The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."

by Elizabeth E. Milton Whitfeld.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 641-653

Part I. Habits in General

The raison d'être of the Parents' National Educational Union being primarily the educating of educators, one of the apparently most easy, but in reality most difficult lessons the latter can be set, is to learn the full extent, and therefore vital importance of habit. Many appear to regard this subject as either one not essential to self-knowledge, or as an "extra" beyond their means in the way of time, and some get no further than the elements of it before they have to leave the school of life and go out into the world of "another world"; a few, too few, devote existence to the science, and pass with honors in their earthly "finals." To make those few the many, and those many the few, is work worthy of the intelligent and progressive.

At all times, in all places, habit comes in. Nearly everything is habit, and therefore habit is almost everything. One habit leads on to another; habits draw up or drag down; much of personal success or failure depends upon them, they can hinder or assist fellow-creatures, and be for ourselves the most benevolent of despotisms or the most merciless tyranny. They will give a man peace at the last, or bring down his grey hairs to the grave with that awful sorrow for error that has made others to err. Clearly, then, matters of habit are matters of moment indeed.

Professor Bain asserts that "men are but mere walking bunnies of habits," and the words of the American author, George Boardman, "Sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny," forms the revised version of Bishop Butler's statement that "there are but three steps from earth to heaven or hell: acts, habits, character." "By character," says Butler, "is meant that temper, taste, disposition, frame of mind, from whence we act in one way rather than another . . . Those principles by which a man acts when they become fixed and habitual to him."

A habit, speaking generally, is the materialization of a desire. It is a way or custom that is easier to go on with than to stop; that we repeat till repetition becomes more of less mechanical; that singly, or in conjunction with other ways or customs, directs our lives, decides our destinies, and influences the sentiments, actions, or fortunes of fellow-creatures. It is that for which we are noted, depended upon, while also something that changes us if we do not change it. Habits are the verbs of virtue and vice; and according to their nature, they can be acquired with or without conscious effort, survive the wreck of reason, or disappear almost unobserved.

A man's "little ways" are the sign-posts of the way he is going; the aggregate of his habits is his distinctive, individual habit of life. Bad habits breed disease and get confounded with diseases themselves, as in drunkenness and gambling; while many minor, and (one would think) only private and personal habits may produce unmistakeable and far-reaching results. Gifts and graces, great qualities, grave faults, good and evil principles, desirable or disagreeable attributes, do not exert their force and distinguish their possessors unless habitual.

Habits can alter the physical frame, can elevate or degrade the mind. They grow with our growth, multiply and crystalize with advancing years; and even the best of them must be controlled by the Holy Spirit, be guided by reason, be the associate of other good habits, or it usurps a place and a power not its own. An evil habit can become so tyrannical, that being "a slave" to it is a common expression, and as William Penn exclaims, "How vilely has he lost himself that becomes a slave to his servant and exalts him to the dignity of his Maker!"

Habits bind natives together, and part nations asunder; they make homes and destroy them; make haunts, make history, fill asylums, prisons, graveyards! Habits of business and pleasure give and make work; gregarious habits create cities, people colonies; the habit of marrying carries on the human race, and it sinks under habits of sin, and rises with habits of virtue.

That habit is common to all, we see by the common terms "inhabitant"and "habitation," and the most simple, the most sacred habits of the highest and the humblest influence society, law and order, politics, principalities and powers. Those of the least remarkable people have effects beyond their own circle; those of celebrities, beyond their own land, beyond their own time. Heredity, which is held to explain and excuse so much, illustrates the transmission of habit from generation to generation, while Theosophy, the doctrine of astral or soul evolution and reincarnation, has it that the good habits we definitely strive to set up will be born with us as inherent qualities on our next return to earth; and also that, broadly speaking, a man's habit of thought in one life builds his character for the next, his habits of action produce his future surroundings; which seems only another way of saying, "Do good, and you will be good"; "Be good and you will be happy."

Few of us are snow-white, and none are jet-black, and it is cause for both joy and sorrow that, in nearly everyone, the wheat of fine and noble habit grows along with the tares of wrong-doing. As Joaquin Miller expresses it: --

      "In men whom men condemn as ill
      I find so much of goodness still;
      In men whom men pronounce divine
      I find so much of sin and blot --
      I hesitate to draw the line
      Between the two, where God has not."

