“Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.” This is how Charlotte Mason describes the tools that we should use to educate our children in a way that respects them as people. Just like grown-ups, children are creatures of habit. But it’s up to us mothers to determine whether they will be creatures of good habits or bad habits. We could just let nature run its course and let those bad habits take over. Or we could be diligent and proactive, and help our children develop positive habits. It’s no easy feat, but Charlotte Mason clearly explained the stages of habit formation.
In Home Education, the section called “-The Forming of a Habit- ‘Shut the Door After You’” describes the habit training process. This is a long section and I won’t write it all out here, but I encourage you to read it! The stages of habit formation that Charlotte Mason mentioned are important to understand if we want to help our children in this way.
You’ve heard the saying that it takes 30 days to form a habit. It can, or it can take much longer. Habit formation takes diligence and perseverance. This is by no means a formula to follow. Habit training is much more difficult than it looks written out in words, but our hard work will be so worth it!
Give Inspirational Ideas
“A habit becomes morally binding in proportion to the inspiring power of the idea which underlies it.” School Education, page 110
Charlotte Mason habit formation begins with a little seed of an idea that motivates and inspires. Give an inspirational idea that will inspire your child concerning the new, desired habit. Bible verses and beautiful, living books often offer inspiration in these areas! You could also just give a few words about the new habit. When Miss H slipped into bad manners at the dinner table, climbing down from her chair to run laps around the kitchen, I knew I needed to inspire her to actually sit down and eat. I told her, “I am so thankful that we get to spend dinnertime together as a family! This is really a special time for us!” It’s tempting for me to frame things in a more manipulative way: “Don’t you want to sit down and spend time with Mommy and Daddy? It makes us sad that you won’t talk to us!” But this falls under the umbrella of things Charlotte Mason’s fourth principle said we should not do.
Explain the Desired Habit
Clearly explain what the new habit should look like. In the “Shut the Door After You” section that I mentioned above (have you read it yet!?) Johnny’s mother clearly explains that the door should be shut for the comfort of those in the room. Sometimes, we clearly have in mind what we don’t want our children to do, but we haven’t given as much careful thought to what they should do! It’s so important that we clearly define our expectations.
Having in a few- the fewer the better- earnest words pointed out the miseries that must arise from this fault, and the duty of overcoming it, and having so got
the (sadly feeble) will of the child on the side of right-doing, she simply sees that for weeks together the fault does not recur.” Home Education, page 120
To help our children “break” bad habits, we really have to help find a better substitute for it. Finding the best way to replace a bad habit might take some experimentation!
Tact, Watchfulness, and Persistance
To me, this is the hardest part of a mother’s work. In order to help our children develop a desired habit, we have to be sure that they never fall back into the old habit. Charlotte Mason explained that we think as we are accustomed to think. Our brains have “tracks” that our thoughts run along. When we work to establish new tracks, revisiting the old ones, even once, can be detrimental to our cause. Establish some sort of signal to remind your little one to stick with the good habit. This prevents us from nagging and saying the same thing over and over- something that parents nor children enjoy!
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
The Dangerous Stage
The dangerous stage occurs after a habit begins to form. Maybe we assume that our children already have the habit down. Or maybe we feel badly that they’ve been working so hard, when it doesn’t feel like work at all to them! We have to be aware of this dangerous stage, and remain diligent.
Now comes the critical moment. Some day Johnny is so taken up with a new delight that the habit, not yet fully formed, loses its hold, and he is half-way downstairs before he thinks of the door. Then he does think of it, with a little prick of conscience, strong enough, not to send him back, but to make him pause a moment to see if his mother will call him back. She has noticed the omission, and is saying to herself, ‘Poor little fellow, he has been very good about it this long time; I’ll let him off this once.’ He, outside, fails to hear his mother’s call, says, to himself– fatal sentence! –’Oh, it doesn’t matter,’ and trots off.” Home Education, page 124
Even when the habit is developed, we need to keep watch over it. A change in our daily routine, or even in our child’s development can set good habits off track. We have to stay watchful so that bad habits don’t take over. Charlotte Mason recommended working on one habit at a time, but I think that in addition to this, we’ll also have to be sure that several habits are being maintained.
One word more,- prompt action on the child’s part should have the reward of absolute leisure,
time in which to do exactly as she pleases, not granted as a favour, but accruing (without any words)
as a right.” Home Education, page 121
This reinforcement shouldn’t come as a reward, but just a natural result of doing as they ought.
Where to Start with Charlotte Mason Habit Formation
The three habits that Charlotte Mason talked about the most are obedience, attention, and truthfulness. We can start working on obedience and attention when our children are infants! The habit of truthfulness is not far behind: as soon as a child can speak, you can train them in this habit.
My eBook, Habits for the Early Years: A Mother’s Journal, goes through habits that are especially helpful to develop during the early years, and gives tips for helping your child with each habit. Journal pages help you track your child’s progress throughout the process.