Tuesday, June 10, 2008

More Habits!

Charlotte Mason wrote a lot about habits in her six volumes on education. For her, it was one of three main "instruments" of education.... the three together were "atmosphere" "discipline" and "life".

By this formula ("education is a discipline") we mean the discipline of habits formed definitely and thoughtfully whether habits of mind or of body.

I have always had trouble with this aspect of CM's method. Some questions that come up in my mind:

  • How is this habit-forming emphasis compatible with her idea that children should learn to exercise their will consciously? Aren't they then learning to do things reflexively, which is contrary to free will?
  • How can you "form habits" in another human being?
  • How is the intervention necessary in forming habits in children compatible with the wise restraint that she says a mother should exercise?
  • If you are trying to form habits without recourse to rewards, suggestion, severity or nagging -- all things she has counseled against over-using -- then what's left in the mother's toolbox? Aren't we almost doomed to frustrated ineffectualness?

Habits are Inevitable

On the other hand, if you look around you, you can see the truth of her statement that everyone lives a life of habit. If you don't do it intentionally, you do it by default. She adds that bad habits are easier to fall into than good ones are to acquire. Again, you can see that to some extent by looking around you. I think the reason for that is that default habits are informed by one's natural temperament and appetites. To form habits intentionally takes reason and an act of will, and those things are more "strenuous" because they go against the natural grain.

Everyone Fosters Habits, Intentionally or by Default

Many books and "systems" seem to make a distinction between those who train in habits and those who don't. I personally have never much cared for that distinction. I think everyone trains themselves and their children in habits *according to what they value most*. Rousseau, for instance, said that the only habit that ought to be formed in a child was the habit of forming no habits. This doesn't seem realistic or desirable to me, but of course it is a habit informed by what he thought valuable.

Change your own Habits First

Once again, the main mandate seems to be "purify the source". If you yourself try hard to detach yourself from motives of fear, anger, pride, sloth, etc -- you will be able to better see how to help your children do the same. By substituting higher, more reasonable motives -- you can avoid a lot of the unpleasantness that makes habit-forming seem so strenuous.

Foster the Habit of Habit-Forming

I will always remember the first time I read what Charlotte Mason said about the habit of habit-forming: -- that it should become a delightful challenge. For the mother who is weary at the prospective of years ahead of training and toiling, she said to think of a clock -- which does many ticks in a lifetime, but *only one tick at a time*. This is a mechanical analogy, but if you substitute something natural like the rising of the sun or the orderly progression of the seasons, you see how it can become something continuous yet not compulsive, a quiet form of "doing the next thing".

Habits are Means to Ends

If you haven't formed a habit of steady progress in habits, then it will also be extremely discouraging to find that habits are often in flux. Children change and grow, the circumstances of the household change, children differ in temperament and what comes easily to them. The basic reasons for the habits don't change, but the details of the habits do change sometimes. There has to be creativity and flexibility involved in order to adjust schedules and routines to the necessities of the situation. Maybe it was once a habit for the children to go to bed at seven, but now their father doesn't come home until seven, so in order to have "daddy time" it makes more sense to stay up till 9:30. The main idea is that children have enough sleep, and that remains constant, but the details of the daily rhythm don't stay constant.

Replace Ineffective Habits with Good Ones

Charlotte Mason says that habits are like tracks laid so that life can move forward easily. Now, I resist railroading ;-) and mechanical analogies are not my favorite. But I do see her point. The best kind of habits are those that advance virtue and make it easier to move to higher heights. St Francis de Sales says something of the same:

"A single act is not enough to justify the name of vice.... To deserve the name of a vice or a virtue, there must be an advance in an act and it must be habitual."

