Years ago, when I had only quite small children and I had immersed myself in books on educational theory, I latched onto an oft-quoted bit of wisdom from Charlotte Mason:
The mother who takes pains to endow her children with good habits secures for herself smooth and easy days.
She’s right, of course, but also wrong.
I copied this quote out I don’t know how many times. I returned to it again and again, always hopeful – maybe this time I could do this thing, achieve this promised and elusive success. After awhile, I pretty much gave up and figured she was probably right, but I wasn’t up to “endowing my children with good habits”; our family must be a lost cause. For awhile, all habit talk sounded not only frustrating, but also condemning. Clearly, I must be doing something wrong.
First, I had latched onto this quote as a promise for an easy, hassle-free existence, where all my children would always obey promptly and never cry over math or argue over their piano practice or sneak off to their room to play Legos during school hours.
Second, I had latched onto this quote as a “secret” for making other people change so that I could secure for myself smooth and easy days, without hassle or bother. My motivation was entirely self-centered.
Good habits make life smoother & easier.
We all run on habit, actually. The question is not whether we will have habits or not, but whether we will cultivate them consciously or let inertia and indulgence set the tracks our default reactions will run on.
A habit is an unconscious action, repeatedly carried out. It includes not only such things as brushing your teeth or buckling your seatbelt or clearing your place after dinner, but also such fundamental things as how you respond to people and what tone or phrases you use with certain people.
So, good habits make life eminently more smooth and more easy than bad habits. We can avoid a lot of unnecessary conflicts if chores follow breakfast every day, if we automatically say please and thank you, if we habitually smile when we make eye contact. Cultivating good habits is a way of preventing conflict before it happens. It reduces the amount of willpower and decision-making is required to make it through the day.
We can consciously and intentionally build habits into ourselves and our children and our daily routines that will help us serve one another, love one another, and be gracious to one another – not to mention, get more work done with less fussing and bickering.
Sounds great, right? Sounds like just the ticket, because boy howdy am I sick of fussing and bickering all school day long.
The only problem is, I’ve known this “secret” to smooth and easy days since my oldest was a toddler, and it sure doesn’t feel like I’ve ever succeeded with it.
(My boys have the habit of putting their shirts on backward.)
Good habits do not make life smooth & easy.
There’s a big difference – an enormous gulf, really – between ‘smooth’ and ‘smoother’ or ‘easy’ and ‘easier.’ When troubleshooting a difficulty, habit is a great perspective to look to: What bad habits are shuffling us back every day to this pain point? What good habits would most effectively address that situation?
But attempting to root out the bad habits and cultivate the good ones is hard work, and it is never-ending work.
Without even realizing it, when I was copying out that Charlotte Mason quote time and time again, what I was looking forward to was the time when I would have learned the secret habits, taught them to my offspring, and thus mastered life so that nothing required any effort on my part anymore. We would simply be a well-oiled machine, my work would be accomplished once and for all, and there would be no limit to what we could accomplish.
Of course, this idealistic grand vision was very subconscious; once I became aware of it, I knew it was foolish. But wanting the solution that will provide not only the quick fix but also the permanent fix – the one that will make life just not be so hard all the time – is a tempting desire, always ready to pounce and ensnare us with false expectations.
Under expectations like these, we will always feel like utter failures.
Life isn’t going to be easy. If you smooth out one area of conflict, there will be another to replace it. If you replace one bad habit, you will suddenly unearth another one that you have to address. This can be frustrating and make it seem like it’s all no use because it is never-ending effort.
But the Bible has another word for it: sanctification.
If we gain one small victory, we are not done with the battle. We are called to continue to fight this battle all our lives. And the battle is not about bad habits, but about sin: disobeying God’s law, being unkind, being selfish. Habits can be a tool to help conquer sin – because sin can become habitual, and must be replaced with habitual obedience – but that is hard work. It is also good work.
And just because it is hard and never-ending does not mean we are doing something wrong or are failing in our efforts.
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. – Galatians 6:9
The most important habit to cultivate is the habit of repenting and of restoring fellowship – of owning up to our shortcomings and staying right with people. That can be a habit, because it can be repeated over and over again daily for the rest of our lives. We will never have a shortage of practice material or opportunity.
Habits that are worth the effort to cultivate will take more than 21 days. They take years of repetition. Maybe even something like 16 or 18 years of repetition! This is what it is to raise a child. Let us not grow weary.
Habits are something we do work on for ourselves – but primarily in ourselves and not something forced on other people to make our own life easier. As we cultivate habits in our children, we cultivate them in ourselves first and foremost, and grow in maturity ourselves more and more – are sanctified more and more – through the process.
It’s not a shortcut to a carefree and easy life where everything is peaches and cream all day.
Building good habits is lifelong work. We’re starting the process in our children, and we are continuing the process in ourselves.
Let us not grow weary.