Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ask The Attached Mama: Habit Training in the Early Years

Recently, a reader asked me a question regarding the schedule I posted the other day.  (You can see the schedule we are talking about here.)  I thought that this was a very good question and a great idea for another blog post.

Dear Attached Mama,
I've read the portion in the summary of book 1 about habits, but I see here you actually have it as a distinct part of your day. How do you formally teach habits? I'm new to Charlotte Mason and trying to read as I have a chance, which is not as much on as many days as I'd like. Is there something written on AO  that explains the formal teaching of habits?


Hi Kelli,

If you read any writing by Charlotte Mason, you will notice that she talks a lot about habits.  She speaks about the formation of habits and also how habits really can dictate human behavior.  I have always found her writings on habits an interesting topic as I agree that so much of human behavior is a result of the various habits we have developed and learned.  I also agree with her theory that if you can get children used to the idea of doing right, you will have smooth and easy days ahead as a mother.   Especially when the "doing right" becomes second nature for the child; something they don't even have to think about doing.  (Example:  Automatically saying 'thank you' when someone hands you something.) I also think that children, actually all people, do not like being nagged and constantly reminded of what to do.   If you are constantly nagging your children and telling them what they should or should not be doing, they eventually learn to tune out your voice.  Simply because they have a limited capacity for taking in information!  So I have found that just spending a bit of time working on habits goes a long way to making a mother's day easier. 

"Let children alone-...the education of habit is successful in so far as it enables the mother to let her children alone, not teasing them with perpetual commands and directions - a running fire of Do and Don’t ; but letting them go their own way and grow, having first secured that they will go the right way and grow to fruitful purpose." --Charlotte Mason

Now, to answer your question Kelli about the schedule:
I actually have "Habits" on the schedule as a reminder for me rather than a distinct part of my children's day.   I do not mean to suggest that I would sit down with my children and announce, "OK children today we are going to work on the habit of Attentiveness for the next 15 minutes"  :)  Instead I am much more subtle in how I introduce work on habits.  It is also not something that I would treat as a lesson with a clear ending and starting time.  It is a part of our entire day.  While we are working on a new habit, I would constantly monitor them and help coach them until the habit became second nature and didn't require constant prompting and reminding.

Basically I just constantly monitor the behavior of my children.  When I see a "bad" habit or character trait forming, I will make it a point to consciously help coach them out of it---with the goal of developing a better habit or way of behaving in its place.  I try to just focus on one thing at a time instead of overwhelming them with work on 20 different things. So I prioritize our habit training based on what is important to me as their mother.  What I mean by that is that kids (like all humans) are not perfect, and like everyone they probably will have several poor habits going at anyone time:  They may not be putting away their play things (cleanliness), they may be having a hard time paying attention when you speak (attentiveness), they may be out of the habit of politeness, etc. etc.  As a mother, I would choose one thing (the thing most important to me and our family at that given moment) and consciously work on it until they seem to get it down.  Until the new habit seems to become second nature and the child does it without even giving much thought or notice to it.  Once I see that, only then do I move to consciously working on something else. (While constantly keeping an eye on their previously leaned 'habits'.)  
"Feed flowers, pick weeds. The conduct of a growing child is full of undesirable and desirable behaviors -- weeds and flowers. Given good nurturing, flowers grow so well you hardly notice the weeds. But often these flowers wilt at certain seasons and the weeds become more noticeable. If you just wait until that season is over, the weeds subside, and the flowers bloom again -- sometimes so beautifully that you forget the weeds are even there. Sometimes the weeds grow more quickly than the flowers, and you have to pull them out before they take over. So go the behaviors of a growing child. Part of disciplining a child is to weed out those undesirables that make a child unpleasant to live with so that the desirables flourish and make the child a joy to be around. "--William Sears, MD

Now, it is easy as a mother of young children to get so caught up in the chaos of life that you start to ignore bad habits forming.  You know what I mean?  So the reminder on the schedule just kind of reminds me to mentally assess where we are with things.  How is the current habit going?  Are they doing anything else that I feel REALLY needs to be worked on?  Would this week be a good time to start working on something else?  etc. 

“We have lost sight of the fact that habit is to life what rails are
to transport cars. It follows that lines of habit must be laid down
towards given ends and after careful survey, or the joltings and
delays of life become insupportable” ---Charlotte Mason

Methods to Teach Habits:

I think that modeling behavior is one of the most important and underrated parenting tools that we can keep in our belt.  The saying, "Do as I say, not as I do" will not take you very far as a parent.  I think that our children are constantly watching and learning from our reactions to the world around us.  So I can't emphasize enough how important it is to also work on good habit formation in yourself as a mother.  Do your children have problems losing their temper for example?  Then I would first ask you to look at your own actions.  How do you react when life isn't going your way?  How do you model being angry or sad to your children?  So I think the first step in teaching a habit is to start with yourself and go from there.

Direct Teaching:
Sometimes in order to cement a habit, you need to also do some direct teaching.   Sometimes modeling a behavior isn't enough on its own and you also have to add in some teaching. 

This week I decided to really focus on the habit of cleanliness for example.  Specifically how to really wash your hands properly.  I will admit that I noticed that hand-washing was very spotty in my house with my children. (Basically only when I would them to do it.)  And when they would do it, it was like they would run their hands under the water, wouldn't use soap, wouldn't even rub them together, and then would just dry them off.  So, since we are in the middle of cold and flu season...and since I really wanted them to just get used to doing this without much thinking, we decided to really focus on this habit.  So, I looked at my current set up in our bathroom and kitchen.  I adjusted it to make sure that the kids really COULD independently wash their hands.   What could I do as a parent to set up their environment to succeed?  (This is what Montessorians would call creating a "prepared environment".)
In our house, we got rid of our pump soap and replaced it with a very tiny bar soap since they had trouble with our pump soap;  I bought a taller step stool so they really could get over their hands and see what they are doing;   And I re-hung the towel so it was easier for the kids to both take it down and rehang it neater.  Then, on Monday we talked about the importance of washing your hands. We talked about how even though our hands look clean, they can still have germs on them that we can't see with the naked eye.  Then, I took them into the bathroom and we really went over how to properly wash their hands. (Getting them wet;  rubbing soap on them to make 'bubbles'; rubbing between your fingers, on the back of your hands, etc.; and I also taught the kids that they could sing the ABC song while they did this to make sure they washed their hands for a long enough time.  After this little demonstration, I hung a paper with picture ques so they would be able to remember the process.  And for the next week, I would remind them often to wash their hands and kind of stand over them while they did it and walk them through the process.  When they did it all by themselves, I would really praise them.    Eventually, they started to do this without reminder more and more.   And today, it is well on its way to becoming second nature to them.  They are just used to always washing their hands this way. 

Links to Become Attached To:

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Raising a Happy Child said...

This is an awesome post, especially the reminder of focusing on one thing at a time. I think my mistake is that I am trying to chase too many things and then getting frustrated. I'll have a look at the links you recommend. Thanks!


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