We all have habits, good and bad. Habits help us get through our day so that we don’t have to make a million conscious choices every day – we do a lot of things just on auto-pilot. We wake up and get out of bed the same way. We walk the same route to the coffee maker. We brush our teeth in roughly the same pattern each time. Having good, healthy habits make living life a lot easier. We don’t need to question or fight about putting the toilet seat down – we just do it. We don’t battle over going to work or school – it’s just what we do. Of course we’d go to work – when it’s established as a habit, our brain doesn’t even recognize an alternative option.
Charlotte Mason speaks a lot about the importance of habit formation in building a child’s character. When talking about the early years (the years before school), she emphasizes three things.
- Reading great books (See my post about Living Books)
- Spending time outside (See my post about Getting Outside)
- Forming good habits
In this post, I am going to focus on the third point – habit formation.
Charlotte Mason writes,
I have written and re-written this post a few times, because it is hard to write about good habits and bad habits without judgment or without sounding preachy. What I deem to be a good habit of punctuality – others don’t see that as a habit worth going to battle over. And what others deem a critical habit for health, vegetables and fruit with every meal, as an example – I am definitely more loosey goosey on.
Ultimately my goal with this post is not to suggest which habits are good ones to instill with your children and which are bad – but to encourage all parents to take time to think about which habits they do think are important or not important and consider the long term effects on your child’s character.
And it is all about the long term.
In the short term, and before school begins, enforcing bedtimes or breakfast habits seem like a lot of effort for not a lot of return in the short term. We are risking an hour long struggle over wearing pants and do we really care if our toddler wears pants? Often no… but the key is that we, as parents, are playing the long game. It’s not always about the here and now – it’s about your (and your child’s) future selves. By establishing early on that when we wake up – we get dressed, we make our bed, we eat breakfast, we brush our teeth, we leave for school on time – we are helping ourselves as parents in the long term to not have a daily fight against all of those things. If those things are habit, we stop seeing them as “options” or “choices” and more as “well of-courses – who wouldn’t?”.
Establishing good habits is not just for children – in fact I believe you HAVE to start with your own habits if you have any hope of instilling good habits in your children.
Lately, at 2.5, DK has been fighting getting dressed in the mornings or at all. I think that is partly due to the wonderful holiday season where we all stayed in our jammies for the entire day, and partly due to a pretty normal developmental stage for 2.5. Over the holidays, we slipped up here with our habits of getting ready for our day and now we are struggling to get back on track as we leave the house later and later and later. And so I would like to reset.
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg outlines the golden rule of habit change. He writes, “To change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. That’s the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and the reward stay the same.” (p. 62) For example, you’re more likely to stick to a workout routine if you choose a set time of the day (as soon as you walk in the door after getting home from work) and a specific reward upon completion (a glass of wine).
As part of getting DK back on track with his morning routine, I need to get back on track with my own. It’s so easy as a Stay At Home Mom with no pressing need to leave the house every day to just let the “getting ready for the day” part of our day just not happen at all. I’d like to try a few different things to make this happen and make our morning routine easier and more “routine”.
First, wake up at the same time every day. Studies show that if you go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day you will feel more rested – and damn don’t I need that feeling, pregnant with a 2 year old.
Second, set a time for breakfast. Lately I’ve just been kind of waiting until DK asks me for food to eat breakfast…so it could be at 7 or at 8:30 depending on the day. We have a pretty set lunch time and a set dinner time, so breakfast needs to join this on-time meal train.
Third, and most difficult, shower at night. This would be a major habit change for me because I just am a morning shower person. But it really would make more logistical sense to shower at night. It would also help me get to bed earlier. And I wouldn’t have have to juggle my morning routine around my husband’s morning routine AND get soon-to-be-two kids ready for the day. And so building on Duhigg’s Golden Rule of Habit change, I’m going to try sticking “shower” right after the cue “DK is asleep, it’s party time!” and before my reward “it’s-been-a-long-day-cup-of-tea”.
I’m going to try these changes for a month and see where they land us.
Habits of Focus, Attention, Observation
All these goals for getting us out of the house in a timely way is all well and good, but Charlotte Mason, when discussing the importance of habit formation, meant more than just establishing good habits of cleanliness and orderliness – she also meant other habits of character.
“Every day, every hour, the parents are either passively or actively forming those habits in their children upon which, more than upon anything else, future character and conduct depend.” – Charlotte Mason
As a mom who is involved in many different moms groups, I have seen many posts asking for and giving insight into how to set up good family routines, how to establish healthy eating habits, how to get a two-year-old to brush his/her teeth – but I have never seen anyone ask about habits of character. Mason gives quite a lengthy list of what she means by these habits, which have been conveniently gathered and printed in the same location by Deborah Taylor-Hughes. I think this list is worth sharing here so we are all on the same page.
