|a gift of fragrant, wild plum blossoms!|
Habits are important in a Charlotte Mason relational education. They are mentioned as the second item of Ms. Mason’s educational trifecta, “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life” and emphasized under principal #7 which states, “By Education is a discipline, is meant the discipline of habits formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or body.” The recent discussions on this topic online and in meetings show just how concerned parents and teachers are about habits. I have noticed the swinging of the pendulum to one side – that of external application.
While Mason does mention choosing a bad habit to work on, I don’t see her picking a character trait or habit and turning it into a unit study by defining it, reading books to point the moral, and talking about it ad nauseum. I know this doesn’t work because that is exactly where I started 20 years ago. Yes, we wrote “Attentiveness” on the board, defined it, looked up verses on it, and read stories that highlighted it. What this did was to create a polite apathy and aversion in my sons towards any mention of the term. Since I was reading Mason at the same time, I was a bit confused and could see how my approach conflicted with Mason’s ideas on habits and how to cultivate them. I changed my approach.
“A person is not built up from without but within, that is, he is living, and all external educational appliances and activities which are intended to mould his character are decorative and not vital.”(Mason, Vol. 6, p. 23)
In the following example, Mason tells of a lazy young man who changes his ways:
The lazy boy who hears of the Great Duke’s narrow camp bed, preferred by him because when he wanted to turn over it was time to get up, receives the idea of prompt rising. But his nurse or his mother knows how often and how ingeniously the tale must be brought to his mind before the habit of prompt rising is formed; she knows too how the idea of self-conquest must be made at home in the boy’s mind until it become a chivalric impulse which he cannot resist. (Mason, Vol. 6, p. 102)
What are the elements here? A great story, a subtle reminder, self-discipline and an irresistible chivalric impulse! But note what she says next –
“It is possible to sow a great idea lightly and casually and perhaps this sort of sowing should be rare and casual because if a child detect a definite purpose in his mentor he is apt to stiffen himself against it.”
Here she says that even this way of encouraging lightly and casually should be rare. It’s a fine art, this role of helping the child build up from within.
A unique aspect of Mason’s philosophy is that the habits of the mind are not developed in isolation from the method, content, or philosophy. Habits are part of the whole, the life, the education at hand. I find it interesting that when I have a problem or something isn’t working in my homeschool, I don’t need to run out and buy a different curriculum to fix it. If I turn to her philosophy and try to understand more, I almost always find the solution.
Here is an example that illustrates what I mean. It seems that a headmaster in a poor district in England had adopted Mason’s P.U.S. curriculum and wrote her a letter in appreciation. He states that previously, corporal punishment (physical punishment involving pain) had been the norm in his school where bad habits abounded.
But now narration compels the teacher to get at the back of a child’s mind. ?This combined with mutual discussion on a wide range of subjects, begets understanding. ?Understanding begets confidence and love, and all need of corporal punishment and restraint gradually disappears. ?A teacher who had previously taught in the school called the other day. ?She exclaimed immediately: “How happy everyone is!” “Do you mean the children?” I said. “Yes,”she answered, “and the teachers.” That is not intended as a compliment to the work but it was in reality one of the best I have received; for children are only happy when making headway. (Cholmondley, The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 138)
I love the idea that narration compels the teacher to get at the back of a child’s mind! That example highlights the fact that the methods (narration), content (wide range of subjects), and philosophy (relationships, understanding) all work together to provide a healthy, positive atmosphere that may reduce stress and bad habits.Now, I don’t think that every child will follow the same patterns that she glowingly tells us about in her examples. I’m also not saying that Mason is the final authority on the subject, because she isn’t. But I do think that she is getting at something different than what I see being talked about when it comes to habits. And maybe that’s because she already assumes that the authority issue has been settled. She calls proper authority one of the three “foundation principles”, the “basis for moral training”, “fundamental”, and “present but not in evidence: we do not expose the foundations of our house”. Just a quick glance around our culture, church included, we can see that this isn’t in place. It isn’t in place for the adults (under God’s authority) and it isn’t in place for the children. But I suppose that is another discussion altogether. So when it comes to habits, Mason speaks of the child’s heart – their inner self. Ideas are the impetus for good habits and should thoughtfully mobilize the student to self-discipline. The parent or teacher should be working alongside the child and the Holy Spirit.
One more thing. Dr. Carroll Smith shares this note that he came across in the Armitt Museum archives on Charlotte Mason. It was written to Henrietta Franklin in 1922, the year before she died. She writes, “Science has done nothing to confirm the “rut” theory in all these years, and Brother Body seems to me much the inferior partner. I think all that I have written is still true but I would emphasize habit and so on less. Child mind – no, because a child has as much mind as the rest of us”
Thus, don’t begin with teaching the habit of (insert habit here) – begin with the relationships, appropriate books, ideas, outdoor life, and all those things that fill the child’s mind with ideas that make up this living education. Watch that pendulum, please.
“Thus, don’t begin with teaching the habit of (insert habit here) – begin with the relationships, appropriate books, ideas, outdoor life, and all those things that fill the child’s mind with ideas that make up this living education. Watch that pendulum, please.”
