Foundations of Habit Training: Getting Started with the Educational Tool of Discipline
Habit training, thus far in my Charlotte Mason journey, has felt like a bit of a unicorn. It’s concept is beautiful (setting patterns into motion that lead to ‘smooth and easy days’ ahead? Yes, please!), but actually managing to do it… that has been beyond me.
I’ve been reviewing Charlotte Mason’s motto recently: Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life. These three tools, she says, are the only tools we have to educate our children that respect their personhood. Even if I completely master ‘atmosphere’ and ‘life’, if I’m not using ‘discipline’ and helping my children build habits that will serve them in their lives, then I am handicapping my ability to educate my kids.
With that in mind, and a little more than a year to go before I start my eldest in Year 1 of Ambleside Online, I have decided it’s time to start figuring out this elusive concept of habit training – and share my experience here.
Habit training doesn’t mean we make our kids robots, but it does recognize that we spend most of our lives on autopilot.
To be honest, when I first read about habit training, I thought I had stumbled across something archaic and irrelevant in today’s culture. It particularly rubbed me the wrong way because I felt (and still feel) strongly about raising my children in a way that is respectful and gentle. Habit training sounded manipulative.
Despite this initial aversion, I kept reading. After all, Charlotte Mason believed children are whole people, and she spends time arguing that we should not manipulate our children by offering rewards, punishments, or coercing their emotions.
So what is habit training? It certainly is not making our children into automatons. I think that would make Charlotte Mason shudder. Instead, habit training is taking leadership as a parent to help your child develop habits that will serve them throughout their lives. We want our children to develop a good autopilot, because they will spend so much time on it.
With that, I want to offer a caveat about habit training that I think is important to remember: habit training should be done with humility. I feel so humbled, and a bit overwhelmed, by the awareness of how much influence I have on the lives of my children. When we intentionally take an opportunity to wield that influence, I think it’s even more important to start by accepting that our authority is given to us and we shouldn’t overstep the bounds God has placed on our role.
Choosing the first habit
I’m not launching into habit training just for fun – I had an initial problem that lead me to think about it.
This summer has been a bit of an up-and-down season. We’ve spent a lot of time at home. The baby naps in the mornings which makes it tough to get out consistently. Lots of our friends travel over the summer, so play dates fizzled out, along with a big source of accountability to getting the kids out of the house. All in all, we haven’t been out as much as I would have liked.
Another factor, though, that kept us from leaving the house, was just getting to the point where I could get the kids out the door in time to actually go somewhere. Despite an early start, breakfast would blend into playtime, our daily ‘morning time’ happened whenever somebody mentioned it, and before I knew it, it was time to start making lunch. I usually ended the day feeling like we had squandered time, missed opportunities, and that I needed to do more to bring a sense of structure to the day.
As I reflected on this recently, I realized that there was one thing that really made a difference. The days when the kids changed out of their pajamas early in the day went more smoothly. We were more likely to go somewhere, more likely to do a fun activity at home, more likely to benefit from and enjoy “rest time” in the afternoon because we’d been active earlier in the day.
We needed the habit of getting dressed early in the day.
Initially, I tried making a checklist, complete with pictures, of what the boys needed to do in the morning. This lasted about a week and a half before I caved into the pushback I received from my children. In retrospect, it was too complicated and too big of a jump for us. So I have made things even more simple: the boys must get dressed before breakfast.
Here’s why I think this is a good habit for us to start with:
- It has really great benefits. Our home atmosphere improves when we are dressed. I am less irritated. Our days feel more purposeful since we transition from breakfast straight into morning time. Also, we are ready to go out of the house, whether for a planned engagement or if something spontaneous comes up.
- It is straightforward. Not dressed? No breakfast. Fortunately, my children are quite motivated by food.
- It only comes up once a day. In her writing on habit formation, Charlotte Mason discusses how crucial it is to ensure your child is consistent in their new habit. While there are some habits I would love for my children to have (tidiness, for example), I simply don’t have the time or energy to make sure my children tidy up their toys every single time they are done with them. Getting dressed only happens in the morning, though, so it fits within my ability.
- I believe this habit will serve them in their future lives. Going back to my statement on humility, while I certainly benefit from my kids getting dressed earlier in the day, this habit is ultimately for them. I want them to be in the habit of creating a positive momentum for themselves at the start of each day.
Laying the groundwork for a new habit
Charlotte Mason gives an example of habit formation in Home Education (affiliate link). First, she tells us, the mother (I’ll extend this to ‘parent’), will need ‘tact, watchfulness, and persistence’. We need tact to help us understand when to say and not say something to our child about the habit. We need to be watchful that our child does not relapse to a bad habit, or forget to perform the new habit. When there is relapse or omission, we need to persistently keep our child on track.
It’s a good idea to get your spouse on board with you. Charlotte Mason doesn’t mention this, but it lets us present a united front to our children – since the expectations are the same. You have an extra set of eyes watching, encouragement when it’s hard to persist and a sounding board when you are struggling with how to tactfully develop the new habit with your child.
Next, it’s time to have a chat with your child. Charlotte Mason really recommends a chat (remember that we need to be tactful), and not a lecture. We need to tell our child what our expectations are.
Ideally, I would have mentioned to my children over dinner, ‘Boys, I want you to remember something. Every morning, you need to get dressed before breakfast’. At that point I could have answered any questions they had (which would probably have been ‘Why?’ about ten times).
However, that’s not what I did. I mentioned before bed one night that they needed to be dressed before breakfast the next day, and never made it clear that this is to be something that happens every day. I will be re-doing this conversation with them in the near future.
I’ll be back soon with details on how our new habit of getting dressed before breakfast is developing. I want to write in more detail about how to remind our children of new habits, how to stay on our child’s team as they establish new habits, and how to persevere in the long term.