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    Educational Philosophy

    Lessons from Charlotte: Paying Attention is a Mental Habit

    June 17, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]T[/dropcap]his next topic can, unfortunately, be considered a bit controversial. After all, in a world of epidemic ADHD, children find a million excuses for not paying attention, and the adults in their lives tend to coddle them. This doesn’t mean, incidentally, that I don’t believe that some children have a much harder time than others. I had a child with ADHD-like symptoms at one point, and we changed her diet and that did miracles. Charlotte already, if you recall, talked about providing the optimal environment for brain and other physical growth and development.


    Lessons from Charlotte: Paying Attention is a Mental Habit


    Charlotte has a list of mental habits that ought to be developed in children, and one of them is attention. I do not think, however, that if Charlotte were alive today and saw the epidemics in our society, she would only say to build the habit. She would look at the child’s whole life. Does he watch television? Postman wrote years ago that this builds bad thought habits. Does he have food allergies? Does he eat a lot of sugar? Does he get enough sleep? Charlotte taught that the conditions for healthy brain activity were our initial, preliminary considerations. So we need to think about her mental habits in light of the fact that she has assumed, at this point, that we have done our best to provide said environment as the foundation upon which to build these habits.

    Charlotte has a list of six imperative mental habits:

    1. Attention
    2. Application
    3. Thinking
    4. Imagining
    5. Remembering/Recollecting
    6. Perfect execution

    I was going to try to cover all of them in one post, but I find that attention requires a lot of … ahem … attention … therefore, I’ll save the other five for a future post.


    The Habit of Attention

    First, why is this important? Charlotte points to the greatest men. They are distinguished by, among other things, their power of attention. They are able to fix their minds on something for a very long time, sorting through issues. One of the distinguishing marks of a highly educated, intelligent person is this habit of attention:

    [C]ontrast this with the wandering eye and random replies of the uneducated; — and you see that to differentiate people according to their power of attention is to employ a legitimate test.

    We are talking about producing highly educated, virtuous people. We do our children no favors by letting them remain as they are — easily distracted, undisciplined in their thoughts, incapable of controlling the direction of their thoughts.

    You see, we are all born this way.

    A baby, notwithstanding his wonderful powers of observation, has no power of attention; in a minute, the coveted plaything drops from listless little fingers, and the wandering glance lights upon some new joy.

    The modern response to this is to provide a playroom full of toys, that Baby might never get “bored.” I have seen some women whipping out new toys as fast as some men flip through television channels. This is training the habit of inattention, which is something we’ll come back to.

    Charlotte says that there is a law which governs the way we think. She calls it “association.” One thought leads to another, no?

    In the wanderings of delirium, in the fancies of the mad, the inconsequent prattle of the child, and the babble of the old man, we see the same thing, i.e. the law according to which ideas course through the mind when they are left to themselves. You talk to a child about glass–you wish to provoke a proper curiosity as to how glass is made, and what are its uses. Not a bit of it; he wanders off to Cinderella’s glass slipper; then he tells you about his godmother who gave him a boat; then about the ship in which Uncle Harry went to America; then he wonders why you do not wear spectacles, leaving you to guess that Uncle Harry does so. But the child’s ramblings are not whimsical; they follow a law, the law of association of ideas, by which any idea presented to the mind recalls some other idea which has been at any time associated with it–as glass, and Cinderella’s slipper; and that, again some idea associated with it. Now this law of association of ideas is a good servant and a bad master.

    Once the child gains the habit of attention, he has been liberated from a careless, undisciplined mind, and we can use the law of the association of ideas as a proper servant in his learning.

    So how does Charlotte train attention? Well, she starts with babies. When Baby drops a toy, mother does not reach into her bag and get a cooler, flashier toy. Instead, mother picks the toy back up and attempts to engage Baby’s interest for another minute or two. In other words, the mother takes small steps toward attention from the very first days of Baby’s life. Mother takes a similar approach with her older child.

