The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Formation of Habit, Part 3

by Helen Webb, M.B. Lond.
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 481-490

[Miss Helen Webb M.B., Physician and Surgeon, is described as "a lady doctor. She lives on Baker Street." At one time she was the President of the Association of Registered Medical Women, and seems to have been very active with the P.N.E.U.]

[A paper read before the Hampstead, Belgravian, and Reading Branches of the P.N.E.U.]

When the committee of the Hampstead Branch of the P.N.E.U. did me the honour of asking me to address one of their meetings, they intended, I believe, that I should say something on education from a distinctly medical point of view.

I fear, however, that I am not about to speak upon what is generally recognized as hygiene, though the ideas I wish to express have come to me through my experience as a physician. This experience has brought to me a strong conviction that parents and teachers may in many instances do grave injury in the attempt to foster in children, as habits, series of actions in themselves good. Thus my subject is not "bad habits" versus good ones, but certain habits versus others supposed to be good.

We are all, constantly though perhaps unconsciously, engaged in one or other of three operations:
      (a) Making of nerve-force.
      (b) Storing of nerve-force.
      (c) Expenditure and distribution of nerve-force.

It is obvious that we can neither store nor expend what we have not got, and it naturally suggests itself, in the first place, that it is better to expend from a store than to live in a hand-to-mouth manner upon what has just been made.

The sequence of processes just mentioned is easily recognized in our more purely animal life. But it does not perhaps occur to everyone that the same thing is taking place in the region of those functions which subserve our higher natures. Yet this is so, and by analysis and proper recognition of each process, incalculable help can be given to the moral and intellectual life.

Of the three functions--(1) making, (2) storing, and (3) expending force--it is the second which, in the rush and hurry of to-day is most neglected, and that by some of the most virtuous among us, and those who aim at the highest ideals.

These are often the hard workers, more especially of what is called the "practical type," who, in this busy life, expend their force, both physical and mental, as soon as it is acquired. They become, as it were, bankrupt, dissipating through many channels and as raw material what, if stored, would ripen and develop quietly into great moral and intellectual riches, and would benefit not only the individual himself but his fellow-creatures, in a more abiding manner than the raw outcome of restless activity can ever do.

I said that this neglect of storage was readily seen in the domain of the animal functions. We all know that it is hard enough to get enthusiastic and unselfish people to eat their meals regularly, and to take the air and exercise necessary for the generating of physical force; but it is ten times harder to induce them to give time to digest those meals when eaten, to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine, and to obtain sufficient sleep. They do not seem to understand, or have faith in, the inward processes which relate to the perfecting and storing of force. So it is throughout life: the generating of force is fairly well understood and receives something approaching to adequate care; much ingenuity is exerted by the scholastic profession in devising profitable ways of expending force; but, of how to store it, we know little as yet. It is, however, tolerably sure that the possibility of doing the latter at all depends very largely on the right treatment of the whole question of the formation of habit. And it is of habit, considered as a factor in the storing and distribution of mental and moral force, that I wish here to speak.

"Every operation of the mind," says Mr. Sully, "leaves a trace behind it which constitutes a disposition to perform the same operation, or the same kind of operation, again." [Teacher's Hand-book of Psychology: On the Basis of the "Outlines of Psychology" by James Sully] And further: "Each successive activity modifies the mind, strengthening its tendency to act on that particular side, or in that particular mode." We know well how actions, complex enough to require at the outset all the attention that can be brought to bear upon them, even actions involving choice, may come by repetition to be performed almost, or entirely, without consciousness. Watch, for example, the progress of a young child who for the first time tries some new feat--let us say to pull on a glove of that well-known simple kind which boasts of a place for the thumb and one common receptacle for the four fingers. [a mitten!] The first time a left glove is, as likely as not, selected for the right hand, and, with the very hardest trying and all his attention, poor baby does not even succeed in finding the opening at the wrist by which to get in. Next time this is triumphantly discovered by the thumb, which gets into the larger division. He is greatly pleased with this success. Later, by repeated effort and experiment, a right glove is duly selected for a right hand, and correctly drawn on without hesitation. Finally, a stage of perfect habit is attained, when the child can laugh at the antics of the kitten or puppy at the same moment as he is pulling on the glove.

