Basic habit training just might transform your household and your homeschooling.
Charlotte Mason, a revered British educator, believed that a parent’s job was to instill good habits in their children from early childhood. And the only way to do that is to commit to basic habit training.
“The habits of the child produce the character of the man… every day, every hour, the parents are either passively or actively forming those habits in their children upon which, more than upon anything else, future character and conduct depend.” ~Charlotte Mason on basic habit training
So whether you’ve heard of Charlotte Mason or not, doing basic habit training from when your children are young will yield the result of good character, which will benefit your children into adulthood and beyond. And it will benefit you and your household as soon as you get started!
Correct behavior becomes automatic with basic habit training.
One of the many byproducts of habit training is that it makes good habits automatic.
If you regularly perform a certain task, such as getting up and immediately making your bed, over and over again, it becomes automatic. If you get up and do it ten times, you’re probably still thinking about it every morning before you do it.
But if you do it one hundred times, you do it automatically, without thinking about it at all. This is when making your bed becomes a daily habit, instead of a choice you have to make each day.
Making your bed is a simple task that takes absolutely no thought and not much more effort. However, if it is not a habit, your child has to decide every day to do it.
So, if she has to decide, thoughts like this creep in- I can do it later. Do I feel like doing it? Or – If I don’t do it, maybe mom will do it for me.
When do you start training your children to have good habits?
Basic obedience is the most important habit for young children to have. And the way to teach obedience (or anything else) is to start with the habit of focused attention. Teach your young child that when you talk to him, he must stop what he’s doing and look at you.
Of course, you’ll be more effective in teaching your child to stop and listen to you if you are modeling this. In other words, a habit you might have to develop is putting down your phone or turning from what you’re doing to give him or others your focused attention.
Once your child has mastered attention, then you can work on obedience. Obedience is the key to child training. If you can teach your young child (1+-3) to be obedient, everything will flow more easily from that.
Obedience means first-time obedience, with a pleasant attitude.
This post contains affiliate links to books I’ve read and loved. Should you buy any of these books using my links, Train up a Child Publishing might a few cents per book, although it won’t increase your cost. Thank you!
Guidelines for starting Basic Habit Training
1. Make sure you have your child’s attention before giving an instruction. Speak calmly, firmly, and clearly. If your child is old enough, teach him to respond to your instruction. Teach him to say, “Yes, Mommy” or “Yes, Daddy,” so you know he’s heard and understood. Or if you live in the South, his response will most likely be “Yes, Ma’am,” or “Yes, Sir.”
2. Explain why the new habit is important to learn. For example, “When we give someone our full attention, we show them love and respect.”
3. Be lovingly consistent. I mean really consistent. When your kids are very young (18 months to 3), child training must be a major focus (the major focus?) of your time. Because if you’re training a child to be obedient, and she isn’t, you’ll have to stop what you are doing and deal with her. Right then. Every time.
It doesn’t matter if you are tired, on the phone, fixing dinner, or would rather be doing something else. (And I know there are times you’d rather be doing anything else.)
If you do this EVERY time, there will come a time when you won’t be doing this every second of every day, I promise. In fact, at that point disobedience will become the exception, rather than the rule.
4. Realize it will take a good three to four weeks of intentional work to see a level of mastery over a new habit. And don’t have a “one and done” expectation. Instead, understand that you’ll have to revisit most habits more than once to keep children on track, even if that habit seems to be mastered.
A new baby in the house, a move, or even just excessive tiredness can cause children to regress. When you notice that a habit is slipping, plan to work on that habit again immediately.
Here’s the process of teaching a chore. I say “process” because it takes awhile. It takes time and it takes repetition.
- First, you may have to show a child how to do something a few times.
- And when he gets the idea, you’ll probably have to do it with him several more times.
- Eventually, he’ll understand and can do it on his own. But you’ll have to check his work.
- And you may have to correct him or have him re-do it a time or two until he gets it.
- After he is doing it on his own, you’ll have to periodically check and make sure it’s done.
- Checklists are really helpful at this stage! Like the one below I made for my son.
Although please don’t have discouragingly high standards for a young child. Expect that it will take your child longer than you to do something and she won’t do it as well as you can. Yet.
5. Remember that you are the parent and you are in control. When you find yourself getting angry, it’s often because you didn’t deal with disobedience promptly. And now your child is in control. And this is why you’re angry. Remember that. And if you catch your temperature rising, stop what you’re doing and think about what’s going on.
