Three Habit Hacks

Three Habit Hacks

Thoughts and Encouragement for Habit Training

Probably one of the first principles of Charlotte Mason I encountered when I started reading and researching her philosophy was that of habit training. At that stage I had no idea that it formed part of one of her twenty principles—that of “Education is a Discipline.” I read somewhere that helping my children form good habits would ensure “smooth and easy days” for us as a family. Who doesn’t want days like that? I did; therefore, I wanted to know more. Later, I came across this well-known quote of Miss Mason’s regarding habits:

We are not unwilling to make efforts in the beginning with the assurance that by-and-by things will go smoothly; and this is just what habit is, in an extraordinary degree, pledged to effect. The mother who takes pains to endow her children with good habits secures for herself smooth and easy days; while she who lets their habits take care of themselves has a weary life of endless friction with the children.[1]

The dictionary defines habit as “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.” The reality is that we all have habits. We all have regular tendencies or practices. Some are good. Some are bad. Some lead to smooth and easy days. Others lead to tension and difficult days. We all have habits we would like to change and others we would like to encourage in our family. D. Marjorie Peace in her Parents’ Review article entitled “Habit” said:

Habit rules in practically all one’s thoughts and actions, so it is essential that we should be well-trained and train the children well so that our thoughts, from which our actions originate may be for the betterment of ourselves and our country.[2]

My children were in their early years of school when I started reading and following Miss Mason’s principles and methods. The more I read, the more I realised that her ways were more than just a method of academic education. As I started to discover more of the riches of her wisdom, I found a way to educate a whole person. I found a method and principles that would point me in the right direction to establish life-giving practices and character not only in my children, but in myself as well. Of course, in all this, I realised there were areas in my life and my children’s lives that required work.

As I learned more about her approach to habit training, I was excited, on the one hand, because here were principles and a method that resonated with me. On the other hand, I felt a little lost and overwhelmed as there was no formula which I could follow to ensure that my children and I would have all these noble and beautiful habits in place. I had to think about the habit that we wanted to instil. I had to think about the child as an individual person. I had to think about the natural consequences to our actions which would lead to growth, or not, in this area. There was a lot to think about! Yet, herein lay the beauty of this philosophy. No carbon-copy, cookie-cutter moulded child but rather an individual person being allowed to blossom and grow along lines of good habits.

My hope is that this short note will encourage parents as they continue the steady work of ensuring good habit formation in their children. This is by no means a “how-to” or “why-to” on habits, but rather a few thoughts, or “hacks,” as encouragement from Charlotte Mason’s first volume—Home Education. These ideas stood out for me in our reading and arrested my attention as I seek to instil good habits in my children. So one could possibly view this as a habit for me to cultivate in “thinking about habits.”

The first habit hack deals with the steady effort of acquiring the habits myself. There were times when I felt frustrated because I didn’t see instant results or I felt as if I was not “getting it right” or “failing my children” because of my attitude or lack of consistency. But the slow and steady study and application of her principles, reading and discussion of her work in community, and the grace extended towards me by the Holy Spirit (and myself) has started to bear fruit.

I was so encouraged and challenged in our Idyll Challenge reading for September 2022. On pp. 136–137 of Home Education, Charlotte Mason says:

The mother who is distrustful of her own power of steady effort may well take comfort in two facts. In the first place, she herself acquires the habit of training her children in a given habit, so that by-and-by it becomes, not only no trouble, but a pleasure to her. In the second place, the child’s most fixed and dominant habits are those which the mother takes no pains about, but which the child picks up for himself through his close observation of all that is said and done, felt and thought, in his home.

I am often distrustful of my own ability but here is something I can do. I can apply steady effort (with the emphasis being on “steady”) and in so doing acquire the habit of training my children and, ultimately, see it become a pleasure to me. The other thing I was reminded of again is to work on the habits I need to master so that these will be picked up by my children as we “do life” together.

As the years have passed there are still areas that need attention. I am sure that in a few years there will be other areas that require attention because we are all a work in progress. What I am sure of, though, is that once pains have been taken to establish a habit it will run on well-established rails and will be as “ten natures” to the child.

