Charlotte Mason Summer Book Study: About Habits

Charlotte_mason_summer_study_08_b_2With this installment, we begin to ponder Laying Down the Rails. This book is so well named. As I reflect on the past year and look ahead to the next, it is so easy to fall into the lingo of the railroad.

"Ah, that's where we got off track."
"See, we were really chugging along in that term!
"Thankfully, we can begin again when we get derailed."

This particular  book resonates with me. I see where habits have stood us in good stead over time. In particular, our bedtime habits have ensured that I know that all of my children got significant amounts of focused attention from me every day. Bedtime was (and is) assuredly a time of quality literature, of prayer, and of confidences shared as we snuggle in the still and the dark. I remember how hard this habit was to cultivate when my older boys were little. After a warm bath and books, I'd lie with them in the dark and one of two things would happen: (1) I'd internally squirm and fidget, thinking of the things I'd still to do: dishes, laundry, projects or (2) I'd fall asleep, thereby neglecting and annoying my husband.

Oh, it'd be so much easier to do this another way!But I was committed to an intentional habit, one that I knew would be beneficial over the long haul. I had no way of knowing just how beneficial. And I don't regret a single squirmy, sleepy moment.  And somehow, over time, I've overcome both the squirminess and the sleepiness. I guess a "habit is ten natures:-)"

We read that habits produce character.That makes sense, doesn't it? A child's character is the sum of his habits to some degree.

The habits of the child produce the character of the man, because certain mental habitudes once set up, their nature is to go on forever unless they should be displaced by other habis. Here is an end to the easy philosophy of, 'It doesn't matter,' 'Oh, he'll grow out of it,' "He'll know better by and by,' 'He's so young, what can we expect?' and so on. Every day, every hour, the parents are either passively or actively forming those habits in their children upon which, more than upon anything else, future character and conduct depend (Vol.I, p.118).

They won't outgrow it. When my husband and I watch our toddler doing something a bit naughty but awfully cute in someone so young, we have to remind ourselves that it won't be so cute when she is five. if we don't want her to behave a certain way when she's no longer a cherubic tot in diapers, the time to stop the behavior is now, before it is a habit.

Educate the child in right habits and the man's life will run in them, without the constant wear and tear of the moral effort of decision. once, twice, three times in a day, he will still, no doubt, have to choose between the highest and the less high, the best and the less good course. But all the minor moralities of life may be made habitual to him. He has been brought up to be courteous, prompt, punctual, neat, considerate; and he practises these virtues without conscious effort. It is much easier to behave in the way he is used to, than to originate a new line of conduct (Vol. 2, p.124)

So, the character is not just a series of rote behaviors. He is still in a position to decide again and again. We don't train the will out of him. We strengthen the will by instilling good patterns of behavior. Much the way we can teach a child to be a discerning reader, to help him learn how to read and comprehend a book, we teach him how to behave. The tools for comprehension don't do the work for him, but they give him particular patterns of thinking that come automatically, leaving him the freedom to actively engage his brain in higher level thinking as he reads. The "minor moralities of life" are no-brainers. And the barin is primed to choose good when faced with the big decisions.

The mother who takes pains to endow her children with good habits secures for herself smooth and easy days.

Consider how laborious life would be were its wheels not greased by habits of cleanliness, neatness, order courtesy; had we to make the effort of decision about every detail of dressing and eating, coming and going, life would not be worth living.Every cottaeg mother knows that she must train her child in habits of decency, and a whole code of habit causes a shock to others which few children have courage to face. Physical fitness, morals and manners, are very largely the outcome of habit; and not only so, but the habits of the religious life also become fixed and delightful and give us dues support in the effort to live a godly, righteous and sober life (Vol 6, p. 103)

This is "pay now or pay later" parenting philosophy. I can assign a task and then motivate myself to teach patiently how it is done properly and to inspect to see that it has been completed properly--over and over again until it is a habit--or I can take the easy road now and not follow through, only to be faced with that same poorly done task, or task not done at all forever more. This goes way beyond the habit of doing household chores cheerfully and well.It means addressing every small lie and insisting upon the truth. It means stopping in my tracks to correct a whining child and insist on a pleasant voice (or a nap) every single time. It means ensuring first time obedience. It's work. but it's going to be work either way. An untrained child or a poorly trained child will be much, much more work as an unruly teenager or young adult. Much more work, much more worry, much more grief. Invest now or pay later.

Before I close with some parting words from Miss Mason, let me encourage you to leave a link in the comments when you share your thoughts on habits or join the conversation the ladies are having at the message board.

In conclusion, let me say that 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. The gardener, it is true, 'digs about and dungs,' prunes and trains, his peach tree; but that occupies a small fraction of the tree's life: all the rest of the time the sweet airs and sunshine, the rains and dews, play about it and breathe upon it, get into its substance, and the result is --peaches. But let the gardener neglect his part, and the peaches will be no better than sloes (Vol 1, p 134)