A Charlotte Mason Education, Citizenship, Habit Formation, relationship
Comments 9

A Few Thoughts on Habits by Carroll Smith

Habits, when done correctly, offer us sustainability in life.

Once I was in a school that, in my opinion, viewed the habits that Mason spoke of in her works as rules and a new form of legalism.  At this school sometimes it felt like habits were more important than the content children should learn or even the children themselves.  I have mentioned this before somewhere else and here I come around to it again, this time with additional thoughts.

Mason in the fall of 1922, at the end of her life, wrote to Henrietta Franklin that she still believed that her ideas about education were true except that she would emphasize habits less and the mind of the child more.  Her years of experience had taught her some lessons about the teaching of children and their learning processes as well as something as seemingly insignificant as habits.  Go figure, habits?  Are you kidding me?  What do habits have to do with education?  Age which had given her the advantage of reflecting on six decades of hard work, observing her methods being carried out with thousands of children around the globe, and along with the Holy Spirit, had produced wisdom in her.

As I have aged I have a better appreciation of habits.  Why so?  While habits need to be kept in their place and certainly not raised to the level of “legalism” or raised above the children, I must say I have a new appreciation for them.  Particularly when we apply Mason’s wording used in other places:  habits are our servant and not our master.  One could use as an example a whole host of habits.  For example, learning to put things back where they belong is a life sustaining habit.  When we don’t put things back where they belong, our immediate surroundings become chaos and then we cannot think, organize ourselves, and we are not nearly as productive as we are when order prevails.  It reminds me of the workbench in my barn.  It is covered with “stuff” and every time I go in to do a project, the “stuff” gets in the way and creates a cognitive disequilibrium.   This is the point.  Habits are not a legalism, but rather, as Mason suggests, habits are tracks that helps life run so much smoother and avoid the cognitive disequilibrium.  On such tracks the habits take away the friction of life and smooth the way in life sustaining ways.  What would help me on the workbench in my barn are some good habits.

These habits would make my work in the barn easier and more productive.  The problem is that I have too many things to do and am interested in too many things; and when this happens, combined with a limited amount of time, something must go.  One of the points about habits though is that they could help me be more productive.  Taking 15 seconds to put something away each time would make the next time more productive.  However, sometimes I must make a choice or I must prioritize.  For example, if I am repairing a toy for a sick child, being who I am, I am more than likely not going to worry about the 15 seconds.  Rather, I am going to get the toy to the child as quickly as I can.  Here’s another.  I am working in the barn.  My neighbor comes over and asks me if I have a certain screw.  I put everything down to help him find it because he is building a go-cart for his young son and the birthday party is in a short while and this screw is the last thing he needs.  I am going to put everything down and not take a moment to put it away to help him find the screw.  I am also going to watch the young one enjoy his new toy.  Heck with putting things away.

Here is a thought to consider.  It seems to me that my use of habits should be governed by the Fruit of the Spirit.  I am not getting the toy to the child to shut him or her up, but rather, out of my love for the child; I don’t want them to suffer any more than need be.  I am not finding the screw for my neighbor to hurry him out of the way so I can finish my job and get my duty done towards him, but rather, I am to offer kindness and other Fruits of the Spirit that should be a part of my life as a follower of Jesus Christ.  In other words the motivation or the spring of action that governs my behavior needs to be led by the Spirit.

Thus, it seems to me, that habits which are not governed by the Spirit become legalism and are destructive and not life sustaining or life giving.  As they are governed by the Fruit of the Spirit, they cause us to grow in a virtuous life.  This virtuous life must be patterned after that taught by Jesus Christ and not that taught by Aristotle or other Greek classical writers.  Mason, not being a follower of the Greek classical writers, would not have subscribed to Aristotle’s view of virtue.  (Aristotle’s view of virtue and Jesus and the New Testament writers’ view is well described and made clear in N. T. Wright’s book After You Believe.)

Virtue for the sake of virtue or the sake of glory or only for human flourishing does not fit within a framework of what it means to bear the image of God.  Human flourishing happens within a relational framework.  This framework includes relationships and habits that are built around the warmth of community and relationship not the isolation and coldness of legalism. This is why virtues such as love, lovingkindness, forgiveness and others (Wright, 2010, p. 36) are included in the virtues mentioned by the New Testament writers but are excluded by Aristotle.  Virtue cannot be developed in a place where habits become the end.   Habits that are built in this way, that is, guided by the Fruit of the Spirit, help us live a more virtuous life.

Can you imagine a world without habits?  Let me mention a few.  Learning to clean up behind oneself.  Learning to offer a word of thanks.  Learning to offer kindness when harshness has been given to you.  Learning to hold your tongue.  Learning to do something without procrastination.  Learning to keep your chin up in the face of difficulties.  Learning to give of self, time or money when it isn’t comfortable.   Can you imagine life without any of these?  These can only happen when they are informed by the Spirit which then gives one the sustaining ability to live a virtuous life as defined by Jesus Christ.

