Christopher Langen is considered one of the most intelligent people in the world with an IQ of 195 (in comparison Einstein’s was 150). But he has spent most of his life as a bouncer in a bar and is now a rancher.
Born in 1952, he had access to an adequate education offered by the public schools in Bozeman, Montana. He received a scholarship to Reed college but dropped out and never graduated. When reflecting on his inability to finish college, Christopher Langan explained to Malcolm Gladwell (author of Outliers) that some of the reason was due to financial aid, but most of it was experiences that could have easily been solved by good habits and practical knowledge.
The Sum of Human Nature
All children are born with innate intelligence and desire to be good, and many are born to loving parents with rich opportunities. But too many of these children grow up to be adults that struggle to make basic decisions that affect their well-being. Charlotte Mason encountered the same puzzling phenomenon in the late 19th century, and asked the question that has been asked for centuries: why do intelligent, inherently-good children grow up to never reach their full potential?
In Home Education, Mason dedicates over 100 pages to answer this question. First, she describes foundational principles of human nature– all the passions, affections and emotions that are common to human beings. Think of it like this: people are born with two opposing forces that temper each other to varying degrees: the Light of Christ and the Natural Man. Every person is born with a unique genetic makeup that influences how they will react to the environment around them–physically, mentally and psychologically.
The sum of all these–The Light of Christ, the Natural Man, and genetics—are what Mason calls “Human Nature.” They greatly determine the character of a child, so much so that as a parent you may think you have little power over your child’s character. You may resolve to leave their personality alone and let them develop as they are. Or, as Mason says, “to let every child develop unhindered according to the elements of character and disposition that are in him.” (Home Education, pg 102)
But, human nature must not be left to grow unhindered. Mason clearly predicted the consequence of leaving children to their own devices, she said: “the world is making advances, but the progress is, for the most part, amongst the few whose parents have taken their education seriously in hand; while the rest, who have been allowed to stay where they were, be no more, or no better than Nature made them, act as a heavy drag:” (Home Education, pg. 103).
But, as influential as human nature is, there is something more powerful that determines the destiny of a person: their habits.
‘Habit is Ten Natures’
“The child is born, doubtless, with the tendencies which should shape his future; but every tendency has its branch roads, its good or evil outcome; and to put the child on the right track for the fulfilment of the possibilities inherent in him, is the vocation of the parent.”
Charlotte Mason’s beliefs about habit may have been considered theoretical in her day, but current research is slowly revealing the principal characters of human nature, and habit plays the lead role.
It is estimated around 40% of everything we do on a daily basis is habitual. If we had to consciously make decisions about every single thing we did, we would get very little done. Habit is the brain’s efficient solution to free-up working memory and make space for higher level thinking.
Habit takes away the burden of decision making, so the brain can concentrate willpower on more important issues. The vast majority of synaptic connections and pruning happen in the first three years of life. The atmosphere and discipline your child experiences shape their brain in ways that will greatly determine their destiny.
Young children (before age 8) need much more structure and discipline than older children and teens. Mason said there is a warm flow of goodness at the heart of every young child, but they are incapable of steady effort because they have no strength of will, no power to make themselves do what they know they should do. This is the function of the parents: to make the child do that which he lacks the power to compel himself to (Home Education, p 99-100).
Young children need the authority and structure that parents provide. You, the parent, provide this most vital education by your example (atmosphere), structure/routine (discipline), and teaching correct principles (life). Once your child’s will is strengthened and good habits are formed, you can slowly step back and let your child govern himself.
Train Up A Child
“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. ”
The words “behavior” and “habits” are used interchangeably in this article because they are so closely connected. Behavior either becomes a habit by reinforcement, or the behavior goes extinct because it is missing a vital piece of the habit loop (see part 2). Whether or not a behavior becomes a habit depends on you, the parent.
