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    Educational Philosophy, Other Thoughts

    Lessons from Charlotte: Babystepping Our Way to Good Habits

    June 16, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    Before we really move on to the next topic — Charlotte’s list of habits to form — I thought we could talk a bit more about habit formation. There have been times in our family life where everything seemed a bit chaotic. If someone had reached in at that time and told me about habit formation, there is a chance I would have felt relieved at the idea. Empowered, even.

    There is also the chance I would have felt totally overwhelmed.

    Lessons from Charlotte: Babystepping Our Way to Good Habits

    I am a huge believer in babysteps. In fact, one of the things that frustrated me so much by our GFCF diet years ago was not the diet per se (though the expense was an issue), but the fact that I felt thrown into the deep end of the pool. I didn’t have the freedom to learn to cook without gluten for half a year, and then learn to go without casein after that, and practice that for half a year, and so on. No! I had a super long list of foods that were harming my children, and I had to cut them all out immediately.

    I was overwhelmed.

    Recently, I was searching online for an article. I thought I had found it, but what I had found was a review of the article. It was written by a homeschool mom of three, only one of the children had been sent back to school. This child was, said the mother, completely uninterested in learning. The mother obviously had a heart for her children. She obviously loved learning herself, and had an impressive library. For whatever reason, one of her children just wasn’t catching the learning bug. In addition, the child was not cooperating — on the contrary, the child was defiant during schooltime.

    I don’t know enough about the situation to judge it, but let me say that I think that any family can end up there. There are various ways to kill a love of learning, but it will never be cultivated when the child has the habit of questioning Mother on everything — when the child has a habit of defiance.

    All of this to say: if we think that Mason sometimes sounds overwhelming, like she’s asking something we can’t do, we can also consider the alternative: giving up on a child, and letting him learn in the school of hard knocks. It is one thing to send a child to school because the parents think it is best for him. It is entirely another to send a child to school because the parents are abandoning him to his own foolish ways.

    And haven’t we all had that hard day where we wanted to do exactly that?

    I have. I have even said those words: I want to quit and send that child to school.

    So when Charlotte says that she is trying to help us onto an easier path, I am more than willing to listen to her. And now that I have had the opportunity to enjoy some of the fruits of her teaching, I am excited to learn even more.

    In the beginning of Part IV of Home Education, Mason writes:

    I venture to write upon subjects bearing on home education with the greatest deference to mothers; believing, that in virtue of their peculiar insight into the dispositions of their own children, they are blest with both knowledge and power in the management of them which lookers-on can only admire from afar. At the same time, there is such a thing as a science of education, that does not come by intuition, in the knowledge of which it is possible to bring up a child entirely according to natural law, which is also Divine law, in the keeping of which there is great reward.

    If we mothers are armed with knowledge of this natural law, we have the best of both worlds, because we already have the inborn intuition in regard to our children! What a wonderful position to be in! Moreover, the knowledge of natural law will keep us from being blinded by the peculiarities of our individual children.

    I was talking with another mother at swimming school today. She had a 17-month-old child that was in the pool with 3-year-olds, and doing wonderfully. She confided to me that she was shocked when the teachers at the school had promoted her, and has learned through all of this that her child is capable of so much more than she had realized. Being that the child is an only child (so far), the mother had not realized certain things about her child, nor about children in general. When natural law was revealed to the mother, she was able to adjust her mothering to better fit the child.

    Charlotte tells us that “habit favours an easy life,” and doesn’t that make us want to know more? Yes it does!

    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. All day she is crying out, ‘Do this!’ and they do it not; ‘Do that!’ and they do the other.

    So this is a way to view habit: every habit formed is something we don’t have to nag them about. See how much easier life just got?

    Habits formed in our house lately have been: a one-year-old depositing his shoes in the proper place. Easier? You bet! We always know where to find them. A three-year-old making her own bed every morning. Easier? You bet! Now, I don’t have to do it. A five-year-old learning to turn her clothes right-side-out before putting them in her hamper. Easier? Not a bit! (We’re still forming that habit.) An eight-year-old who makes his bed, puts his shoes in the right place, empties the dishwasher, feeds the duck flock, and has countless other good habits?


    Not that the children are perfect, because if I was writing this on one of our worst days, oh, the stories I could tell.

