Is it Biblical?: CM on Habit-Training (Part 1)

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in which I hold Charlotte Mason’s principles up to the light of Scripture and ask if they are “founded upon and agreeable to” the Word of God or not. The entire series is listed under “Charlotte Mason posts” at the top of this page.

We have been looking at Charlotte’s motto: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life” as stated in her fifth principle. Having looked at “education is an atmosphere” and “education is . . . a life,” we must now go back and examine “education is  . . .a discipline . . .”

CM on “Education is  . . . a discipline . . .”

My process is to first look at Miss Mason’s own words to see what she meant by what she said. This idea — that education is a discipline– is expanded upon in her seventh principle:

“By “education is a discipline,” we mean the discipline of habits, formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or body. Physiologists tell us of the adaptation of brain structures to habitual lines of thought, i.e., to our habits.”

  • Discipline is discipleship.

The first thing we need to note here is how Charlotte herself uses the word discipline. This can be a loaded term in Christian circles. Charlotte is not talking here about spanking or any other kind of physical discipline. She does leave a place for physical discipline — but not much of one:

“Discipline does not mean a birch-rod, nor a corner, nor a slipper, nor a bed, nor any such last resort of the feeble. The sooner we cease to believe in merely penal suffering as part of the divine plan, the sooner will a spasmodic resort to the birch-rod die out in families. We do not say the rod is never useful; we do say it should never be necessary.” (Parents and Children, p. 65-66)

“Now we would not say that punishment is never to be used, very much otherwise. Neither would we say that physic is never to be taken. But punishment, like physic, is a casualty only of occasional occurrence at the worst, and punishment and physic alike are reduced to a minimum in proportion as we secure healthy conditions of body and mind.” (Ibid., p. 170)

What Do not think, however, that Charlotte is opposed to punishment because she does not take children’s faults seriously; the situation is quite the opposite:

“Now here is a point all parents are not enough awake to––that serious mental and moral ailments require prompt purposeful, curative treatment, to which the parents must devote themselves for a short time, just as they would to a sick child. Neither punishing him nor letting him alone––the two lines of treatment most in favour––ever cured a child of any moral evil.” (Parents and Children, p. 87; emphasis added)

Punishment, then, is viewed as best a rare tool to be used in emergency situations. Discipline, as Charlotte defines it, is long-term, continual training. It is closely tied to discipleship:

“What is discipline? Look at the word; there is no hint of punishment in it. A disciple is a follower, and discipline is the state of the follower; the learner, imitator. Mothers and fathers do not well to forget that their children are, by the very order of Nature, their disciples.”  (Parents and Children, p. 66-67)

“Not mere spurts of occasional punishment, but the incessant watchfulness and endeavour which go to the forming and preserving of the habits of the good life, is what we mean by discipline. . . ” (Parents and Children, p. 173)

The specific method of discipline Charlotte employs is what she calls “habit training.” We see this in the 7th principle above in which she speaks of “the discipline of habits.”

  • The child is not to be left to his nature which has evil aspects.

Before we get into the what and how of habit training, let’s address the why — The rationale for habit training rests firmly in the view of the child. I have spoken a lot about Charlotte’s view of the child and of human nature itself (look back at the posts in this series, especially those on her 2nd principle for more on this). For our purposes today it is enough to say that the child is not a little angel but embodies at least the possibilities for evil. Charlotte speaks of nature as embodying (1) the temptations common to all men, (2) those that run in families, and (3) those predilections which are peculiar to the individual:

“What, then, with the natural desires, affections, and emotions common to the whole race, what with the tendencies which each family derives by descent, and those peculiarities which the individual owes to his own constitution of body and brain,––human nature, the sum of all these, makes out for itself a strong case . . .”  (Home Education, p. 102)

“The child brings with him into the world, not character, but disposition. He has tendencies which may need only to be strengthened, or, again, to be diverted or even repressed.” (Parents and Children, p. 23)

We start, then, with some issues, to say the least. The temptation of many parents is to let the children be, but Charlotte argues strongly against this saying that, left to his own devices, the child will not improve or even stay where he is but will sink lower and lower:

”  . . .  it is unchangeably true that the child who is not being constantly raised to a higher and a higher platform will sink to a lower and a lower.” (Home Education, p. 103)

“More, habit is inevitable. If we fail to ease life by laying down habits of right thinking and right acting, habits of wrong thinking and wrong acting fix themselves of their own accord. ” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 101)

For these two reasons, because of our natures and because of the tendency to sink rather than to rise, habit training is necessary.

  • The goal of habit training is to provide a “second nature.”

Habit training, as Charlotte sees it, can change one’s nature. In fact, it is a good deal stronger than nature:

‘Habit is ten natures.’ If that be true, strong as nature is, habit is not only as strong, but tenfold as strong. Here, then, have we a stronger than he, able to overcome this strong man armed.” (Home Education, p. 105)

“The extraordinary power of habit in forcing nature into new channels hardly requires illustration . . .” (Ibid., p. 106)

” . . . persist still further in the habit without lapses, and it becomes second nature, quite difficult to shake off; continue it further, through a course of years, and the habit has the strength of ten natures . . . ” (Ibid., p. 110)

Character is a word Charlotte uses frequently in this context; habits over time build the character of a man (or woman):

” His character––the efflorescence of the man wherein the fruit of his life is a-preparing––is original disposition, modified, directed, expanded by education; by circumstances; later, by self-control and self-culture . . .” (Parents and Children, p. 23)

Perhaps you are already familiar with this oh-so-CM quote:

“‘Sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; a character, reap a destiny.'” (Parents and Children, p. 29)

So we see that habit changes the (fallen) nature we are born with and builds the character we wish to see in the adult.

  • Habit training works by replacing a bad habit with a good one.

We turn now from the question of why to how — Every good habit only comes through conflict; the good must drive out the bad. Sadly, the bad are often easier and more attractive so the fight is not always an easy one:

” . . .  but a certain strenuousness in the formation of good habits is necessary because every such habit is the result of conflict. The bad habit of the easy life is always pleasant and persuasive and to be resisted with pain and effort,  . . . ” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 102)

“‘Habit is driven out by habit.'” (Parents and Children, p. 85)

“What are you to do with such inveterate habit of nature? Just this; treat it as a bad habit, and set up the opposite good habit.” (Ibid., p. 85)

“This meets in a wonderful way the case of the parent who sets himself to cure a moral failing. He sets up the course of new thoughts, and hinders those of the past, until the new thoughts shall have become automatic and run of their own accord. All the time a sort of disintegration is going on in the place that held the disused thoughts; and here is the parent’s advantage.” (Ibid., p. 90)

Charlotte has much more to say on the specifics of building a new habit. I am more interested in the theory than the practical details today. If you are looking for more of the nitty-gritty, see Home Education, part I, chapters 7 and following, and part II; and Parents and Children, chapters 9 and 16. Formation of Character, her fifth volume, also provides some interesting examples of habit training in families. And the fourth volume, Ourselves, is a unique book that will help you see the good and bad paths before you in every area of life.

  • Though Charlotte lists many specific habits to work on (obedience, attention, etc.), behind them all is what she elsewhere calls “the Way of the Will,” that is, the ability to make oneself do what one ought, not what one will.

Though habit training can cover many areas, Charlotte makes it clear that there is one habit behind all the others that is our real, one might say our only, target:

“Consideration made the reason of the failure plain: there was a warm glow of goodness at the heart of every one of the children, but they were all incapable of steady effort, because they had no strength of will, no power to make themselves do that which they knew they ought to do. Here, no doubt, come in the functions of parents and teachers; they should be able to make the child do that which he lacks the power to compel himself to. But it were poor training that should keep the child dependent upon personal influence. It is the business of education to find some way of supplementing that weakness of will which is the bane of most of us as well as of the children.” (Home Education, pp. 99-100)

“The problem before the educator is to give the child control over his own nature, to enable him to hold himself in hand . . . ” (Home Education, p. 103)

  • Habit training is not just for children; when grown they are to continue to “habit train” themselves.

The child begins life without self-control and needs his parents to begin the work of habit training:

“Not the child, immature of will, feeble in moral power, unused to the weapons of the spiritual warfare. He depends upon his parents; it rests with them to initiate the thoughts he shall think, the desires he shall cherish, the feelings he shall allow. Only to initiate; no more is permitted to them; but from this initiation will result the habits of thought and feeling which govern the man––his character, that is to say.” (Home Education, p. 109; emphasis added)

But as he grows, the child, now an adult, must “habit train” himself:

“and these last [the habits of a good life] will carry the child safely over the season of infirm will, immature conscience, until he is able to take, under direction from above, the conduct of his life, the moulding of his character, into his own hands.” (Parents and Children, p. 90; emphasis added)

  • Habit training is not done apart from the work of the Holy Spirit but is a part of it.

There may seem to be a lot of emphasis in all this on what we do, but Charlotte never sees habit training, whether by the parent or later by the adult in his own life, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit:

“In looking for a solution of this problem, I do not undervalue the Divine grace––far otherwise; but we do not always make enough of the fact that Divine grace is exerted on the lines of enlightened human effort; that the parent, for instance, who takes the trouble to understand what he is about in educating his child, deserves, and assuredly gets, support from above . . .” (Home Education, p. 104; emphasis added)

“His character––the efflorescence of the man wherein the fruit of his life is a-preparing––is original disposition, modified, directed, expanded by education; by circumstances; later, by self-control and self-culture; above all, by the supreme agency of the Holy Ghost, even where that agency is little suspected, and as little solicited.” (Parents and Children, p. 23; emphasis added)

“Here, indeed, more than anywhere, ‘Except the Lord build the house, they labour but in vain that build it’; but surely intelligent co-operation in this divine work is our bounden duty and service.” (Ibid., p. 90)

In summary, these are the main aspects we have seen of what Charlotte Mason means when she says “education is  . . .  a discipline . . .”:

  • Discipline is discipleship.
  • The child is not to be left to his nature which has evil aspects.
  • The goal of habit training is to provide a “second nature.”
  • Habit training works by replacing a bad habit with a good one.
  • Though Charlotte lists many specific habits to work on (obedience, attention, etc.), behind them all is what she elsewhere calls “the Way of the Will,” that is, the ability to make oneself do what one ought, not what one will.
  • Habit training is not just for children; when grown they are to continue to “habit train” themselves.
  • Habit training is not done apart from the work of the Holy Spirit but is a part of it.

What the Bible has to say

We must now turn to the Scriptures to see how Charlotte’s ideas fare when held up to its light.

There are some ideas here which seem so obvious that one almost need not discuss them.  That a child has a nature affected by the Fall and that he should not be allowed to stay where he is and that his parents are charged with disciplining him are not points that I think orthodox Christians of any stripe are going to dispute. How fallen the child’s nature is is a matter of some dispute but has been covered in my posts on Charlotte’s second principle. What form parental discipline should take is going to be the biggest and toughest topic we have to tackle today so I am going to save it for a follow-up post (part 2).

Starting from the end of the above list, Charlotte says that

  • Habit training is not done apart from the work of the Holy Spirit but is a part of it.

She quotes Psalm 127 in this context. I think we can also look to Philippians 2:12-13:

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

If we began to list all the places in which we are told to do good, to be good, we would be here all day if not all month or all year. I think the Bible makes clear that we are to do something  but it also makes clear that it is not our work but the Holy Spirit’s in us.

  • Habit training is not just for children; when grown they are to continue to “habit train” themselves.

The Bible makes pretty clear that parents are to discipline their children (we will look at a lot of these verses below when we get to the how). But it also shows us that adults are not perfect and still need to work on themselves (with the help of the Holy Spirit, as we have seen). So I think it’s not a big leap to say that at some point the burden gets passed from parent to grown child.

  • Though Charlotte lists many specific habits to work on (obedience, attention, etc.), behind them all is what she elsewhere calls “the Way of the Will,” that is, the ability to make oneself do what one ought, not what one will.

There is a lot to point to in the Bible to show is the importance of doing not what we will but what the Lord wills:

“Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’” (Matt. 6:9-10; emphasis added)

“And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”” (Luke 1:38)

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21)

“And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”” (Matt. 26:39; cf. Luke 22:42)

“I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” (John 5:30; cf. John 6:38)

  • Habit training works by replacing a bad habit with a good one.

This point touches on the specifics of how we habit train. I can’t think of places where the Bible gives its own program for such a thing (as Charlotte does), but neither do I think the idea is unbiblical. Charlotte speaks of habit training as laying down the rails upon which one’s life will run. Proverbs 22:6, which Charlotte also quotes (see Parents and Children, p. 21), supports this idea:

“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

We could quote many other verses as well in which the Bible speaks of the “way” in which a man walks (cf. Psalm 1:1).

  • The goal of habit training is to provide a “second nature.”

In a recent post I spoke of habit training as sanctification. That is really what we are getting at here. What else would you call that process by which our original, sinful nature is transformed? If we acknowledge that we need sanctified, that it is the work of the Holy Spirit, but that we must cooperate in our own sanctification (as opposed to sitting back waiting for God to change us), then the real question is not if but how.

This is where I want to spend part 2, asking: How do we “train up a child in the way he should go”? Is Charlotte right that punishment, including corporal punishment, should be rare? What specifics does the Bible give us on the how of discipline?

(Provisional) Conclusions

I realize we have just scraped the surface of this issue. The real meat is yet to come. Thus far, I think we can say that, though the Bible does not specifically describe the process of habit training as Charlotte does, that a lot of the principles behind it — the need to change one’s nature, the role of the individual vis-a-vis God’s role, the idea of establishing a way in which children should go — are in line with biblical principles.

Next up: Part 2: What does the Bible really say about discipline?

Nebby

 

 

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2 responses to this post.

  1. […] « Is it Biblical?: CM on Habit-Training (Part 1) […]

    Reply

  2. […] is  . . . a discipline . . .” is another thorny issue and took two posts here and here.  For Charlotte discipline means essentially habit training and she specifically rejects […]

    Reply

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