Children are a bundle of raw material formed from their premortal and mortal attributes, but it is your job, as the parent, to shape these materials, and the most effective tool is habit training. I love the metaphor of “living clay” to describe parents’ responsibility to instill habits in their children:
“And to him who overcometh, and keepeth my commandments unto the end, will I give power over many kingdoms; And he shall rule them with the word of God; and they shall be in his hands as the vessels of clay in the hands of a potter;”
“How habit, in the hands of the mother, is as his wheel to the potter, his knife to the carver– the instrument by means of which she turns out the design she has already conceived in her brain. Observe, the materials are there to begin with; his wheel will not enable the potter to produce a porcelain cup out of coarse clay; but the instrument is as necessary as the material or the design.” (Home Education, p. 97)
“To help another human being reach one’s celestial potential is part of the divine mission of woman. As mother, teacher, or nurturing Saint, she molds living clay to the shape of her hopes. In partnership with God, her divine mission is to help spirits live and souls be lifted. This is the measure of her creation. It is ennobling, edifying, and exalting.” (Russell M. Nelson, 1989)
Every day you, and the people your child associates with, are shaping your child’s character for good or bad through habits. In his bestseller book, Atomic Habits, James Clear explores current research that reveals the social implications of habits. Multiple studies have shown that people of all ages will develop the habits of those around them, especially if they meet one or more of these criteria: 1) the close, 2) the many, 3) and the powerful.
If your child spends more time with peers, they will develop the habits of their peers (the many). If your child is securely attached to responsible adults (parents, grandparents, teachers) and spends most of the time with them, your child will develop their habits. It is imperative that you understand this truth if you want your child to develop desirable habits.
The habits you should be instilling in yourself and your children should be centered on Christlike attributes. These are the ten habits Charlotte Mason considered the most important:
- Critical Thinking
- Perfect Execution
- Personal Initiative
HOW HABITS START
Now that you understand why habits are foundational to education, let’s talk about how habits are formed and how to implement on a daily basis. To make habit training more approachable, I’ll compare each step in the habit loop to the habit that all mothers have experience with: potty training.
“True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior.”
(Boyd K. Packer, “Little Children,” Ensign, Nov. 1986, 17).
The first step in changing habits is changing beliefs. Most parenting books focus on changing behavior by reinforcement or extinction. This is called behaviorism, and it is, by far, the most popular theory in education and parenting today. However, the gospel of Jesus Christ does not focus solely on behavior–it focuses on improving relationships and changing the beliefs of a person so they can change their own behavior.
“We who teach should make it clear to ourselves that our aim in education is less conduct than character; conduct may be arrived at, as we have seen, by indirect routes, but it is of value to the world only as it has its source in character.” (A Philosophy of Education, pg. 129)
How can you help shape your child’s beliefs? First, do not push your beliefs on your child; instead help them see consequences of choices through stories. Introduce them to living ideas and real heroes from the best books. Family history is another way to teach living ideas; children love to hear stories about when their parents were young. After you’ve read or told stories, resist a lecture (I know, it is HARD) and instead ask them open-ended questions to help them understand the story, like “do you think what ____ was right or wrong?” or, “what would you do in that situation? Why?” These simple questions help shape your child’s beliefs better than a lecture.
Mason warns that teaching morals should be done naturally: “It is possible to sow a great idea lightly and casually; and perhaps this sort of sowing should be rare and causal because if a child detects a definite purpose in his mentor, he is apt to stiffen himself against it.” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 102)
As the parent, you assist your child in creating their beliefs and identity. But, you must remember your children are individuals and should not be manipulated or used to achieve your own goals. You have stewardship over your children, not ownership. The key is working with your child’s will, not against it. Your child must first change their beliefs and desires before their behavior will genuinely change.
Potty Training Example: Your child needs to believe that using the toilet is the right thing to do. Explain why toilets are used and why it is important. Talk about how every person learns how to use the toilet when they grow up. Get them to see and believe in the benefits of the habit.