It’s possible you’ve written more about this elsewhere and I haven’t found it so if that is the case, would you please link? Otherwise, is it possible for your to flesh this out a bit more? I am struggling with the concept of developing good habits (which certainly requires intentional effort) with the idea that we are not supposed to teach them overtly (defining them, reading books that display this habit or character trait as you described as a unit of sorts). For me, I am struggling to develop good relationships with each other, with books, and with outdoor life WITHOUT having good habits in place that give peace and order to our days. I know they must be learned in conjunction with one another, but I’m struggling with how to do that! Can you give an example? Even as simple as the habit of obedience, attention, or perseverance. Oh and my children are 8. 6. 4. and 1. It seems that the one year old prevents a lot of consistency!
You ask a great question and one that is common to many mothers, myself included at one point! I see that you understand that all these things are happening at once – the books, the outdoor life, the relationships are all happening while you are working on habits. What may be helpful is to focus on one habit per child at a time, perhaps a habit that is more urgent than the others. So let’s say “attention”. Now, you are automatically working on it with narration and other things but let’s say this child needs even more help. This may be the time to take that child aside and talk to him about it. And then pray with that child, showing him that we can ask the Holy Spirit for help. Then be watchful with the child, rejoicing when you both see him exercising his will to consciously work harder on this habit.
An old PR article states, “But between 8 and 12 these habits must be secured and made a lifelong possession and others must be added. In moral, intellectual, spiritual and physical life alike, the presentation of ideas and the formation of habits go hand in hand. The idea of the beauty of courage, which a child in Form II might receive from reading one of Plutarch’s lives, may form the basis of a habit of physical and mental courage. The idea of the Fatherhood of God may introduce the habit of reverence, of prayer. Now is the best time for forming the habit of paying full undivided attention and of thinking, habits which are acquired with far greater labour in later years. Habits are a form of capital which furnishes interest of peace, joy and order, and it is during the years from 8-12 that our children make these sure investments with greatest ease.” – Essex Cholmondeley
Mason also talks about how the mother needs to make a habit of working on habits!
Does that help?
Oh this is excellent! Thank you for linking here to share these thoughts on habits, and I especially appreciate the insight from the 1922 note. Habits have been a newish concept that CM introduced to me. I mean, I have been brushing my teeth for all these years ;), but I had never really connected the concept of habits with conscious choice. Somehow, in my religious upbringing, I internalized the idea that habits were unconscious behaviors and therefore not as valuable/meaningful as intentional choices. But then, some habits BEGIN with a conscious choice (while many many creep into place unawares), so the idea of habits as rails to ease the way and free the mind for more important choices—THAT was a huge revelation to me. It continues to amaze me how much one can learn if one is willing to keep learning…. 🙂
I appreciated this blog post very much. Thank you. Charlotte Mason talked about working on one habit at a time. I am confused as to how to implement that. Would appreciate some tips. If I am working on the habit of attention with my four year old, would I look for casual ways to plant the seed and value of attention? Just trying to connect how to isolate one habit but not have a unit study on it. Thanks so much!
Thank you for your note. Have you read Home Education (Volume 1) by Miss Mason? She actually does talk about casual ways to plant the seed and value of attention. I would start with working with the Holy Spirit as I work on habits myself that I would like to see in my children. Then I would think about the atmosphere in my home and how that could be changed to encourage that habit. While we don't make it a unit study, it is held in our minds as something to be working on. This should be a joyous thought and something we take seriously as our jobs! Let me know if you have any further thoughts or questions.
I forgot to click "notify me".
This is such a great post. I think I now start to understand why I never quite understood that of "teaching a habit", as I probably looked at it in isolation, and, like Carol says, that never worked for us. I placed the habits in a utilitarian perspective, thinking they were systematic (and there's some consistency in implementing them that can be categorized as systematic, but habit training is still inside a much bigger perspective, part of a method and philosophy, tied to the world of ideas, and not just actions).
I appreciated this post so very much Nancy. Thank you!
You are very welcome, Lauren!
if I read this earlier on the CMI blog, I do not remember, in any case, it is even better the second time around! It is lovely to see Mason's progression of thought and real world application of her ideas. I never thought how narration naturally builds relationship between student and teacher, but of course it does. Benefits all around! Thank you again for this.
(Charlotte Mason was a genius, I think!)
I appreciate your thoughts,
Ha! I remember those days of focussing on a habit. It didn't work for me either & I had a vague undercurrent of doubt in my mind as I did it. I love this quote: 'A unique aspect of Mason’s philosophy is that the habits of the mind are not developed in isolation from the method, content, or philosophy. Habits are part of the whole, the life, the education at hand.'Yes, so true & powerful. Thanks, Nancy!
Thank you for stopping by and sharing that, Carol!
theycallmemommy withapileofbooks says
Wow. Excellent, Nancy. Thanks for reposting this…I just recently read a lovely book called Romancing Your Child's Heart, and with your post here and the recent fantastic A Delectable Education podcast on this, they are just all connecting for me in a helpful way. This is an area I have so much to learn and grow in! I appreciate you sharing which things DID NOT work for you and also that Mason isn't the final word. 🙂 Bless you and your family. Amy
I will have to check out that title! Hope you are well, also!
theycallmemommy withapileofbooks says
We are well as can be while remodeling and showing our home. *wink, wink* 🙂 I wrote a long-winded review about that book on my blog Nancy, if you are interested. I think it connects for me in regards to the atmosphere of our lives. 🙂 http://theycallmemommywithapileofbooks.blogspot.com/2016/04/romancing-your-childs-heart-by-monte.html