How To Form The Proper Habits In A Child
by Pastor Jack Hyles
(Chapter 5 from Dr. Hyle's excellent book, How To Rear Children)
Habits make character. If one forms good habits, he will have good character. If he forms bad habits, he will have bad character. The word "character" comes from a word which mean "to cut" or "to engrave." Each time an act is performed a deeper groove is made until one has done a certain thing so often in a particular way that it is difficult to change. H. W. Shaw said, "It is easy to assume a habit; but when you try to cast it off, it will take skin and all." The more that one has the same emotion or action the more it deepens the track and the easier it is to be repeated. This is true when a child is taught to eat, to button his clothes, to tie his shoes, to dress himself, etc. At first he has to think to do it. He does the same thing until it is done without his will or thoughts. He can now tie his shoes and never think what he is doing. He can walk with a thousand other things on his mind. He can dress himself without thinking. He has developed a habit. The action has been indelibly impressed on the nervous system. The parent who wants his child to grow up to be a good, strong person will be disappointed if he does not from the right habits in him. These habits must be formed by repetition until he does thing entirely automatically with no thought or will behind his actions. Hence, his tasks are not performed by present effort but by past preparation.
Once a war veteran was carrying a sack of potatoes when suddenly someone who wanted to pull a joke on him shouted, "Attention!" Instinctively the ex-soldier brought both hands to his side and the potatoes fell in the street.
I once knew a soldier who was left-handed. The first day he was in the army he saluted an officer. Instinctively he did it with his left hand. After much practice he was able to salute with his right hand throughout his military days. He himself became an officer. The day he was to get his discharge he was so happy. On his way to the separation center to receive his discharge papers he was saluted by a private. Instinctively he saluted back with his left hand! He was still left-handed and no amount of adult training could change his childhood habits.
The more we live by doing right automatically and the more our good habits save us the making of excessive choices, the better we will be and the more we will do. Precarious is the life of a person whose daily actions have not become habitual and who must exercise his will every time he does something. He will become tired in his work, more laborious in his deliberations, and less efficient in all he does. Those who have to use their wills for every momentary matter of business without the help of habit are not a efficient as those who have learned to become disciplined enough to make their actions mechanical. Someone has said that habit is a labor-saving device that causes the disciplined person to get along with less fuel. The wise personnel officer checks concerning his applicant's habits; those of honesty, gambling, etc.. Proper habits can write a check that is always redeemable.
Samuel Johnson wrote, "The change of habits is in general too small to be felt until they are too strong to be broken." It is said that on Plato's ring there was a motto written, "It is easier to prevent ill habits than to break them."
History is filled with the names of great men whose accomplishments were aided by their mental ability. This hall of heroes would include Einstein, Edison, and many others. Yet, along side these names would be the names of others who did not become men of renown because of their mental genius but because of their character and their loyalty to habit. Such men as Livingston, Franklin, Lincoln, Luther, and others teach us that a man of character with average intelligence can do the work of a genius. This is true because character seeks talent. The proper character seeks out the talent necessary to perform a job, whereas talent often flees from character. Talent often does not recognize its need for character. Character always recognizes it need for talent.
The argument for character and habit having been presented, we now advance the following suggestions as ways and means of creating proper habits in the life of a child.
1. Have the child perform the same proper thing over and over again. The action should be performed frequently and continuously. No opportunity to do it should be missed and no break should be made in its regularity. No omission should be allowed. The tendency to act spontaneously can become ingrained in a child only in direct proportion to the uninterrupted frequency which the child does the act. Do it; do it again; do it again and again and again. Keep doing it. Do it regularly. Epictetus said, "If you would make a thing a habit, do it." Horace Mann said, "Habit is a cable; we weave a thread of it each day and it becomes so strong we cannot break it."
2. Teach the child to do regularly now what he wants to do later habitually. Never let him be guilty of such statements as, "When I get to be a man I am going to do thus and so." Unless the habits of diligence, punctuality, etc. are formed as a boy, there will be no great accomplishments that come suddenly as man.
One day a father returned from a bear hunt. His young boy said, "I'll be glad when I get to be a man so I can hunt some bears," whereupon his father replied, "Son, there are some little bears in the forest too!" I have watched young people for years. I have seen ministerial students who prepared themselves in college to do something later, but they did nothing in college. I have seen other students who formed the proper habits of work, study, etc. in college. They continued using these habits in their lives and success became inevitable. Teach the child, "Do it now! Do it now!" One who is not courageous as a boy will not suddenly do courageous acts as a man.
3. Help the child build a schedule. Disciplined people live by schedule. I am writing this chapter in my hotel room in Green Lake, Wisconsin. In the lobby of this hotel there are dozens of Christian workers sitting around talking. I have scheduled my day so as to spend some time writing these truths. Because of that I cannot enjoy the extravagance of what they call "fellowship." If I am successful and get my work done, I must follow my schedule with strict discipline.
Take the child out in the snow. Have him walk over the snow one time. Then tell him to retrace his steps. Now it is easier to walk, for he is taking the same path. Have him continue to follow the same path over and over again. Notice how a regular path is formed because the particles have been pressed down. Soon he will take the path unconsciously because he has trodden it so many times. Due to this fact the path is easier to tread. The same is true with habit. It is acquired when one disciplines himself by schedule. Train the child at an early age to do so. He should get up at the same time every morning. He should go to bed at the same time each evening. He should eat his meals a near the same time each day as possible. He should brush his teeth at the same time and the same place. He should bathe at the same time daily. Even if his body is not dirty enough to demand a bath, habit is certainly a worthy reason for regular bathing. Maybe he could have a regular night to wash his hair etc. Routine and schedule are vital aids in the building of habit which is necessary in the building of character.
4. The parent must be the example for the child. He must be what he wishes the child to become. Hence, the child will see a living visual aid of what he should become. The parent must not fail to be prompt. regular, responsible, truthful, etc. He must be the embodiment of the truths that he teaches.
5. Make the child do what he does not especially like to do. Suppose a girl does not like doing the dishes. The mother should then force the girl to do them regularly until doing the dishes becomes habit, routine, and perhaps even enjoyable. Find the habits that each child does not enjoy and does not do promptly. Nothing that is right to do should ever become distasteful to the child. It should be repeated over and over again. If it is a distasteful chore, it can become habitual. Hence, it will be done because the will is not brought into action each time the act is performed.
6. Teach the child that if he wants to avoid bad habits, he should not do something bad even the first time. If something is not done for the first time, it will not become a habit. He who does not tell the first lie will not become a liar. He who does not steal the first thing will not become a thief. He who does not drink his first drink will not become an alcoholic. He that never utters a profane word will not become a profane person. There can be no habit until there is a second.
Take the child to the top of a steep slide. Have him get on a sled. Tell him to decide halfway down the hill that he wants to return and see what success he has. The place to decide is before he takes the first step.
Young people like to say, "I know when to stop." This may be true. A person can know WHEN to stop but habit will not let him stop. That which one does not want to make habitual should not be done the first time!
7. It is good for a child to admit publicly a decision to do right and quit doing wrong. This is why it is wise in churches for a child to walk the aisle during the invitation and declare to the pastor a decision he is making. It is often wise for the pastor to make public that decision so as to commit the child publicly. The wise parent will suggest that his child walk the aisle when he makes his spiritual decisions declaring to someone else what he intends to do. This will make it harder for him to change his mind, and better still, to change his actions.
8. See that the children associate with people with habit. Encourage them to be around orderly people when they are very little. See to it that family friends are people of order, discipline, and character. Make heroes of such people in the mind of the child. Soon he will emulate the right kind of people.
9. Have some family rituals that will necessitate schedule and discipline, thereby teaching the child routine and habit. When the children are very young there may be a certain night of the week when certain things are done. Perhaps one night could be eating out night, one night could be game night, one night could be midnight snack night, etc. The more things than can be done at the same time each day or each week the more the child's schedule will govern his life. The more habit can prevent the overexercising of his will, the more he will avoid the making of an excessive number of decisions, for these decisions are made by reflex, by schedule, by discipline, by routine, etc.
10. There should be regularity and order at home. There should be a time and place for everything. Towels should always be kept on the same shelf. The dishes should always be at the same place. Meals should be served at the same time, and in general, there should be an order, a proper arrangement, and regularity about the activities and events at home.
This is one reason why I travel across the country encouraging preachers to do things properly in their churches. A church that starts on time, presents only those musical numbers that are properly planned and presented, and in general does things always decently and in order, will teach a perennial lesson to its young people and children: that God's work should be done in the best way possible and that no slothfulness or haphazard performances should be associated with the Lord's work. With the home, church, and school working together as examples of order and regularity, the child will be reared in an atmosphere of discipline and proper habit. Consequently, he will have a greater opportunity to develop good character. If he sees smiles, he will smile more himself. If he sees the parent being frugal and punctual, the pastor exemplifying integrity and discipline, and the teacher being an example of regularity and order, he himself will soon reflect his environment and those who create it.
11. The parent should always attach the result with the act. The words "drink" and "drunkard" should be associated. The words "dope" and "addict" should be associated. The words "lazy" and "poverty" should be associated. Psychologically the child should be trained to associated the end with the act. In other words, the child should always know to what the act will lead. Show him some people who are at the end of the road he wants to travel. Let him see alcoholics and remind him that they once took their "first" drink. Take him to skid row and show him the end of the first step. Take him to a neighborhood where poverty prevails and show him where laziness often ends. Fix in his mind always the distasteful end of a presently tasteful wrong.
How many time have wrongdoers said, "I did not think!" This is so true. "Rightdoers" can also say the same thing. When a person has to think to do right, he has not developed the proper character. If by habit he does right, he can truthfully say, "I did not think." The person who develops the wrong habits can truthfully say, " I simply did not think before I did it." If he had to think first. The groove would have been so deep because of the habitual performance of right that he would not have done wrong. Remember, character is habit! Habit is formed by the proper and continuous repetition of doing right.
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