“We entertain the idea which gives birth to the act and the act repeated again and again becomes the habit; ‘sow an act’ we are told, ‘reap a habit’ ‘sow a habit, reap a character.’ But we must go a step further back , we must sow the idea or notion which makes the act worth while.” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 102)
Ideas & Identity
“The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity.”
(James Clear, Atomic Habits)
The words you speak have a powerful effect on how your child views themselves. For example, when you tell your child “you are kind,” “you are a helper,” and “you are courageous” they begin to see themselves as having those attributes. If you say “you are so impatient,” “you are such a brat,” and “you are naughty” they will see themselves that way, and any habit in line with that label will be accepted by their subconcious. They will accept that attribute as part of their identity. Help your child form an identity instead of simply changing a behavior. Teach them to become a reader, don’t just read a book; become a painter, don’t just paint a picture.
In his bestselling book, Atomic Habits, James Clear points out a truth that is usually disregarded in most behavior programs: beliefs and desire are the driving force behind behavior. Charlotte Mason also pointed this truth in her volume on education. She said, “A habit becomes morally binding in proportion to the inspiring power of the idea which underlies it.” (School Education, page 110).
Potty Training Example: Toddlers see parents and siblings using the toilet and wearing underwear. They come to understand that wearing underwear is a rite of passage, that using the toilet is something that “big kids” do. They may identify themselves as a “big” boy or girl, and change their behavior to be in line with that identity.
THE HABIT LOOP
Charles Duhigg was the first to identify the “habit loop” in his book The Power of Habit. He observed and researched for years before discovering the four common components of all habits. He called his discovery ‘the Habit Loop.’ In the book Atomic Habits, James Clear expounds on the habit loop and how to apply it in real life. I have taken knowledge provided in both books and combined them with Charlotte Mason’s insights on habit formation and my own experiences. The instructions below are for developing a new, desirable habit, but if you want to extinguish an undesirable habit, simply do the opposite: (1) make it invisible, (2) make it undesirable, (3) make it difficult, (4) make it unsatisfying.
Cue: Make it Obvious
The cue is something that tells the brain to start the habit. It could be something that is not in-line with a person’s identity or desires–your child believes themself to be a clean person, and seeing a messy room cues them to clean it. It could be a sequence of behaviors–going to the bathroom upon waking. Or it could be a craving that reminds them to do the habit–the pressure of a full bladder and the craving to pee.
The best way to cue a habit is through the environment. In kindergarten classrooms there are bins with pictures/words written on them as a cue to put toys in them. Think: “A place for everything and everything in its place.” People’s behavior changes dramatically based on the environment, so make the atmosphere of your home orderly and peaceful. Your behavior as a parent can cue your child’s bad habits–tone of voice, word choice, body language, etc. so be aware of how you can change your own behavior to help change your child’s.
At the beginning you are your child’s cue, but this should only be temporary, like the scaffold of a building. Once the foundation is set, the scaffold is slowly removed so the building can stand on its own. The same goes for children and habits. One way to do this is by directing your child’s attention to what they need to do, or asking them what needs to be done. This is much more effective than using directive language (“don’t do that!” or “do this”).
Directive language does not build the prefrontal cortex,, strengthen the will, or create internal cues. For example, if your child starts to pee their pants, you could tell your child, “STOP! You’re peeing!” and quickly take them to the bathroom. The alternative (and more effective) method is to say “Oh, look! What is happening? Where should you go pee? What do you need to do now?” The sight and feeling of pee is their cue; you are simply directing their attention to it. This works for the majority of habits–closing doors, taking dishes to sink, hanging up coats, etc.
For other habits, you can use a daily chart or checklist. Make a list of what your child needs to do each day (get dressed, brush teeth, practice instrument, etc.) and hang it up where they can see it–make it obvious! The added bonus is that each habit will cue the next (get dressed after making bed, sit and read scriptures until breakfast is ready); this is called “habit stacking” and it is very effective for keeping habit momentum going. A daily chart/checklist helps children know what is expected of them and is a powerful kick start for habit formation.
