On Habits and Character

Dear Reader,

If you have been reading here at all lately, you will have noticed that I have been doing a lot of thinking about how and why we teach and train our children, particularly in spiritual areas but also in other areas.

I have also been reading a lot of posts on other blogs lately on habit-training. Habit-training is a Charlotte Mason-y concept (I am sure it is not exclusively her idea, but this is where I have run across the concept) and we are trying to be more in her style this year so I have been very intrigued by these posts.

I am not opposed to habits. I would agree with the Common Room that our children will develop habits whether we mean them to or not. Habits are just ingrained patterns of behavior. Better to be deliberate and try to pick which habits our kids learn than to let them develop by chance. And the more good habits we can get into, the less we will have to learn and think about later on in life. For instance, if we pray with our kids every morning (or evening or whenever), it will become natural for them. Hopefully, it will be a habit that they tend to as an adult and they will struggle less with making time for prayer as so many of us adults do.

But, as I have said many times in this blog, I also find that much of the Christian Bible or character curriculum out there rubs me the wrong way. So much of it is focused on values or behaviors. These are good things like obedience and patience and controlling one’s anger. And I want my kids to learn these things. But I wonder if sometimes the habit obscures what is underneath. For example, if a child has learned to say sorry when he hits a playmate (whether on purpose or by accident), how do you know if this is  a habit he has picked up from being made to do it on many previous occasions or if it  shows genuine repentance or sorrow? How often do we as adults say thank you or ask how someone is because it is the thing to say without any real meaning behind the words?

I want my children to have good habits. I want the good things to be things they do automatically, without having to think about it. But I also want to make sure that they are doing these things because the right beliefs lie behind them, not just out of habit. Ultimately, I would rather have a child that truly loves his neighbor but is rude than one who is polite but in whose heart is no love.  Ideally, of course, they would love and be polite.

Even something as seeming innocuous as teeth-brushing can have deeper implications. A person will have healthier teeth in the long run if brushing them is a regular habit. If it is not a habit and they must remember it every day, they are more likely to miss times and suffer the consequences. But if my child does have the habit and brushes daily but doesn’t understand the reasons behind it, aren’t they missing something? I want them to know that they brush their teeth because that is a way to take the best possible care of their bodies. And I want them to know that taking care of themselves is important because their bodies are a gift from God which they are given to have stewardship over and that they must treat and use them wisely. And if we can’t think of good reasons why we are teaching our children the habits we are, maybe we need to rethink them.

To get back to the title of this post, I guess my point is that while developing the right habits is a good thing, the most important thing is to have the right beliefs and character. The latter should lead to the former. But to have the former without the latter seems to me a very dangerous thing.


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