Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Second Nature

I have been following Elizabeth Foss's summer book study on Charlotte Mason and was particularly struck by her entry on habits.

Miriam has had me at a loss with discipline: she doesn't seem to respond (i.e., do what I want her to do) to time-out, corporal punishment, explanations, etc... I've tried everything. Foss/Mason get me back on track here. Discipline is not about getting the child to do what I want her to do at that moment. It is about forming her habits so that she can act in a fully human way.

And in order to form her in good habits, boy, had I better have good habits, too! This part from Foss hit home:

"This is "pay now or pay later" parenting philosophy. I can assign a task and then motivate myself to teach patiently how it is done properly and to inspect to see that it has been completed properly--over and over again until it is a habit--or I can take the easy road now and not follow through, only to be faced with that same poorly done task, or task not done at all forever more. This goes way beyond the habit of doing household chores cheerfully and well. It means addressing every small lie and insisting upon the truth. It means stopping in my tracks to correct a whining child and insist on a pleasant voice (or a nap) every single time. It means ensuring first time obedience. It's work. but it's going to be work either way. An untrained child or a poorly trained child will be much, much more work as an unruly teenager or young adult."

I have to discipline myself to be Miriam's mother: there is no task I have on my list for today (groceries, lunch, laundry, dinner, blogging, e-mail, calls) that supersedes the child's need for good habits. I have to be willing and discipline myself to stop what I am doing to train her in the way she should go--and to rejoice with her when she does something well.

This is intentional living--no more simply "getting through the day" until Daddy comes home and I can have "me time." To form good habits in myself and my children I must intend to do so. That is, I, the mother, must be a philosopher! And, believe it or not, one of the greatest philosophers is right there with me: Aristotle said that a habit is as a second nature. The habits formed in our childhood are nearly impossible to change. We do not "grow out of them," but rather must work our way in or out of them with intention and labor.

The good habits I want to instill in Miriam begin with my attentiveness to her action. It means giving her the confidence that I and her father are with her to help her form those habits (virtues) which will make her life a happy life "without the constant wear and tear of the moral effort of decision." Mason also wrote, "Once, twice, three times in a day, he will still, no doubt, have to choose between the highest and the less high, the best and the less good course. But all the minor moralities of life may be made habitual to him. He has been brought up to be courteous, prompt, punctual, neat, considerate; and he practices these virtues without conscious effort." That is, the habits of the child--which become the habits of the man or woman--are as second nature, leaving room in his or her life to concentrate on higher things.

It may sound awfully strict, but I have found that when I am attentive to these little habits in Miriam and my own life, our day is happier. We have more time for books and coloring and baking. We have fewer trips to the time-out corner. We try to be neat, courteous, and prompt; we demand truth over desire. And we are joyful.

And I read it all so long ago in Aristotle: the virtuous man is the supremely happy man. To think the Nichomachean Ethics could be true in a toddler house!


mumsie said...

My Erika, what a beautiful reflection! Beautiful, because true. How often I told myself that child-discipline was first of all self-discipline! I am so glad that you have found helpers along the away, guiding you wisely.

And remember: you will never get it perfectly, your kids will never perfectly attain what you hope for them -- but I have seen that they develop things that I never dreamed of.

earthie said...

A priest I love once asked me if I thought I was brought up to think of others before myself. I laughed. "No way."- apparently, that's (only) part of why I'm such a wretch :) Miriam will be so thankful for good early habits one day!

Lori McGovern said...

This is exactly what I have been praying about it! Lauren Patterson sent me this post and I want to thank you for your insight and reflection. My Myriam is the one I need more patience with these days and to truly devote myself to those "little" habits. Thank you. (I love Elizabeth Foss as well!)