And average human nature is so contradictory, so inconsistent in everything but inconsistency, that frequently a good or a bad habit goes to a certain extent and no further; as we may, if benevolent, give liberally to Foreign Missions, and nothing to Parish needs; or go to church in the morning and not in the evening; be inconsiderate towards inferiors while kind to equals, and so on.

Also, many commendable habits have the germs of bad ones within them, such as miserliness lurking in that of economy; bigotry being begotten of religious zeal; and that wise and necessary habit, in a mother, of loving reproof often giving birth to "nagging," which may be defined as unloving reproof.

A habit has not always the same aspect, even to its owner or victim - the protean form of selfishness, for instance, having sometimes so fair a look as almost to deceive the very elect. Also, even what has become so entirely automatic as to be termed "mere habit," or "only a habit," with all the will power worn out of it, may yet act on the will power of our neighbours for good or ill.

Even tiny and temporary habits have an absurdly disproportionate capacity to please or annoy, and habits of seeming insignificance throw light into dark places of character. As many habits result from, so many habits give rise to those of others; they constantly act on the offensive and defensive; as the habit of obedience in our children is brought about almost entirely by our habit of insistence on it; the carelessness we complain of in a friend is often caused by our own irritating particularity or fussiness; and the habit of reserve adopted to repel a habit of inquisitiveness. But every habit is one of a family, and has many relations; is the parent, the offspring, of millions of habits natural and acquired, simple and complex, individual and general, and obviously, we can treat of few just now, few even of those that more immediately influence parents, and make parents influence households, and households neighbourhoods, and neighbourhoods nations.

How many members of the P.N.E.U. realise the prevalence, the persistence, the persuasiveness of habit? For habits are, in a sense, as gods, with power to create or destroy, power to curse or to bless. We are literally "creatures of habit," and we all perceive and feel the force of habit in others. "Habit, second nature!" said the Duke of Wellington, "Habit is ten times nature!" He was speaking of drill, and the strength and extent of habit may be plainly seen in the army, it exists in tabloid form in every ship in the navy, in every great religious community, university, industrial centre. And even that is only habit from the outside. If we look within we can see how habits of despondency lead to ill-health, to suicide; habits of hopefulness, courage and perseverance, and prayer, to strength of mind and body, to success in life, to great things in the spiritual sense: how morality is the habit of thinking and acting morally;--Christianity itself the habit of being Christ-like.

Habit may be compared to the air we breathe, for it is around us, of us, in us. It is the ether of our inner, unseen life, the breath of the spirit; the wind of our will blowing where it listeth about our three-fold individuality. It is well if that unseen life be hid with God, if that Spirit be holy, that will come as a mighty rushing wind from Heaven to cleanse, and strengthen, and help us on the upward way. In our common "Triple Alliance," holiness is the health of the spirit, and health the holiness of the body; and by the sound or unwholesome habits of body or spirit, the soul (that is, the combined intellect, will and affections) may be braced or broken, may be poisoned or purified. The most perfect condition, the state most pleasing to God, and useful to mankind and happy for oneself, must be when there is complete harmony of good habit between all the three elements of human nature, moral, mental, and physical. It is, therefore, all-important that heart and will should work together for good in thus perfecting our condition, and the one special habit to be formed and kept up is that of looking after our habits, of seeing to the cultivation of those that will raise, strengthen and sustain, and to the elimination of such as weaken and degrade. Certain sets of habits are defined, when not determined for us by position or profession, by physique, education, climate, locality, form of religion, etc., but we are free as to the spirit of their adoption, and as to the choice of their companion--perhaps controlling habits.

Also, habit is an old word (from the Latin) and signifies dress; and thus habits may be considered the clothes of our characters, since they are the things in which our characters show themselves. And character, when it outgrows the habits made down for it by progenitors in its early youth, is apt, like all young things, to follow the fashions almost blindly, and thus, according to the habits worn in its neighbourhood, it will long for robes of righteousness, put on the motley of the mediocre, or may soon be "swathed," as the late Bishop of Peterborough said, "in the terrible habits that are the very grave-clothes of corruption and sin."

Under Divine Grace, good habits mean goodness, since the birth of every good habit leads to the death of a bad--several that are bad sometimes. True, the good one, just born, may be weakly and not live without careful nursing, and the bad habit have a strong constitution and no mind to die; but the P.N.E.U. should be of service to members in rearing the first, and may bring the black cap to put on in passing sentence on the second.

