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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    The Primacy of Habit

    April 21, 2016 by Brandy Vencel

    I ‘ve been thinking about habits this week as I was prepping for our local Charlotte Mason group. We’re reading through Home Education (which means there is a Home Education study guide in the works here at Afterthoughts!), and it’s been such a good thing for me to revisit this topic. There are a few things I’ve let fall through the cracks with my two younger children — I was more intentional when I had fewer students that were school age. In some ways, I’m better overall at habit training because the actual training is a habit that I have. But in other ways, my youngest, especially, is aΒ more difficult person to train, and he and I tend to have the same faults, which means I don’t always know how to help him conquer them (because I haven’t yet conquered them in myself).

    I was struck by how we often say we do not have time for the habit training in the younger years, when this is exactly what the younger years are all about.

    Here is a realization that I had this week: the to-do list can crowd out habit training. Even though we say noble things like “the end of education is virtue” or “education is character formation,” it is so easy to get caught up in checking all the boxes. It is striking to read when Miss Mason says:

    This horse-in-a-mill round of geography and French, history and sums, was no more than playing at education; for who remembers the scraps of knowledge he laboured over as a child? and would not the application of a few hours in later life effect more than a year’s drudgery at any one subject in childhood? If education is to secure the step-by-step progress of the individual and the race, it must mean something over and above the daily plodding at small tasks which goes by the name.

    Isn’t that what we get caught up in? The “daily plodding at small tasks?”

    Do your math. Stop looking around and do your math. Why are you daydreaming? Do. your. math!

    They are, she says in a nearby passage, “incapable of steady effort.”

    Yes, I believe in Doing The Things. I believe in doing copywork, in reading history, in map work for geography, and so much more.


    I was struck by how we often think we do not have time for the habit training in the younger years, when in fact this is exactly what the younger years are all about. By the time we reach junior high, do we still want to be fighting the Pay Attention battle? The Stop Daydreaming battle? The Go Do Your Work battle?

    I don’t know about you, but I want to enjoy the upper years, which means I don’t want to have to nag my kids to do what they ought.

    And so Miss Mason tells us that habit is the lever that can lift our children out of themselves and make them capable of steady effort.

    I recently listened to a Q&A episode of the Mason Jar podcast, and I can’t recommend it enough. Cindy read a letter in which a mom describes how she broke math into 15-minute sessions. It wasn’t phrased exactly this way, but the intent was to help the child practice that steady effort Miss Mason is speaking about.

    It’s an interesting question: if a child can only concentrate on something for 15 minutes, why do we ask him to do it for 20? Because it needs to get done? But then we are training him to daydream, which results in more conflict.

    Or so it seems.

    Each of us have habits. The question isn’t whether we want to have habits or not have habits, but rather what habits are we going to have?

    I think when it comes to habit training, one verse really sticks out:

    And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9)

    Isn’t this the real issue? We have so much to do, and a lot of us are really tired, and it’s hard to prioritize things sometimes. But if education is ultimately about character, then how they are while they study matters. If they have bad habits associated with school, it’s only going to get harder. While it feels like the easy path, neglecting habits only makes it harder later on.

    Next month, Mystie and I will have a podcast episode about focusing on habits in the summer. Until then, all I can do is echo Scripture: do not grow weary in doing good.

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  • Reply Liz April 23, 2016 at 4:17 pm

    I needed this post today…especially the scripture. I am in a giving up mood today; unfortunately my family is in a state of not wanting to talk to me today for fear that I may blow up.

    I have been really bad at training habits, mostly because I wasn’t taught how to establish good habits. Now that I’m in at the tail end of my mid 30’s…ugg, did I really just say that!?…I’m finding it harder and harder to get out of MY bad habits to get my children into having good habits.

    I think this is my next focus study for the next few weeks.

    I haven’t been through your entire blog, but if you have a post on HOW to implement the start of good habit making; that would be great.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 25, 2016 at 9:24 am

      Here is a post on habit formation that also has links to other posts, so I think it’ll be pretty helpful.

      Don’t give up! It’s totally worth it, but you probably need to start slow so they don’t go into shock. πŸ™‚

      • Reply Liz April 27, 2016 at 5:46 am

        Thank you!

  • Reply Melissa April 23, 2016 at 4:41 am

    Woohoo Brandy! I can’t wait to see your new Home Education guide! We’re on our last principle study I’m ready and waiting…no pressure πŸ˜‰

    This was a great post and gives me much to ponder.


    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 25, 2016 at 9:06 am

      I wish I could say it will be done *soon* but I think it won’t come out until 2017. I like to test them first before publishing them.

      Hey — maybe I could send you what I have and you could test it on your group, too? I mean, it’s not a super complex thing, because it’s just one book, compared with many as in Start Here, but still…

      Of course, that means I’d have to type up all my notes…hmmm…

      • Reply Melissa April 27, 2016 at 2:34 am

        I’m game if and when you are πŸ™‚

  • Reply Sharron April 22, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    Good stuff here. This is the second time I’ve been presented with Gal. 6:9 this week and boy have I needed it!! I’m at the point where I really need it tattooed on the back of my hand! LOL Thank you for sharing all of your after thoughts. I find them sometimes over my head, but always very interesting and very encouraging.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 25, 2016 at 9:05 am

      I don’t know about you, but Galatians 6:9 is one I need to hear OFTEN. πŸ™‚

  • Reply Meghan April 22, 2016 at 9:53 am

    Great post and comments! And can I just say, I’m even that much more interested in reading through your thoughts on habit training now that you’ve started your low-energy homeschooling series? Thanks for being so honest and for sharing with us fellow low-energy moms about how you implement these principles and practices!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 25, 2016 at 9:04 am

      I really think habit training is *necessary* for low-energy moms. At some point, it becomes a survival skill. πŸ˜‰

  • Reply Lisa V in BC April 21, 2016 at 7:44 am

    Every time I receive an email from Afterthoughts, I feel like I’m having tea with my mentor!