The second hack is that I am my child’s “friendly ally.” There is another bit of advice in Home Education that I like to keep in the forefront of my mind. On p. 123 Miss Mason says “that [the mother] 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.” Too often, I have let the “slow” progress of my children become a point of frustration for me and this has spilled over into the atmosphere of our home. When I first read this I was convicted and encouraged about what my role actually is. I am his “friendly ally.” Those words spoke volumes to me. When I am tempted to let frustration take over, I ask myself the question: “What does it look like to come alongside my child as his encourager? What words can I use that will encourage him? What tone of voice or posture should I employ as I seek to blow wind in his sails and not deflate him?” I have to remind myself regularly that I am his “friendly ally.” I know I can do this because we have the Holy Spirit as our encourager. He will lead the way and remind me gently. What has been so helpful in working on my own habits is the empathy I have been able to express towards my children in their struggles as I have had to deal with my own weaknesses.

The third habit hack is to ask the questions of “Why? What? And How?” Due to the fact that there are so many habits that seem so important to form, one can almost be tempted to give up before one even starts. I think most of us have seen the list of habits to be attained. I am sure we can all list a handful of habits that we would like to have in place this instant. Miss Mason advised with mastering one habit at a time and then keeping a watchful eye over that while forming a new one. So, how do we decide which habit is the one we should be working on now? When deciding which habits need attention, I prayerfully sit before the Lord and seek His council. Without His guidance I wouldn’t know which of the many requires our immediate attention. As my children become older, I have started asking them too.

I found the following questions, which are for the mother to consider, an excellent guide to prompt me in my consideration of the implementation of habits. Even though these questions were posed in the context of lessons, I think that they can aid in deciding which habit to work on and how. These questions can be found in the section of Home Education called “Lessons as an Instrument of Education” on p. 171. They are: “Why must the children learn at all? What should they learn? And, How should they learn it?” These are the questions I pose to myself.

Firstly, Why do I want my child to learn this habit? Is it because what they are doing annoys me or is this habit life-giving and necessary for their good and the good of others?

Secondly, What should they learn to acquire this habit? What steps are needed to achieve success? What is the benefit of having this habit?

And thirdly, How am I going to help them learn this habit? How can the idea be sown so that they are partnering in achieving this habit? How do we ensure that it is implemented?

At the moment we are working on putting our things away. This is something we have been working on for a long time and so the temptation is to sometimes just do it myself when it is not immediately done. In these moments, I remind myself “Why” learning this habit is important—a tidy home, everything in its place, easy to find things, etc. Due to the fact that this seems to be taking such a long time, I have recently asked myself the question of “What?”. What steps can this habit formation be broken down into? Maybe “packing everything away” is a too vague and general command. Perhaps breaking it down into smaller chunks is the answer, such as focusing on packing away everything that we bring in from the car. Once that habit is established we can work on the next bite-sized portion of the habit of packing away. The “How?” is often the difficult part for me. The practical part of not constantly reminding them but getting to a point where it is “second nature.” Finding an idea that will stick. But reminding myself that I am their friendly ally in all this encourages me to keep persevering.

While habit formation is no small task, I am left hopeful, with a plan and a vision for the days ahead. A friendly ally, who is herself learning to foster good habits on a daily basis. We are all a work in progress, growing more and more into the image of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus. There will always be habits to work on. I am sure of this, though, that once pains have been taken to establish a habit it will run on well-established rails and will be as “ten natures” to the child. I can bear testimony to this. And always at the back of my mind, I remember what D. Marjorie Peace said, “Tact, watchfulness and perseverance are greatly needed.”[3]

Much love and blessings,
René du Plessis

P.S. If you want to learn more about the “why” and “how” of habit formation have a look at Charlotte Mason’s six volumes and the many Parent Review articles on the website.

René du Plessis lives in a beautiful town on the Garden Route of South Africa. Before marriage and children she worked as a physiotherapist for sixteen years. After marrying Jean she exchanged her daily city commute for life between the mountains and ocean. René counts it a pure privilege to homeschool her two pre-teen sons using Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. When not cooking or baking, she relishes long walks on the beach or hikes in the mountains with family and friends.


[1] Home Education, p. 136.

[2] The Parents’ Review, vol. 30, p. 727.

[3] Ibid.

©2023 René du Plessis

5 Replies to “Three Habit Hacks”

  1. Such a beautiful and encouraging piece René! Your example is so inspiring. So proud of you dear friend. ❤️

    1. Thank you, Suzanne. So lovely to be able to journey with so many pursuers of the True, Good and Beautiful.

  2. Muy bello su testimonio…Me encanto aunque confieso me ha sido dificil ser la aliada amistosa de mis niños pequeños.Sin embargo, tambien me quedo con la esperanza y conviccion que el Espiritu Santo nos ayudara en esta profesion tan noble de ser mama.

  3. Rene, this was such an encouraging piece. I was also very encouraged and challenged in our Idyll group. Thank you for writing this!