Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Training the Temper

A Full Life is covering Charlotte Mason's thoughts on the Will right now. When I first read CM's Home Education, about ten years ago now, this was a lightbulb thought.

Wilfulness indicates want of Will Power.––But, all the time, nobody perceives that it is the mere want of will that is the matter with the child. He is in a state of absolute ‘wilfulness,’––the rather unfortunate word we use to describe the state in which the will has no controlling power; willessness, if there were such a word, would describe this state more truly.
I remember once seeing a little girl about six years old following her mother, who was carrying a baby in a backpack. The little girl was scarlet and screaming. She was following her mom and pounding on the backpack and on her mom's back as she followed her. This would be an archetypical example of what we conventionally called "wilfulness" or the "strong willed child."

Charlotte Mason would say that this is exactly the opposite. This is a child with almost no will of her own, at that moment. Is this semantics? CM would say no -- that in fact, this is an error of thinking:

–I am anxious to bring before you this limitation of the will to its own proper functions, because parents often enough fall into the very metaphysical blunder we have seen in the novel-writer. They admire a vigorous will, and rightly. They know that if their child is to make his mark in the world, it must be by force of will. What follows? The baby screams himself into fits for a forbidden plaything, and the mother says, ‘He has such a strong will.’ The little fellow of three stands roaring in the street, and will neither go hither or thither with his nurse, because ‘he has such a strong will.’ He will rule the sports of the nursery, will monopolise his sisters’ playthings, all because of this ’strong will.’
This error of diagnosis leads to errors in treatment:

Now we come to a divergence of opinion: on the one hand, the parents decide that, whatever the consequence, the child’s will is not to be broken, so all his vagaries must go unchecked; on the other, the decision is, that the child’s will must be broken at all hazards, and the poor little being is subjected to a dreary round of punishment and repression.
The solution? Charlotte Mason seems to say that correcting how you think about the problem will correct your treatment of the problem.

Taking my example of the little girl having a tantrum -- the mom was doing her best to ignore her; she was walking doggedly onwards with a strained angry face. I could see why she might have thought this was the best solution. Perhaps she had read the parenting manuals that said tantrums are best ignored. Or perhaps she longed to spank the child, but knew it would not be socially approved in the university town where we lived at the time. Maybe she thought it would be best to get wherever they were going and then deal with the crisis there. I have learned it's impossible to make judgment calls on what someone else *should* be doing when I am only seeing a snapshot of their lives.

But I don't think that ignoring the character trait that made the girl act out this way would help her grow out of it. In other words, however that individual situation was addressed, the bigger picture needed to be addressed in some way.

Father Hardon, SJ, writes of how the "natural" virtues function:

Just as there are four faculties which contribute to our moral acts, intellect, will, appetite of desire and appetite of aversion, so there must be four virtues to keep these faculties straight --prudence for the mind, justice for the will, temperance for the urge to what is pleasant, and fortitude for the instinct away from what is painful. The Latins summarized their functions in the words circumspice [look around], age [act], abstine [keep away from] and sustine [bear up with].

In some ways those functions -- look around, act, keep away from, and bear up with -- are habits that we should set in our children even before they are capable of thinking this way for themselves. They seem compatible to the strategies Charlotte Mason teaches in training habits in children.

To keep up with the example of the wild temper, Charlotte Mason tells about a child named Guy with a passionate temper in The Philosopher at Home. Guy's nurse tells his mother, "He has such a temper, ma'am!" and indeed, the following story shows it to be very true:

The uproar subsided a little; but when Mrs. Belmont laid her band on his shoulder to raise him, the boy sprang to his feet, ran into her head-foremost, like a young bull, kicked her, beat her with his fists, tore her dress with his teeth, and would no doubt have ended by overthrowing his delicate mother, but that Mr. Belmont, no longer able to endure the disturbance, came up in time to disengage the raging child and carry him off to his mother's room. Once in, the key was turned upon him, and Guy was left to "subside at his leisure" said his father.
His father inquires of an old friend, a doctor, about what is to be done, and gets the answer that the negative habit must be addressed immediately and a positive habit put in its place. The story continues through, telling about the ups and downs of Guy's improvement.

