31 Days of Charlotte Mason: The Discipline of Habit {Day 8}

October 8, 2013

To recap what has been said these past few days, Charlotte Mason says we are limited to three educational tools. These tools are the way in which we encourage children to learn. She has discarded tools commonly used by others — things like grades, scholarships, praise, etc.– as ways of playing upon the flesh and corrupting character over time by undermining the love of learning. So, in a sense, we can consider these tools our “means of fostering love of knowledge for its own sake.”

Or something.

So far, we’ve only talked about the first tool: atmosphere. By this Miss Mason did not mean some fake environment that we build — a perfect child environment. In fact, she thought a perfect environment would be detrimental. We should, however, be conscientious about the atmosphere of our homes because Miss Mason was acknowledging something that is true, viz., that atmosphere is formative.

This is why both of our guest posts on atmosphere could be easily summarized as this: atmosphere starts with me, but I am not enough, which means atmosphere necessarily begins with my need for God’s grace.

Atmosphere, however, need not stand alone. There are three tools, after all. They work together synergistically.

The second tool is discipline, and it’d be easy to misunderstand and think that she is talking about corrective discipline — things like spanking, time outs, or whatever other consequences may be used to deal with a child’s transgressions. Miss Mason, however, is not talking about corrective discipline. She’s talking about something much more proactive: formative discipline.

Specifically, she’s talking about the discipline of habit.

Here is where we need to remember that Miss Mason’s ultimate educational goal was in line with ancient, not modern, thinking. She believed that education should produce character, and it frustrated her that students were often unchanged by their education {other than progressing in their reading, writing, and arithmetic}. She was looking for results that are harder to measure, but much more important.

I do not need to go into this in great depth, because I have already written about this here: Habit is Ten Natures {Part I}.

Go read it if you haven’t studied what Miss Mason thought about habit formation, and why she made it a priority in the first place.

I’ll wait.

Done?

Okay, so here is what I want to add to what you read in that post.

First, before she died, Miss Mason did express a regret that she had emphasized habit too much. I don’t think this means that we should discard habit altogether, for what she observed about human nature is still true. But this remains a warning against crossing over into behaviorism, or trying to use habit training to actually over-write parts of the child’s nature that are gifts of God. When we consider habit training, we must be prayerful about it.

Second, we need to consider that there are two main types of habits. I observed this, but couldn’t put a name to it until I started reading Jamie Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom. I don’t know if I think these are the best names, but he uses the concepts of thick and thin, or meaningful and mundane.

Thin, mundane habits tend to be where we spend a lot of our time when we talk about habits. I’m not saying that is a bad thing; it is what it is. So here we have brushing your teeth, making your bed, and all the other components that help the life run a neat and orderly course. There is nothing wrong with these habits, as a general rule.

It’s simply that they are not enough.

Miss Mason was looking for real change in character. To use the more classical term, she was looking for virtue. I’m not sure that a good morning routine can be seen as the building block for good character.

That is where Smith’s concept of thick, meaningful habits is going to come in handy. Some of the habits will be very specific, like when we help a naturally inattentive child build the habit of attention. The habit of attention is a prerequisite for all learning, so it necessarily has more “meaning” embedded in it than simply brushing your teeth twice per day.

Other habits are going to seem mundane, but actually have a certain “thickness” wrapped up in them. For example, we trained our children from the time they were young to join us in worship at church. The training felt a lot like training a “thin” habit: sit still, be quiet, try to listen, etc. As they conquered that it was: draw a picture in your notebook that represents something you heard in the sermon. Later it became: write down any questions you have and we’ll talk about it on the drive home.

The thickness, however, is that they are being physically habituated into the Body of Christ. They witness baptisms. They stand up and sit down as the liturgy requires. They sing with the community. Those who are old enough partake of communion. The simple “thin” habit of learning to sit quietly in church allows for the growth of all the “thick” habits involved in participating in the Body.

Miss Mason sometimes quoted her pastor, who would say that “habit is ten natures.” The idea was that habits could supplant our nature. I could be naturally inattentive, but build a habit of attention. I could naturally be tempted to lie, but build a habit of truth telling. I could naturally be really messy, but build a habit of orderliness. Jamie Smith continues in this vein when he writes:

[H]abits…are formed by practices: routines and rituals that inscribe particular ongoing habits into our character, such that they become second nature to us. According to research on the “new unconscious,” such dispositions have a kind of “automaticity” about them: they are the default tendencies and inclinations that we follow without thinking. They are not the same as mere biological instincts or “natural” responses to stimuli because they are learned; they are part of our “second” nature, not the first.

Of course, because habits become second nature, this means we ought to be intentional about them. Smith goes on to say:

All habits and practices are ultimately trying to make us into a certain kind of person. So one of the most important questions we need to ask is: Just what kind of person is this habit or practice trying to produce, and to what end is such a practice aimed? 

That is a great question to ask ourselves!

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the actual process of forming a habit.


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