    Thank you for blessing us with the gift of your thoughts.

    I love that quote from Miss Mason. It reminds me that it is okay, nay, it is good, to simplify to bring peace to our home for in doing so, we will have the opportunity to actually maintain those good habits which we start learning but often give up on when life gets too busy/overwhelming again.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 21, 2016 at 8:24 am

      Coffee, Lisa. Coffee. πŸ˜‰

      I wish we really *could* have tea {or coffee}. Now that would be something. πŸ™‚

      I love that quote, too. It was like looking in a really good mirror after spending too long looking in a bad one. I felt like I immediately saw where I was going wrong and where I needed to put my focus in order to improve things. πŸ™‚

      • Reply Lisa V in BC April 21, 2016 at 8:32 am

        Well, I do love flavoured coffee, so I’m all in!!

        “It was like looking in a really good mirror after spending too long looking in a bad one.”

        What an awesome mental picture!!! And is a perfect illustration of your mentorship πŸ™‚ I need to put that in my commonplace along with Miss Mason’s quote – when I finally have the habit of keeping one. πŸ˜›

        Which will probably be when my kids are grown and gone – hopefully my grandkids will benefit πŸ™‚

  • Reply dawn April 21, 2016 at 7:03 am

    So so so good.

    I’ve been involved in a discussion, recently, that questions how we teach habit (using Laying Down the Rails or other such resources) and if it edges the line of “moralizing” which Andrew Kern discussed in his most recent Ask Andrew podcast. Do you have any thoughts on that?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 21, 2016 at 7:11 am

      Well…I haven’t listened to that episode yet! That’s my next one. I mean, my knee jerk response is that habit training is doing while moralizing is talking, but maybe I’m missing something?

      I really think that habit training as CM talks about it goes all the way back at least to Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics, so…

      • Reply Brandy Vencel April 21, 2016 at 7:11 am

        I forgot to say that I will try to listen soon so that we can talk. πŸ™‚

        • Reply dawn April 21, 2016 at 7:13 am


          How does this sound? Andrew Kern teaches that we can teach 3 things: facts, ideas, or skills. Moralizing happens when we teach ideas as skills. So introducing the idea of kindness as an idea is good. Introducing it as a behavior is not.

          • dawn April 21, 2016 at 7:17 am

            Maybe edit the end to say “from literature for behavior” or “in an inorganic way”

          • Brandy Vencel April 21, 2016 at 7:27 am

            Okay, so Aristotle says that there are two categories of virtue: virtue of thought and virtue of character. I think this applies here. Virtue of character, he says, is accomplished by teaching and so it takes time and experience. Virtue of character, on the other hand, is accomplished by habit. He makes the distinction, which I think is interesting, between knowing what virtue *is* and in actually practicing virtue.

            In Charlotte Mason’s case, she talks about introducing the inspiring idea. So, for example, at our group meeting, we talked about things like, “We practice orderliness as a way of loving our neighbor — in this case the brother who shares our room.” But the fact remains that I have spent much time in thinking about the idea of orderliness without actually becoming orderly in practice — because in just thinking about the idea, I divorced it from my body.

            I think this is where the work of James K.A. Smith comes in handy.

            With that said, I still haven’t listened to the episode. πŸ˜‰

          • dawn April 21, 2016 at 7:30 am

            That was totally my take over all of what I’ve heard from Andrew, he didn’t talk about that specifically on the podcast πŸ™‚

            But, I’ll be patient. That’s a virtue to cultivate, right? LOL

          • Brandy Vencel April 21, 2016 at 8:22 am


            I was just thinking that I recently had a similar conversation with someone about Andrew’s take on principles or philosophy being more important that practices, to the point where we should learn one before the other. Now, you know I love me some philosophy, but I also know that I had a hard time understanding Charlotte Mason until I started doing some of the things — it was like it was synergistic. I read some, practiced some, went back and understood more that I read, practiced more, and so on and so forth.

          • dawn April 21, 2016 at 8:27 am

            So you’re saying we embody ideas? :p

          • Dawn April 21, 2016 at 10:33 am

            Interesting question on this, Dawn! I did listen to that episode and enjoyed it very much. I want to go back and listen again, though – as I do with so much that Andrew Kern says:).

            I personally do not think that habit training would be considered moralizing, though. I think it can be approached in a moralizing manner but I do not think the act itself would be qualified as such. The line becomes a little fuzzier when we are talking about habits of “decency and propriety” and religious habits, but when it comes to habits in other categories I don’t believe I’d call this type of training moralizing.

            Brandy, this is quite timely, my friend. I have been doing some serious thinking about this very issue all week. Thank you for highlighting it.

          • Brandy Vencel April 25, 2016 at 9:02 am

            Yes — we embody ideas. Exactly. Glad you told me I thought that. πŸ˜‰

            And capital-D Dawn, I like your point that habit training *could* be moralizing, but doesn’t have to be. That’s a good distinction, especially since CM didn’t think mothers should be preachy.

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