IV. Habit may supplant ‘nature.’
Well-established habits are stronger than nature — “Habit is ten natures” implies ten times more strong.
Sometimes what a child does by nature becomes habit by mere repetition / exercise / practice.
Habit can also be developed to work either against a child’s natural inclinations or at least independently of them. Mason lists examples of habits we can see that have been so developed — children who speak courteously to elders, who don’t give personal information inappropriately, keep their clothes neat, and so on — and others who have learned nasty habits. I think of those kids who would get in trouble for racist remarks on the bus, for example, and their parents who would come into the guidance office spouting the same stuff.
All parents develop habits in their kids — sometimes without even being aware of it. Mason gives the example of those parents who are concerned primarily with what people will think, and their children learn to concern themselves with appearances and not with substance.
Training — “the cultivation of persistent habits” — can accomplish nearly anything — look what circus actors can do. Mason also mentions cats expecting their dinner in the same place at the same time, or birds coming to where crumbs have been habitually scattered at a certain time, or the habit wild animals develop of being afraid of people. She also mentions the habit of drunkenness — did they not know much about addiction in her day?
Mason says that it was not so much news to her that people (and animals) have habits, but the application of the idea, and its physiology.
V. The laying down of lines of habit
Plant the seed of an idea in someone’s mind, and it will grow — perhaps not the way you expect, but it will grow and reproduce. This is what happens when writers get on a roll; some initial idea grows and directs their pen almost without conscious thought. This is why some people have elevated reason as nearly infallible — starting with a good idea, good thoughts will flow. However, “the thought which defiles a man behaves in precisely the same way as that which purifies: the one, as the other, develops, matures, and increases after its kind” (108).
We think the way we are accustomed to think. Oft-repeated thoughts create grooves for themselves in our minds, so that even when we object to the path our thoughts are taking, it can be difficult to stop or counteract them. Adults may have some ability to stop or redirect a train of thought — according to Mason, children do not yet have this power and depend on their parents to plant the initial thoughts, desires, and feelings. She emphasizes that it is only the planting that depends on the parents: “Only to initiate; no more is permitted to them; but from this initiation will result the habits of thought and feeling which govern the man––his character, that is to say” (109). I imagine Mason isn’t saying that children do not have their own thoughts, desires, and feelings — after all she’s a major opponent of the blank slate / empty vessel ideas. She’s saying rather that parents begin to plant new ideas and to set some boundaries on some existing ideas. In fact, she says children are born with tendencies, but “every tendency has its branch roads, its good or evil outcome; and to put the child on the right track for the fulfilment of the possibilities inherent in him, is the vocation of the parent” (109).
Mason compares the lines of habit to railroad tracks — a train travels more smoothly on than off them. It’s an important responsibility for the parent to lay down the lines carefully, with attention to what would be profitable for the child as well as to what would be pleasant for the child, and with effort to make the lines of habit smooth and inviting.
If habit is so strong as ten natures after much practice and much time, then by training our children in habits, even in the best and most suitable habits, counter to free will?
But we form habits anyway, consciously or not; how tedious and draining life would be if every little part of it required careful thought and decision-making! And for the relatively few things that do require thought and decision, we neither can nor should rescue our children from these. Even in these moments, habits can help — one who has developed a habit of honesty does not quickly or easily think of using a lie.
Mason ends with a teaser for the next section — it’s one thing to know that consistent repetition and practice develops habit, and another to understand how that works.