Ambleside Schools International Articles

Image courtesy of Ambleside School of Marion.

Browse more Ambleside Schools International Resources.

Video Series Part 14. Chapter Eleven: Good Habits

“When we learn a new habit, we get a new brain.”


Neuroplasticity means the brain is moldable — it physically changes as we learn. If you are an adult with children, you are training the children in habit, for good or for bad. You are fixing the rails of a child’s life, and it’s much easier to lay those rails well the first time. Caring adults can intentionally cultivate habits in a relational way so that children grow in habits such as focused attention, neat and accurate work, asking questions, respecting others, working hard, and recovering from emotional distress.


In Part 14 of our video and discussion guides, Bill St. Cyr continues his explanation of training in good habits at Ambleside according to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education. Miss Mason was fascinated with the latest brain research of her day and ahead of her time; she wanted her philosophy and methods to reflect the best possible scientific understanding of how the brain works, which we now understand as ‘neuroplasticity.’

The Forming Of A Habit — “Do Ye Next Thinge.”1


“Lose this day loitering, and ’twill be the same story

To-morrow; and the next, more dilatory:

The indecision brings its own delays,

And days are lost, lamenting o’er lost days,”


says Marlowe,* who, like many of us, knew the misery of the intellectual indolence which cannot brace itself to “Do ye next thinge.” No question concerning the bringing up of children can, conceivably, be trivial, but this, of dilatoriness, is very important. The effort of decision, we have seen, is the greatest effort of life; not the doing of the thing, but the making up of one’s mind as to which thing to do first. It is commonly this sort of mental indolence, born of indecision, which leads to dawdling habits.


How is the dilatory child to be cured? Time? She will know better as she grows older? Not a bit of it: “And the next, more dilatory” will be the story of her days, except for occasional spurts. Punishments? No; your dilatory person is a fatalist. ‘What can’t be cured must be endured,’ he says, but he will endure without any effort to cure. Rewards? No; to him a reward is a punishment presented under another aspect: the possible reward he realises as actual; there it is, within his grasp, so to say; in foregoing the reward he is punished; and he bears the punishment.


What remains to be tried when neither time, reward, nor punishment is effectual? That panacea of the educationist: ‘One custom overcometh another.’ This inveterate dawdling is a habit to be supplanted only by the contrary habit, and the mother must devote herself for a few weeks to this cure as steadily and untiringly as she would to the nursing of her child through measles. Having in a few––the fewer the better––earnest words pointed out the miseries that must arise from this fault, and the duty of overcoming it, and having so got the (sadly feeble) will of the child on the side of right-doing, she simply sees that for weeks together the fault does not recur.


The child goes to dress for a walk; she dreams over the lacing of her boots––the tag in her fingers poised in mid air––but her conscience is awake; she is constrained to look up, and her mother’s eye is upon her, hopeful and expectant. She answers to the rein and goes on; midway, in the lacing of the second boot, there is another pause, shorter this time; again she looks up, and again she goes on. The pauses become fewer day by day, the efforts steadier, the immature young will is being strengthened, the habit of prompt action acquired.


After that first talk, the mother would do well to refrain from one more word on the subject; the eye (expectant, not reproachful), and, where the child is far gone in a dream, the lightest possible touch, are the only effectual instruments. By-and-by, ‘Do you think you can get ready in five minutes to-day without me?’ ‘Oh yes, mother.’ ‘Do not say “yes” unless you are quite sure.’ ‘I will try.’ And she tries, and succeeds.


Now, the mother will be tempted to relax her efforts––to overlook a little dawdling because the dear child has been trying so hard. This is absolutely fatal. The fact is, that the dawdling habit has made an appreciable record in the very substance of the child’s brain. During the weeks of cure new growth has been obliterating the old track, and the track of a new habit is being formed. To permit any reversion to the old bad habit is to let go all this gain.


To form a good habit is the work of a few weeks; to guard it is a work of incessant, but by no means anxious care. One word more,––prompt action on the child’s part should have the reward of absolute leisure, time in which to do exactly as she pleases, not granted as a favour, but accruing (without any words) as a right.


*From Goethe Marlowe’s Faust, translated by John Anstler.


Questions and Thoughts to Consider:


  1. What is Hebb’s law? How does it relate to habits?

1 Charlotte Mason, Home Education, 119-121.