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Sowing the Seeds of Virtue, Part 3: Training in Habits

By Jason Barney, CDA Principal

In this series, we’re unpacking different ways of helping children and young adults grow in virtue both in the school and in the home. 

One of the lost goals of education, Christian education especially, is the cultivation of virtue. Unlike legalism, which focuses on rules and external conformity, virtue formation is truly a matter of the heart. It has to do with what a student loves and cares about, as much as what he does on the outside. 

In the last article, we discussed stocking the memory with proverbs and sayings in order to cultivate a particular mindset and view of life that will result in virtuous living. Coram Deo uses Shouts & Sayings as well as an academic catechism and other types of memorization to do this. Parents too can develop family sayings and reinforce the sayings of school, church and the Bible (see the book of Proverbs) in their home.

But stocking the memory isn’t enough, so in this article we’re going to discuss training in habits.

You see, there’s a danger with memory if you rely on it too much or in the wrong way. 

The Downside of Rules

For instance, we need to avoid heaping too many rules or principles on children. There are some things that are best taught by practice and the development of habits. As John Locke, the British Christian philosopher put it,

I have seen parents so heap rules on their children that it was impossible for the poor little ones to remember a tenth part of them, much less to observe them.

It may be less likely for parents today to fall into the trap of heaping rules on our children, but it may be that we have a host of expectations for how our children should behave. Often in our minds these are things we think they should just know. The thing is that children don’t naturally know how to behave in different situations. Part of our job as parents and teachers is to inform them of social customs and mores. But that doesn’t mean we should try to get them to memorize a bunch of rules.

Locke goes on,

Let therefore your rules to your son be as few as is possible, and rather fewer than more than seem absolutely necessary. For if you burden him with many rules, one of these two things must necessarily follow: that either he must be very often punished, which will be of ill consequence by making punishment too frequent and familiar, or else you must let the transgressions of some of your rules go unpunished, whereby they will of course grow contemptible and your authority become cheap to him. Make but few laws, but see they be well observed when once made. Few years require but few laws, and as his age increases, when one rule is by practice well established you may add another.

Have you ever found yourself falling into the vicious cycle that Locke is describing? You make rules that you think are right and helpful, and then find yourself not enforcing them, because if you did, you’d be punishing your child all the time? Locke’s advice to “make but few laws” is wise because it prevents the cheapening of your authority as a parent. It also helps to avoid the legalism that we fear, where the preoccupation with following a host of rules crowds out matters of the heart.

So if we shouldn’t overuse the memory through rules, then how can we sow the seeds of virtue?

Practice… Practice… Practice…

The method of habit training relies not on the memory but on the instinctual reflexes of the body and mind. For this we need to employ the power of practice!

As John Locke goes on to explain,

But pray remember, children are not to be taught by rules, which will be always slipping out of their memories. What you think necessary for them to do, settle in them by an indispensable practice as often as the occasion returns; and if it be possible, make occasions. This will beget habits in them, which, being once established, operate of themselves easily and naturally without the assistance of the memory.

I love the genius of Locke’s encouragement to “make occasions” for more practice! Teachers can be expert at this, providing practice of key classroom procedures, or the courtesies of greeting others when they enter the room, or the practice of writing your name on your paper first thing.

Habits operate by practice, not by rules or memory, and so they take a lot of discipline on our part to establish them. Habit is like fire, Charlotte Mason says, a bad master but an indispensable servant. And the name of the game is practice, practice, practice.

The beautiful thing about habits is that they have a long time horizon, but the investment is worth it. It is an instance of sow your seed in the morning, and in the evening let not your hand be idle. We have to work hard to help our kids develop all sorts of habits that will be valuable to them.


Habit Training for Parents

The best way to sow a habit is to connect it with some idea or memory to give it meaning. Make sure you lead with the why, and having a conversation with your child around the way that they are operating right now, and how it could be better for them, develop some desirable virtue in them if they got in the habit of doing it some better way. Then you ask them how you could help them, and take their suggestions. You want to approach habit training, not as a matter of rebuke and punishment–that has its place–but with habits we should act as a friendly coach and ally, helping them practice, practice, practice the best way to do something.

Charlotte Mason, a 19th and early 10th century British Christian educator, uses the example of a boy learning to shut the door after him, and how the parent must be tactful, not letting the issue get in the way of their relationship, but being gentle and suave in how she helps him; watchful, making sure he doesn’t muddy up the new habit by “forgetting” to close the door after him; and persistent, sticking it out a few weeks in when the going gets tough and you start to almost feel bad for holding him to it. Tact, watchfulness and persistence comes to the aid of practice, practice, practice. But it’s our habits that make us who we are, and if we can lay down the rails of a virtuous and pleasant life for our kids by helping them build good habits, we should do the best we can.

Here at Coram Deo Academy we use habit training as part of our approach to discipline and the formation of virtue. In fact, Aristotle himself defined virtue or excellence as a habit. As he said famously,

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.

Sowing the seeds of virtue, then, must involve supporting our children in establishing virtuous habits. There is a rich literature growing on habits. But the best place to start as a parent is with the things that you already know your kids should be doing on a daily basis. 

And when you encounter a behavior that your child is engaging in that you don’t like, pause before acting and consider whether the cure for this bad habit could be proactive rather than simply punitive. Perhaps you should consider planning out a practice regimen to help your children habituate the better way of engaging with others. This approach can cooperate nicely with sowing the seeds of virtue through a proverb or saying. One stores away the idea and the the other provides the practice to make it normal.

Ultimately, we want our children to act virtuously without even thinking about it. Most of the time, our habits run on autopilot, and we want to help them program that autopilot system well. Then, when they do encounter hard questions and challenging situations, they can also be guided by the sayings and proverbs that will lead them right.

In the next article we’ll explore how sowing the seeds of virtue also involves the active discussion of living ideas, as we seek to deepen their understanding of all that is good and true and beautiful.

Check out the rest of this series!
Part 1: Is Virtue Even Christian?
Part 2: Stocking the Memory

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