“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” ~Aristotle
This year, we’re reading Home Education in our homeschool group. Home Education is the first volume in a series of books by Charlotte Mason, a late nineteenth century English educator. There are many tidbits of wisdom contained in her writings. In an effort to wrap my head around this book, I promised myself that I would write my way through Home Education. (You can read the first part of the series here.)
I’m currently working through the section on habit training.
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What is a habit?
A habit, by most definitions, is something that a person does on a regular basis without having to consciously decide to do it. It’s an action that, through repetition, becomes second nature.
Or, as Charlotte Mason says, “Habit is ten natures.”
What does this mean? It means that, strong as nature is, “habit is not only as strong, but tenfold as strong.”
In other words, the secret to good behaviour lies in good habits.
To be honest, reading about habit training in Charlotte Mason’s Home Education leaves me feeling slightly overwhelmed. Where do I start? How do I form good habits in my children when I myself so desperately need to form better habits?
When we all have so much to work on?
You are already forming good habits in your child!
At a recent homeschool meeting, a sweet mom reminded us that we’re already forming good habits in our children. If our children say please and thank you, we’ve instilled good habits in them. If they brush their teeth before bed, we’ve instilled good habits in them. If they read books, we’ve instilled good habits in them.
When we’ve collected our purchases at a checkout, my children – even my four-year old – always turn to the clerk and say, “Thank you! Have a good day!” It’s such a little thing, but it never fails to cause the clerk to smile big and reply in a surprised tone, “Thank you! You too!”
This is habit training.
Encouraging Good Habits Without Yelling or Nagging
If I’m completely honest, I have to admit that I struggle with this. “Please hang up your coat!” I ask in a pleasant tone.
No response. I repeat myself. Again. And then again.
“I’ve asked you three times now to pick up your coat. Please come and do it now.” By now, I’ve lost the “bright, friendly voice” that Charlotte Mason recommends.
Regardless, my children are deaf to such requests.
“PICK UP YOUR COAT RIGHT NOW OR YOU’RE GROUNDED FOR A WEEK!!! SERIOUSLY, WHY DO I ALWAYS HAVE TO YELL???”
In case you were wondering, this is not parenting at its best.
According to Charlotte Mason, habit training is most effective when you have buy-in from the child. They must want to work on a habit in order to effectively change it: “still more effective will be the sense of honour” (p. 128).
One of my daughters used to suck her thumb. The horrible-tasting stuff that you paint on a child’s thumbnail as a deterrent was not a deterrent for her at all. One day, however, she decided that she no longer wanted to suck her thumb.
“Can you put thumb stuff on me?” she asked.
She hasn’t sucked her thumb since. You see, she wanted to break the habit, so she did what was necessary to accomplish that goal. The horrible-tasting thumb stuff served as a reminder.
Does this mean we let our children pick and choose which habits they want to change? Absolutely not.
“The child is born, doubtless, with the tendencies which would shape his future; but every tendency has its branch roads, its good or evil outcome; and to put the child on the right track for the fulfilment of the possibilities inherent in him, is the vocation of the parent” (p. 109).
“Every day, every hour the parents are either passively or actively forming those habits in their children upon which, more than anything else, future character and conduct depend” (p. 118).
Teaching with Kindness
According to Home Education, parents should teach with kindness.
Although I tend to be a little more on the harsh side, my husband exemplifies kindness. He will sit down with an errant child and explain beautifully how their actions have repercussions and why it is so important to behave in a way that exemplifies Christ. He is an expert at helping our children see the larger picture.
There is almost always a noticeable difference in the child’s behaviour after he has spoken with them.
“…she never lets the matter cause friction between herself and the child, taking the line of his friendly ally to help him against that bad memory of his” (p. 123)
What About Consequences?
Although what I’ve read in Home Education so far doesn’t touch on punishment or punitive discipline, a preliminary internet search shows that Charlotte Mason does address this in Parents and Children, Volume II, Chapter 16. (You can access the chapter for free at Ambleside Online.)
Mason says, “The fact is, not that punishment is unnecessary or that it is useless, but that it is inadequate and barely touches our aim; which is, not visitation for the offense, but the correction of that fault of character of which the offence is the outcome.”
It’s true that sin needs to be dealt with at its root. However, in our less than ideal world, bad behaviour will happen. I believe these behaviours should be dealt with using appropriate consequences, even as we’re trying to address the root issues.
Replacing Bad Habits with Good Habits
How do we uproot bad habits? According to Charlotte Mason, “One custom overcometh another” (p. 119). She proposes that the formation of good habits displaces existing bad habits, eliminating the need for punishment. We uproot bad habits by replacing them.
The Bible charges us to “change the former way of life that was part of the person you once were, corrupted by deceitful desires. Instead, renew the thinking in your mind by the Spirit and clothe yourself with the new person created according to God’s image in justice and true holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24). We can’t change habits – our own or our children’s – without the Holy Spirit.
Last year, I spent the summer working at a children’s camp. My children were with me, and one in particular was quite homesick. This came out in her behaviour, particularly when it was time to join the other campers in the morning. I didn’t know what to do but she was becoming increasingly challenging, so I prayed. And the Holy Spirit breathed the most beautiful idea into my heart.
I began to have nightly tea times with this particular daughter. I would tuck her sisters into bed and then we would sneak downstairs into the dining hall and grab a cup of tea. We treasured these times, but I let her know from the start that she would lose the privilege if she continued to act out in the mornings.
One day, she tested the seriousness of that stipulation. “Remember, we discussed this,” I reminded her. “Your behaviour tells me that you’re too tired to stay up to have tea with me. You’ll have to miss it this evening and go straight to bed instead. We can try again tomorrow.”
She was devastated. Safe to say, mornings with her were beautiful from then on in. A new habit was formed that brought peace and joy to our lives.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” (James 1:5)
“Through wisdom a house is built, And by understanding it is established.” (Proverbs 24:3)
Replacing bad habits with good ones takes wisdom, time and dedication. However, “[t]he mother who takes pains to endow her children with good habits secures for herself smooth and easy days…” (Home Education, p. 136).
If this is the case, it’s worth it.