Thursday, June 12, 2008

Personal Training

I'm still thinking about the section in Charlotte Mason on "habits", so that is where this post comes from. I hope this isn't getting too boring. I decided to spend this summer focusing on Charlotte Mason -- every year or so I take up her books again and it is very interesting to see how past readings have influenced my practices of today, and how things that were puzzling to me before start to "click" and make new sense to me.

The word "training" as used in the phrase "training in good habits" has a problematic side for me, and probably for other people as well. I don't think it's an unschooling term, for one thing. It seems to miss the point of a child/parent relationship as one of love and respect and mutual responsiveness. I practice a form of "attachment mothering" (even before I knew the term) and in that context, I don't tend to think a whole lot about "how to train" because good results seem to proceed naturally out of the relationship of trust and attachment. Beate mentioned in my combox that she disliked the dichotomy of "accepting love vs transforming love" because she didn't think they were opposed to each other like that. It ought to be just love -- purifying, integrated love informed by God's grace, and transformation for both the loving one and the loved one proceed from there.

I think this "training" difficulty, for me, comes from the same source. What is this thing called training, anyway? Doesn't it seem to put a distance in the relationship, a kind of conscious effecting, that seems to set conditions for acceptance? Aren't you saying, "you have to meet MY standard of what is best for you?" -- doesn't that take a bit of hubris, to say that by implication to a child, even one's "own" child?

I was thinking about this today and decided to try to work out some of my thoughts on the keyboard. I don't have easy answers. Even though this is going to be a long post, it probably won't even begin to say what I want to say. I can see why Clay Trumbull wrote a whole book, and why Charlotte Mason addressed the topic over the course of several of her books.

I also see this whole subject of "habits" and "training" and "parenting" is a vast and tricky one. It's difficult to say things in a way that can be easily understood. Whenever we're talking about the balance between authority and obedience, we get into areas that are invested with different contextual meanings by different people. Plus, applications may be different depending on our different circumstances.

When I hear the word "training" used my first thought is of doggy obedience school. Many authors often use that exact analogy and it strikes me as very unsuitable when we are discussing the nature of a human being, and especially one so vulnerable and impressionable as a child. Dogs do not have free will and their choices are ordered towards animal motives -- appetite, reproduction, pack loyalty, etc. Chesterton said that one says to a man acting wrongly towards a child, say, "Be a man!" but does not say to a crocodile opening its jaws to consume a victim "Be a crocodile!"

You train an animal to be what you want him to be -- a dog is trainable because he is a pack animal, while a crocodile is not -- but doing that to a human is using him as a secondary agent rather than a primary one. In other words, trying to mold a person into what YOU want without reference to his own personality as created by God is a form of slavery. Unfortunately, some people have used the "train up the child" directive as a power mechanism and become very invested in the outcome that THEY want. The child basically becomes an outcome, a product, and this is very wrong. (This is why Charlotte Mason emphasizes so frequently that parenting is stewardship -- an immense obligation and trust, not a power to be wielded arbitrarily even with good intentions)

On the other side of it, there are some societal and moral obligations and regulations, and refusing to acknowledge this doesn't change the fact that these exist. If you train your child to look before crossing a busy street, you have done him a lasting favor. If you train him to a habit of truth-telling, you've laid the groundwork for a mature understanding of the importance of honesty and fair dealings. And so on. The training isn't enough in itself, but words without corresponding actions aren't worth much either.

Clay Trumbull, author of "Hints on Child Training," (he was the grandfather of Thomas Howard and Elisabeth Elliot) made this distinction between "teaching" and "training,":

"It has been said that the essence of teaching is causing another to know. It may similarly be said that the essence of training is causing another to do. Teaching gives knowledge. Training gives skill. Teaching fills the mind. Training shapes the habits. Teaching brings to the child that which he did not have before. Training enables a child to make use of that which is already his possession." Clay Trumbull, Hints on Child Training.

If you look at it this way, you can see that training is meant to actuate the potential of the child and direct it towards competence, and this use of the word "train" has other applications in our language. For example:

  • You train a new employee -- you're not judging his adequacy as a human being or even proposing that you are superior to him -- sometimes training is even done by inferiors, perhaps like a drill sergeant might train officers. You are instructing him in what needs to be known and done to meet the requirements of his job.
  • You go "into training" in order to achieve athletically. This example comes to mind as I watch my son lift weights and do drills and workouts in order to improve at his football game. His father and coaches direct him and in that sense "train" him, but the motivation and the work are his. A related use would be the "personal trainer" -- the trainer does not have authority over you, in a way he is a servant, but he is helping you maximize your own personal potential.
  • You have training wheels on a bicycle when you are just starting to learn to ride. The "training" here is a kind of support or scaffolding to help you bridge the gap between pedaling a trike and actually riding a two-wheeler. The wheels help keep you in balance while you focus on mastering other skills.