    Is little Margaret fixing round eyes on a daisy she has plucked? In a second, the daisy will be thrown away, and a pebble or a buttercup will charm the little maid. But the mother seizes the happy moment. She makes Margaret see that the daisy is a bright yellow eye with white eyelashes round it; that all the day long it lies there in the grass and looks up at the great sun, never blinking as Margaret would do, but keeping its eye wide open. And that is why it is called daisy, ‘day’s eye,’ because its eye is always looking at the sun which makes the day. And what does Margaret think it does at night, when there is no sun? It does what little boys and girls do; it just shuts up its eye with its white lashes tipped with pink, and goes to sleep till the sun comes again in the morning. By this time the daisy has become interesting to Margaret; she looks at it with big eyes after her mother has finished speaking, and then, very likely, cuddles it up to her breast or gives it a soft little kiss. Thus the mother will contrive ways to invest every object in the child’s world with interest and delight.

    This is one of my main motivations for nature journals and art narration at this age. These are activities which help them fix their minds on the object for longer than they would otherwise. Sustaining attention is a worthy goal in education.

    So, what exactly is attention?

    Attention is hardly even an operation of the mind, but is simply the act by which the whole mental force is applied to the subject in hand.

    Charlotte is constantly using words like “force” and “strength” to show that attention in adults is like a muscle. On the other hand, we have our culture, full of ADHD, and whatever the cause, the result is nothing less than weak minded children growing into weak minded adults. I do not say this because I lack compassion but because I am aware of the gravity of this fact. Whenever you reach a critical mass of weak minded people, you have a serious problem, culturally speaking.

    Charlotte has a list of ways to encourage attention:

    • Make the lessons attractive. This includes knowing “what subjects are best fitted for the child considering his age.” Charlotte believed that short engaging lessons were key, so that young children got into the habit of paying attention to their lessons. This is always hard to explain, because many modern teachers with their Power Point slides, their blinking lights, and their rap songs think that this is what they are doing as well. But these things are actually teaching children to be distracted and drawn to showy objects. Children can and should be drawn by the more subtle, permanent qualities of beauty, truth, and goodness. Charlotte emphasized outdoor time for young children, books brimming with ideas and written in high literary style.
    • Have a posted schedule and alternate types of learning. Obviously, this is for the high-end of our age range {which is the under-nine crowd}. The idea is that children will learn to pay attention as they learn to do things in their time.

      The sense that there is not much time for his sums or his reading, keeps the child’s wits on the alert and helps to fix his attention; he has time to learn just so much of any one subject as it is good for him to take in at once: and if the lessons be judiciously alternated — sums first, say, while the brain is quite fresh; then writing, or reading — some more or less mechanical exercise, by way of a rest; and so on … — the child gets through his morning lessons without any sign of weariness.

      Again, I feel the need to contrast this with some idea of rushing through lessons. The point is to go right up to the appropriate amount of material to “take in at once” and no more. We don’t want children to think it is acceptable to have their brains turned off during lessons, but it is unavoidable if we have them working for too extended a time on any one thing. With my reading students, I always gauge their point of tolerance the first few days. If they can only handle ten minutes, we do ten minutes. Period.

    • Offer a “natural reward.” This means that if they finish their lessons early, the time is theirs to do with what they wish. Run in the garden? Go for it! Mason goes through a list of other motivations, such as getting good grades, pleasing their parents, but in the end she concludes that though each of these can have an effect, it is not healthy for the child’s growing soul:

      [M]arks of any sort, even for conduct, distract the attention of children from their proper work, which is in itself interesting enough to secure good behavior as well as attention.

    • Offer them knowledge. Mason tells us over and over that the brain’s natural food is ideas. When we respect children enough to give them their subjects raw — alive with their life’s blood, not baked and condensed and evaporated down to “facts: and, even worse, “factoids” — they will be naturally attentive to it {as long as we don’t schedule too much time for it}.
    • “Be on the watch from the very beginning against the formation of the contrary habit of inattention.”


    So, we do these things for the children, and eventually they learn for themselves:

    As the child gets older, he is taught to bring his own will to bear; to make himself attend in spite of the most inviting suggestions from without. He should be taught to feel a certain triumph in compelling himself to fix his thoughts. Let him know what the real difficulty is, how it is the nature of his mind to be incessantly thinking, but how the thoughts, if left to themselves, will always run off from one thing to another, and that the struggle and the victory required of him is to fix his thoughts upon the task in hand. ‘You have done your duty,’ with a look of sympathy from his mother, is a reward for the child who has made this effort in the strength of his growing will.

    In older children who are responsible for their own work, then, Mother still needs to be on the watch, guarding against “mooning” over their work. Make sure that when they are done with their work, they are rewarded with pleasant times.

