain tissue which tends to make the repetition of such thoughts, at first easy, and at last automatic.”vol 3, p105

4. Establishes tools for good living in adulthood.
“training in habit becomes a habit.” (Vol 1, p126)

By initiating habits in the home, you not only equip your children with good, intentional, and thorough habits for the time they live in your home, you also give them the tools to continue to develop their own good habits of mind and body into the rest of their lives.

“habit is like fire, a bad master but an indispensable servant;” Vol 6, p101

5. Reinforces the idea of authority.
This idea is developed by Mason in Volume 3, when she talks about the training of physical habits. She says that through physical training, the idea of “living under authority, training under authority, serving under authority” (Vol 3, p103) can be brought to bear. Through habit a person is taught to bring their body into subjection first to his parents, then to his own will, and always under the authority of God. (I discussed the idea of authority in this post and this post.)

6. Prepares for a life of service
The training in habits prepares the children to be fit for whatever plans God has for them. Mason explains that the Greeks disciplined their bodies so that they were prepared for any heroic feats that the ‘gods’ would ask of them. How much more should our children, who we raise to serve the living true God, develop habits of mind and body in order that they would be prepared to serve Him in whatever capacity He places them. It prepares them to love their neighbor.

“we are empirically certain that a chief function of education is the establishment of such ways of thinking in children as shall issue in good and useful living, clear thinking, aesthetic enjoyment, and, above all, in the religious life.” – Vol 6, p100

What are the Habits of the Mind?

1. Habit of Attention
“You want them to remember? Then secure his whole attention.” (Vol 1, p157)

The development of the habit of attention is a significant aspect of Mason’s philosophy of education. She believed it was so important to develop the habit of fixing a child’s thoughts completely on what it should be on at that moment.

“no intellectual habit is so valuable as that of attention; it is a mere habit but it is also the hall-mark of an educated person.” Vol 6, p99

“A vigorous effort of will should enable us at any time to fix our thoughts.” (Vol 1, p137) A person’s capacity for mental effort is reduced when allowed to wonder off or day dream. Mason believed that overpressure or burn out was a result of a failure of the habit of attention. The children are so overly distracted that the lesson becomes overburdensome for lack of attention. She had much to say about how this habit should be developed which I hope to discuss in the next post.

2. Religious Life
Mason discusses the benefit of requiring participation in liturgy and religious habits. It encourages the religious life to be “fixed and delightful and give us due support in the effort to live a godly, righteous and sober life.” (Vol 6, p103) I do not remember reading Mason outlining religious habits specifically in the readings for this principle, but we can assume she means prayer, Scripture reading, and worship.

3. Thinking
This is the development of right thinking that results in right living. It can be seen as synonymous with ‘wisdom and knowledge’ so often referred to in the Bible. It is clear thinking that asks and attempts to answer their own questions. “Every walk should offer some knotty problem for the children to think out.” (Vol 1, p194) It is the development of tracing effect from cause, or cause from effect, comparing alike and different, and drawing conclusions as to causes or consequences from certain premises.

4. Morals
Although this is not a comprehensive list, Mason draws specific attention to obedience, “obedience the whole duty of a child” (Vol 1, p161) as well as sense of honor, gentleness, kindness, candor, respect, truthfulness, temper (keeping his temper).

Other habits of the mind briefly mentioned to work on in the education of children were concentration, thoroughness, intellectual volition, accuracy, reflection, remembering, and meditation.

As we consider these habits of the mind, Mason warns parents to be careful to not look to:

“‘What will people say? what will people think? how will it look?’ [so that] the children grow up with habits of seeming, and not of being; they are content to appear well-dressed, well-mannered, and well-intentioned to outsiders, with very little effort after beauty, order, and goodness at home, and in each other’s eyes.” Vol 1, p106

What are the habits of the body?

1. Cleanliness, Neatness, and Order
After the children have been allowed to enjoy all the messy play that is foundational to childhood, Mason impresses the importance of training them to be anxious to clean themselves of any dirt from play, bathe themselves daily, and tidy and restore order to any messes they have made. All things to be put away in their place. She stresses the importance of having the children clean up for themselves. “The pleasure grown-up people take in waiting on children is really a fruitful source of mischief.” (Vol 1, p127)

2. Manners, elocution, music, singing, health, and physical fitness
These physical skills that Mason also identified should not require much explanation. These skills are improved and made easier through repetition. That is, through habit. The benefits of developing habits in these areas for the individual are discussed in books and blog posts all over the internet. But the highest benefit, as has already been discussed earlier in this post, is to glorify God and to love and serve others with our bodies.

Mason also identifies that physical activity such as playing on the field also helps to develop habits that she calls half physical and half moral. That is, habits of good character that develop through both habits of mind and body. These are:

1. Self-restraint – no overindulgence of food or activities. Also, the habit of restraining discontentedness as well as idleness.
2. Self-control – being “impervious to small annoyances.” That is, practicing the habit of self-control of emotional outbursts, “cheerful under small inconveniences” and ready for action with “presence of mind.” Self-control results in having mind and emotions in submission to your will so that you can act and respond reasonably in a given situation.
3. Self-discipline – In behavior, address, courtesy, deportment (conduct), tones of voice, tidying own messes.
4. Alertness – that is, developing the habit of alertness to seize opportunities of getting knowledge.
5. Quick perception.
6. Fortitude – to bear pain and inconvenience without making a sign.
7. Others – stimulating ideas, service, prudence, courage, and chastity.

This is a formidable list of habits that may seem overwhelming. You might, as I do, see a vast array of habits that you, yourself, need to work on, let alone train your children in. Mason herself acknowledges that forming habits requires certain “strenuousness.” As a mom of four, if I were to try to work on all of these at one time, this list would be unattainable. There are practical things we can do to help develop these habits for ourselves as well as our children which I will discuss in the next post, but as Cindy Rollins often says, we are in this for the “long haul.” We need to keep in mind that we will not always see results in the immediate future. These habits develop little by little over the many years that the children are with us, as part of the atmosphere of our homes. We need to allow ourselves grace to work on what is possible with much prayer and supplication, and leave the rest. We need to remember to lean not on our own strength but on the Lord’s. We can rest in the knowledge that God is faithful. He never slumbers nor sleeps and is working in us and in our children even when we are exhausted and do no more. We can trust in the knowledge that “we do not labor in the dark.” (Vol 3, p99) We do not labor in vain.

My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
* Psalm 121:2-4

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