Clay Trumbull says that the Hebrew word that we translate as "train" occurs only twice in the Old Testament. The etymology of the Hebrew word has to do with "rubbing the gullet" and evoked the ancient custom of opening the child's throat at birth by anointing it with blood or some other sacred liquid, thus "as a means of giving a child a start in life by the help of another life". This is interesting, he says, because it implies that training starts at birth.

The etymology seems to imply the notion of *help* in accustoming someone to a new situation. This seems similar to the uses of the word "train" that I mentioned just now. Personal trainers, training wheels, employee training are helps and support in developing the skills to meet a new situation.

In English, the word "train" derives from the Latin word that means "drawing out". This is also a helpful implication because there is no way to draw out something that is not there in the first place. You can't train a newborn to walk or a five year old to solve algebra problems. There has to be a prior foundation laid and capacity has to be there, too.

In a way, the training here is "error control" -- look at training wheels, for example, or personal training. The wheels, and the guidance of the personal trainer, help you avoid harmful mistakes or wrong directions. This is where Charlotte Mason's mechanical analogy of "laying down the rails" comes in. You practice the better way until it becomes second nature. Then you can build on that.

One more implication I get from the idea of rubbing a newborn's gullet that Clay Trumbull mentions. We don't do gullet-rubbing in civilized cultures because we don't see it as necessary. However, the natural first step in dealing with a newborn is to encourage him to cry, to clear his lungs, and then bundle him up and lay him on his mother's breast to nurse. This could be a comparable early form of training in the first essentials of life... breathing, eating, warmth, and intimacy. Most infants take to this easily, but some for various reasons have to be encouraged more consciously to latch on, to suck and breathe alternately, to get accustomed to touch and closeness.

At older ages, John Holt makes the point that children are somewhat comparable to new visitors to a strange land. "Training" in the sense of accustoming a newcomer to the rules of the game naturally takes place in these situations, but does not have to involve anger or power plays or even a strict procedure.

Toilet training is another early example. Certainly, some toilet-training events become epic struggles. But it doesn't have to be that way, and really shouldn't be that way. Some mothers use "elimination communication" where they train themselves to become aware of the child's signals and respond quickly. Others (that would be me) wait until the child shows signs of readiness and then the training process takes place almost by itself in just a few days. Most successful training in skills, especially where children are concerned, involve some sort of interaction, a back and forth reciprocal element. More on that later.

The vast bulk of training, Charlotte Mason and Clay Trumbull and most other advocates of humane habit formation would agree, happens in a passive sense as the child observes what is going on around him and conforms himself to it. If you look at your child through the course of the day, you can see that he has all kinds of habits that direct how he interacts with the world and the society he lives in. Most of them are shaped by what he observes and picks up from around him. Yes, they have his own unique personal stamp to them, but they are also influenced directly by his surroundings and the skills he sees used. Frank Smith calls this, "joining a club" and suggests that most children want to belong to the club they are born into, and will work hard to develop the skills and habits they see in regular use around them. (This can be good or bad and at any rate makes one think seriously about the example one is setting).

This post is getting long. I am trying to rehabilitate the word "training" which I've seen used as a punitive, mechanical system of manipulation of a human towards outcomes planned by someone else. I am trying to show that in its more essential sense, "training" can contribute to the human person's welfare by giving him or her the skills and tools to be successful in a moral and logistical sense. And that "training" whether acknowledged or not is a factor in any adaptation to a new situation or developmental level.

The connotation of the word "training" still seems sometimes to be too top-down, even after all that. Can't, and doesn't, a child train himself? (more on that later) Doesn't the parent have to train himself first? (definitely). Isn't there a role for humility in a parent in using authority to form a child? You think of people who have been "deformed" by training or who have a great set habits narrowly speaking, but don't measure up as virtuous human beings (think the Pharisees who persecuted Jesus). Right-brained intuitive people like myself have real doubts whether "training" will actually activate a child's capacities -- one is afraid of clipping and molding and narrowing and turning out a "product" of one's will rather than helping foster the unique human potential of the precious individual child.