We here distinguish two conditions of habit:
      (1) Perfect habit in the narrowest sense, the final stage, when the action is performed automatically, and attention is liberated for other work.
      (2) Habit in an earlier stage, where skill in the performance of the action has by repetition reached a high perfection, but where the action is still under the supervision of constant attention.

I shall have more to say later about these two conditions.

The strength of a habit, and the perfection with which it is formed, depend chiefly upon the following elements:

(1) The amount of motive force brought to bear, and of attention given to an action at the outset. The action should, it is obvious, be perfect as a voluntary one before it becomes habitual. The will should itself gain full possession of the action before handing it over to the sub-conscious faculty, habit. And let me add to this, as a kind of parenthesis, that we do not in every case exercise sufficient care to ensure that all the intellectual nourishment possible shall be soaked out of a new acquirement, that its idea shall be seized before the mere action is allowed to become habitual. For instance: we wish, of course, that each child should ultimately acquire the power of multiplying one number by another automatically and mechanically; but no child ought to make its first acquaintance with the multiplication table (as many, I fear, have done in old days) in the shape of a dogmatic statement to be learned by rote. To each child in turn the products of multiplication should be a series of illuminating facts worked out by personal calculation; thus they will afford food for the intellectual imagination, and opportunity for efforts of abstract thought. All good teachers are now aware of the importance of this principle in elementary arithmetic; but later on it is too much forgotten in the hurry of preparing for examinations, and therefore I would urge the importance of seeing that each acquirement of a pupil yields all it can of intellectual food before it passes into the condition of habit; because, once it has done this, the peculiar vitalizing power of new and unfamiliar achievement is irretrievably lost.

(2) The second element in the formation of habit is the frequency with which the action is performed. When we consider that the creation of a habit involves some definite modification of brain texture, we realize that repetition is of the utmost importance, in order to establish, so to speak, a satisfactory right of way.

(3) The third element is association of one idea with another. Habit is more easily formed if the action be repeated in similar circumstances. The way in which association may strengthen and revive brain-impressions is amusingly illustrated by a story related by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes:

"A certain lecturer, after performing in an inland city, where dwells a litteratrice of note, was invited to meet her and others over the social teacup. She pleasantly referred to his many wandering in his new occupation. 'Yes,' he replied, 'I am like the huma, the bird that never lights, being always on the cars, as he is always on the wing.' Years elapsed. The lecturer visited the same place once more for the same purpose. Another social cup after the lecture, and a second meeting with the distinguished lady. 'You are constantly going from place to place,' she said. 'Yes,' he answered, 'I am like the huma,' and finished the sentence as before.

"What horrors, when it flashed over him that he had made this fine speech, word for word, twice over! Yet it was not true, as the lady might perhaps have fairly inferred, that he had embellished his conversation with the huma daily during that whole interval of years. On the contrary, he had never once thought of the odious fowl until the recurrence of precisely the same circumstances brought up precisely the same idea."

This was an instance in which association was so strong as to reawaken what had been a comparatively faint impression.

Now, almost any action can be transformed into a habit, granted suitable circumstances and stimuli. But it is not equally desirable that all, even good, actions should become so established. This is the point to which I would specially invite attention. Many people seem to imagine that if a thing be good in itself, it cannot become too habitual. This I believe to be a conclusion based on no evidence, and physiologically untrue. Many things, excellent in themselves, tend, when often repeated, to injure and cramp the whole nature; and are directly deadening to true development possible. These things, when habitual, shed force wastefully; while other things, perhaps much less important in themselves, in proportion as they are habitual, lessen friction, clear the ground for larger effort, and so become the means of storing little by little enormous volumes of force and latent power. Careful judgment has, therefore, to be exercised in deciding to what extent any given action should be allowed to pass from under the superintendence of attention.

