Thursday, August 25, 2011

Habit - a good servant, and a bad master

            I love this time of year, with crickets singing loudly at night and into the morning, and the sky a rich blue over the cooling pond. The vibrant green tree tops blow in a cool breeze, and it’s the perfect weather for sitting outside with a book, or taking long walks. Somehow, it all makes me want to hang on to the last drops of summer sweetness, and at same time, get the kids started at their schoolwork again. This week, we’re doing a bit of both, and there are lessons in it for me, too. We’re starting slowly, with just math and reading, and don’t plan to start the rest of our work for another week or so. I am seeing such benefits from starting this way!

            A certain small person here has a very hard time with changes in routine - not uncommon with children who've experienced too much change - and while he thrives in the structure of our routine school days, it’s very difficult for him to get back into the swing of things when routine’s been thrown off. In previous summers, we’ve done math every other day, but this summer we’ve been more sporadic because of our travels. Now, easing into math again isn’t so easy. The simple math lessons he’d been cruising through in 20 minutes in June have taken over an hour to complete, because when you have to hang upside down off your chair, go to the bathroom 10 times, run outside to get the mail, and periodically drop yourself at your mother’s feet to moan and whimper about how hard math is, it takes a very, very, long time to complete a lesson.

We’ve done a lot of talking here about habits, and how we have to get our brains into the habit of working hard and our bodies and minds out of the habit of dawdling. Littlest is a devoted train buff, and so the terminology used in some of Charlotte Mason’s writings makes a perfect illustration and jumping off point as we discuss the importance of habit.

“Just as it is on the whole easier for the locomotive to pursue its way on the rails than to take a disastrous run off them, so it is easier for the child to follow lines of habit carefully laid down than to run off these lines at his peril. It follows that this business of laying down lines toward the unexplored country of the child’s future is a very serious and responsible one for the parent.”

Charlotte Mason, Volume 1: Home Education

            And so these first few weeks of school work are as much about laying down our habits, as they are about studying math. We discuss where we want our rails to take us, and what skills we will need to get there. We talk about what rails would be laid down if we followed the habits most easy and natural to us – the ones that would have us lay about, do what is easiest and most fun, and forgo our work. We agree that we don’t like where we’d eventually wind up, riding those rails.

            “The habits of the child produce the character of the man, because certain mental habitudes once set up, their nature is to go on for ever unless they should be displaced by other habits. Here is an end to the easy philosophy of, ‘It doesn’t matter,’ ‘Oh, he’ll grow out of it,’ ‘He’ll know better by and by.’ ‘He’s so young, what can we expect?’ and so on. Every day, every hour, the parents are either passively or actively forming those habits in their children upon which, more than anything else, future character and conduct depend.”

Charlotte Mason, Volume 1: Home Education

The children are not the only ones who need to work on habits. If Littlest is able to wander about and dawdle at his math, I see that not only have his habits of attention slipped, but mine have as well. It’s my job to make sure he attends, to give him a different, varied piece of work if he’s dawdling, and return to the math in a bit. I sigh inwardly and think we should be done with this habit, and then remember how easily I am distracted still. I pore through my copy of Laying Down the Rails, A Charlotte Mason Habits Handbook, reminding myself that this is bigger than math. These habits of attending to work, of doing our best without complaining, of delaying our hoped-for fun until we’ve completed the work at hand – will serve each of us well through life.

            “As has been well said, ‘Sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.”

 Charlotte Mason, Volume 2: Parents and Children

The amazing thing Littlest has discovered this week is that once he stopped telling himself how hard math is and focused on the work at hand, he could complete it quickly, and could move along to swimming and bug-watching and bike riding – a lesson his brothers have learned this same way, through the years. In a few weeks, when more subjects are added and we return to our regular schedule, finishing the less beloved subjects will allow us to move along to those that are more “fun,” and after three have been completed, there is always a Yummy Earth Organic Lollipop waiting in the big glass jar on the counter, to be enjoyed during silent reading.

This week is giving me time for mental inventory before our school year begins in earnest; even before curriculum, what habits do I need to focus on in each of the children? If I am honest, I know I need to reflect on my own habits as well. Am I going to bed on time, so that waking isn’t a chore? Am I studying God’s word, so that I have something to pour into my family that is bigger, and better, than my own strength and wisdom? Am I keeping laundry, and shopping and cooking to any degree of organization, so that our days will flow more smoothly when school is in session? Are there bad habits – like internet time or late-night reading, that crowd out or replace good habits in my life? I have my own habits to get in order these next few weeks, and I should think, for the rest of my life.

“Each of us has in his possession an exceedingly good servant or very bad master, known as Habit. The heedless, listless person is a servant of habit; the useful, alert person is the master of a valuable habit.”

          Charlotte Mason, Book 4: Ourselves

I’d love to hear what habits are being reflected on and making a difference in your home. Want to share? Leave a comment!

Trusting in Him,

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