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Teaching Good Habits

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This is a reprint of a popular article that was originally published in 2010.
We all know the children of Fatima, but how many of our Catholic children today would get caught praying the rosary if the Virgin Mary suddenly appeared to them? We take their good habits for granted, which were received from the adults in their lives.

From my daily interaction with parents, I see many of the common problems they face and the solutions suggested to them by many different sources. However, these suggestions rarely come from the wisdom of Scripture, or from the teachings of the Church or from the lives of the Saints. The solutions passed around are like new fashions that burst onto the scene with all sorts of hype and energy, but soon lose their luster and eventually fade away, leaving all the problems behind.

One of the greatest problems children in modern society face is the lack of good habits. Good habits are among the greatest of human achievements because they prove one’s consistent good behavior. Not good behavior as a bunch of “random acts of kindness”, but as a consistent pattern of well-doing. Sometimes good habits are gained by conscious effort, but in children they are normally absorbed from a good environment. To establish a good environment, distractions and temptations must be resisted consistently for long periods of time. When that environment is established, wonderful things happen–and most of the problems modern families are facing disappear. Only when we become aware of these problems and their sources can we hope to make progress in the pursuit of good habits.

A Society without Routine

Modern society is cash-based, which means that folks buy finished products in exchange for cash. We desire a car, so we take out a loan and get a complete car…today. We desire a meal and we stop at the pizza parlor…now. We think of an outfit we’d like and we buy it…immediately. When a problem arises, we expect that there is a solution available somewhere that, for a certain amount of cash, we can immediately obtain. For many problems, this is true. However, compare this to simpler times before the industrial era.

Many communities were self-sufficient. Clothing didn’t come from a store and wasn’t obtained at a checkout counter. A family had to feed a lamb, provide it with fencing and shelter, protect it from danger for months and months before shearing its wool. Then the wool needed to be combed and spun so that fabric could be woven. Then, at last, the articles of clothing could be made. The tunic may be put on for the first time in August, but its creation started in March.

For food, families did not pick up a loaf of bleached white bread and a gallon of milk at the convenience store. Bread started with tilling in the fall and sowing wheat before winter. It required an exhausting harvest in the Summer, and the threshing and storing of the grain. It required grinding to produce flour and kneading and baking to finally make bread. Thus, a good meal was the result of months and months of work.

People in those times understood routine. Because things took more time, one could only have a few things–and they needed to be priorities that were prepared for and carefully provided for. To get all of the essentials taken care of, families needed to follow a seasonal routine that came to be done unconsciously after generations.

Today, most families know no such routine. The seasons change and all that really is affected is what clothing needs to be taken down from the attic or stored away and what holidays are celebrated. There are few events that form some sort of routine but not many. Very few families in modern society pray together, work together, study together, eat together, etc.. There is very little routine and in the end a culture develops like that in the ancient world of which we read,

“In those days there was no king in Israel, but every one did that which seemed right to himself.”

The Practical Consequences of Modern Society

Look around at parenting books and magazines and you’ll find a recurring list of common parenting problems.

  • Kids have bad study habits, short attention span, etc..
  • Kids are very messy, disorganized, etc..
  • Kids don’t eat well, prefer sweets, fast food, etc.
  • Kids are idle, always playing, into trouble, etc..
  • Kids don’t pray, sing or participate in devotional activities.

Now, the parenting gurus fill the shelves and airways with their clever cures to these problems, but can you not see the real problem running through them all? We don’t need to order salads at McDonald’s instead of Big Macs. We don’t need to buy more Rubbermaid containers to keep clothes off the bedroom floor. We don’t need to bargain with our kids so that their time on the Wii is balanced with some school work in the evening. We need to take seriously that the family is spiraling out of control as it mindlessly conforms to secular modern society that calls all people to sacrifice their spiritual and intellectual lives for the economy so that we can build a society of impious and ignorant but well-fed and immunized citizens.

It is because the true end of education has been abandoned that children are not motivated to study. Why should they? All that is required is that the basic state-approved information be learned in each of the modern subject areas. Parishes often require little more that attendance at Sunday School for sacramental preparation. Colleges will admit them with average grades in an average study program. They can earn the degrees they need with C’s and D’s and may find a job requiring little of them but that they follow instructions and show up on time…most of the time. When trouble arises, the government will readily show up to cover the problems with tax-funded solutions that stimulate the economy and keep people shopping. After all, there are 300 million people to draw from anytime funds are needed. If we can’t afford it, we can borrow money from our unborn grandchildren to fund our needs today. It’s a beautiful system.

Moreover, since each citizen ultimately pursues his own degree and his own individual job, there is really little reason for a child to honor his mother and father. It is unlikely that he will be living near them when he finally chooses a college or lands a job, so their property or status is really of little interest to him. Moreover, since Mom and Dad are themselves mortgaged to the neck, they have nothing to offer their children and are looking forward to the day when the kids grow up and get jobs of their own…and mortgages of their own.

Why, then does the family even matter? Sure, the mother and father can physically produce the child, but the state can take it from there. Can we say that the mother and father give the child its food and clothing? Not exactly. They have made themselves dependent on others for their basic needs and the state can provide them just as well. Is the family needed for education? No, the state can take care of that as well. So long as the child’s goal is future employment, a roof over his head and some food on the table, there is no reason to honor Mom and Dad at all. This isn’t ancient Israel or medieval Europe after all. Family and community mattered there, but not here. The idea of obedience to parents is unnecessary.

“Not in Word Only, but in Deed and Truth”

Now, this spirit of independence trickles down into Christian homes as well as non-Christian homes. The parents themselves often live with this spirit and the routine of the home is one of spontaneity, leisure and materialism. If there is a schedule it is centered not around ora et labora, but manduca et labora (eat and work) or labora et lude (work and play), the routine that develops is not that which developed in Christian society in the past. The habits that develop are not habits of prayer, of study or of satisfying labor. They are habits of laziness, gluttony, idleness and self-indulgence. If we want habits to change, the entire orientation of our lives must change. How genuinely we want that change will be proven by how radically we make it.

If you have read any of my articles, you know that my advice always starts with the schedule. After all, despite what people say, their priorities in life are on their schedule. There are 24 hours in a day, what is the most important thing to be done with that time? Make money? Eat? Sleep? No one will admit that these are the greatest priorities, yet their daily schedule (if they have one) suggests that they are. The consequences of that reality are what they are. It is no mystery that children don’t care much for prayer or study. It is no mystery that children don’t pay attention to their studies for long. It’s no mystery that children are focused on food rather than prayer. Their habits have been formed by their home life. Rather than be surprised by these habits, we should be surprised that parents expect something different.

If you need help working through your family’s schedule, I recommend an older article I wrote, How To Create a Schedule. That is not where I’d like to end this article.

Making Order out of Disorder

Many Christian families–even when they begin to get things together–are discouraged and stressed out by the constant feeling that chaos is about to break in upon them at every moment. It seems that, if we have things together, we should be able to wake up in the morning and find all at peace.

Well, this is false.

In the Garden of Eden, God created a world of beauty–but also of disorder. He created man to accomplish a specific task in this new world:

“And the Lord God took man, and put him into the paradise of pleasure, to dress it, and to keep it. (Gen. 2:15)

Now, it is obvious that man was given the gift of Reason so that he could act as God’s governor in the world. Man was given the task of bringing the potential disorder into order and keeping it there. Thus, it is an essential characteristic of human beings to encounter disorder. Making order of disorder is the practical end for which they were made.

When the grass grows, cows know it’s their job to eat it. When the flowers open, the bees know to pollinate them. The animals don’t stress and complain when their duties appear before them. The presence of work to be done speaks to their importance in the world. Likewise, finding disorder around us should not surprise us–it is the reason why we exist. We should get after that disorder with the same quiet labor as we see in the animals and insects around us.

Notice that when God created the world he built into it geographical boundaries (seas and lands), time limitations (stars, sun and moon) and differences in species that would be discernible by man who was to order them. Of course, the classical liberal arts flowed naturally from this duty as man sought to identify the order God intended and pattern his earthly management after the wisdom of God. It is no surprise that Our Lord taught us to pray that God’s will should be done on earth as it is in heaven. That is man’s duty.

Thus, the ordering of the home, the ordering of time and the management of life in general is our normal work. There is no such thing as natural peace and quiet. What is natural is disorder and confusion and our job is to daily tend to that disorder and make order out of it. Our stress is not caused by that disorder, but by our expectation to finish our work before it is actually finished. It is the desire to stop working that makes work so stressful; the desire to stop cleaning that makes cleaning stressful; the desire to stop studying that makes studying stressful. It is an unnatural desire for leisure that creates rather than relieves our stress and disorder. We do not see this desire among the cows or the bees, we only see them quietly going about their daily work…every day. They do not have video games or vacations. They do not spend days golfing or shopping. They spend days peacefully doing their jobs. This is simplicity of life St. Paul taught:

“Use your endeavour to be quiet: and that you do your own business and work with your own hands…and that you walk honestly towards them that are without: and that you want nothing of any man’s.”

This life hardly resembles the life of the modern family and this is the real cause of the problem. The modern family is discontented with its simple necessary work and is striving for so many unnecessary things that it lives a life quite contrary to that which Jesus and the Apostles taught. The modern family is full of noise, full of play and leisure, often giving an unattractive testimony in the community, dependent on a thousand other men–for everything they consume! This is not the Christian life. We must realize that the desire to get away from our necessary work as God’s governors of the earth and its affairs is the cause of all of our stress, confusion and spiritual poverty. After all, Sunday is only Sunday when it follows six days of labor.

A Personal Example

My wife and I were married in 1998. When we married, I was reading Seneca, the old Stoic philosopher. In his letters, he wrote of the folly of men going on vacations. It seemed that these men wanted to “get away” from their real lives by escaping into a place where there was peace, quiet and opportunity for leisure. However, Seneca remarked that this was a vain dream because the problem in the men’s lives would be traveling with them wherever they went! The stress was not caused by the environment, but by the men themselves in it. Seneca argued that if those men lived more simply, their own lives would provide them with all the peace and comfort that they hoped to find some place else. We also read a quote that really impacted us: “Duty done is fireside to the soul.”

My wife and I decided that we were going to live a life that was so peaceful and pleasant that we would never have a desire to go anywhere else. We directed all of our efforts at our scheduling, routines and daily work so that by always having duty done, our souls would at all times be at rest as by a fireside.

While it took some time for us to get things ironed out, we have now gone 10+ years without any thought of “getting away”. Our life consists of no “leisure activities” and we work sometimes from 7am until 2am, but all is peace and quiet. We seek nothing else. We wish to be nowhere else. We seek satisfaction in seeing our work done well and make the art of living well our chief recreation. We pray the Liturgy of the Hours daily and enjoy a monastery-like environment at home. We are active in missionary work and because of that work are able to engage in charitable endeavors. We believe we have come to know the peace that everyone is seeking–and which we sought before–only in the right place: within ourselves. The problem throughout our society is desire to avoid necessary work.

The Formation of Habits

What prompted me to write this article was a question from a parent about study habits. It is popular today to discuss a child’s habits, but how does a child acquire habits? The child lives within an environment controlled by adults. That environment and the routine of its activities is the source of the habits in the child. The child does not create its own habits, but is trained in them by its environment.

Therefore, how can we expect our children to possess good habits of study, work and prayer when the routine is not one ruled by study work and prayer? The habits they develop will be those of the routine they are raised on, not that which a parent idly dreams of or reads about from the homes of others. The training of children is not complicated when the children are immersed in an environment that is constantly establishing good habits in them. Discipline has a specific and simple function when the home is firmly rooted in a good routine, rather than a source of mob control in a wild and unprincipled home. If parents desire children to have good habits, those parents need to establish good routines, not try to force momentary good behavior all day long. The habits will proceed naturally from the routine. Where parents live in disorder, their empty commands and complaints are not going to order and sanctify the children’s habits. What hope do parents have in yelling at children for bad habits, which have their source in the parents’ own lives?

Therefore, before buying another parenting book or trying some new gimmick to make your children do something they ought to do out of habit, change the culture the home. Establish a routine that is good and responsible. It may take great sacrifice and months of sustained effort to resist old ways, but that’s the price of happiness. If you are unwilling to pay the price, you cannot complain when you lack the benefits of those who do.

Conclusion

There are no mysteries in parenting and family life. Our Lord taught us the principle that “Whatever a man sows, the same does he reap.” There are few surprises at harvest time. Those who are slack when it’s time to sow or cultivate get what they deserve, and those who work diligently get what they deserve. If we want children with good habits, we have to raise them in homes with responsible routines. These routines will form the habits than the children will benefit from. In sports we say that “Winning begets winning.” and in education, the same is true. The early taste of success and praise that children enjoy from good habits will develop in them an appreciation for those habits. However, as I discussed above, a family immersed in modernity is lost at sea with no anchor and constantly changing winds.

We must mortify the harmful desire for leisure and devote ourselves to loving our necessary work. We are to simplify our desires and pursue an undivided heart that follows St. Paul’s teaching. We are to embrace the work of each day as the purpose of our existence and do it with the same contentment and perseverance that we see in the animals who are free from competing interests. As we do these things, we will develop healthy routines, which will begin to create in us healthy habits. Once that environment established, our children will be under it’s influence rather than that of the world.

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