- Joy in others’ success
- Clean clothes
- Pure thoughts
- Perfect execution
- Pleasure and profit for reading books
- Making way for elders
- Not holding a grudge
- Obedience to conscience
- Moral power
- Ability to yield
- Sweet temper
- A sensitive nose
- Care of fingernails
- Clean eyes and ears
- Washed hands
- Brushed hair
- Caring for possessions
- To look on the bright side
- Finishing work that’s been started
- Sense of humour
- Putting away toys
- Appreciation of beauty
- Regularity of schedule
- Sleeping at bedtime
- Eye contact with others
- Prompt and intelligent replies
- Good manners
- Light, springy movements
- Respect for persons and property
- Training of ear and voice
- Pure vowel sounds
- Pronunciation of difficult words
- Good humour
- Musical training
- Attention to detail
- Respect for others
- Self-compelling will
- Reverence for others
- Sense of duty
- Desire to excel
- Be first without vanity
- Be last without bitterness
- Thinking of the “why” of things
- Appetite for knowledge
- Zeal for work
- Undivided attention
- Obedience to the law
Now, yes, some of the entries on this list are a bit “out there” – like I had to do a double take for “light, springy movements”. Is that even a habit? But upon further reflection – yes, I do think it is a habit. I have a bad habit of slouching and dragging my feet around. I wish I sat up straighter. I wish I didn’t have an E.T. neck. This is a habit I could change.
And others like “dancing” seem quite dated today (although I’ll admit I would LOVE it if my husband and I actually knew how to dance socially and weren’t awkward AF on our feet…so now I’m really considering signing DK up for ballroom dance lessons someday…)
Others on this list are “of courses” that really don’t require much thought – most parents will naturally encourage our children to be courteous and kind and obey the law.
But there are still others that today we tend to think of more as “personality traits” or “genetic predispositions” than “developed habits”. For examples, “pleasure and profit for reading books”, “a sensitive nose”, “sense of humour”, “training of ear and voice/musical training/singing”, “inclined to make the best of things” and “to look on the bright side”. But when I think about these things, I think Charlotte Mason is right – these are all skills that are developed over time and practice. Sure, some people may be naturally predisposed to certain attitudes or abilities – but that doesn’t mean that these qualities cannot be improved upon.
Lastly, there are the character habits on the list that have almost but disappeared in our fast-paced 21st century culture. We are now so used to instant gratification and (what seems like) the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, that the habits of focus, observation and attention have declined in importance in our lives and in the lives of our children. A friend of mine is a children’s librarian at a school, and she had to discard ANNE OF GREEN GABLES from the library’s collection because it was deemed too difficult for today’s youth reading levels. Another friend of mine is a kindergarten teacher and she struggles to read the same stories to 5 year olds today that she read to 5 year olds 20 years ago because their attention spans haven’t been well developed. Books can’t compete with a video game. In 2018, children are heavily exposed to flashy exciting screens, video games with constant gambling-like rewards, and the ability to ask Siri or Google the answer to any question. We have this idea that if the answer isn’t on the internet, then the answer is unknowable. We’ve ceased to wonder, and this extends to our children as well.
“The child who starts in life with say, twenty good habits, begins with a certain capital which he will lay out to endless profit as the years go on.” – Charlotte Mason
“The habits of the child are, as it were, so many little hammers beating out by slow degrees the character of the man.” – Charlotte Mason
When I first read Miss Mason’s works, I couldn’t name a single species of tree on my property. I had never observed anything about them. Recently, I tried picking up Jane Eyre, a book I had read ravenously the summer I was 15 – and I could barely read a page before I was distracted by something or other. After years of reading Facebook status updates, tweets and Buzzfeed articles, my focus and attention muscles were weak! And I’m not alone here! There has been an 800% increase in ADHD diagnoses over the last 30 years (Kardaras, 2016, p.23-24), which it’s possible that we are just more aware of the disorder now, so we are diagnosing it more – or it could be a combination of factors – one of which being, we as a society have sharply lost our ability to concentrate and focus because of the barrage of hyperarousing screen images flashing across our vision for much of our entertainment hours.
Additionally, a longitudinal study done by the German Psychological Association over a 20-year-period found that our sensory awareness is declining about 1% per year. We used to be able to distinguish between over 300,000 distinct sounds – but today we struggle to hear 100,000 distinct sounds. Study subjects early on in the study could see 350 different shades of a colour – whereas today, it’s only 130 (Kardaras, 2016, p. 29-30).
Our ability to observe the world around us has decreased as we’ve risen through the technological ranks. These realizations made me conclude that there were a few habits I really needed to emphasize in DK’s early years, perhaps more than other habits (like those that society would naturally encourage in him without necessarily conscientious effort on my part). I needed to work on the habits of: Focus, Attention and Observation.
How am I doing this? Well, it’s still an experiment in progress – but for the most part – it goes back to my other two blog posts: time outside away from screens and strengthening our skills of observation; and reading, reading, reading a lot of high quality children’s literature. Books that don’t talk down to DK. Books that contain one narrative, instead of multiple competing pop-ups/blurbs with little flow between them. Books with interesting illustrations from a variety of artistic mediums – not just the flashy/colourful/digital animation-style books.
Books like Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey
Or Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
Or Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina
Or The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton
So far, I think it is working. The other week when we were out for a nature walk, he said, “I can hear a crow but I can’t see a crow”. I’m still picking my jaw up off the ground.
Kardaras, Nicholas. Glow Kids, 2016.