December 4, 2013

Charlotte Mason on Habit Formation

This week I've been rereading some of the works of the major educational figures that I admire.  When the typical onslaught of winter sick days commences and the ambition with which we tackle each day seems to diminish along with the hours of sunlight, it just feels timely to use our period of general rest for relaxed reflection.  Charlotte Mason is the only educational philosopher that I have ever found to have literally zero legitimate critics during her lifetime.  She really spoke to parents and teachers on the level of the practical, and as such, her works feel applicable to almost every family.  Habit formation is one of her big themes.

The quote above really stood out to me as an area that I need to focus more attention on both in parenting and in my personal development.   The idea that right habits take some of the decision making out of our day might sound, to some, like a negative.  Our culture is somewhat obsessed with free will and the right to choices.  But with each decision, there is an opportunity to choose the wrong path.  The idea that good habits wear a path for our lives to smoothly run along, reducing the wear and tear of moral decisions, really makes sense.

It made me think of a bowling alley, where the gutters are the habits, and our lives - these heavy, powerful, fast moving balls - are speeding towards a goal.  We can approach our goals all kinds of ways, but we have to do so within the boundaries of the lane.  Too much energy is required to jump a ball over the gutters and into a neighboring lane for it to become a common occurrence. So we have choice, but within the frameworks of our designated lane.  For the very inexperienced bowler, sometimes it is the gutter itself which gets the ball to the end of the lane.  It's not ideal, but it gets it there.

Now imagine a life without right habits as a bowling alley with no gutters- a wide smooth expanse for the balls to roll across.  For the inexperienced bowler, it might be almost impossible to keep the ball in ones own lane and on course to the intended destination.  You might find your ball drifting towards someone else's goal rather than your own.  Oh, how much harder it would be for a new bowler to stay on course without those gutters to ensure that every ball finds its way down its own lane.

I can apply that to all kinds of things and it just makes sense that right habit results in a much simpler existence.  If household chores are habituated in childhood, think of how much time and energy can be saved not having to discuss laundry or dishes each and every time they need to be done, as if not doing them might be an option.  Not doing dishes is a completely different lane.  If if is habit, there's no deciding whether or not to do it.  It is accepted and done, and everyone moves on.  That just sounds so peaceful doesn't it?

And if we take that and apply it to moral issues, how much more beneficial can habits be?  If truthfulness is a habit, it will require a lot more energy to jump your conduct over into lying than to just tell the truth and accept the outcome.  But if truthfulness has never become habituated, each problem or dispute equates to a choice whether to lie or tell the truth.

In our  darkest hours, or just when we're not our best, how often can we conjure a triumph of will?  If we have right habits, we don't have to exercise our will for each and every detail of our daily lives.  The minor things take care of themselves and our hearts and brains are freed up to focus on more pressing decisions.  But if whether or not to get dressed, to put up our own dishes, to do homework, to tell the truth, to help a friend in need - if each of those things requires thought and decision making energy, we are sure to fall short more often than not.  What man has that store of energy?

What more could we ask for for our children and our households than that they be filled with individuals who just accept doing their own chores, helping each other, and having upright character?  That takes a lot of parental input, though.  A lot more than I think modern parents are accustomed to investing.  It requires hand-holding and being the example for a super extended amount of time.  It requires checking in and confirming that things were done well over an additional extended season.  It's a lot of work.  Work that I have sometimes failed to do.  But when it's done, days become simple and streamlined with little undue drama, little bickering.  It's well worth the investment.

And what a gift to our children that they may go out into the world someday with fewer decisions to have to make!  That time when they fly from the nest is already fraught with huge decisions like What should I be? What sorts of company should I keep?  How should I spend my money?  If the basics are covered by habit, those more meaningful decisions will get the brain power they need in order to be made well.

Charlotte Mason's writings are filled with practical advice for parents that, if embraced, can really smooth over our daily routines and free up our families for more pleasant and leisurely interactions.  I highly recommend checking out the free Charlotte Mason e-books over at Simply Charlotte Mason.  Also, many of her full texts can  be found free online, if you're more of a purist and want the information straight from the horse's mouth.    

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