Many a habit is not seen to be bad till it is big, nor good till it has gone; while some have a very decided character of their own, and if adhered to, sooner or later declare themselves unmistakeably, and, as unmistakeably, declare their possessors morally good or bad. Thus the first step in impurity may lead to the last in immorality, drinking habits end in chronic drunkenness, ill-natured gossip come to unsparing slander and libel, or perseverance in godly, wise and healthy habits ultimately stamp the whole character as of sterling worth, make the personality a centre of wholesome influence, and the reputation one that rouses the morally "forlorn and ship-wrecked" to "take heart again." The initial wrong-doing or merit of characteristic habits may have lain in those of parents or guardians; the sensualist been corrupted as child; the drunkard been allowed, perhaps persuaded, to sip from father's glass as dinner; the disliked, distrusted busybody been permitted to listen to tale-bearing and taught to repeat uncharitable comments when a little girl; or happier examples been indeed fortunate in their early development.

But apart from the primary fault or credit, the real harm, the true benefit to ourselves, comes, under God, of our own personal clinging to bad habits, or cleaving to good ones. We may not choose the habits of youth, as has been pointed out, but when we come to years of discretion, we can see to it that they are years of discretion, years in which to drop and shun all evil or merely foolish habits, and to adopt, or retain, such as are lovely and of good report.

If parents uphold the Divine appointment of the Holy Spirit as the overseer of habits, their children shall, most surely, rise up and call them blessed, and their honoured age will afford no exercise for the talents of Pheidippides, their descendants come to curse them for no heritage of woe in deformity, disease or degeneracy in general.

Like other ideals, this cannot be realised at once, but it ought to be set up without delay by every member of the P.N.E.U.; and the habit of turning to God for help in doing so is the habit of all others that really higher education designs to confirm and strengthen.

Part II. Habits of Maternal Parents in Particular

In a recent Book of Beauty, Frankfort Moore declared the ideal woman to be one without an ideal. This author evidently likes his little joke, and as evidently thinks his readers like it too; but it is safe to say, that neither he, nor any of his male admirers, would take that ideal woman to wife; and she would have to idealise him if he did! Nor could they find her, for all women, all human women, even all the worst of women, have the habit of idealising someone, however unidealistic.

But of woman as a parent, ideal or otherwise, it has been declared by Amiel that "The ideal which the wife and mother makes for herself, the manner in which she understands duty and life, contain the fate of the community." And "the direct influence of good woman is the greatest of all forces under Divine Grace for making good men," asserts Canon Knox Little.

This seems to place "mere man" rather in the background of home, which after all he sets up himself, in the words, "With this ring I thee wed"; but while the husband's and father's relative responsibility is, whether expressed or understood, quite unquestionable and none who realise the sanctity of marriage need reminding of it, paternal influence usually strengthens only as the mother's weakens, and is felt more out of the nursery and most when offspring are half within and half out of the domestic sphere, as beginning to go to school, and later into the world, though by then many habits have been formed and the trend of character has in most cases been fixed for life. When it pairs, as it should, with the mother's in all essentials, it steadies, braces, and directs the young wills, and guards the good habits so lovingly and prayerfully sown in babyhood.

Still, as Amiel says, "Woman is the salvation or the destruction of the family; she carries its destinies in the folds of her mantle," and since, and while he, the "House-band," is so often busy, being just "the gentleman that pays the rent," "the man who's home Sundays," the wife is the appointed head of the "home office"; and I heard the other day of a child who, when asked by Earl Roberts whose little girl she was, replied, "Why my mother's, of course!"

This may be taken as the typical attitude of all children, and it shows the supreme importance of mother's place and mother's habits!

Knox Little and Amiel only say what William Ross Wallace sings: "The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world." Now how do we women and members of the P.N.E.U. mean to rule the world? Surely, with "the wisdom that is wise unto salvation," by keeping the kingdom of home under the law of kindness, putting love in command of the household troops of habits, and appointing faith, discipline, and sympathy his aide-de-camps. By surrounding the cradle with habits of personal purity and piety, as well as habituating its occupant to those of cleanliness, punctuality and order. By the habit of tuning little tongues to concert pitch and training young ears in moral music, till they learn to know and love the organ notes of "Duty, stern daughter of the voice of God." By showing and expecting habits of obedience, firstly, in ourselves to our Heavenly Father, then in our children to us, as His interpreters; and seeing to daily practice in habits of self-restraint and uprightness. Habits are as infectious as mumps, and women with bad habits are not good for the young. And no mother or guardian worthy of her name and calling, will risk her offspring's moral safety by consciously bringing bad habits about it herself, or allowing nurses and companions to do so.