As I stated before, children need help in the beginning when their will is weak. You may have to scaffold the routine for a while before it becomes a habit. Hang the list on their bedroom door so they see it as soon as they wake up. Walk through the list with them everyday, asking “what do you do after eating breakfast?” Like potty training it will be tiring for the first few weeks, but if you are diligent it will be worth the effort.
Craving: Make it Attractive
In Chapter 10 of Atomic Habits, James Clear outlines the three groups that people of all ages imitate: the close, the many, and the powerful. The close relationships of family and friends will determine which habits your child will find attractive. Additionally, the peers your child associates with will also influence which habits your child develops. Finally, your child will most likely adopt the behavior of the people they see as powerful: characters from books and scriptures, religious leaders, athletes, singers, movie stars, etc.
A positive, secure attachment with your child will ensure that they will view your habits/behavior as attractive and seek to imitate you. And if you want your kids to find certain habits attractive, put them in environments or groups where that behavior is the norm. Immerse your children with stories of high moral character from people living in the past or present.
Before you attempt to develop certain habits in your children, you must first develop them yourself. Children learn from example–thanks to mirror neurons and attachment–and if you attempt to develop a habit in your child before yourself, it will inevitably fail.
Give your child more autonomy in choices and they will be more likely to adopt that behavior. As discussed in the Agency section, your child will be more likely to choose to develop a habit if it is their choice. It is helpful to ask when and where your child wants to practice their instrument (after lunch, before dinner, in between school subjects, etc). The same goes for other habits, like exercise and chores.
You can make potty training more attractive by letting your child watch you use the toilet, even if it may be uncomfortable. Many children find it attractive to have cool new underwear, and they find it unattractive to have an accident in them. Make it a priority to point this out to them.
Response: Make it Easy
“But of two things she will be careful–that he never slips off without shutting the door, and that she never lets the matter be a cause of friction between herself and the child, taking the line of his friendly ally to help him against that bad memory of his.” (Home Education, p. 124)
The actual behavior of the habit is called the response, and it needs to be simple and easy to perform. “The idea behind make it easy is not to only do easy things. The idea is to make it as easy as possible in the moment to do things that payoff in the long run.” (James Clear, Atomic Habits)
Make it easy for your children to develop good habits by making the action short and simple. For example, if you want your child to develop the habit of attention, schedule school lessons for the morning when their brain is at its freshest and make the lessons short so your child can focus the entire time. Gradually increase lesson time as the habit is formed. Design and organize the school room so it is easy to get school started and put things away when done.
If you want your child to read more books, make it the easiest option for when they are bored–get rid of the television (or unplug it) and make books available all over the house. If you want your children to play outside more often, buy the right outerwear and have it available right by the door.
An excellent method to make habits easy is to role play. If it is difficult for your child to engage in a desirable habit in certain situations, practice the good habit in a non-threatening situation. If your child uses inappropriate language or engages in aggressive behavior when they are frustrated, role play a situation where the child is regularly frustrated. For example, the younger sibling destroys a Lego creation and the older sibling must practice hitting a pillow (instead of a sibling) or telling the sibling what they did wrong (instead of hurtful names). Regular role playing starts to ‘lay the rails’ in your child’s mind, which makes it easier for them to engage in the desirable habit when faced with the real situation.
You must replace a bad habit instead of trying to eliminate it. The child will always go back to an old behavior if it is not replaced by a better habit that is just as easy to complete.
Potty Training: Start small by potty training with no bottoms on so the child does not have to bother with pants/undies in the beginning. Keep a training potty nearby so as soon as they need to go it is only a couple feet away. When that has become a habit, move on to something a little more difficult. Add loose fitting pants and move the potty into the hall. Keep going until the child can run into the bathroom by themselves.