I am sure I will continue to struggle with forming good habits even as an adult.  Helping your children to form good habits in school or home (another blog) prepares them for an adult life governed by the Spirit.  This is a wonderful gift to give children and deserves thoughtful reflection and preparation.

I went out to the barn today and worked on clearing off the workbench.  It is cleared . . . well, almost.  With my limited amount of time I chose to do some work on a seed box for some students learning about seeds and worked some on my son’s desk he inherited from his great grandfather.  Some things, well quite frankly, are just more important.

© 2011 by Carroll Smith


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. “…habits are our servant and not our master…”


    “Habits are not a legalism, but rather, as Mason suggests, habits are tracks that helps life run so much smoother and avoid the cognitive disequilibrium. On such tracks the habits take away the friction of life and smooth the way in life sustaining ways.”

    Amen, again.

    “Thus, it seems to me, that habits which are not governed by the Spirit become legalism and are destructive and not life sustaining or life giving. ”

    Dr. Carroll, I believe you have hit to the core of habit training, and I thank you for it! I believe this. It is human nature to want to put “rules” because it’s easier to follow a list. In this way habit training can easily become another to do list. Yet, the Lord works on us all individually and so the training will vary from one individual to the next… all of us being unique persons, made in His image and so infinitely valuable. Habit training is just that… preparing the way for the Lord to work, making His paths straight…

    Thank you.

    amy in peru

  2. Amy, thank you for your comment. When one struggles with developing and maintaining habits combined with having grown up in a legalistic church that was more about rules than relationship, the idea of developing habits can be truly confusing when trying to develop them in a non legalistic way, life giving way. Thank you for your encouragement.

  3. lisacadora says


    Thanks for this. I was just talking to my discipleship group about how we must obey out of joy, love, and trust, and not simply to avoid shame. Joy, love, and trust are from the Spirit. Shame is from the Accuser, aka S-A-T-A-N.

    –The Irreverent Reverend’s Wife
    (aka Lisa C.)

  4. Dr. Carroll Smith says

    Hello Irreverent Reverend’s Wife,

    You are so correct! Fear and shame are from the accuser. Sometimes, it seems to me, in this fallen world it is easier to respond out of fear and shame. But it certainly doesn’t bring peace, only more fear and shame. The intervening love of God interrupts our natural propensity and provides us with the Spirit! What a gift, although sometimes I, for one, am guilty of not understanding the gift and of not receiving it.

  5. Tammy Glaser says

    What a timely post as I’m immersed in a study of the Fruit of the Spirit! Mason goes out of her way to demonstrate the Fruit of the Spirit in the training of habits: warm and encouraging looks, gentle reminders, coming up with reasons why the habit serves to make life smoother, etc. Thanks for sharing the idea of habits being a servant and not master. It puts them into proper perspective.

  6. Bonnie Buckingham says

    Thank you Carroll . I love hearing about your barn plus habit of the heart: gratitude, diligence in your work, kindness, and the list could go on. Sometimes we have to let things go which is discernment with the Holy Spirit .
    The habit of listening is a great need in this noisy world , for instance. A conversation may be needed more than cleaning up the mess. I like the way you put it:

    This framework includes relationships and habits that are built around the warmth of community and relationship….

    And then you said : . Virtue cannot be developed in a place where habits become the end.

    It has to be connected to Education is an atmosphere, etc… and I would include repentance.

  7. Dr. Carroll Smith says

    Bonnie and Tammy, in his book After You Believe, Wright talks about how we develop “the right thing to do” as a habit to the point that we do it automatically. He uses the pilot of the airplane that landed in the Hudson. He had practiced doing the right thing for so long that when he needed to do the correct thing, he did it without thinking about it. The “without thinking about it” are the smooth tracks that make life easier. This is all very complicated when you start thinking about it. Therefore thinking and doing rightly, habitually becomes virtue. But it seems to me it can only become virtue within relationship. And certainly within relationship that is in a fallen world the habit of repentance and acknowledging when one has done wrong, is one that must be developed. And to think, that God redeemed his creation through the coming of Jesus, thus making a way for us to develop virtues within relationships. Thank you both for your comments!

  8. Yes and amen! I live in an all muslim country. I am not a muslim. We who are working here have been affronted with legalism of a different nature than in the west but in the end it is all the same. Though the ill effects of the approach to goodness are a bit more obvious here. So as I have been raising my children along side those here this topic has come up alot! I so appreciate what you said and I concurr. Next year in our homeschool we wil be looking at Greece and Rome, Aesop, and the Book of Virtues by William Bennet, all which will in different ways point out how to be good. It would be sooooo easy to fall prey to teaching them humnastic goodness instead of the life lived via a relationship with and inacarnate friend who is your righteousness.(God in the form of the holy spirit) your post reminds me to keep the relationship with the holy spirit foremost and share how he will enable us to be good by his power. I appreciate your focus on this and I am encouraged to continue on knowing God will no doubt be loving our study as it will lead us all in walking more closely with Him.

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