VI. The physiology of habit
This section owes its material to Dr. William Benjamin Carpenter’s Mental Physiology. The gist is that muscles grow and conform according to the way we use them, so that with enough repetition, especially at a young age, we can make certain actions and skills so automatic and natural that we perform them with hardly a conscious thought. In the same way, Carpenter argues, our mind forms ruts according to what we typically think and feel, so that we find ourselves thinking and feeling along those lines just as automatically and with as little conscious thought — like an artificial reflex. Carpenter adds that mental habits can be especially strong because the brain regenerates so rapidly. Habits of body and of mind can both be overcome, and new ones learned, but those acquired at an early age are easiest to learn.
To an extent, this rings true with my experience. Learning a tune on the dulcimer usually requires a lot of back and forth between hands / instrument and sheet music or ear, and a lot of repetition, but once it’s learned I can play it without thinking about the notes. In fact, after a time, the tune becomes so automatic that I can’t name the notes without stopping to look at them. Likewise, I think about the psychological phenomenon of “old tapes,” old patterns of thought and feeling established in the past, and the work involved in overcoming their lies and misconceptions.
Mason argues that because of the way habits form in body and mind, we must be careful what habits our children are acquiring — we must be careful of saying things like “he’s so young, what can we expect?” or “he’ll grow out of it” (118).
I suppose she’s right in one sense — we can’t just sit back and think that our kids will grow out of something in the right way without any direction. Permissive parenting is neglect; kids need boundaries, limits, expectations.
On the other hand, it’s equally (perhaps more dangerously) a mistake to think that we can and must train infants, toddlers, even preschoolers as if they had all the capacities of an adult. I think Mason would agree with this. We must understand something about what child development is really like. There are some things they WILL grow out of, and there are things a child can be too young to be expected to know or do. Our guidance and direction must take developmental processes into consideration.
There’s a brief analogy about how moral education should be about conditioning people to associate evil with pain and destruction, and good with pleasure and nobility, just as intellectual education is about associating ideas that go together. This is a quotation without an author reference; I presume it’s Carpenter again. He doesn’t use the word “conditioning,” but that’s what the analogy brought to my mind. It strikes me as somehow a little artificial; people already know that evil is bad and that good is good — Mason says so herself in an earlier section talking about how morality is inborn and must be guarded. Morality is not really so much a matter of education, as if we would all behave better if we were better informed; it’s a heart issue. Parents can set limits and an example and cultivate the inborn conscience — perhaps that’s really what Mason (or Carpenter) means by moral education. Ultimately morality is between the individual and the Spirit.
Mason also argues that we should be mindful of the people who are around our children, so that they don’t pick up bad habits from those people. It sounds like she feels that bad habits are highly contagious while good ones require huge expenditures of will and practice. Perhaps not; perhaps it’s just a warning that it’s possible to pick up bad habits and parents should be aware and observant about the possibility. It reminds me of the issue of uncleanness in the Bible — sometimes it seems that uncleanness overcomes holiness, and other times it seems that a holy touch overcomes uncleanness. Which also reminds me of some blog post I read recently that posited that, instead of God being allergic to sin, it’s sin that’s allergic to God.
VII. The forming of a habit — ‘Shut the door after you’
It’s not the doing of the thing that takes so much effort, but the deciding to do it. Indecision begets dawdling, and it’s not a habit that will dissipate with growth. Punishment and reward don’t reverse this habit either. It requires a parent’s attention to forming a new habit instead.
The method is the briefest of talks on why the habit must be changed, followed by a constant expectant (not reproachful) eye, and, only if necessary, the lightest touch, to recall the child who has gotten distracted. After a while, the parent may ask the child if she is able to do the thing in a short time today without the parent’s presence, and the child may try and succeed. (What does Mason say to do if she fails? after the given time limit, to join the child again and use eye and touch as needed?) The parent must continue to watch the development of the new habit — continually, but not anxiously. (This emphasis on goodwill and lightness, without anxiety or reproach, seems to fit in beautifully with Hand in Hand Parenting.)
As the child succeeds in overcoming the dawdling, her natural reward (i.e. one that comes naturally, as a right, not one issued by the parent, as a favor) is absolute leisure time.
Good habits are delightful in themselves, because once a good thing becomes a habit, all the effort of will and decision is gone — it is easy to go on doing the good thing. Parents sometimes mistakenly think that a child is still working hard on an established habit, and may allow the child to slip at times, as a sort of rest from the work of the habit — it’s a mistake because each slip requires more work to re-establish the habit, and because, once established, a habit no longer requires so much work and therefore needs no break or rest.
To form a habit in a child requires the parent to develop in herself tact, watchfulness, and persistence.
The stages of habit formation are:
1) The brief talk about the necessity of the new habit. (What if the child does not agree?)
2) Tactful reminders when the new habit is forgotten. Instead of “Johnny, come back and shut the door,” which is exasperating to anyone, she just lightly calls his name — he comes back, she says “I said I’d try to remind you,” and he remembers about the door. (What if the child does NOT come back, or calls out, “What!?” or doesn’t remember what mom is reminding him about?)
The mom takes care (persistence and watchfulness) to a) never let the child get by without shutting the door, and b) never letting the door-shutting become a matter of friction between them, instead considering herself an ally against his as-yet-unestablished memory. (Again — what if the CHILD lets it become a matter of friction? Or maybe you don’t start stage 2 until the child agrees at stage 1?)
3) The parent does not start letting the child slip, thinking he deserves a break from this hard work. Even if the child has shut the door thirty times in a row without forgetting, if he forgets next time, it’s time for the gentle reminder again.