Reward: Make it Satisfying
“One word more, prompt action on the child’s part should have the reward of absolute leisure, time in which to do exactly as she pleases, not granted as a favour, but accruing (without any words) as a right.” (Home Education, page 121)
Satisfaction comes from engaging in a habit that is in-line with our identity or by appealing to our most basic needs (love, security, power, etc). If your child believes themselves to be a kind, helpful, creative, hardworking, etc. person, then acknowledging and reinforcing behavior that is in line with their identity will make it satisfying.
One of the world’s most renowned behavior scientists, Sidney W. Bijou, noted “The most effective way to teach children to behave well is to strengthen desirable behavior through positive, reinforcing means. The least effective means to reduce problem behavior is through the use of aversive or negative processes.” (Behaviorism, 444-451)
You reinforce your children’s behavior (habits) by how you react to, or reward it. When your child craves your attention, they seek to satisfy the craving with undesirable or desirable behavior. When you give them your attention, they are satisfied, and this guarantees the behavior will be repeated. If you want your child to develop desirable behavior, you must make those habits satisfying by giving attention to them. The “reward” should be short and simple: genuine praise is the easiest and most effective, but for some children a touch on the shoulder or hug works well, too. Whatever the reward, it needs to be immediate and consistent. Once your child is older and more mature, they can pick a motivation that is tied to the habit. If your child completes all their tasks on their checklist each day, they earn a reward that they have chosen (see Notes on Rewards below)
Let’s talk a little more about praise and recognition. They are universal human cravings that are deeply satisfying to people of all ages. Never underestimate the power of recognition. Look for the good in the smallest actions and verbally acknowledge it. It should be short and simple–under 12 words and less than 5 seconds, according to Glenn Latham, author of Christlike Parenting. It can be accompanied by a touch on their shoulder or a smile. You do not need to praise them for everything, but you should be giving praise more than criticism–a lot more.
Research shows that positive reinforcement is much more effective than criticism, yet parents’ natural instinct is to criticize when they see bad behavior and ignore the good behavior. Dr Glenn Latham reports that 90-95% of most positive behavior goes unrecognized (Christlike Parenting) How much should we be praising? Some estimates are a ratio of 5 positive to every negative interaction. Research also shows that children’s brains literally grow better when they are given positive reinforcement versus negative. If that wasn’t enough, acknowledging the positive behavior and ignoring the negative behavior is proven to be more effective at reducing the negative behavior than by just criticizing!
What is considered undesirable behavior? It totally depends on your family. But the hard and fast rule is that if the child is physically hurting someone or breaking something, you should intervene. Otherwise, ignore it. If the behavior is truly bothering you, redirect them to something else and connect with them. Praise them for the good behavior they are now engaged in.
By ignoring the undesirable behavior you take out the reward part of the habit loop, and the habit will eventually go extinct. For many children, acting out is the only way they receive their parent’s attention. They crave it so badly that they will settle for whatever they can get, even if it’s negative attention. The reward is compounded by the fact that parents may respond to the undesirable behavior with “you are so annoying/obnoxious/naughty.” When a child adopts these negative identities as their own, the negative behavior is strengthened because they believe their behavior is in line with who they are.
Potty Training: When your child pees on the toilet, they feel satisfied because they kept their new underwear dry and clean! They feel satisfied when you praise them for their effort and their big kid behavior. They feel satisfied when they put a sticker on a chart for each time they use the toilet (if your child is motivated by that).