It has often been remarked that good men have had good mothers, and celebrities, intelligent ones (Charles Kingsley, in his "Letters," says, "The son is the mother"). If a woman by nature is either virtuous or clever, or both, so much the greater responsibility is hers to form and confirm herself in habits that will preserve, not destroy these virtues, that will polish and sharpen her intellctual capacity. For the more intelligence, as well as will power, she brings to bear on her habits, the more force they have, the greater influence she wields. In short, the better her work for God, or the greater her use to Satan!

When I have heard of an execution, I have wondered what the mother of the murderer was like! wondered whether before he came into the world, she was in the habit of letting irritability get the better of her, that is, bring out the worst in her, going from crossness to cruelty, from words to blows, till her temper was lost so utterly that her reason was lost with it, and she became "mad with passion," thus it may be murdering the moral nature of her unborn child!

Many women are like that, many asylums are full of those (not always of the pseudo "lower orders") who became insane from ill-temper; the wonder is, really, that there are so few murderers! No better training for the condemned cell could be given, certainly, than by the poor uneducated mother who never learns self-control, who brings her children to the birth in an unclean, unkind, uncomfortable home; accustoms them to scenes of violence and indecency, and encourages them in habits of insolence, insubordination and dishonour; who sends them to the public-house (as, despite recent legislation, is still done), turns them into the streets to beg or steal, or to make their parents' living by wearing posters, and shouting, "Shockin' revelations!" Yes, and who is in the habit of gloating over those revelations with them and before them, till one of the greatest safeguards, innocence of evil, is utterly lost, and one of the greatest dangers, familiarity with crime, reigns in its stead.

Nor are such women worse guardians of immortal souls than fashionable, frivolous mothers who do not care about morality, but are most particular about "smartness"; whose Sunday observance is hypocrisy or heathenism, singly or together; who read, attend, supply the divorce cases, and go to the murder trials; those to whom children are, quite frankly, "a nuisance," to be openly abandoned to servants; or else, almost worse still, spoiled, paraded and misgoverned. Few are much more injurious to their belongings than the women who, simply, are never at home, except on "at home" days; or who push into public posts at the expense of private duties--prefer a crêche to a cradle! Mothers, in short, who never "learn first (or last) to show piety at home."

If these habits of wrong-doing, positive and negative, were set going, or were kept up, as children say, "on purpose," we should walk in such darkness as to grow quite blind to the "kindly light" waiting to lead us on. But, thank God, we may--indeed, for the sake of Faith, Hope, and Charity, we must--regard a very great deal, if not all of it, as owing to the widespread habit of "not thinking." Habits of talking too much, of letting the world be "too much with us early and late," many injurious and foolish habits, like selfish travellers in a train, monopolise all the space they can in our minds, and cry, "No room!" when the habit of thinking tries to get in. But this habit should be found space for at any inconvenience to the others (it will oust none of value) if one really desires to go right, the consequences of pursuing our life's journey without it are so obvious, and, as we have seen, may be so awful! Indeed, the habit of thinking things out, of reflecting beforehand about the end of our travels, or even just mentally looking ahead to the next stage, is a kind of insurance policy against most kinds of moral accident.

Every mistress knows the necessity of thinking out household arrangements beforehand; and every mother should deliberate over her family's present behaviour and probable future conduct, on the moral consequences of to-day on to-morrow, or next year, or years to come. This habit can be cultivated by the busiest woman, for some part of all her business will not be so important as that, and as the poet says:--

      "More evil's wrought by want of thought
      Than e'er by want of heart."

It can surely only be the habit of "not thinking" which allows so many preventable abuses to exist; which accounts for the wearing of much that, decreed by fashion, is denounced by humanity.