    However, comma.

    Every good habit we have formed is something we no longer have to argue, remind, discipline, “discuss,” wheedle, cajole, or nag about. In other words, every good habit has brought an additional measure of peace and ease to our house. Realizing this is enough to get me in gear to tackle the countless bad habits that still remain.

    Okay, so I called this post “Babysteps.” Why?

    I see two types of babysteps in Charlotte’s works: (1) forming habits in babies before bad habits have to be uprooted and undone with great difficulty, and (2) not trying to tackle everything in a single bound (no Supermoms allowed).

    Habits of Infancy

    Here are the basic habits Charlotte mentions forming in infants. I would say this means the under-five (traditional British nursery) crowd.

    1. Cleanliness

      The children, too, should be encouraged to nice cleanliness in their own persons … Let them make their mud-pies freely; but that over, they should be impatient to remove every trace of soil, and should do it themselves. Young children may be taught to take care of their finger-nails, and to cleanse the corners of eyes and ears. As for sitting down to table with unwashed hands and unbrushed hair, that, of course, no decent child is allowed to do.

    2. Order

      [T]he lawless habit of scattering should not be allowed to grow upon a child … The child of two should be taught to get and to replace his playthings. Begin early. Let it be a pleasure to him, part of his play, to open his cupboard, and put back the doll or the horse each in its own place. Let him always put away his things as a matter of course, and it is surprising how soon a habit of order is formed, which will make it pleasant to the child to put away his toys, and irritating to him to see things in the wrong place.

    3. Obedience and a Sense of Honor

      The sense of prohibition, of sin in disobedience, will be a wonderful safeguard against knowledge of evil to the child brought up in the habits of obedience; and still more effective will be the sense of honour, of a charge to keep–the motive of the apostolic injunctions on this subject. Let the mother renew this charge with earnestness on the eve, say, of each birthday, giving the child to feel that by obedience in this matter he may glorify God with his body; let her keep watch against every approach of evil; and let her pray daily that each one of her children may be kept in purity for that day.

    4. Neatness

      [Neatness] implies not only ‘a place for everything, and everything in its place,’ but everything in a suitable place, so as to produce a good effect; in fact, taste comes into play … [E]verything in the nursery should be ‘neat’ — that is, pleasing and suitable.

    5. Regularity

      Regularity should begin even with infant life, as to times of feeding, repose, etc. The bodily habit thus formed greatly helps to shape the mental habit at a later period … The habit of regularity is as attractive to older children as to the infant. The days when the usual programme falls through are, we know, the days when the children are apt to be naughty.

    6. Physical habits

      [J]udicious physical exercise … should [be made] part of every day’s routine … [G]o through the drill of good manners: let them rehearse little scenes in play … Drill the children in pure vowel sounds, in the enunciation of final consonants … The habit of music.

    7. Punctuality
    8. Sensitive nose (basically noticing and attending to foul smells in their living space)
    9. Modesty and purity

      In the age of unquestioning obedience, let him know that not all of his body does Almighty God allow him to speak of, think of, display, handle, except for purposes of cleanliness.

    One Thing at a Time

    Miss Mason acknowledges that all of this might sound a little overwhelming, at least in regard to the initial efforts required on the part of the mother. Here are her words of encouragement:

    Here, again, is an illustration of that fable of the anxious pendulum, overwhelmed with the thought of the number of ticks it must tick. But the ticks are to be delivered tick by tick, and there will always be a second of time to tick in. The mother devotes herself to the formation of one habit at a time, doing no more than keep watch over those already formed. If she be appalled by the thought of overmuch labour, let her limit the number of good habits she will lay herself out to form.

    This is Babstepping Our Way to Good Habits: don’t take on the whole world. Choose one thing and tackle one thing. Then, add one more thing, while remembering to guard the previous habit.

    If a mother has a house full of chaos, my guess is that it would be wise to choose one thing for all of the children at once, or as many of them as possible. For instance, let’s say that all leave the door open when they go outside. Just tackle that. Mom can sit by the door and make sure that the children all learn to do this one thing. Once that habit is formed, all of the time Mother used to spend killing flies indoors in summer can be spent tackling the next habit!

