I will admit that when I saw our next topic of discussion was 'education is a discipline' (aka habit training), I groaned a little bit. Not because I think forming good habits is a bad idea – on the contrary, it is a good and necessary part of our children’s education and upbringing. But as much as I love Charlotte Mason, this is one of the principles of hers I’ve had the hardest time with. Some of her ideas on this topic are (in my experience) a little idealistic. (She was after all a TEACHER and not a MOTHER herself.) Some of them seem to ignore the fact that we all have a sinful nature that we cannot overcome by our own efforts. I’ve also felt discouraged and defeated by the way some have interpreted her ideas about habit training: Choose a habit to focus on for 6 weeks at a time. Start with obedience, because Charlotte talked about that one the most. Inspire your children by reading stories that pertain to that habit. Make sure that they NEVER MESS UP on practicing this new, good habit you are trying to instill, otherwise you’ll have to go back to square one. Follow these steps and your child will have formed their new habit in 6 weeks flat! Then you can start another one! Just make sure you keep a watch out for that first one…and the second one…keep those plates spinning….
Is it just me, or does that ‘formula’ not quite set well with you, either? It always seemed kind of ‘compartmentalized’ to me – I’ve tried following character-training curriculums that focus on various traits for a month or two at a time, with targeted stories and Bible verses to go along with it and I’ve never been able to stick with them for very long because they always felt too forced and contrived to me. And training children in perfect obedience in 6 weeks? Expecting them to never mess up? Um, right. This isn’t to diminish the importance of training our children to be obedient, I just find it unrealistic to master this or any other ‘habit’ or character trait in a mere 6 weeks! I view this more as a lifetime kind of project. I also think that such a view is too simplistic and doesn’t allow for our sinful nature (which makes it impossible for us to ever be perfect on our own) or God’s grace (the only way we can overcome our sinful habits and tendencies).
All this to say that I’ve gotten kind of squirmy about the notion of habit training a la Charlotte Mason, and wasn’t looking forward to reading and discussing it. I didn’t want to be reminded of the fact that CM-style habit training has been kind of a fail for me because I just couldn’t see myself embracing her vision, at least as I understood it up until now.
So…I was pleasantly surprised to see where the reading and discussion took us. I discovered that I was not alone in my struggle…there are other mamas out there who have found this idea discouraging and daunting as well. And I was encouraged by some of the ideas that I took away from this study that perhaps I can embrace Charlotte’s vision for habit training after all:
Yes, in Parents and Children (Volume 2), Charlotte Mason does lay out a 9-step process towards forming a new habit, which I believe the idea I was describing above came from. But, as I am discovering, if one really wants to understand Charlotte Mason it is important to study ALL of her work as a whole, and not isolate little parts (or worse yet, rely solely on other people’s interpretations of what she says.) In other places in her writing she discourages unnatural and compartmentalized systems. Nor did she expect all worthwhile habits to be formed in a mere 6 weeks. She herself mentions an example where a mother might allow a year to work towards a new habit: “Is Edward a selfish child when his fifth birthday comes? The fact is noted in his parents’ year book, with the resolve that by his sixth birthday he shall, please God, be a generous child.” (Volume 2, Chapter 7). In various examples of personal experiences, some habits may take even longer to form – such as Tammy’s example of helping their daughter break the habit of throwing tantrums. It took years of slowly identifying and removing each trigger. And that’s OK! The goal is to move forward, but not necessarily in any particular time frame. The nature of the child and the nature of the habit you are trying to form will determine that. She also speaks in various places in her writing about the work of the Holy Spirit being necessary for true heart change. She really didn’t expect our children to be perfect or to be able to overcome all their character flaws simply by following the correct method of habit training – she understood their need for a Saviour.
“Intentional” habit training doesn’t have to mean making a list of habits a child ought to form, and faithfully checking them off every 6 weeks. It does mean prayerfully considering what our children need, and prayerfully considering the best way to go about tackling it. It means continuing to pray for the Lord’s guidance and direction and for His work in our children’s lives. “It is intentional action. It is a thoughtful, prayerful approach to life itself.” (Elizabeth Foss in “Charlotte Mason Book Study Part Two: Education is a Discipline”).
Routines are an important part of habit training. Form routines around those habits that you find most important for your children to develop. Looking at habit training this way was encouraging – I was able to look back and see what positive habits we HAVE been able to form in our family by making them part of our family routines: Scripture memory. Bible reading. Chores. Touching base as a family before heading to bed. Eating healthy meals.
Habits are formed over time. We aren’t going to see the results right away, but we will in hindsight This gives me courage to keep on moving forward, even if I don’t see the fruit right away.
Stories and ideas DO play a part in inspiring our children in good habits and good character. But that doesn’t necessarily mean following a ‘character-training’ curriculum with the stories specifically targeted to the habit you are trying to form, and in fact it may be better NOT to be too focused. Consider: “It is possible to sow a great idea lightly and casually and perhaps this sort of sowing should be rare and casual because if a child detect a definite purpose in his mentor he is apt to stiffen himself against it.” (Volume 6, p.102) and “This danger is perhaps averted by giving children as their daily diet the wise thoughts of great minds and of many great minds; so that they may gradually and unconsciously get the courage of their opinions.” (Volume 6, p.104). Spread the feast. Let the children ingest what they are ready for. Let the ideas soak in over time. Let them make their own relations. Don’t force feed or make connections for them. In other words – keep doing what I’m doing: feed them a steady diet of good ideas through living books.
While I was encouraged, I was also challenged by our study of discipline and habit training. But, we’ll save that for next time.