Getting Practical with Habit Training (Part 3: A Reliable Framework)
"This relation of habit to human life––as the rails on which it runs to a locomotive––is perhaps the most suggestive and helpful to the educator; for just as it is on the whole easier for the locomotive to pursue its way on the rails than to take a disastrous run off them, so it is easier for the child to follow lines of habit carefully laid down than to run off these lines at his peril. It follows that this business of laying down lines towards the unexplored country of the child's future is a very serious and responsible one for the parent. It rests with him to consider well the tracks over which the child should travel with profit and pleasure; and, along these tracks, to lay down lines so invitingly smooth and easy that the little traveller is going upon them at full speed without stopping to consider whether or no he chooses to go that way." - Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 110.
When people think of parenting philosophies, Charlotte Mason doesn't usually make the list. However, much of the wisdom found in Mason's volumes is directed more towards child rearing than school itself (especially volume 1, Home Educatiofsn). This is the third in a series of posts on habit training. You can read the first post here and the second post here. After reading some of what Charlotte Mason said about habits, and then extrapolating a few key principles in the previous posts, today we will look at a suggested framework for intentional habit training.
Proactively Parenting vs. Reacting
Before we look at the process of habit training, it's important to recognize the difference between being proactive vs. reactive as a parent. We can't expect our children's attention, obedience, integrity, etc. to develop virtuously on its own. However, most of the time, we wait until a behavior manifests and then we respond with correction or discipline of some kind - this is reactive parenting. If we find ourselves constantly reacting to our children's behavior, we are missing out on the powerful tool of training.
Ideally, we are spending more time training than reacting. Training is proactive. We train our children in effort to set them up on the right path before they have a chance to adopt undesirable behaviors/habits, thus avoiding the need for constant correction. This begs the question: how do we train our children? We help them create habits. Charlotte Mason quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson in her second volume, "Sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny."¹
Every time we do an action, the propensity to repeat said action goes up, and the longer and more frequently the action is done, the harder it becomes to change. Picture one of those old pioneer covered wagons, repeatedly driving the same path over and over and over. This creates a rut that the wheel naturally falls into without effort. Consequently, as time goes by, it becomes increasingly difficult (perhaps even impossible!) for the wheel to drive anywhere else because the rut is so deeply ingrained into the ground. Similarly, with the brain, when we do an action repeatedly, the neural pathways in our brain become stronger and stronger. This is both good news and bad news.
Charlotte states, "In the first place, whether you choose or no to take any trouble about the formation of his habits, it is habit, all the same, which will govern ninety-nine one-hundredths of the child's life: he is the mere automaton you describe. As for the child's becoming the creature of habit, that is not left with the parent to determine. We are all mere creatures of habit."¹ In other words, even if we choose not to intentionally train our children, they will still create habits on their own - for better or for worse. This applies to simple habits, such as whether our children clean up after themselves, or leave their toys and clothes strewn about the house; but this idea also applies to habits of character, such as persevering through a difficult task or obeying promptly the first time.
Charlotte claims, "The mother who takes pains to endow her children with good habits secures for herself smooth and easy days; while she who lets their habits take care of themselves has a weary life of endless friction with the children."³ It's probably fairly safe to say that most of us desire to instill good habits in our children. Enter training. We can break the training process up into three parts: pre-training, training on-site, and redo⁴. Atmosphere is imperative at all points in the training process. If you're scolding, scowling, and harsh sounding all your efforts may as well be in vain. The goal is to come alongside your child as someone who is on their side (think life coach or cheerleader). The atmosphere should leave the child feeling it's good to be me here with you.
Pre-training is essentially the initial laying down the track of the desired habit so that the child can start off in the right direction from the start. We want to set expectations and, in some instances, give them an opportunity to practice the desired behavior. For younger children, this may involve a fun role playing situation. For older children you need to enlist their will and bring them into the fold, so to speak.
In our house, it might sound something like this, "I've noticed lately you have a really hard time finding our shoes when it's time to leave the house and it causes a lot of unpleasantness, tardiness, etc. Let's work together to change that. From now on, we're going to place our shoes by the front door so that we always know where to find them when we need them." At that point we might even hop in the car and drive down the street to give them an opportunity to practice coming through the front door, immediately removing their shoes, and putting them in the proper location.