    The Habit of Forming Habits

    Remember yesterday? Charlotte reminded us of the nature of habits. By definition, a habit is the gradual lessening of effort required to perform a given task. A “habit” is easy to do. We do not even have to decide to do it. We do not have to think of how to do it. We simply do it. The only thing easier is to do nothing at all.

    Today, Charlotte tells us that we can make habit training … a habit!

    [The mother] herself acquires the habit of training her children in a given habit, so that by-and-by it becomes, not only no trouble, but a pleasure to her.

    And there you have it: slow, methodical, babystepping habit training can become easy for us, and make life more peaceful for the whole family.

    One last thought: there is no family without habits. It is simply that some families have good habits, some families have bad habits, and some families are like mine — a mixed bag.

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  • Reply Rosemerry March 14, 2018 at 7:05 pm

    I dare say most families are a mixed bag of good and bad habits. We all have to start somewhere. Thank you for reminding us that habits take time to form and we need to tackle them one at a time.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts June 22, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    I know! My husband and I have come to the conclusion that the intersection between flesh and spirit is truly one of the greatest mysteries!

    We became ripe for these thoughts through a sort of back door. When our children had their allergies, their behavior was changed, especially our oldest. He was like this giant ball of agitation, and no matter what we did, we couldn’t seem to help him (well, until we realized what the cause was). But it was hard for us to deal with the fact that there were behavioral issues we couldn’t touch with discipline and training, especially when he really had “enlisted his will” as Charlotte would say.

    During that time, we had to admit that there are physical influences on behavior. Then we began to discuss where else we have seen this–when my husband came out of his coma, he didn’t have complete control over his words, actions–even his thoughts, even though he had previously. Or when I was on drugs after a C-section–I couldn’t control my tongue and talked nonstop for hours (a reaction to the meds, they said). Or we considered the concept of brain damage, where behavioral changes are drastic and permanent.

    Our conclusion was basically that the spirit cannot (or is highly unlikely to) overcome, for instance, the state of the brain. So once the brain reaches “maximum ability” or “capacity” or whatever, that is it, barring all miracles.

    So when I’m reading Charlotte, and she is telling me that moral actions impact the brain, it totally made sense to me, because I had been on the other side and seen the brain impact moral habits.

    It really is a mystery.

    I have heard the “Holy Spirit” assertion before, and I’ve always had mixed feelings about it. What really helped me in this was studying the Greek behind the passage on families in Ephesians 6. The way the passage commands fathers to raise their children is definitely not a hands-off, wait for the Spirit to convict them approach. Besides, the more I read Charlotte, the more I realize that she was working with both spirit and Spirit, not against. She was wooing the child into an affection for righteousness, really. What a beautiful reflection of the Spirit!

    I really do not think I understand the workings of the Spirit at all. I think it is another mystery along the lines of the flesh/human spirit mystery. And how prayer works is in this list as well! Anytime the intangible and tangible are interacting, there is…well, confusion if you are me! 🙂

    I don’t know that you should wish you had known me seeing as I have learned most of this in about the last nine months. I wouldn’t have been much help. 😀

    But it still would have been fun! 🙂

  • Reply The BadgerMum June 19, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    This whole concept really blows me away. When I first met these ideas a decade and a half or so ago they contradicted everything I knew about being a Christian mom — my friends, and I suppose the parenting books I read, made it sound like trying to teach your child good habits, good morals, virtue, was in effect trying to be the Holy Spirit for your child, and would in the long run, make him trust in his own righteousness instead of the righteousness of Christ.

    It makes me mad just thinking of all the years I wasted! I knew I was doing a bad job at several things, but couldn’t figure What To Do. When I finally read Charlotte Mason herself a couple of years ago, thank God something in my way of thinking had changed enough that I was able to understand and accept her ideas, but it’s still a paradigm shift that has me a little dizzy. I’m working on it now, but it sure is hard, trying to correct 22 years of bad family habits!

    It makes me so happy to read your blog and see young mothers starting out so well. God bless you, Brandy! Keep up the good work.

    It’s funny, when I was a young mom there were lots of things that, by the grace of God, I was doing right, and older moms would watch my children and say they wish they’d known me when they were young moms. So I’ve come full circle, and now I’m an older mom saying the same thing to younger moms — I wish I’d known you when I was young mom.

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