How to Start Habit Training in Moral Habits

When it comes to habit training, I’m a big fan of starting with what I consider ‘concrete habits’. These are habits that require visible action. Making the bed, getting dressed, even saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. These are habits that you can either see or hear every time. While these sorts of habits certainly smooth out my day and reduce friction between family members, Charlotte Mason’s ideal of habit training reaches beyond simple routines. From her perspective, parents should use habit training to help form their children’s character. So, in addition to these concrete habits, we also consider much more abstract habits, like the habit of obedience, attention, truthfulness, self-control, diligence. These are often thought of as moral habits.

How do we make the jump, though, from the more straightforward, tangible habits to these abstract moral habits? 

We start where our children are.

Moral habits are so important, and it’s good that we want to work on them with our children. However, this is an area where it’s important not to jump the gun. We shouldn’t expect our children to understand abstract ideas. This is particularly the case for our young children. 

Let me show you what I mean. When our children start learning math, we rightly start by counting toys in their play, plates while setting the table, birds we see on a nature walk. We count things that we see. Our children make collections of three objects or five objects. They push the piles together to add and separate them into new piles to subtract. As our children get more and more experience with the concept of a number, they are eventually able to abstract that concept and work with figures and symbols rather than objects. 

These days math is usually taught in this way, and I’ve yet to hear of any educator, homeschooler or otherwise, who would not agree that we start with concrete learning and then move toward abstract ideas.

This is precisely what our children need when it comes to abstract ideas about morals or virtues. 

Our children need practical experience playing and working with numbers in order to make generalisations. Similarly, our children also need a wide range of experiences with a moral idea before they can develop an abstract understanding of it. When we ask our three-year-old to ‘be kind’ or even our six-year-old to ‘be diligent in their work’, we need to stop and consider whether our child has had sufficient opportunity to develop an understanding of what those ideas mean and what they might look like in a specific situation.

moral habits start with concrete

How to help our children understand moral ideas.

While making math concrete for our young children is relatively straightforward, we need to learn how to do the same with moral ideas. Fortunately, this doesn’t need to be difficult, and in fact, comes very naturally in a Charlotte Mason-minded home.

First, our children will gain direct experience of moral ideas through the atmosphere of their life. They will see siblings show kindness to others. They will benefit from generosity. We will even see them behave with morals themselves: when they wait their turn or refrain from hitting a sibling, they are practicing patience and self-control, whether or not they realize it. 

Second, they will also find many examples in the stories they hear. A childhood filled with fables, fairy tales, and Bible stories, even tales of history and biography, offers endless inspiring ideas that help a child develop a larger, more abstract knowledge of moral concepts. When our children are inspired and think about these ideas, we see Charlotte Mason’s principle of ‘education as a life’ in action. We see inspiring ideas helping our children learn and grow.

Using Charlotte Mason’s educational tools to develop moral understanding.

‘Education is an atmosphere’ and ‘education is a life’ are two of Charlotte Mason’s educational tools. Her third tool is the discipline of habit, or in other words, habit training. These tools are not independent of one another. I hope you can see here that atmosphere and life both contribute much to our children developing moral habits. 

I think it’s worth inserting a word of caution here before moving on. It’s tempting to think that to really leverage ‘atmosphere’ and ‘life’ as educational tools, we need to make our children directly aware of the lessons we think they should be learning, whether it’s a real-life situation or a story in a book. I very much believe that this is not what Charlotte Mason had in mind. Repeatedly she tells her readers to not moralize or lecture. The stories they hear and the circumstances our children experience typically communicate these ideas far better than we can.

How to make the most of Atmosphere and Life in building moral habits

We need to trust the tools of atmosphere and life to do their part in educating our children; however, I think that there are simple ways we can make the most of these tools. First, we can be ready to give names to the moral concepts and ideas as they catch our children’s interest. If our children are struck with a character in a story who tells the truth, we want to mention ‘truthfulness’. If our child’s friend lets him have a turn with a toy, we mention ‘generosity’. This isn’t a lecture or a long discussion. It’s a gentle, brief naming of an idea our child has encountered.

Second, we can retell or revisit stories when appropriate. I think this is far preferable to going and looking for a specific story that ‘proves our point’. If we are reading widely, we will have many stories and tales to draw on. As an example, my children were bickering in the car one day. I took the opportunity to retell in my own words an Aesop fable we had read a few months prior, about a father whose children were bickering. I’ll share it for you here:

The Bundle of Sticks

A certain Father had a family of Sons, who were forever quarreling among themselves. No words he could say did the least good, so he cast about in his mind for some very striking example that should make them see that discord would lead them to misfortune.

One day when the quarreling had been much more violent than usual and each of the Sons was moping in a surly manner, he asked one of them to bring him a bundle of sticks. Then handing the bundle to each of his Sons in turn he told them to try to break it. But although each one tried his best, none was able to do so.

The Father then untied the bundle and gave the sticks to his Sons to break one by one. This they did very easily.

“My Sons,” said the Father, “do you not see how certain it is that if you agree with each other and help each other, it will be impossible for your enemies to injure you? But if you are divided among yourselves, you will be no stronger than a single stick in that bundle.”

Telling my children this story took their attention off their argument and gave them something else to consider. Importantly, I did not tell my children to ‘not be like those children’ or that ‘the father taught them an important lesson and you need to listen to it’. I let the story stand on its own, and trusted the idea to do the work. Given their relative quiet for the rest of the journey, I suspect that they spent at least some time mulling over the ideas. 

moral habits tell stories

Connect tangible habits to moral habits.

We’ve looked at using atmosphere and life to help our children develop an understanding of abstract moral ideas. We can do the same with the educational tool of discipline; in other words, by developing good habits. 

We can use habit training to help our children develop moral habits well before they have an abstract understanding. We do this when we connect more tangible habits to more abstract ideas. These habits are a means of helping our children practice these qualities, but without making them the main habit.

We might want our children to develop a habit of self-control. But to help our four-year-old to develop this habit, we might decide to work on a habit of waiting for his turn and not snatching toys. Through this more concrete habit, our child will practice self-control, but doing so by focussing on something understandable and straightforward. ‘When I want something my brother has, I ask to have it when he is finished.’

As another example, we might want to work on a habit of perseverance. This is a big concept for a child to grasp, so we might start with a habit of tidying up, ensuring that all the toys are picked up and not stopping until the job is done. 

Small, concrete habits like these are the seeds of moral habits. We mustn’t overlook their importance and direct relevance to loftier, more abstract habits. 

The Big Picture of Moral Habits

Habit training is not a short-term solution to our immediate challenges. We have to start small, and we must start where our children are. If they are young, concrete thinkers without the experience and maturity to appreciate abstract ideas, then we must start with more tangible, practical habits. This is how our children get the experience that combines with the knowledge they gain through circumstance and through the stories they hear to inform their abstract understanding.

If you want help making habit training a habit in your home, check out the Habit Training Workshop, brought to you through the podcast I co-host. In this live workshop, we’ll cover everything from the ‘why’ of habit training to the ‘how’ of habit training. You’ll write your action plan and get four weeks of follow-up support, encouragement, and accountability. Find out more and register.

A letter from me to you, every week.

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Charlotte Mason habit training is more than learning to shut the door and using good manners. We also need to train our children in good morals. If this feels overwhelming or confusing, find out how beginning is much simpler than it seems.

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