3 Worthwhile Habits
I think one of the hardest parts of adopting Mason's philosophy of education is practically applying her ideas in everyday life. For instance, we know that Ms. Mason implored parents to take habit training seriously, but what does it actually look like in the trenches of motherhood? Practical examples are extremely helpful here. So I'm going to share three seemingly simple habits that have proven helpful for our family. If you haven't read Charlotte Mason says about habit training, you should read this first! (Followed by part II and part III 😉.)
In Home Education, Mason states, "...it is unchangeably true that the child who is not being constantly raised to a higher and a higher platform will sink to a lower and a lower. Wherefore, 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."¹
This means a few things: first, parents have a responsibility to constantly be helping our children grow in their habits, and second, some of the habits Charlotte Mason recommends parents intentionally train may very well go against a child's nature (e.g., cleanlieness, orderlieness, manners, remembering, self-control, fortitude, etc.). Finally, it implies that there are no neutral moments in parenting. We can use even the most trivial of circumstances to help our children grow in their habits. So, while the following habits may seem like minutiae, it is the little moments that ultimately add up to eventually compose one's character.
"Here I am"
Have you ever experienced a time where you’ve momentarily lost sight of your child - either at a crowded playground, in a store, or maybe while out somewhere exploring nature? It can be an anxiety producing moment while you try to get tabs on a lost kiddo. It is extremely stressful when you call for your child and there is no answer. In my case, it's near impossible to keep my eyes on all four of my young kiddos simultaneously. As a result, one of the habits that we've benefited from in our family is the simply habit of responding, "Here I am!" when called.
As silly as it seems to train something like responding when called, the benefits of having intentionally laid down the tracks for this one habit has provided immense freedom to allow my children to explore and venture off and play without my constant hovering or worrying where they are. Even in our own backyard, if the kids are out exploring somewhere I can't see, I can quickly and easily check in. The older kids can even respond by describing where they are (e.g., "Here I am! Over by the woodpile!" or "Here I am! Up in the tree!").
So how do you go about working on this habit? The first and most important rule of habit training is that it should be something young children have the chance to practice and experience success with beforehand. This step will look different depending on the age of the child and how much language he/she has. For my kids (ages 6, 5, 4, 3), we literally call it the "Here I am" game.
The sort of pre-training should be fun - a whimsical atmosphere that is enjoyable for the parent and child. And short. Just as CM advocated for short lessons, training a desired habit is a quick 2-3 minute game where the parent explains beforehand what will happen. For example, "Let's play the 'Here I am!' game. You'll go hide and when I say, '_______, where are you?' you'll jump out and say as loud as you can, 'Here I am!'" Do this a few times while at home during the next week or two. After that, be sure to practice in different contexts - e.g., while you're on a walk, at the park, at the store. Let them experience success in a low stakes environment; this is laying down the rails, so that when you actually need your child to answer you, he knows the drill and won't hesitate because you've set him up for success by laying the tracks in his brain to respond appropriately.
"May I touch this?"
Children (especially young children!) want to touch everything. Teaching a child to ask, "May I touch this?" before picking up something that isn't his is helpful in so many different contexts - whether it's a sibling's lego creation, mom's purse, or a stranger's toy, it's helpful if we teach children it's not appropriate to rummage through or grab someone else's things without permission. In this way, we’re being proactive in teaching them appropriate social boundaries beforehand, instead of being reactionary and constantly telling them “Stop it! Don‘t touch” or “Put it down.”
So how do we teach appropriate behavior in this instance? We teach and pre-train. We’d set the expectation verbally. Then we’d play the ”May I touch this game” by walking though the house and asking about various items. Sometimes I’d respond with yes, you may touch that and other times I would say no, you may not touch that. Keep it short and sweet. The next step is to practice this activity into a variety of contexts - grandparents' houses, the grocery store, even a friend's house, or a sibling’s bedroom. Again, in this way, we’re laying down the rails with intentionality beforehand. Think of it as the dress rehearsal, a chance to practice before the “real life situation” where you need your child to execute the desired behavior.
“Assess the Situation”
This particular habit is unique because it’s more general and can be applied to a variety of situations/contexts. When we teach our children to “assess the situation” we basically mean we want them to pause and use their eye and ears to observe their surroundings in order to have appropriate behavior for the situation upon which they are about to enter. We first began working on this habit in our home when my husband began working from home. Our kids constantly wanted go in his office to show or tell him something.
Instead of constantly telling them no, or making a blanket rule that they were never allowed to go in, we taught them to “assess the situation.” For this specific situation, we taught them to go up to my husband's office door and put their ear against it in order to listen for daddy’s voice. If they could hear him talking, that meant he was in a meeting and they weren't to knock or enter. On the other hand, if it was silent, they could proceed with a polite knock and wait for a verbal response from dad inviting them to enter.
My favorite thing about this habit is that the language has generalized to other areas of our life. For instance, I can use the phrase "assess the situation" as a sort of buzzword phrase anytime we are about to enter a new context (e.g., church, library, etc.) to draw the kids attention to the fact that they can pause and use their eyes and ears to observe their surroundings to help them know the type of behavior that's appropriate (e.g., using quiet voices inside, or whisper voices at church) . This is a great way to help children develop important skill of going from a high energy state to a low energy state as described by Dr. Bill St. Cys in his series entitled The Pursuit of Maturity (The three-part series can be viewied on here on YouTube).
Habit training will look different from household to household. You can't confine Mason's ideas to a systematic flow chart where everyone is on the same path, achieving the same result. (Remember when Mason makes the distinction between a system and a method?). Your child likely doesn't have the same weaknesses as mine, so our respective areas of focus and training could be vastly different. I shared the ideas above because they've been helpful for our family, but you might decide to work on something totally different. Mason lists over 50 different habit categories. If you're not sure where to begin, choose the one behavior that if improved or changed tomorrow, would have the most positive impact for your family. Or try and thinking big picture first and then drill down to a specific habit. For example, if you want to work on orderlieness, start with the habit of putting shoes by the front door. Below are some other things to keep in mind when working on habits with your children.
Again, always keep your child's age, language development, and personhood in mind. You wouldn't work on these habits with a 6 year old in the same way that you would a 2 year old.
The only way to erase a bad habit is to replace it with an opposing, more "attractive" habit.
Remember the old adage, Rome wasn't build in a day. New habits won't happen overnight or without intentionality.
Mason says, "habits of gentleness, courtesy, kindness, candour, respect for other people, or––habits quite other than these, are inspired by the child as the very atmosphere of his home, the air he lives in and must grow by."² In other words, atmosphere matters!
¹ Charlotte Mason, Home Education, (Jilliby: Living Book Press, 2017), 103.
² Charlotte Mason, Home Education, (Jilliby: Living Book Press, 2017), 137.