"When attacked by some vice we must practise the contrary virtue as much as we can."
He also writes that people cannot reach the higher heights of heroism unless they have mastered some of the smaller self-denials and achievements of regular daily life.
So to answer some of my earlier questions --
  • Small habits lay the groundwork for exercise of larger virtues. They take the strain of decision out of the things that shouldn't need a decisive power, so the will can focus on a steady consistency.
  • There is still enough choice in the decision to maintain a habit, so that an effort is needed. But it is not the mental wear and tear of decision-making, but the effort of will in keeping a balanced regularity. For example, my children don't decide every night whether to brush their teeth or not, but they do still have to exercise their will in actually doing so in spite of distractions, or fatigue, or whatever else.
  • There is still much wise restraint needed on the part of the mother in order to prioritize the forming of habits and regulate herself to steady consistency. There is hardly anything so destructive of discipline, Charlotte Mason says, in a flurry of sharp and frequent commands "burden upon burden, grievous to be borne." Also, not all habits are irritating to children. Some, perhaps most, are pleasant once the initial forming effort is past. You can see how the Montessori method is based quite a bit on habits. A child enjoys having a reasonable "method" or approach to daily life, and will often continue with certain habits even when the need for them is past.
  • The last question is the hardest for me to answer. The answer is probably too large to go at the end of an already long post. Some of it goes case by case. I do think that a positive, interactive approach seems to work best. It helps me to remember that (1) I am invested with authority and (2) that authority is meant to be for the benefit of the one under authority. It is a help, more like a support for weakness and inexperience than a barrier or stick.

Thinking and Resolving Lead to Action

I always write things so theoretically. I am trying for my own sake to come up with some applications of my philosophizing. I found in reading older devotional books that the traditional rhythm of mental prayer follows a sequence: Considerations, Affections, Resolutions. In other words, you bring to mind what you want to reflect on; you dwell on them, trying to let the ideas sink into your heart and mind; then you resolve to apply them to your life in some way. This method intends that your thoughts don't stay in the realm of thought only, and that your life really reflects principled truth rather than just a collection of knee-jerks "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts". (of course, mental prayer goes much deeper than this because it involves talking to God and LISTENING, and receiving His grace).

Body and Soul are Integrated

I notice that Charlotte Mason's approach to habit-forming is somewhat similar to this, actually. She writes, quoting Robert Browning's poem Rabbi Ben Ezra.

"Nor soul helps flesh more now, than flesh helps soul"

Both are at our service in laying down the rails, so to speak, upon which the good life must needs run.

Since we are integrated -- body and soul -- our habits inform our ideas, and our ideas inform our habits. I remember when I first converted, having trouble with the idea that you "do" certain things at certain points in the Mass. You dress yourself and your children well in preparation for mass; you genuflect as you come in; you kneel and stand and sing at different times. It took me quite a long time to internalize all these rituals, since I had grown up thinking it was the heart that counted, not the outside ritual. But this is a false dichotomy, since the actions structure the interior attitude and the interior attitude flows into behavior, whether we will it to or no.

Good Habits Interconnect

There is a mystery in this integration. David Isaacs wrote in his book Character Formation that often one habit pulls another along with it. So for the weary mother, it can be encouraging to think that consistent success in one habit sometimes is enough to change the whole atmosphere in the house. On the other hand, sometimes children balk at something that seems reasonable and simple to us. It took me forever to train Aidan not to run unheedingly away whenever he was outside without a fence or some other boundary. He did not naturally intuit boundaries and their value until he was older. When he had learned the trait of caution in new situations, it applied to more areas than just outside.


My "resolutions" are to look at what habits my children have formed already -- ones that are conducive to virtue and ones that are not -- and work on replacing the ones that are not so conducive, with ones that are more so. If you look at your household, you probably can come up with a couple of habits that are humming along great -- and a couple that very obviously need work.

1 comment:

lissla lissar said...

Wonderful post, as always.

I think I'm drawing on Elizabeth Elliot in my answer to the first question. Habit and self-descipline, properly formed, do not inhibit free will in any way. It's the child who hasn't been encouraged to learn self-discipline and good habits who has less freedom to act. A child who has learned to concentrate even on the less fun parts of a task will be able to undertake and complete a task or study that interests him or her. The child without those habits will become frustrated or bored, and give up.

Hm. In light of your post, I think I should probably do the dishes. :D