Back in February, a friend started a local Charlotte Mason study group. This is the first time I have ever gotten to read her books and swap stories with skin friends. Last week we covered habit training, which we can easily look like dog training with velvet gloves if we get all legalistic. When I applied the ideas our group shared to guide kids in our church's after-school program in relational ways, class went more smoothly. Another friend who teaches a college class on disabilities set up a video call with me, so her students could talk to a family living what they are learning. They asked my opinion of behaviorism and received the flip side of raising autistic children: through relationships, not rules! Last week, our church Bible study focused on living Christ's principles (by staying connected to Him Colossians 2:19-23) and to avoid becoming enslaved by worldly principles ("Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"). Then, a cyber friend asked about helping her teenager keep a cleaner room in a Mason way. God tossed all of these circumstance into my life in the past two days, so I got the hint and decided to blog it!
Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) (our favorite autism therapy) and Charlotte Mason (our favorite method of education) have similar ways of guiding children in their thinking. When our thoughts change, changed behavior will follow. Both begin with parents: the way we think affects the way we parent. We need to start with the head and heart for change to occur: the head and heart of the family changing first, which then flows into the head and heart of the child. Mason recommended parents cultivating three habits when training their children: tact, watchfulness, and persistence. These three habits dovetail very nicely with RDI.
Tact - Tact means saying, "Dave, can you come here for a minute?" instead of "DAVID JOSEPH GLASER!!" Tone of voice alone can mean the difference between a strong-willed child showing up with an open hand or closed fists. It means using a hopeful and expectant look rather than a frown and glaring eyes. It is giving a few brief words and having a conversation, not a dreary monologue, to help your child understand why a habit is important to you and will benefit them. Half the battle is won when you and your child agree about why a habit is needed. Tact means knowing your child well enough to find the right idea to inspire him to reform his ways.
Watchfulness - Watchfulness means observing your child and figuring out the best way to approach a new habit based on her nature. It means being aware of triggers for poor behavior and preventing them. It means knowing what contrary habit might work best in helping her succeed. Watchfulness means setting up a situation (timing, environment, control, brainstorming) conducive to forming the habit and keeping it in the long term. It means altering the plan if the outcome isn't quite what you envisioned. Watchfulness means never allowing friction creating an ever-widening gulf within your family.
Persistence - Persistence means being vigilant until the habit sticks and not relaxing, undoing weeks of effort. It means staying hopeful, not cranky, when progress is slow. It means realizing that building one habit at a time in the marathon of childhood gets you farther than short bursts of programs that rob you of your energy and joy. Persistence means knowing that habits are not going to change overnight and require patience and consistency. Persistence does not mean helicopter parenting.
Before describing habit training, keep in mind these points:
- Habit training is hard and requires vigilance. Focus on one habit at a time or you may lose your mind.
- Try indirect cues. Commands rob children of the chance to think for themselves. Use hopeful and expectant looks. Speak with a calm and friendly voice. Simply stating their name may be enough to check their behavior.
- Avoid a "running fire of Do and Don't" (page 134). Consistent habit training will prevent that in the long run.
- Allow natural consequences to dictate the reward: washing the dishes means Mom has time to bake brownies, controlling a nasty temper lets the whole family enjoy life, paying attention during lessons leaves more time for play!
- Let divine grace rule your interactions. "But the little fellow has really not much power to recollect, and the mother will have to adopt various little devices to remind him... she never lets the matter be a cause of friction between herself and the child, taking the line of his friendly ally to help him against that bad memory of his" (page 123).
Let me say that the education of habit is successful in so far as it enables the mother to let her children alone, not teasing them with perpetual commands and directions... but letting them go their own way and grow, having first secured that they will go the right way, and grow to fruitful purpose. The gardener, it is true, 'digs about and dungs,' prunes and trains, his peach tree; but that occupies a small fraction of the tree's life: all the rest of the time the sweet airs and sunshine, the rains and dews, play about it and breathe upon it, get into its substance, and the result is––peaches. But let the gardener neglect his part, and the peaches will be no better than sloes (page 134).So, how does it look in action? Mason provides several examples, the first of a little girl who wastes time lacing her boots (pages 120-121). Instead of going for the surface issue (lacing), she zeroes on the real problem: daydreaming. (In fact, if you have a dawdler on your hands, I suggest you read Inconstant Kitty while you're at it.) Mom gives her daughter a few words about how much more time she'll have to play if she can dress for outdoors in five minutes. She watches her without a word, with expectant, warm looks, and only a slight touch if the girl lapses into a reverie. The mother makes a point to join her for all those instances where the girl dawdles. As the child becomes reliable after a few weeks, mother fades out of the picture.
The next example is about shutting the door of a room (pages 122-123). Mother gives her son the request and explains why—for the comfort of others (living in a drafty, old house, I spent the winter training Pamela on this habit). She promises to remind him if he forgets, and she does with a pleasant voice for she knows crying out in exasperation will only encourage him to increase the distance between himself and the open door. She reminds him indirectly because he needs to think for himself: she glances at the door and says, "I said I should try to remind you." Each time, she varies her gentle cues to transfer responsibility for remembering to him.
How would I work on a messy room? First, I would plant the idea of why her room should be cleaner and then I would think of a contrary habit to replace the messy one. There are plenty of good reasons to clean a room: fire hazard, tripping over stuff, not being able to find stuff, relatives coming for a visit, etc. Whatever your reasoning, it needs to be brief and presented in a way that the teenager gets. Avoid the temptation to kill interest with a monologue. On the contrary habit, you might try brainstorming possibilities that have a relational twist to it that makes you an ally. Pick just one habit and work on that. When that becomes automatic, pick another habit. Here are some ideas:
- Every day, set the timer for ten minutes and the two of you clean up together. Have you ever seen the ten-second tidy on Big Comfy Couch? It can be silly, fun, fast, whatever. Turn on some upbeat music. Laugh at the disgusting things you find. Let the teenager pick the time of day: it needs to happen once a day before the deadline you set. Some kids are happier having some control.
- Let the teenager pick the tasks hated least. Let the kid who hates dusting vacuum the messy room and perhaps others while you dust. In real life, people bargain.
- Before watching TV, pour the stuff from one drawer into a clothes basket. Take it to the TV room and have a trash can nearby. In two weeks of watching television, the drawers will probably show improvement. Buy any organizer things and start consolidating the scattered stuff.
- Brainstorm something completely different than what I have here. With some kids, having an ally to bounce off ideas is half the battle. Having a say in the matter, bargaining, and feeling like everyone's opinion matters makes a difference. It needs to be a daily habit that is short and palatable. Over time, you'll see progress.