A Charlotte Mason Education, Habit Formation, Philosophy
Comments 10

The Habits Pendulum by Nancy Kelly

 Habits are important in a Charlotte Mason relational education.  They are mentioned as the second item of Ms. Mason’s educational trifecta, “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life” and emphasized under principal #7 which states, “By Education is a discipline, is meant the discipline of habits formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or body” (Mason, 1954. p. xxix).  The recent discussions on this topic online and in meetings show just how concerned parents and teachers are about habits.  I have noticed the swinging of the pendulum to one side – that of external application.

While Mason does mention choosing a bad habit to work on, I don’t see her picking a character trait or habit and turning it into a unit study by defining it, reading books to point the moral and talking about it ad nauseum.   I know this doesn’t work because that is exactly where I started 20 years ago. Yes, we wrote “Attentiveness” on the board, defined it, looked up verses on it, and read stories that highlighted it.  What this did was to create polite apathy and aversion in my sons towards any mention of the term.  Since I was reading Mason at the same time, I was a bit confused but quickly joined her camp when it came to habits and hot to cultivate them.

“A person is not built up from without but within, that is, he is living, and all external educational appliances and activities which are intended to mould his character are decorative and not vital.”(Mason, 1954, p. 23)

Here is a lovely and instructive example from Mason:

The lazy boy who hears of the Great Duke’s narrow camp bed, preferred by him because when he wanted to turn over it was time to get up, receives the idea of prompt rising. But his nurse or his mother knows how often and how ingeniously the tale must be brought to his mind before the habit of prompt rising is formed; she knows too how the idea of self-conquest must be made at home in the boy’s mind until it become a chivalric impulse which he cannot resist (Mason, 1954, p. 102).

What are the elements here?  A great story, a subtle reminder, self-discipline and an irresistible chivalric impulse!  But note what she says next –

“It is possible to sow a great idea lightly and casually and perhaps this sort of sowing should be rare and casual because if a child detect a definite purpose in his mentor he is apt to stiffen himself against it.”

Here she says that even this way of encouraging lightly and casually should be rare. It’s a fine art, this role of helping the child build up from within.

A unique and amazing aspect of Mason’s philosophy is that the habits of the mind are not developed in insolation from the content, method, or philosophy.  Habits are part of the whole, the life, the education at hand.  Here is an example that explains what I mean.  It seems that a headmaster in a poor district in England had adopted Mason’s P.U.S. curriculum and wrote her a letter in appreciation. He states that previously, corporal punishment (physical punishment involving pain) had been the norm in his school where bad habits abounded.

“But now narration compels the teacher to get at the back of a child’s mind.  This combined with mutual discussion on a wide range of subjects, begets understanding.  Understanding begets confidence and love, and all need of corporal punishment and restraint gradually disappears.  A teacher who had previously taught in the school called the other day.  She exclaimed immediately: ‘How happy everyone is!’ ‘Do you mean the children?’ I said. ‘Yes,’ she answered, ‘and the teachers.’ That is not intended as a compliment to the work but it was in reality one of the best I have received; for children are only happy when making headway” (Cholmondley, 1960, p. 138).

I love the idea that narration compels the teacher to get at the back of a child’s mind!  Now, I don’t know that every child will follow the same patterns that she tells us about in her examples.  I’m also not saying that Mason is the final authority on the subject, because she isn’t.  But I do think that she is getting at something different than what I see being talked about when it comes to habits.  And maybe that’s because she already assumes that the authority issue has been settled.   She calls it one of the three “foundation principles”, the “basis for moral training”, “fundamental”, and “present but not in evidence: we do not expose the foundations of our house”. Just a quick glance around our culture, church included, we can see that this isn’t in place.  It isn’t in place for the adults (under God’s authority) and it isn’t in place for the children. But I suppose that is another discussion altogether. So when it comes to habits, Mason speaks of the child’s heart – their inner self.  Ideas are the impetus for good habits and should thoughtfully mobilize the student to self-discipline.  The parent or teacher should be working alongside the child and the Holy Spirit.

One more thing.  Dr. Carroll Smith shares this note that he came across in the Armitt Museum archives on Charlotte Mason. It was written by Henrietta Franklin in 1922, the year before she died. She writes, “Science has done nothing to confirm the “rut” theory in all these years, and Brother Body seems to me much the inferior partner.  I think all that I have written is still true but I would emphasize habit and so on less. Child mind – no, because a child has as much mind as the rest of us.”

Thus, don’t begin with teaching the habit of (insert habit here)   – begin with the relationships, appropriate books, ideas, outdoor life, and all those things that fill the child with ideas that make up this living education.  Watch that pendulum, please.

Cholmondeley, E. (1960). The story of Charlotte Mason. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd.

Mason, C. M. (1954). An essay towards a philosophy of education (3rd ed.). London:  J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd.

Copyright 2013 Nancy Kelly

Nancy writes about her experiences living and teaching the Charlotte Mason philosophy and method at her blog, Sage Parnassus  –  http://sageparnassus.blogspot.com/


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. I agree…I have often marveled at the results I read about in the writings of CM and those of her time who had such success in this aspect of education; discipline and habits and I agree that our methods of principled coercion are not working. I have been prayerfully addressing this in our homeschool and slowly, slowly what you say here is sounding less foreign and more normal. For me the transition has required an inner inspiration from an idea planted from a book, courage and faith to blaze a new trail, and contentment to wait for results that may take a while to form. However as we are in transition we can already feel the difference and it is wonderful!
    Thanks for writing this, I am linking it to my recent post regarding our character study lesson. 🙂

  2. Dear Sarah,
    I love your term “principled coercion”! Your comment is well-said and echoes the experience of so many of us trying to implement good habits in a way that truly treats children as persons and not robots. Thank you for sharing your comments.
    From joy to joy,

  3. Miss Mason would have been so thrilled to know that science really has, with recent research on neuroplasticity, confirmed her rut theory after all! That, of course, doesn’t mean that we now have an excuse for behaviorism. I love that even in habits, she never forgets the inner workings, the needs of the soul. Habits alone seem to just breed Pharisees…

    Loved this, Nancy!

  4. It reminds me of something I heard from a Shepherding a Child’s Heart DVD. Tedd Tripp compared the act of focusing on a child’s behavior rather than on his heart to the act of gluing good apples onto a bad apple tree. You won’t change the tree. Instead, you are creating a hypocrite out of your child.

    Thank you so much for this great reminder and encouragement!

  5. I kept this post open on my computer all week, going back and contemplating. I love the quote about the child stiffening himself against it. Great to point out that even with ideas instead of rewards, it’s quite easy to become overly pushy and want instant results instead of real results and instead of letting the child evolve from within. I loved your story of your own children 20 years ago. Very thought-filled and thought provoking. Thanks!

    • Thank you for your thoughts, Anna. That story is only one of many of my failed attempts at character formation in my children! Miss Mason’s way brought life, though, and for that I am so grateful.

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