This is certainly a big issue, to me at least, and so I will probably have to write another post going into the subject from that perspective. For now, I just wanted to establish that taken in its essential meaning, the word "training" can be used in a different sense than simply the mechanical obedience required for, say, a canine or a mercenary soldier. It can be taken to mean a respectful attention and response to the child's need for support in development. It can and should be something that is done in cooperation with the child's personality and developing will.


Anonymous said...

This is helpful and I think the analogies to employee training and athletic training are very good ones. Much better than dogs for all the reasons you state.

I think my gut reaction to much of this line of thinking (and why I have been skimming more than reading the last few posts) has been due to my own experience with my mother. I still get the feeling that she judges the quality of her parenting on how I turned out. Because I haven't become quite what she was aiming for, sometimes she says and does things that I find quite hurtful. Personally, I think she did a great job, and I think I turned out fine and she is quite contradictory in that she will say that I turned out fine (and mean it). But there are times.

And they are times that focus on things like my values, my housekeeping standards, some of the choices I make about parenting (or marriage).

All this to say that your concerns about different kinds of love are quite valid and resonate with something. I think that God's grace, which I understand to be about unconditional love, is really about loving regardless. And good behaviour follows as the way you would treat someone who loved you that much.

But then there are those things about teaching how the world works and what the general rules are. As long as we accept that at some point our children can make their own decisions about whether to follow those rules or not and how, I think giving attention to how we inculcate those rules is a worthwhile pursuit.

Willa said...

Jove, glad to see you commenting again.

Because I haven't become quite what she was aiming for, sometimes she says and does things that I find quite hurtful.

See, I think this is another thing I am doubtful about with regard to this whole "training" idea. Parents are not infallible. If they put a lot of effort into a specific goal, they tend to get invested in their vision of the outcome.... or at least, I do if I don't watch it.

For me it seems to work best if I remember that I am trying to help the child "become what he is" rather than make him into something specific that I want. Certainly no easy task but implies "error control" and support/scaffolding rather than molding like clay.

Another thing I wonder about is whether "training" actually jumps in front of the child and does the work for him and denies her the opportunity to learn for herself. Sort of like "training" a child to do arithmetic facts rather than think mathematically. This is another reason I think restraint is necessary.

Perhaps the Victorians were slightly more optimistic about "training" and the like because of the idealistic evolutionary theories then in the air. The man on the street tended to think the human race was improving (and that the North-western world was at the leading edge of the improvement envelope). The conventional wisdom is different nowadays.

I'm very glad you managed to read that whole thing because I don't know if I would have been able to. Anyway, I am glad you commented since it helps me think it through.

Stephanie said...

Willa, to my mind, the word as our Miss Mason used it, is the concept of "voice training" - for which you need a personal trainer. Or, "training for the Olympics" (again, personal trainer ... big help)

It's not that the one being is the Subject and the other the Scientist, but that one being is the actor and the other the mentor - coach - trainer. Anyone who's ever studied voice or instrumental music or athletics or ... um ... is there another thing like this? (it's the thing where your being IS your tool of trade) knows that the one under training must be the active participant in the process - even giving feedback if something isn't working for him.

It's a collaborative effort, with more and more of the responsibility being transferred as expertise rises. (Is this making any sense? I see why your post got long!)

Willa said...

Yes, it does make sense, Stephanie, and you said it shorter than I did. The thought about the collaborative process is helpful, because I do think the training process implies give and take and a mutual respect.

Laura A said...

Thanks for putting these things into words for me, Willa. I have mulled over these same thoughts many times, and sometimes Miss Mason discourages me a bit when she speaks of respecting the child and training him in the same breath. For one thing, I have a child who wouldn't narrate on cue for all the world! Eventually, one thinks, "Is this so very important? I'm just creating a power struggle!" I'd wonder how it was that some people's kids just went along with whatever curriculum their parents plopped in front of them. Huh? Who are these kids?

I used to go round and round wondering whether I didn't do enough "training" early enough, and that was why I had a child with such strong ideas about what she wanted to do and didn't want to do, or whether the strong ideas were something inborn (or caught early from us) and therefore I should use a gentler approach because it was more suitable. The latter has won out over the long haul. I succeed much better when working alongside.

Overall, what I have learned more than anything else is that training is just fine, but the child has to be willing to be trained. In the Olympics, or in a music conservatory, the student has to want to be there, at least on some level. In each case, we might start the child young because there's so much physical coordination to be learned, but how far he takes his training is up to the child.

And don't we all particularly appreciate someone who seems to truly know us instead of trying to cram us into some mold? Even if it's a nonconformist mold?

I've enjoying reading these. Keep up the good work!

Willa said...

