The idea of habit training can be both encouraging and overwhelming. It’s encouraging because finally something clicks and makes sense when it comes to our children’s education and behavior. All those failed sticker charts and incentives were aimed at the wrong place. But then when we realize that we, the mothers, are responsible for shaping the habits that will help lead our children to successful lives- that is an overwhelming thought! I’ve written a lot about Charlotte Mason’s ideas on habit training, but today I specifically want to talk about the often overlooked portion of Charlotte Mason’s 7th principle: education is a discipline. In the past, I’ve sped to the end of this principle to get to the good stuff- habit training! But I wanted to take a different approach today.
Discipline Versus Punishment
Discipline and punishment are two terms that are often used interchangeably. They’re not the same at all, though! Punishment moves in with an “I’ll show you!” mentality. The punishing parent acts out of anger to seek vengeance for wrongdoing. If a child is scared because of a harsh punishment, there’s a good chance that he won’t do it again. Punishments like spankings, writing sentences over and over again, or shaming a child, don’t teach them what is right, but scare them from doing wrong. I think these things develop a child’s view of an angry, punitive God.
Education is a Discipline– Discipline does not mean a birch-rod, nor a corner, nor a slipper, nor a bed, nor any such last resort of the feeble. The sooner we cease to believe in merely penal suffering as part of the divine plan, the sooner will a spasmodic resort to the birch-rod die out in families. We do not say the rod is never useful; we do say it should never be necessary.” Parents and Children, page 65
Discipline moves forward. It allows natural or related consequences to gently teach a better way of doing something the next time. The focus of discipline is on the child, not on the parent’s anger or retaliation. Charlotte Mason tells us that we should view children as our disciples-
Discipline is not Punishment– What is discipline? Look at the word; there is no hint of punishment in it. A disciple is a follower, and discipline is the state of the follower; the learner, imitator. Mothers and fathers do not well to forget that their children are, by the very order of Nature, their disciples. Now no man sets himself up for a following of disciples who does not wish to indoctrinate these with certain principles, or at the least, maxims, rules of life. So should the parent have at heart notions of life and duty which he labours without pause to instill into his children. Parents and Children, pages 66-67
Discipline is Not Rewards
In the same way, discipline is not rewards. Sometimes, moms who are new to habit training cling to their old tactics of behavior control. This might be a sticker chart or a jar of marbles that is added to when their child obeys. Not only does this prevent them from developing any self-compelling power to do what is right, but it can serve as a kind of punishment in itself.
Punishments? No; your dilatory person is a fatalist. ‘What can’t be cured must be endured,’ he says, but he will endure without any effort to cure. Rewards? No; to him a reward is a punishment presented under another aspect: the possible reward he realises as actual; there it is, within his grasp, so to say; in foregoing the reward he is punished; and he bears the punishment. What remains to be tried when neither time, reward, nor punishment is effectual? That panacea of the educationist: ‘One custom overcometh another.'” Home Education, page 119
I wrote about these tactics that Charlotte Mason warned us to avoid in her 4th principle. Her 7th principle tells us more about what we should do- train our children in positive habits.
Discipline in Habit Training
Discipline in habit training is a gentle, guiding hand that continually points a child towards what is right. Sometimes it means allowing them to experience an unpleasant consequence of their decision. Sometimes it means giving a relative consequence that will gently teach them what is right. But, at least in the beginning, it is a mother’s self-discipline that will make habit training successful.
The training of the will, the instruction of the conscience, and, so far as it lies with us, the development of the divine life in the child, are carried on simultaneously with this training in the habits of a good life; and these last will carry the child safely over the season of infirm will, immature conscience, until he is able to take, under direction from above, the conduct of his life, the moulding of his character, into his own hands.” Parents and Children, pages 90-91
Ultimately, we want our children to be self-disciplined in their own habits. But this does not come naturally or easily. When I taught in public schools, a frustrated parent sat near my desk to ask about her son’s organizational skills. She didn’t understand why I constantly asked her to sign planners, told her when her son hadn’t finished his homework, and called her regularly at home. She thought that he should be responsible for these things. While there was some truth to that, he didn’t have anyone gently guiding him towards organization and self-discipline. This is an important lesson for habit training. We want our children to want to obey, to want to help out around the house, to want to do as they ought; but they will need guidance to get there.
They will need to rely on our self-discipline to get them there. We have to be consistent with our expectations,
Tact, watchfulness, and persistence are the qualities she must cultivate in herself; and, with these, she will be astonished at the readiness with which the child picks up the new habit.” Home Education, page 122
Their reliance on our own self-discipline is especially important during our children’s early years. If we are inconsistent and fail to follow through with habit training, we leave them to their own nature.
Pray for Weaknesses Now
An idea that I heard several years ago that really settled in my heart is that we should pray for our children’s weaknesses to show up now. When we still have them under our roof; when we still serve as their friendly ally in habit training; this is the only time we have to really help our children grow in their habits and character. This also changes my perspective on the process of habit training. When I feel frustrated that we’re still working on the habit of obedience, I remember that it is truly a blessing that I can help my children with this infinitely important habit right now.