    Some children will require discipline. The natural result of inattention over the entirety of the child’s education is ignorance. Do you see why I take ADHD so seriously?


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  • Reply Shauna October 22, 2017 at 7:16 am

    Hi Brandy!

    We are beginning the habit of attention and I was curious if you could recommend a good living book where the characters practice attention. I saw that your recommended volume 5, part 1 to someone about and I am going to read that now.

    Thank you for all your help! (Both podcasts and this blog) They are a blessing to me.


    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 23, 2017 at 2:18 pm

      One thing that comes to mind is naturalist’s books — they aren’t designed to teach attention, but they do. They encourage careful observation and listening. Secrets of the Woods did that for my children. They all wanted to be hunters or Indians — to walk softly and pay attention. 🙂

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts June 24, 2010 at 4:05 am


    I received a public school education, and so did my husband. But I often laughingly say that I was “homeschooled” because I was very influenced by dinner table conversation growing up. My dad can talk! And he is very opinionated. It makes for good fun.

    I think that getting our heads around CM just takes time and practice. I was blessed enough to be able to study it when my children were all younger-than-school-age. Even then, I feel like I still have so much to learn! CM’s books have gotten so expensive over the years, but I hope you get a chance to read them online at least. They really are the best way to figure it out, though some parts can definitely be skimmed (she was Victorian, after all).

    My introduction to Ambleside and all things Charlotte Mason, was through Cindy, whose blog I have been reading for many years now, and to whom my family owes a great debt.

    If you would like to try and bridge yourself from Classical to CM, I’d suggest checking out the Circe Institute. After studying some of their materials, especially their conference CDs, I have come to the controversial conclusion that Charlotte is 98.9% classical. 😉

  • Reply Melissa June 22, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    Thanks for your quick and thoughtful response. I do NOT own any of CM’s volumes but I will have to read what you recommended on the internet.
    What sort of an education did you receive as a child? I grew up in a “Sunday Christian” home and went to public school and a liberal liberal arts college. I am having trouble getting my head around the CM ways of gentle learning. My oldest was in a classical Christian school in first and second grade and I struggle with not following that sort of curriculum. How did you come to follow CM’s ways as opposed to other home educating ideas?
    By His Grace,

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts June 22, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Welcome to you both!

    All of this is still new to me, too! I read Volume 1 four years ago, but it didn’t all sink in, and unfortunately I didn’t read much of the other volumes until this year. I really didn’t “get” habit training in my first reading, at least not thoroughly.

    For me, habit training didn’t click until I read volume 5. I don’t know if you own the series, but if you do not, I would highly suggest that you read Volume V online. Just read Part I. Then you can go back and read whatever posts on habit training you have read on the internet and if you are like me you’ll be amazed at how much more sense they make! 🙂

    Part I of Volume V is basically example after living example, and for me that really helped me “get” it. I was specifically wanting to approach an attitude habit in our home that I knew was there, and that is more difficult to conquer, I think, than learning to make your bed or something. Or at least it seemed so to me. Reading Part I of Volume V was where I got my inspiration for tackling that!

    I will say one other thing: in the parenting class we recently took, we asked a similar question. I mean, if we let something slide for five years or eight years, these kids are old enough to notice the changes we make in way that a two-year-old might not. Do we just spring the changes on our kids? The answer from our instructor was to have a meeting–either with the whole family, or with a specific child, or whatever seemed to fit the circumstance. We were to repent and explain (briefly) what we had allowed and why we were wrong, what changes were going to be made, etc. I can see now that this coincides with Charlotte’s talk with the child that “enlists their will.” The point is to get the children on the side of the parents and work together.

    We are still young here, so all I can pass on to you is what we’ve received from people much older and wiser than we! 🙂

  • Reply Melissa June 22, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    I am a new student of CM and have thoroughly enjoyed your blog. My children are 11, 9, and 7. I feel that I have fallen short in the habit training department. Most of these writings seem directed to young children. How does one even begin to address these good habit formations and bad habit terminations in children of an older age? There are so many habits I would like to institute it is hard to know where to begin. DOes one’s life need to have stability to begin a habit? Our family has been in a state of transition for almost a year with an impending move overseas. It has been a tumultuous time with dad now gone for 5 months.
    from TX, now in PA, heading to Romania

  • Reply Jamie June 18, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    We’re still working on building our “attention muscles” around here. 🙂
    Great post. We love CM!

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