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Video Series Part 15. Chapter Twelve: Building a Working Alliance

I can’t lay down a good habit if I’m filled with anxiety.”


Healthy habit formation occurs when a joyful adult comes alongside a child to help them learn a new habit. We can’t lay down a good habit if we are filled with anxiety, because then the child focuses on protecting themselves from us or making us happy. Children also don’t learn habits well from lectures or punitive measures. They require a caring adult to create a friendly alliance with them, sow a new idea, and offer to help them form a new habit because it is in the child’s best interest to do so.


In Part 15 of our video and discussion guides, Bill St. Cyr gives insight to how adults may effectively support children in habit formation. Habits are best cultivated in a relational manner that reflects genuine care; Charlotte Mason describes this relationship as the “friendly ally.” Adults have to lay down the rails, do the leg work, stand beside the child, remain consistent, always joyful to be with the child. In this episode, Bill St. Cyr discusses how to cultivate a habit of humility, beginning with sowing an idea and building an alliance around an idea.

Habit a Delight in itself. Except for this one drawback, the forming of habits in the children is no laborious task, for the reward goes hand in hand with the labour; so much so, that it is like the laying out of a penny with the certainty of the immediate return of a pound. For a habit is a delight in itself; poor human nature is conscious of the ease that it is to repeat the doing of anything without effort; and, therefore, the formation of a habit, the gradually lessening sense of effort in a given act, is pleasurable. This is one of the rocks that mothers sometimes split upon: they lose sight of the fact that a habit, even a good habit, becomes a real pleasure; and when the child has really formed the habit of doing a certain thing, his mother imagines that the effort is as great to him as at first, that it is virtue in him to go on making this effort, and that he deserves, by way of reward, a little relaxation––she will let him break through the new habit a few times, and then go on again. But it is not going on; it is beginning again and beginning in the face of obstacles. The ‘little relaxation’ she allowed her child meant the forming of another contrary habit, which must be overcome before the child gets back to where he was before. As a matter of fact, this misguided sympathy on the part of mothers is the one thing that makes it a laborious undertaking to train a child in good habits; for it is the nature of the child to take to habits as kindly as the infant takes to his mother’s milk.1


Some Habits Of Mind – Some Moral Habits


A Science of Education. Allow me to say once more, that I venture to write upon subjects bearing on home education with the greatest deference to mothers; believing, that in virtue of their peculiar insight into the dispositions of their own children, they are blest with both knowledge and power in the management of them which lookers on can only admire from afar. At the same time, there is such a thing as a science of education, that does not come by intuition, in the knowledge of which it is possible to bring up a child entirely according to natural law, which is also Divine law, in the keeping of which there is great reward.


Education in Habit favours an Easy Life. We have seen why Habit, for instance, is such a marvelous force in human life. I find this view of habit very encouraging, as giving a scientific reasonableness to the conclusions already reached by common experience. It is pleasant to know that, even in mature life, it is possible by a little persistent effort to acquire a desirable habit. It is good, if not pleasant, to know, also, with what fatal ease we can slip into bad habits. But the most comfortable thing in this view of habit is, that it falls in with our natural love of an easy life. 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. All day she is crying out, ‘Do this!’ and they do it not; ‘Do that!’ and they do the other. ‘But,’ you say, ‘if habit is so powerful, whether to hinder or to help the child, it is fatiguing to think of all the habits the poor mother must attend to. Is she never to be at ease with her children?’


Training in Habit Becomes a Habit. Here, again, is an illustration of that fable of the anxious pendulum, overwhelmed with the thought of the number of ticks it must tick. But the ticks are to be delivered tick by tick, and there will always be a second of time to tick in. The mother devotes herself to the formation of one habit at a time, doing no more than keep watch over those already formed. If she be appalled by the thought of overmuch labour, let her limit the number of good habits she will lay herself out to form. The child who starts life with, say, twenty good habits, begins with a certain capital which he will lay out to endless profit as the years go on. 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.2


Questions and Thoughts to Consider:


  1. What makes a habit a delight in itself?
  2. How might a parent or teacher build an alliance around an idea?
  3. What are some ways of “becoming a friendly ally,” and why is this approach to good habit formation more fruitful? What are the principles behind this method?
  4. I am here with you and for you to help you overcome your bad habit because it’s in your best interest. I see how this bad habit is going to be a hindrance.” What are the outcomes of disciplining a child out of one’s emotional state versus being engaged in a work of formation for the betterment of the quality of life of their child?
  5. Why doesn’t ‘writing an essay’ or being punitive, work in cultivating good habits in children?

1 Charlotte Mason, Home Education, 121.

2 Charlotte Mason, Home Education, 136-137.