Now, granting all this, is it possible to make use of the idea which I have suggested, for a true classification of habits? Can we bring any test to show which (among the things good to do) are made injurious, and which, on the contrary, are made more useful, by becoming habitual?

I think that we can do the former; and steadily endeavour to find the latter.

It seems to me that all actions, in any sense desirable, can be classed under one or other of the following heads--viz.:
      (1) Things which it is best should be done without attention, and as mere mechanical habits.
      (2) Things which it is best should be done as habit, but under the direction of conscious attention.
      (3) Things which are of the highest importance in a positive direction, but which for that very reason should be done seldom, and should then engage the whole attention and absorb all the force available at the time.

These last should never be allowed to crystallize into habit.

To the first of these classes belong a great variety of things, all of importance and all constantly required, things about which, as it were, we can give standing orders, and which are rather means to ends than ends in themselves.

Concerning most of the every-day performances of common life, it may be said that little harm can be done by mechanicalising them (always provided that the action is first made perfect under the guidance of attention). And if no harm can come, good will probably follow. Perhaps it may seem absurd to say that when one automatically rubs one's muddy boots upon a door-mat, avoids slamming doors, and behaves properly at table, without stopping each time to decide upon one's course of action, one is storing nervous and moral force. This, however, I believe to be the case. No one doubts that he who drives his quill mechanically has more power available for the expression of his thoughts in writing, than the man (no matter how full of ideas his brain may be) who has to give attention to the formation of each letter as he writes it. Not a few things which become important virtues when practiced as habits under this head, are nothing very wonderful in themselves, but borrow their loveliness from the fact that they are good brooms and clear obstacles out of the way of more important things. Take punctuality, for instance. There is nothing inherently virtuous in a child being down to breakfast by half-past eight. If there were, we might censure our neighbours because their bell rings at eight, nine, or ten. All the same, whatever is the rule of the house must be adhered to, and force is stored by having such fixed points in the day. Furthermore, unpunctuality may obstruct serious matters and real wrong be brought about. Such reasons for attaching importance to trifles which we wish to impress as habits, ought to be more frequently made clear to children. Otherwise we set obstacles in the way of that task, so difficult to nearly all, that many fail ever to accomplish it--viz., the attainment of the power of estimating the relative importance of the various factors of life, the position of each with regard to the other in the great Unity of things.

The practice of many virtues of wide application and of several attitudes of mind seem to me to come into this first class of things. For example, truthfulness and accuracy (which is, if people would only recognise it, another form of truthfulness), that unobtrusive observation which the student of Nature must constantly exercise, and such as makes in great part the really sympathetic friend, and that reverence for the Unknown which prevents us from despising what lies outside the limits of our own understanding.

Those people who have to bring voluntary thought to bear upon what ought to be habit, and those who need not do so because good habits are ingrained, may be compared respectively to two households.

In the first of these the mistress (Attention) gives standing orders to her well-trained servants about all the things to which such orders are applicable. She possesses proper household appointments, has calculated with fair accuracy the supplies used in the month, and has them sent in with regularity, pays her bills at fixed intervals, and so on. In such a household the special orders necessary each day occupy only a very short time, and a large margin remains over for husband and children and friends, to say nothing of study, society, and public work.

In the other house, the mistress is generally unpunctual. If she is in time, it is by special effort. She gives contradictory orders, and probably does not procure a fresh supply of anything until all that was in the house is used up. She is after her servants from morning to night, and goes to bed weary. Her husband says (with a sigh) that although she is the best of wives, she never has time to speak to him. The children would give anything for a little quiet time with mother, but it is never to be had. Does she read? "Oh no! the mother of a family never has time for such things!" All this disorganization and waste of energy takes place because the whole day Madam Attention has been doing work which she ought to have handed over to her housekeeper, Habit, and because she has been putting her best energies into things which, if they had once been properly started, would have gone very well alone. If Attention is bound down and occupied, over-anxious about many things, the higher side of life is sure to suffer.

