The Power of Forming Good Habits

Home Education, p. 146

Every parent worries about their child’s habits. You know the kind of habits I mean… annoying habits, like door slamming and messy rooms, or more serious ones like lying, angry outbursts, or deliberate disobedience.

Like other parents I struggled with this question, too. It caused me many a sleepless night. Needing to find answers, I dug into Charlotte Mason’s writings. The light began to dawn. After a number of years and much study, I can tell you with certainty there is an answer to help you with your child’s habits. However, it may require seeing you and your child differently.

Master idea: Thoughts create actions.  Actions repeated create habits. Habits repeated over time create character.

Habit formation is the most powerful of all Charlotte Mason ideas. When faithfully applied, it enables your homeschool to run easily in the way you intend it. Miss Mason compared habit formation to laying down the tracks, or rails, of a train. The train runs easily and smoothly with the tracks it but without them flies off or cannot run at all.

What are habits?
Habits are actions performed without conscious thought. A habit is formed by repeated actions. Everyone who drives knows that if you had to be conscious of every move while driving, you would never get out of the driveway. Each of us requires habits to accomplish the tasks of the day. How are they formed? One formula goes like this: thought begets action, action repeated begets habit and habit over a lifetime begets character.

Neuroscience has shown that a repeated action of the body or the mind produces a physiological effect on the nervous system and the brain. There is literally a new “neural pathway” formed in the brain to accommodate the new habit. It becomes easier to do the thing for which there is a pathway (rail) laid down in the brain. 

This scientific fact that ‘habitual action forms neural pathways in the brain’ is the lever, as Miss Mason terms it, to lift your child into the greater life of mind and soul that you dream for them. 

Children develop habits but which ones?
It is important to realize that children develop habits no matter what. The question is which habits? For example, if you teach your children through repeated action to attend to your words, they will do so without effort. They will have harnessed their will to attend when you speak. The opposite is also true. Your children can be taught to be inattentive through repeated wrong methods (that’s another article!).

The formation of good, effectual habits in the life of a child is accomplished by patience, tact, and watchfulness. Some educational habits to be desired are: clear thinking, imagining, obedience, physical training, sweet thoughts, finishing, being of use, attending closely to what is said, and excellence in one’s work. 

How to develop a habit in your child

“Habit the Instrument by which Parents work.–‘Habit is TEN natures!’ If I could but make others see with my eyes how much this saying should mean to the educator! How habit, in the hands of the mother, is as his wheel to the potter, his knife to the carver–the instrument by means of which she turns out the design she has already conceived in her brain.”

Home Education, p. 97.

These are encouraging words. Charlotte Mason is saying that it’s not about the perfect curriculum, the right schedule, or the preparation of the teaching parent. It is the understanding that habit will turn the child towards right thinking, right acting, and right doing. 

Steps to habit formation

  1. Determine first if you possess the trait you want to instill in your child. Are you a good example of the habit? You don’t have to be perfect, just able to do the thing without effort. If not, then begin with yourself first. It’s a humbling process but worth your best effort.  It also makes you gentler with your children when they are learning a new habit.
  2. When ready, you discuss with your child what is expected. It is not presented harshly or in an authoritarian tone, but with a sense of expectation that what you say will be done. 
  3. Then, you must watch over the seed you have planted. If the child forgets or begins to stray, gently remind him what is to be done. Always speak with a sense of anticipation that the thing will be done. Approaching it this way makes you the child’s ally rather than his adversary. 

The dangerous stage
Charlotte Mason warns parents of the one fatal mistake they often make. If a child is progressing in the new habit, the parent thinks they will “just this once” they will overlook an omission. This is fatal to the process. This is the time when a new habit is being formed in their brain (remember the new neural pathways we talked about?). To allow the child to “get away with it this once” will prevent the habit from being established. Stay the course and your child will soon effortlessly perform the new habit.

Here’s how Charlotte Mason puts it…
“…the mother must devote herself for a few weeks to this cure as steadily and untiringly as she would to the nursing of her child through measles. Having in a few–the fewer the better–earnest words pointed out the miseries that must arise from this fault, and the duty of overcoming it, and having so got the (sadly feeble) will of the child on the side of right-doing, she simply sees that for weeks together the fault does not recur.”

Home Education, p. 120

Final thoughts
So, character is an outcome of habit. Charlotte Mason showed us that character expresses itself from within as the child applies his will to learning and keeping each new habit.  The effort on your part is worth more than you can imagine. Imagine your child grown to adulthood with a strong, compassionate character that make his world a better place to be. Isn’t that worth it?