Some notes on rewards:
They should be a natural consequence or directly related to the habit. “Even with regular and short lessons, a further stimulus may be occasionally necessary to secure the attention of the child. His desire of approbation may ask the stimulus, not only of a word of praise, but of something in the shape of a reward to secure his utmost efforts. Now, rewards should be dealt out to the child upon principle: they should be the natural consequences of his good conduct.” (Home Education, p. 142)
Rewards are a slippery slope and can easily extinguish intrinsic motivation. “Marks, prizes, places, rewards, punishments, praise, blame, or other inducements are not necessary to secure attention, which is voluntary, immediate and surprisingly perfect.” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 7)
Bring out their good feelings. Tell your child “you must be so proud of yourself for mastering that song!” or “how do you feel after keeping your new underwear dry and clean?” It is fine to tell your child you are proud of their effort and determination, but do not tie your love and acceptance to their achievements. Make the habit satisfying because of internal motivation (their self-esteem and confidence) and not external (your love).
DAILY HABIT TRAINING
“Tact, watchfulness, and persistence are the qualities she must cultivate in herself; and, with these, she will be astonished at the readiness with which the child picks up the new habit.” (Home Education, page 122)
Habit formation is intense and it can easily become overwhelming. Potty training is a form of habit training that requires constant attentiveness from the mother for at least a week. But if it is done correctly and the habit is formed, the maintenance requires little or no work from the mother. The same goes for other habits: if you go into it with a laissez faire attitude and commitment, the habit will never fully develop.
As a mother of three boys, I am well aware that you cannot plan for everything–life with children is spontaneous and hectic. Many things will get in the way of habit training, making it seem impossible. But it is possible, and essential. Here are some things that make habit training much easier to implement on a daily basis:
- Focus on one habit at a time.
- Be intentional. Habit train during the summer or during breaks so you can fully focus on those habits. Make it the educational focus for that time.
- Start small and be consistent. Compounding interest is the investment principle that small, consistent increases make big payoffs. It is better to have small, but consistent, goals rather than large ones that you cannot sustain. Starting small could be asking your young child to pick up and put away 5 puzzle pieces instead of all of them. Slowly work up to 10, then 20, until they can pick up every single piece. This is similar to the “make it easy” principle—make it attainable.
- Be consistent. The goal is to create a neurological “trail” in your child’s brain that it will automatically take when given the choice. But just like trails in the woods, it requires that the trail is cleared from consistent use. Do your habit as often as possible.
- Decide on “Floors and Ceilings.” After listening to the “Floors and Ceilings” Brooke Snow podcast episode I started using this concept for habit training. It has made a world of difference. The floor is the bare minimum, the smallest step you can take. The ceiling is your ideal goal or habit. Decide on your “floor” and your “ceiling” As long as you are doing the bare minimum each day you will keep the momentum going and the habit will form.
- Focus on the process, not the product. Don’t get hung up on mistakes; you’re looking for progress, not perfection. We all make mistakes; the important thing is to look at the process, or pattern, of your habit formation. Slipping up once is a mistake, letting it happen twice in a row is the return to an old habit.
As a parent, you have an enormous responsibility to train up your children with habits that guarantee a happy, successful life. You do this by the beliefs you instill into your children, the words you use to establish their identity, and things you do to reward their behavior. You create a scaffold in the early years while their will is still weak, then slowly nurture good habits so that one day they can govern themselves. As Charlotte Mason famously stated, “The mother who takes pains to endow her children with good habits secures herself smooth and easy days.” (Charlotte Mason)
2 Corinthians 6:14
OPTIONAL: Atomic Habits
WHY are habits so important in the Plan of Salvation? WHAT part do they play in sin and righteousness?
WHICH habits do I want my children to develop? Are my children surrounded by people that exhibit those behaviors/habits? Do I exhibit the habits I want my children to develop?
HOW does 2 Corinthians 6:14 relate to habits?Are addiction and habits the same thing? Why or Why not?
HOW can I prepare my children to resist addiction/destructive habits?
Make a list of habits you think are the most important to happiness and success (temporally and spiritually). Keep your list short–contemplate the habits that are foundational to all others.
Pray and ask “what lack I yet?” Add any attributes to your list you feel impressed to develop.
Using the habit loop, chose one habit at a time to develop in yourself and your children. Summer is a great time to focus on habits.