6. Don’t raise your voice, count to three, give conditions, or bargain with/bribe your child to be obedient. Example: I’ll give you a cookie if you’ll be quiet at the grocery store. In fact, if you’ve taught your kids the habit of Attention, then only give instructions once. And if you speak quietly instead of yelling at them, they tend to be quiet so they can hear you. (But only if you’ve laid the groundwork by teaching attention and obedience.)
7. Don’t punish your child for being a child. Focus on correcting your child for willful disobedience. There is a difference between being childish and being willfully disobedient. It’s childish to knock over the milk, jump in the mud, and pull everything out of the kitchen cabinet. (Although even young children can be taught not to make a mess out of the kitchen cabinet. But the first time they do it should be a “freebie,” until you’ve taught them not to.)
8. To be the most effective, correct your child as soon as possible after he does something disobedient. The longer you wait, the less effective your correction will be.
Again, if you help your kids master first-time obedience, you’ll be able to teach other habits more easily.
9. If you recognize that you have a problem forming good habits yourself, this is the perfect time to work on that, too! The most readable and actionable book I’ve ever read about habits is Atomic Habits. It’s a must-read and will teach you how to breakdown new habits into smaller actions, which will help you as well as your kids.
One of the first things your child needs to learn as he grows in understanding is that he has a higher Authority.
You are not Your Own
Ms. Mason thought children were to be raised with the idea that they are not “their own.” In other words, children, just as their parents, hold their lives in a sacred trust from the Creator.
They were created for God’s purposes. And it is their job to develop healthy bodies and minds in order to be ready to fulfill that special purpose that God created them for.
In other words, children are to be taught from the beginning that they are living under a greater Authority than themselves and were created for a purpose.
What a contrast to our child-centered culture!
Basic household habits for everyone
As I said earlier, one of the best ways to teach your children anything is to consistently model it yourself. If you want to teach your kids to use an “inside” voice, don’t raise your voice. Training them to keep their rooms orderly? Make sure yours doesn’t look as though it came in contact with a tornado.
I know — no one is perfect and we don’t live in a perfect world, so this standard can’t be kept by anyone ALL the time. But what is your norm?
Carrying your own dishes to the kitchen counter, putting away your own clothes, shoes, toys, etc., brushing your teeth after eating, feeding a pet, and making a bed are all common tasks. Homeschooling children should also manage their books, schoolwork, art supplies, and other items after they use them.
And even young children can do many of these things.
Without this training, we constantly struggle with our children. There’s no time left to get anything done, let alone school work because we’re fussing and/or following our children around all the time enforcing the completion of these daily tasks.
One of Charlotte Mason’s goal for families was having a harmonious household. And you can’t have a happy household without constant, reliable habit training.
Basic Intellectual Habit Training
is the foundational habit upon which others are based. Our children must learn to focus their thoughts upon one thing for a time, rather than letting their minds continually flit from one idea to the next. This is the first thing to teach because attentiveness is a requirement to learn anything else. Your child must be able to give you her full attention before you can train her in obedience or any other necessary habit.
When homeschooling or teaching something to your child, Charlotte Mason pioneered using high interest, short lessons rather than long ones, and varying the location of the lessons from indoors to out.
If a student knows that each lesson is to be a set amount of time and isn’t unbearably lengthy, he learns that he can successfully meet his parent’s expectation of focusing on the material for that length of time. If younger children’s thoughts are wandering, Ms. Mason suggested adjusting the length of the lesson until you have captured their attention for the entire time.
…is the result of providing children with heroic, breathtaking adventures in exotic lands, even in their pleasure reading. Care must be taken to fill their minds with exciting ideas and problems that must take an effort to solve. Rather than just explaining gravity, for example, it is best to drop a pebble in the water and let them ponder awhile why it sinks. We do children a disservice by giving them information too quickly.
…is Charlotte Mason’s name for full concentration and engagement of children’s minds. Before beginning with today’s reading, recall what happened at the end of yesterday’s. We know today that learning takes place when we connect new facts and ideas with what we already know. We need to help our children make those connections rather than teaching them information in isolation. Connect the new information to the old. Also, teach them to use their powers of observation and concentration by studying nature as well as by studying art.
…is the habit of expecting and receiving excellence in our student’s work. Take care to assign work that you know is not beyond the reach of the young student. Never allow a child the habit of mediocrity in her school work. That doesn’t mean that she must write perfectly as she is learning. But the skill should be practiced day by day until it is executed to the best of the child’s ability, which will provide satisfaction knowing to the child knowing that her hard work was able to help her reach her goal. Ms. Mason also encourages parents to make children complete projects that they begin before beginning another. (A habit that many of us –me, for example–could benefit from, as well!)