We have all noticed how nearly invariably we have done wrong when we have acted, as the phrase is, "without thought." And as to speaking without thinking, alas! for all the thoughtless words that have been wished unsaid! If mothers could only be other mothers and hear themselves speak sometimes, they would almost certainly be more thoughtful as a body. I heard a clergyman tell a mothers' meeting once, that none of them would dare to speak to other people's children as they spoke to their own! And many who are better educated, and have been taught to exercise some power of mental self-control are little better when they don't deal at the "thinking shop," and "shop early." Being cross and cruel is undoubtedly the offspring of the habit of not thinking, for not the poorest, and most ignorant and impatient of these humble mothers but loves her baby; while a royal lady on the continent, lately, forgot her position, her vows, herself--but proved she could not forget her children after all.

The habit of rushing through life without thinking out the answers not only to their own soul's questions (that are so often left for death to solve), but to the vital queries children ask, and ask in such touching faith in their elders' wisdom and truthfulness, is a habit bound to bring bitter repentance to mother. At those junctions in life, when almost all have to "change" to get to "Heaven which is our home," as when our boys and girls are going to be given the privileges of Holy Communion, through the parents' habit of "not thinking" beforehand, most candidates have to be disgracefully "crammed" for confirmation. And again, when a son is going out into the world or a daughter becoming a wife, a mother herself, oh! how much sorrow, sin and suffering might be spared by the habit of previously thinking over the temptations the lad will meet with, the duties, the trials that await the happiest bride; for the result of it in the wise and loving is inevitably the habit of imparting, as only prudent, nice-minded and affectionate mothers can, the simple facts of religion and life and nature which so often save from mistake and take the edge from temptation. Let love, as Carmen Sylva says, "make you strong, pure, severe." "Thoughts are forces," and by all the present progress that is leading up as well as on, by the recognition and pursuit of higher education, by more catholic, far-reaching and vital social beneficence, God is calling to us as He cried to Zion of old, "Awake! awake! put on thy strength!"

Unions are, or should be, characterised by one special habit, that of helping one another. Help must first be sought for oneself, and then must be shared with families, friends and fellow-members, as well as dependents, neighbors, parishes, and good works in general, and spiritual help is the most needed, the most necessary and the most difficult. Many will give material assistance; indeed the habit that even the poorest have, of spending their time and their money on others as badly off, the readiness with which nearly everyone in every class will respond to the call of sickness or of sorrow, is one of the most inspiring and beautiful things in this world.

Moral help, however, is not only the better, but much rarer, and like most things in relation to the conduct of life, it is more efficiently given by example than precept. It demands a purer, stronger kind of unselfishness, of courage, and it takes more intelligence, more tact; in a word, it is more trouble to harden into habit. And mothers are called upon to be more than moral; they are required to go about "doing good," to be actively Christ-like; and as "the soul of all improvement is the improvement of the soul," as Horace Bushnell says, the surest way for women to spiritually benefit themselves, their belongings, and their fellow-members, is to consistently try to be spiritual; and to hold fast the things of the Spirit, by the powerful, the possessive, and the persuasive aid of habit.

Everyone, I will here say every woman, gets brought up one day, as it were, on a sort of landing on the great staircase of life, and perceives for the first time that it is a staircase, that is, that she is assending or desending in character. Some crisis has occurred, perhaps some great loss, or, it may be, some unexpected, some undeserved happiness has come, as a call from above. She pauses and looks round, and listens, and sees things with eyes that God has unsealed, hears things with ears that He has unstopped. She starts to go on (we all have, as the police say, to "move on,") perhaps with a baby in her arms, perhaps without a husband to lean on, and then, conscious at last of where she is going, does she go up or down?

There are the habits that lead higher and ever higher, even to heights of holiness, the first steps in shadow perhaps, and having to be carefully, it may be painfully, felt for; there are the habits that lead downwards, so clear and easy, not "so very bad," she thinks, but winding down, down, to dark depths of sin and despair. One step up leads on higher yet, and sets the whole nature straining, striving upwards; one step down brings the next, and lower step nearer, and it gets more difficult to stop (don't we all know it in going down a hill?) and turn and rise again.

And those little ones she has been given, do they not go where mother goes--climb or descend after her? Neither is she alone with them on the staircase (for there is no such thing as being a law unto oneself only; society, human nature, is too dependent and interdependent for that). And thus her going down must retard the upward progress of some; her going up may arrest the fall of God only knows how many!

Typed by Shawna, Feb. 2024; Proofread by LNL, June 2024