Prayerful wisdom and creativity are a necessity here. Seek wisdom from the Lord first, and ask that he'd use you to help your kids in the target area. Better yet - ask Him to reveal which areas of their lives the children need training. Read through the Scriptures with a parenting lens, asking the Lord to help you be creative in finding the right words and ways to pre-train your children.
Training On-Site (or in the moment)
Next is the training on-site or in the moment when it actually matters. This is when a mother's watchful eye is critical. Without hovering or nagging, we want to ensure that during the first few weeks of working on the new habit, that we stay don't let the child slip up and revert to the old habit. Returning to shoes example, if we are coming home, I might gently jog their memory upon pulling into the driveway by saying something like, "What is that habit we're working on again?" Then when we get inside I would expectantly wait by the front door for them to complete the desired behavior.
Charlotte says, "Tact, watchfulness, and persistence are the qualities she [the mother] must cultivate in herself; and, with these, she will be astonished at the readiness with which the child picks up the new habit."² At this point, mothers are akin to the bumpers on a bowling alley - gently keeping children in the lane and on target while going through daily life. Be sure to train in a variety of contexts. For example, if we want our child to "come to mommy" when called, we should train them in a variety of places outside of the home (e.g., the park, doctors office, church, home, friend's house, etc.) to solidify the habit of coming when called.
Redo: Ending the Right Way
If our children do forget, or we miss the opportunity to train them in the moment, we would want to do a redo. A redo is an important step because it gives the child the opportunity to erase the old habit and replace it with the desirable habit. This is a critical piece. This would mean if I see my kiddos walk in the door without taking their shoes off and putting them in their proper place, or if I find their shoes strewn about the yard, I might say something like, "Uh-oh... do you remember what we're working on?" or I might even just call them (with bright face and tone) over and point to the shoes or give them a look and nod towards the door. The goal is not to nag them with something like, "I told you to keep your shoes at the front door!" This type of nagging or scolding allows your child to develop the habit of needing to be reminded them every time.
The whole point of the redo is to get children's brains to end with doing the desired thing. How often do we do things for our children because it's easier, faster, or more convenient than calling them back and holding them accountable? We have to do away with this mindset and put in the effort (Charlotte says a mother must take pains) to instill worthwhile habits; this implies work. The truth is, it's harder to be intentionally proactive in parenting, but the results, we hope, are smooth and easy days. If possible, redo the situation in the exact same place, and as soon as possible. We don't want the newly laid track to take a detour in the wrong direction. At the same time, we want to strengthen the connection in the child's brain by having them be successful without lapse
There are a few important caveats to keep in mind when planning and executing habit training. First is atmosphere. This was mentioned earlier, but it's so important it's worth mentioning again. We're going for a lighthearted, whimsical, life-coach attitude. We're on our child's team and should make sure our words, tone, and attitude reflect this mentality. Second is that pre-training sessions are short. Literally a few minutes at most once or twice a week should be sufficient. Lastly, don't be afraid to be creative and try different approaches for different children. What works for one kid, might not be as effective for another. Again, this is where it is best to let the Lord lead and seek His wisdom for even the most seemingly trivial of situations.
If you're not sure where to begin, a wise mama once told me to think of the one behavior that, if it were gone tomorrow, would make life so much more pleasant. Start there. Below is a list of a few ideas below that can be intentionally habit trained using the pre-train, train, redo framework.
Behaviors to Train
Coming when called
Responding, "Here I am" when out of sight
Giving eye contact/"yes mom?" when name is called
Asking "May I touch this?" before touching items belonging to someone else
Speaking in a whisper voice
Gesture instead of speaking
Appropriate use of furniture (bottoms for chairs, feet for floors)
Greeting/being introduced to new people
Saying "ow" for small/trivial injuries
Cleaning up after themselves
Procedures (e.g., morning/bedtime routines)
Politely saying "no thank you"
Bodily control (red light, green light/stop go)
Assessing the situation upon entering a room
Asking for help appropriately when frustrated
¹,²,³ Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 111, 122, 136.