… is “the whole duty of a child.” From infancy, parents should teach their children that obedience is not a choice, but an obligation, every time. Children should obey with a willing spirit because it is the right thing to do, rather than being “bullied” into submission. Charlotte adds that older children should see that when they do something that they would rather not do because it is the right thing to do, it is a noble act.
Help your children learn this concept by pointing it out when you see this in the news, in your older child’s taking care of a younger one when he’d rather be doing something else, parent(s) being willing to work hard every day to provide for and take care of their children, characters in literature who overcome terrific odds to do the right thing.
…is an absolute standard for children, according to Ms. Mason. This not only includes never willfully telling a lie but also being accurate in relating facts, without generalization or exaggeration for the purpose of generating a humorous response. Also, teach your children that repeating a story or rumor without making sure it’s true is also unacceptable behavior.
Children are to be taught to be respectful of others and their belongings and to have a cheerful disposition. Charlotte suggested in young children that bad moods be handled most profitably by distraction, as any mom of a toddler knows. Giving an unhappy child a pleasant task to do will help him focus on something else than his momentary unpleasantness. It is our job to teach him to see the bright side of things as well.
Although I believe we have a natural bent one way or the other, one can learn to get into the habit of seeing the glass half full rather than half empty. And this is something we can teach ourselves as well as teach our kids. If you struggle with having a good attitude yourself, read the book Mindset. (Don’t be put off by the subtitle. The book dovetails with recent research about our brain’s neuroplasticity and is a must-read.)
To learn more about mindset in a non-woo-woo way, read How to Teach Your Kids to Believe in Themselves.
Basic Physical Habits
As you work on the intellectual habits, you’ll want to add these physical habits to your list. Especially as your children grow older.
is using one’s time wisely and productively rather than being lazy or self-indulgent. If you’re planning on homeschooling or you’re already homeschooling, this concept is critical to help your children learn to be independent learners.
Staying focused and on task instead of letting minor annoyances upset him. Cultivating a tolerant, pleasant, patient attitude instead of being quick to whine or complain when conditions aren’t exactly as we’d like them.
Teaching children to be consistently clean, neat, and orderly, no matter where they are—at home, at a friend’s or at Grandma’s.
Teaching children to actively seek ways to serve others. What are the benefits of teaching your child to be alert? He will be quick to open doors or carry something for you or a younger sibling. Or he might see an undone task and take care of it, rather than waiting for someone else to do it.
This is gold, mommas! I won’t forget the first time our oldest hopped up and cleaned up the kitchen after dinner just because it needed to be done.
Given the right inspiration, most children’s natural heroic tendencies become activated and can produce an astounding amount of perseverance and tenacity. Reading about the physical heroism of the Spartans or the knight’s Code of Chivalry can help promote this idea in your young ones.
This is another habit that is promoted by delightful examples of selfless service in excellent children’s literature such as The Box-Car Children series for younger elementary or Amos Fortune, Free Man for older elementary children.
Again, by reading fine literature, as well as emulating examples around them, children learn courage, as opposed to recklessness.
Another word for discernment, Ms. Mason describes caution as preserving our health and ability to serve God and others by acting thoughtfully rather than hastily and possibly harming ourselves or perhaps our siblings or friends.
The last of the physical habits is purity. Read 1 Corinthians 6:19: Do you not know that your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit, Whom you have received from God? Ms. Mason believed that if you raise your children with this concept when they are young, their actions will support that reverence for their bodies throughout their lives.
Basic Habit training is wise parenting
Charlotte Mason believed that all matters relating to children and their upbringing were important, but replacing poor habits in our children with valuable ones through patient, painstaking and loving training and correction is one of the primary roles we must be about in our homes.
As parents, we are wise when we realize the value of instilling these habits into our children beginning at an early age. Our daily, often hour-by-hour training using inspiring examples from our literature and stories as well as gentle, loving correction will produce children who are ready and able to manage their own bodies and accept the responsibilities laid upon them by their parents as they continue to grow and mature.
Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. Galatians 6:9
Let us encourage one another in our high calling!
Can you imagine how much your day to day life would change if you taught your children to follow many of these habits?
Basic habit training is one of the most important things you can do to develop your children’s character.
Basic habit training can transform your household and your homeschooling!
P.S. Click here to get this post in a printable format so you can keep and refer to it easily.
Editor’s note: this post was last updated on 5/03/20.