Laura, thanks for writing that out. I'm glad you like the CM posts because I am struggling to write them. I don't want to simply summarize CM because that has been done very well already. But I do want to represent them fairly, not just springboard off into my own view of things -- at least, not right away ;-).

I used to go round and round wondering whether I didn't do enough "training" early enough, and that was why I had a child with such strong ideas about what she wanted to do and didn't want to do, or whether the strong ideas were something inborn (or caught early from us)

We never really know, do we? My daughter is strong-minded too, and I remember when she was little and we were on a boat, a woman watched her for a while and then complimented me for letting her be so free in her spirit. Well, of course, you often wonder if that's the best way or if you should have taken a different tack.

But I am pretty sure since you have the same temperament as I do that you WANT her to be strong, and are "training" her that way, because it's worth it even though it's uncomfortable sometimes.

Charlotte Mason did think that a child's will is NOT strong -- that it is undeveloped. This is a nice idea -- what we call "strongwilled" is really weakness of will -- the child is not in mastery of himself when he's having meltdowns or following his own impulses. He's a slave to himself.

So the object of "training the will" was something like what Pope John Paul called freedom for excellence. I want my daughter and sons to be strong-minded, but certainly not appetite-controlled. So a lot of decisions end up coming down to encouraging freedom of mind and feelings and will, but a conscious freedom -- not just freedom to do whatever.

I guess I could have just written a post, maybe ;-). Just a few thoughts.

Laura A said...

Ah, yes. I remember now that somewhere on one of those Myers-Briggs boards, there was a comment that INTPs are among the least interested types controlling others, and it comes across in their parenting--or something like that.

I also remember that Charlotte Mason discussion about willfulness meaning "weak willed." I agree with that basic idea. In reality, I do see my daughter exercise remarkable self-control when properly motivated. But, being human, there are also those moments when the strong-will comes from less admirable motivations. And it's sometimes hard to tell the difference on the spot. Again, narration comes to mind ;-).

Sara said...

Great post, and very thought provoking. I don't have the same gut reaction to "training" that you do. But I have experience of "training": voice training, dance training, athletic training, military training, leadership training, survival training, navigation training, etc. They are called training, but in no way did I ever feel like I was being "manipulated". Rather, it's a process of drawing you to greater and greater levels of skill. Teaching is more short-term, and more content-based. Training can go on for years, and can be just fine tuning and tweaking your performance. That's my definition, anyway!

Willa said...

it's a process of drawing you to greater and greater levels of skill

Yes, I think that is what I am starting to realize! Thanks for all those additional examples -- yes, "leadership training" would be a contradiction in terms if training was only about subordination. How true!

Michael L. Gooch said...

Here's my humble two-bits on this subject. In these trying times of finding adequate labor and skills to run the operations, we certainly are spending much more on training costs. However, I have get frustrated with the organizations that throw training at a crowd as if one size fits all. This is a horrible waste of these training resources. Choosing the right audience sounds like a simple endeavor; however, we hardly ever get it right. In many training sessions, you have a few who really would benefit more from a synopsis or a quick email rather than the full-blown course. As you choose your audience, try to get away from the group or department mindset. Training the wrong person not only wastes your time and the company’s money, but it also aggravates the person you have at gunpoint.

As a whole, we all developed our training model after old Mrs. Snodgrass in the third grade. She was the teacher, you were the pupil, and you better sit there and be quiet as she drones on about the ABCs. Adult learners are quite different. Unlike third-graders, most adults see themselves as responsible for their own decisions and lives. Adult need to know why they need to learn something. In addition, each class may have a wide variety of ages in attendance. As much as it hurts me, I will be the first to confess that the older people need more time to learn than the younger set. People in their fifties, sixties, and seventies can learn new techniques and acquire new knowledge just as well as younger people. However, the older ones will need a little more time. When you mix your training class with both young and old, you will have some who are bored and some who are struggling. Be aware of this and come up with creative solutions. Michael L. Gooch, SPHR Author of Wingtips with Spurs: Cowboy Wisdom for Today’s Business Leaders

Stephanie said...

"Adult learners are quite different. Unlike third-graders, most adults see themselves as responsible for their own decisions and lives."

In a nutshell, the best benefit of good homeschooling.

After training and releasing my own kids, it seems clear to me that the way to "responsible for their own" is through the "process of drawing you to greater and greater levels of skill" so that the strength of will is enough for the formation of habits. And habits can sustain where will cannot. That's a pretty good system - train the will for strength, the will chooses and forms habits, and in times of weakness habits sustain.