First, the father has to acknowledge that Guy's temper has a hereditary element, but that this does not mean that he is "fated" to rage and storm through his life.


Prevention is better than cure. The thing for all of us is to take precautions against even one more of these outbreaks.
By seeing the signs ahead of time, the nurse (in this case) can immediately act to distract the child by what CM called "changing the thoughts".

if you notice any or all of these signs, the boy is on the verge of an outbreak. Do not stop to ask questions, or soothe him, or make peace, or threaten. Change his thoughts. That is the one hope. Say quite naturally and pleasantly, as if you saw nothing, 'Your father wants you to garden with him,' or, 'for a game of dominoes'; or, 'Your mother wants you to help her in the store-room,' or, 'to tidy her work-box.' Be ruled by the time of the day, and how you know we are employed. And be quite sure we do want the boy."
The nurse asks whether that will be any good, since the child is already starting the passion at that point.. The answer:

Your master thinks that Guy's passions have become a habit, and that the way to cure him is to keep him a long time, a month or two, without a single outbreak; if we can manage that, the trouble will be over. As for the passion in his heart, that comes with the outer signs, and both will be cured together.
This works for about a week. Then one day nurse is preoccupied and irritable and before she has read the signs, Guy has fallen into a new fit.

The father decides that at this point it is necessary to replace the negative habit with a positive one, and to enlist Guy himself in helping. The following conversation takes place:

"So my poor little boy had a bad day yesterday!"

Guy hung his head and said nothing.

"Would you like me to tell you how you may help ever having quite such another bad day?"

"Oh yes, please, father; I thought I couldn't help."

"Can you tell when the 'Cross-man' is coming?"

Guy hesitated. "Sometimes, I think. I get all hot."

"Well, the minute you find he's coming, even if you have begun to cry, say, 'Please excuse me, Nurse,' and run downstairs, and then four times round the paddock as fast as you can, without stopping to take breath!"

"What a good way! Shall I try it now?"

"Why, the 'Cross-man' isn't there now. But I'll tell you a secret: he always goes away if you begin to do something else as hard as you can; and if you can remember to run away from him round the garden, you'll find he won't run after you; at the very worst, he won't run after you more than once round!"

The mother and father have this conversation:

But don't you think Guy would grow out of these violent tempers naturally, as he gets older?"

"Well, he would not, as youth or man, fling himself on the ground and roar; but no doubt he would grow up touchy, fiery, open at any minute to a sudden storm of rage. The man who has too much self-respect for an open exhibition may, as you know well enough, poor wife, indulge in continual irritability, suffer himself to be annoyed by trifling matters. No, there is nothing for it but to look upon an irate habit as one to be displaced by a contrary habit. Who knows what cheerful days we may yet have, and whether in curing Guy I may not cure myself? The thing can be done; only one is so lazy about one's own habits. Suppose you take me in hand?"

All of Charlotte Mason's character formation sketches seem like that -- just sketches. I certainly know quite a few "Guy" types of child who are not so quickly cured of their besetting fault. Charlotte Mason says that "habit is ten natures"; Father Hardon says that "habit is second nature".

In his words:

The soul is the remote principle or source of all our activities; faculties are the proximate sources built into the soul by nature; habits are still more immediate principles added to the faculties either by personal endeavor or by supernatural infusion from God. Consequently the soul helps the man, faculties help the soul, and habits help the faculties.

Natural or acquired habits result from repeated acts of some one kind; they give not the power to act, but the power to act readily and with dexterity. Thus in the natural order, the faculty without the habit is simple power to act, the faculty with the habit is power to act with perfection. Since custom is parent to habit, it is called second nature. Faculty is like first nature, and habit the second.
What I would think of a child like Guy is that his irascible temperament is probably related to a strength that could be turned, as he did turn it, to "good energy". He probably would have trouble acting completely against his natural temperament, but turning it to a positive exercise would accustom him to working against the more destructive tendencies of his temper, and so if he kept on that track, by the time he was his father's age he would be very used to channeling the energy into constructive action rather than towards fretting and harassing his wife.

No comments: