Posts Tagged ‘habits’

New Light on Habits

Dear Reader,

One test of a living book is if you can get new things from it each time you read it. Charlotte Mason’s own books are clearly living because I am re-reading volume one and just understood something in a whole new way. This is not new information (it was first written in the 1800s!) and may not be a new idea to some of you, but for me it was a whole new way of thinking about habit-training.

When I was coming more and more to a Charlotte Mason way of thinking about education, I was slow to warm up to the idea of habit-training. There was something about it that seemed false. Of course, we discipline and train our children but the idea that habits could be so important seemed very externally focused. I have come to appreciate that while good habits may not always correspond with a right heart, that they can make life very much easier, both for parent and child.

But in my head I think I was still overly influenced by the nuances I associate with that word: “habit.” Perhaps it is a more modern understanding of the word that I was reading back into Charlotte’s writings or maybe it is just me. Habits, whether smoking or saying please and thank you, are something I thought of only as rote actions; they had nothing to do with the heart.

As I reread Home Education, I find that while habits, in Charlotte’s conception, are rote in the sense that once they are established we do not need to think about them, that they have everything to do with the heart.

In part 3 of her first book, “Habit is Ten Natures,” Charlotte begins by listing those things which contribute to the nature of an individual person. We all, she says, have a common human nature which includes both a conscience, however fallen, but also a sin nature. [If you read here regularly, you may know that my view of fallen human nature is not quite the same as Charlotte’s (see, for example, this post and this one); I will not rehash the differences here; I don’t think they matter for the purposes of this post.]

We also each have familial influences. I am not sure Charlotte had our understanding of genetics or was familiar with the nature/nurture debate. It does not really matter in her conception whether a particular predilection is genetic or cultural. In this category we might include a predisposition to addiction or a bad temper that seems inherited from parents and grandparents or learned behaviors such as bad eating habits. Lastly, each individual has his or her own personal weaknesses. These three sources — common human nature, familial influences, and personal traits — all combine to create a unique individual nature, but not perhaps a very good one.

I call this the individual nature because it is unique to the individual but also because it is natural in the sense that it is what we have before outside influences act upon it. It is what we begin with. But, I hope, we are not happy to remain here. This is a fallen nature and, as Charlotte says, left on its own it will only get worse (Home Education, p. 76). Our goal then is to improve upon the nature we are born with.

This is where habit comes in. Charlotte calls it a lever. It is a small tool that allows us to do big work. This is really where my new (to me) insight comes in — Habit is not just about a polite veneer. It is more than a smooth pathway for our lives. Habit, for Charlotte, is the means by which we begin to change our natures. “Habit,” she says, “forces nature into new channels” (p. 78). Habit transforms our individual natures. I had heard before that Charlotte speaks of habit as “second nature” (p. 80). But I had not gotten the major spiritual implications of what she is saying here. Habit is a tool by which we begin to change our inborn, sinful natures into something better, something higher. It is not a mere external nicety. Habit works on the most basic human problem.

I want to be careful that we are understanding this is a biblical context. To use Christian terms, habit is a tool for our sanctification. But this remaking of our sinful human natures cannot occur without the work of the Holy Spirit. [Though she does not make it clear in this section, I think Charlotte would agree with this statement. She sees all of education as the work of God the Holy Spirit; certainly this area is no exception.] With His aid, our efforts, though they may seem aimed at externals, have real internal effect. Without His help, our efforts, as in all areas of life, would be in vain.

I came to a Charlotte Mason way of educating late and even when I appreciated her philosophy in some ways, I was slow to implement it in others. Habit-training was not something we consciously implemented in the early years. I have at time regretted this as I wish now that my kids were more organized and better at keeping things clean and put away. These habits are easier to train in the young years than they are in teens (be warned!). But as I am realizing that habit training goes so much further beyond putting away ones’ toys. It is a spiritual tool and as such is useful not just in practical day-to-day house-keeping ways but in shaping our very natures. It is not something that stops at the teens years or even in adulthood. It becomes at some point not the parent’s responsibility but the child’s and can still be used by each of us as we live our lives as adults. Charlotte says that “The problem before the educator is to give the child control over his own nature” (p. 76). This control that we hopefully have as adults, what Charlotte would elsewhere call the Way of the Will, is really just an extension of habit-training. Habit-training builds the Will by teaching us to do what we ought and not what we would and it is by the Way of the Will that we choose not what our own human natures desire but what God would have us do.

That is my big insight for the week. I realize that I am leaving one big question unanswered — it is the practical one. How do we habit train for more spiritual habits? What do you do with teens when the goals are not about putting away toys and shutting doors but are less tangible? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

Nebby

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