The second class of things, those which it is best should be done as habits, but under the direction of conscious attention, are those which must be done often and regularly, but which are worth nothing unless they retain life and mobility as an inherent part of them. If not kept alive by conscious attention they run to seed, or stiffen up and block progress. In our parable these are represented by those things about which our model woman gives daily orders, and which, though often repeated, require frequent modification and rearrangement. If Attention be over worked, such duties must either remain neglected, or become confused hopelessly with the routine work of the first class.

Many instances of what, for brevity sake, I will call "habits with attention," must occur to all present. As an example, I may mention politeness of speech as contrasted with actions of common good breeding before referred to. Provided a person rubs his shoes on the door-mat and takes off his hat on coming into a house, it is no part of the essence of things that he should be aware that he is doing so. But the same unconsciousness when shown in personal politeness, in a smile of formal courtesy, or meaningless expression of pleasure or gratitude, is highly to be deprecated.

Again, a habit of looking at the other side of every question is of paramount importance, but it is essential that it should be done with some slight effort of conscious attention. When so done, it constitutes in the sphere of intellect, the basis of logic; in that of morals, the basis of justice. But if you allow the custom of looking at the opposite side to that first perceived to degenerate into pure habit without attention, it will result in mere contradictoriness. Another instance--the wish to remedy an end as soon as it is perceived--should be assiduously cultivated as a habit, yet it is one which will be beneficial or injurious, according as active conscience and attention are brought to bear upon it or not. In the former case, such desire is the foundation of all real reform; in the latter, it most likely means the application of hackneyed and unsuitable remedies, rushed into without forethought, and which probably make the latter of that evil worse than the first.

I am afraid some present may think that I have selected rather out-of-the-way instances. They have been, however, just jotted down as they arose.

Now, the question arises, what in these cases becomes of force? Attention, which means the exercise of our higher centres, is always costly; but we may so invest as to reap a rich return, and if one thinks the matter over, it becomes evident that force expended in preventing an action which ought not to be mechanical from becoming so, is in great part force invested, not squandered.

Now, of the things of the third class which are of great importance, but which, for that very reason, should be done seldom, and should then engage the whole attention and absorb the whole force available at the time, I shall not say much.

Under this head are included strong expressions of affection, high emotional states, uplifting religious fervour, and all feeling which rises to a great height. These are among the most precious things of life; but the level is too high to be kept constant without overstrain. If we allow each manifestation to fade away quietly and naturally, it will come again in due time; but try to make it habitual, it will first degenerate, then become a mere husk, and gradually degrade the character upon which it is forced.

I hope I shall not be misunderstood if I express the opinion that some religious teachers have done infinite harm by trying in this way to render habitual what is in its nature rare. At best, a distressing reaction sets in; but worse, and more often, a permanent spiritual deadness is the result of such overstrain.

In these manifestations of force, the expenditure is enormous; so much so that in order not to impoverish and render bankrupt, they necessitate quiet intervals of storage time. This has been so fully recognized by some that they pass to an opposite extreme, and stamp all strong feeling as in its own nature bad, and to be at all times forbidden. I believe, however, that, occurring at intervals, high emotions are in their essence creative, and that out of each, when normal, emerges some new form of finer force, which purifies and strengthens character. Thus we rise "on stepping-stones of our dead selves to higher things."

In conclusion. It may be objected that I have not given any specific directions. This is precisely what I want to avoid doing. It is much too generally assumed that if a thing is certainly good to do, it must as certainly be desirable to make a habit of it. The classification of the subject is as yet in a chaotic condition, and my profession has no more right than any other class of people to speak ex cathedrâ about the details. What we do know is the importance of the subject, and the need for some classification and the growth of public opinion.

At this stage, what is desirable is, not that my view or anybody else's view should be adopted, as to which good things should, and which should not, be allowed to become mechanical habits; but that parents and teachers should have their attention attracted to the subject, and be encouraged to make observations which in the future may form the basis of more extensive knowledge than we at present possess.

Proofread by Stephanie H., 2008; Proofread by LNL, August, 2023