Getting Practical with Habit Training (Part 2: Core Principles for Success)
This post is the second in series that looks at what Charlotte Mason said about habit training and how to apply her ideas to our lives today. Be sure to read Part 1: What Charlotte Mason Said to get a complete understanding of everything we'll cover in this second installment. This post will extrapolate three key principles we need to keep in mind when working on habits with our own children.
Key Ingredients: Time & Diligence
One of the most striking things Charlotte Mason says about habit training is this, "...the mother must devote herself for a few weeks... as steadily and untiringly as she would to the nursing of her child through measles."¹ Whoa. How many of us can truly say that we take habit training this seriously? Just as a grave illness can be detrimental to our child's physical health, so it is with bad habits and the effect on our child's character. She goes on to say, "To form a good habit is the work of a few weeks; to guard it is a work of incessant, but by no means anxious care."²
Modern research supports this idea and suggests a new habit is fairly solidified after 30 days.³ Furthermore, Charlotte Mason urges mothers to focus on no more than one habit at a time. This is actually great news for those of us feeling overwhelmed at the idea of habit training. We need not get bogged down with feeling like we need to tackle all.the.things simultaneously. While it may not seem like a lot, if we focus on one habit for 30 days, by the end of one year we will have cultivated 12 new habits in the lives of our children. Imagine how much life would be changed for the better!
The reality is that we're playing the long game when it comes to habit training. We shouldn't expect good habits to solidify overnight. And we can't expect results with half-hearted effort. Time and diligence are absolutely essential when it comes to habit training.
As mothers, much of the atmosphere of our homes depends on us. When it comes to habit training, it's important to keep the atmosphere, or tone in mind. For instance, Charlotte Mason believed that nagging, scolding, and harshness are extremely ineffective ways to cultivate worthwhile habits. She states, "Having in a few––the fewer the better [emphasis added]––earnest words"⁴ with the child when habit training is most effective. This means lectures and long-winded explanations are out!
Mason goes on to say, "After that first talk, the mother would do well to refrain from one more word on the subject; the eye (expectant, not reproachful), and, where the child is far gone in a dream, the lightest possible touch, are the only effectual instruments."⁵ This matters for several reasons. First, we want to cultivate an atmosphere of it's good to be me here with you. We are coming alongside our children as a cheerleader and life coach in whatever area we've observed they need assistance in. Have you ever had a boss that was constantly displeased and communicated in a way that made you feel small? That's what we're trying to avoid with our children.
Charlotte Mason puts it this way, "she [the mother] never lets the matter be a cause of friction between herself and the child, taking the line of his friendly ally..."⁶ An ally. Isn't that the goal of any discipleship relationship? A relationship in which two people are on the same team; this is the atmosphere we want to convey to our children - otherwise, our efforts may as well be in vain. This intuitively makes sense. Any human (children included) is going to be 1000x more receptive to critique when he/she feels seen and respected. As a result, the words we choose, the tone we use, and our body language set the tone - the atmosphere. Most of us would do well to slow down and think before we speak instead of shooting from the hip when we communicate with our children.
Mothers as Plate Spinners
Mothers are akin to plate spinners when it comes to habit training. Once we've established a good habit (i.e., gotten the first plate spinning), and begin to work on another, we must continue to keep a watchful eye on the first - making sure it doesn't revert back to old tendencies. For instance, when working on a habit of say, shutting the door, we might be tempted to give grace when a child forgets one time but Charlotte Mason believed this a fatal mistake.
She explains it this way, ""The 'little relaxation' she allowed her child meant the forming of another contrary habit, which must be overcome before the child gets back to where he was before. As a matter of fact, this misguided sympathy on the part of mothers is the one thing that makes it a laborious undertaking to train a child in good habits..."⁷ As a result, "The mother's mis-timed easiness has lost for her every foot of the ground she had gained."⁸
Therefore, even when we've begun working on subsequent habits, we must never let up on the initial ones. So, even when we've got 3 plates spinning and we're ready to add a fourth, we will never ignore or lose sight of the first few we've got in place. Simply put, as with most things in life (parenting included), consistency is absolutely essential. Old habits can easily supplant new ones. Once we begin to feel that a habit has been established, we should be sure to proceed cautiously; always keeping an eye out for moments of regression and slipshod behavior.
Whether it's time, diligence, atmosphere or spinning plates, keeping these principles in mind will drastically impact the effectiveness of our habit training. No matter the season or age of our children, it's easy to see how intentionally cultivating habits in our children will create a ripple effect that has the ability to transform the present, and more importantly, the future lives of our children and their future families. We ought not take this responsibility lightly. Just as we would devote our lives to taking care of our child if he/she was sick, we should put monumental effort into cultivating habits that inform character.
¹,²,⁴,⁵,⁶,⁷,⁸ Charlotte Mason, Home Education. p. 119-124.
³ Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit.