THE FORMATION OF GOOD HABITS
by William Michael
February 4, 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
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.
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
a society without routine
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 enjoy devotional activities.
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.
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.
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
"NOT IN WORD ONLY, BUT IN DEED AND TRUTH"
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.
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.
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
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.
this is false.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.