Part I—Forming habits with older children

I hope you enjoyed Anne’s first post with a glimpse into Part I of Formation of Character!

By 1904, the Parents’ National Educational Union, with its publication, The Parents’ Review, had been operating for quite a few years. Charlotte Mason had been contributing material for over a decade. Many of the articles she wrote for the Review were collected into the volume which became Formation of Character.

There are four distinct sections in the book, each very different. As a book, it need not be read consecutively, from front to back. Each article was originally offered as a stand-alone article, so a reader today can choose any chapter which sparks interest and read it profitably, without fear of missing a context. I led a book study of this volume on the AmblesideOnline Forum in 2015, and our non-linear reading plan is available for anyone interested in reading this way.

Part I is a collection of stories that illustrate Mason’s understanding of the way that habits are formed. She addressed a variety of specific habits, not so much to give us specific suggestions for those habits as to illustrate the general principles upon which she thought parents should be working.

For the most part, the stories are arranged in a chronological way. The first stories begin with very young children, with whom parents may work on habit formation without their full knowledge and participation in the process. The stories continue with older children, teenagers, and even consider what habit formation might entail for adults. Sometimes parents who have older children come to Charlotte Mason’s methods later in their educational endeavors and assume they can address habit formation with them using the methods recommended for younger children, particularly those found in Volume I, Home Education. Reading through the stories in this section makes it clear that by age eight or so, and probably earlier, habit formation cannot be conducted in children’s lives unless they are informed and willing participants in the process. So how do we address habit formation with these older children?

In “Under a Cloud,” a concerned mother and father are trying to deal with a sulky temper in their daughter, which appears to be rooted in jealousy and perceived injury. (Her sulkiness begins because her brother gets a larger apple, or she perceives some other little injury.) The parents makes some attempts at developing a better habit, but their progress is unsatisfactory. The child’s father lays out the problem:

We must strike out a new line. In a general way, I do believe it’s best to deal with a child’s faults without making him aware that he has them….But in this case, I think we shall have to strike home and deal with the cause at least as much as with the effects, and that, chiefly because we have not the effects entirely under our control.

And so they work out a strategy. They would rather not point out to little Agnes how wrong she is to take offense at nothing, but simply trying to avoid having her get sulky in the first place hasn’t worked. They lay their plan:

I think we shall have to show her to herself in this matter, to rake up the ugly feeling, however involuntary, and let her see how hateful it is.

And so they do. More gently than any exasperated parent could imagine doing, her mother makes Agnes see how repulsive selfishness is, and how wrong it is to be offended when we don’t get our own way. As it happens, the child is so sensitive to evil, and wants to be good so ardently, that a mere look when she begins to take offense is enough to bring her up short in “gentleness and penitence.” More than just a sense of “good” or “bad” is invoked, however. Her mother reminds her that her behavior affects everyone else in the family—casts a cloud over the whole day if she is sulky—and so her desire to be better is rooted in love and concern for others. This is the prerequisite to using the will, as Miss Mason says elsewhere: will operates in the interest of someone or something outside of self. “Self” is well-supplied with appetites which drive self-interest, but will requires an object. Overcoming bad habits and developing better ones requires the effort of will, in the end, which is why creating habits without their knowledge or will can only work for very small children.

A few chapters later, in “Ability,” there is a frank discussion of the need to invoke a child’s will in the effort to overcome a fault by creating a better habit. Fred is the eldest of nine children, probably a young teen, and is so careless and forgetful that his parents are beginning to despair. His mother has a heart-to-heart talk with the family friend who is also their doctor about it. He lays out the problem this way:

Either it’s a case of chronic disease, open only to medical treatment, if to any; or it is just a case of defective education, a piece of mischief bred of allowance which his parents cannot too soon set themselves to cure.

Fred’s mother, as irked by the implication as any parent would be, is then reminded of a principle about habits and behavior that is repeated in this section several times: a weakness or fault (of mind or body), left to itself, can do nothing but grow stronger. Therefore, the remedy is to strengthen the opposite behavior or habit. In this case, Fred’s forgetfulness will have to be overcome by strengthening his habit of attention.

The doctor points out:

Fred never forgets his cricket or other pleasure engagement? No? And why not? Because his interest is excited; therefore his whole attention is fixed on the fact to be remembered.

You can increase the habit of attention in a tiny child by your own efforts. Charlotte Mason describes the quite easy and natural method of returning a child’s attention to a toy, or flower, or vista, when their short attention span has moved on—to encourage them to look just a moment longer, or notice just a little more. But what might have worked then will not work with a young person. He will have to make himself pay attention.

Fred’s mother sees the principle, but, like most of us, she wants a suggestion or two to make it practicable as well. They’ve established the idea that attention is necessary, and that we pay attention to what interests us, but there is no way to interest a young person naturally in tedious things that have to be remembered, and so the key is this: “you must put the interest into it from without.” And that advice is followed by “try one [thing], and when that is used up, turn to another.”

There is so much implied in these few short paragraphs, but this is the crux of the matter if you want to help your school-age children develop better habits and stronger character. They must engage their own wills in the process, and there must be some motivation to encourage them to do so. There is no ready-to-hand, all-purpose answer. “Try one thing, and then turn to another.” It sounds a little discouraging at first—we would all like a perfect system that simply worked when you took it out of the box and plugged it in—but if we dig a little deeper, we will see that this is actually more hopeful. Persons are not machines. Each of us has things that motivate us, and a parent is free to adapt motives and encouragement to the particular needs and characteristics of a child. If you have a sensitive child, like Agnes, who responds to a mere look, then a mere look may be used for motivation. If you have a child who would be oblivious to a look, it would be fine to make a game that appeals to the competitive spirit to tackle a new habit. Natural rewards or consequences might motivate some children. The whole realm of natural desires is at our disposal to help us engage a child’s will on behalf of a good habit (Friday’s excerpt will give a peek at those), and if one idea doesn’t work, it can be dispensed with in favor of another.

In the chapter “Consequences,” Miss Mason addresses some of the specific natural desires that we have. For example, everyone desires esteem, and Fred might respond to a small loss of esteem through gentle raillery when he forgets, along with being reminded that throughout his life, his forgetfulness will make him frustrating to his companions and associates. We all desire distinction, to be the best, and, as the doctor in the story suggested, Fred might engage in a contest with himself, to remember more often than he forgets, and to do better this week than last week. Any of the natural desires we possess may be called into service, only taking care not to allow any single desire to dominate or grow unnaturally strong.

Because it is truly for their own good, Miss Mason warns against being too lenient when forming habits:

He must endure hardness if you would make a man of him. Blame as well as praise, tears as well as smiles, are of human nature’s daily food; pungent speech is a tool of the tongue not to be altogether eschewed in the building of character.

Yes, that is Charlotte Mason telling us it’s okay (sometimes) to be a little sharp. When it comes right down to it, helping children form good habits is just ordinary parenting, with no magic formula or precise recipe to follow. However, the more alert we are to various possibilities and the better we understand the principles that govern them, the better our chances—and our children’s—of success.


Read all the posts in this series.

2 thoughts on “Part I—Forming habits with older children

  1. So helpful. I have gotten bogged down so many times in this book. Is the Ambleside reading plan the best one to follow if we are going to try to read along with your blog posts?

    1. There is no actual connection between them. There are four parts to Volume 5, and we’ll be taking a look at each part across the 4 weeks of the series, but it’s not a full book study. For that, you can access all the study posts in the forum, and really, read in any order you like.

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