THE LAYING DOWN OF LINES OF HABIT
‘Begin it, and the thing will be completed!’ is infallibly true of every mental and moral habitude: completed, not on the lines you foresee and intend, but on the lines appropriate and necessary to that particular habitude. In the phrase ‘unconscious
cerebration’ we are brought face to face with the fact that, whatever seed of thought or feeling you implant in a child—whether through inheritance or by early training—grows, completes itself, and begets after its kind, even as does a corporeal organism. It is a marvellous and beautiful thing to perceive an idea—when the idea itself is a fine one—developing within you of its own accord, to find your pen writing down sentences whose logical sequence delights you, and yet in the conception of which you have had no conscious part. When the experienced writer ‘reels off’ in this fashion, he knows that so far as the run of the words, the ordering of the ideas, go, his work will need no revision. So fine a thing is this, that the lingering fallacy of the infallible reason established itself thereupon. The philosopher, who takes pleasure in observing the ways of his own mind, is a thinker of high thoughts, and he is apt to forget that the thought which defiles a man behaves in precisely the same way as that which purifies: the one, as the other, develops, matures, and increases after its kind.
We Think, as we are accustomed to Think.—How does this bear on the practical work of bringing up children? In this way: We think, as we are accustomed to think; ideas come and go and carry on a ceaseless traffic in the rut—let us call it—you have made for them in the very nerve substance of the brain. You do not deliberately intend to think these thoughts; you may, indeed, object strongly to the line they are taking (two ‘trains’ of thought going on at one and the same time!), and objecting, you may be able to barricade the way, to put up ‘No Road’ in big letters, and to compel the busy populace of the brain-world to take another route. But who is able
for these things? Not the child, immature of will, feeble in moral power, unused to the weapons of the spiritual warfare. He depends upon his parents; it rests with them to initiate the thoughts he shall think, the desires he shall cherish, the feelings he shall allow. Only to initiate; no more is permitted to them; but from this initiation will result the habits of thought and feeling which govern the man—his character, that is to say. But is not this assuming too much, seeing that, to sum up roughly all we understand by heredity, a child is born with his future in his hands? The child is born, doubtless, with the tendencies which should shape his future; but every tendency has its branch roads, its good or evil outcome; and to put the child on the right track for the fulfilment of the possibilities inherent in him, is the vocation of the parent.
Direction of Lines of Habit.—This relation of habit to human life—as the rails on which it runs to a locomotive—is perhaps the most suggestive and helpful to the educator; for just as it is on the whole easier for the locomotive to pursue its way on the rails than to take a disastrous run off them, so it is easier for the child to follow lines of habit carefully laid down than to run off these lines at his peril. It follows that this business of laying down lines towards the unexplored country of the child’s future is a very serious and responsible one for the parent. It rests with him to consider well the tracks over which the child should travel with profit and pleasure; and, along these tracks, to lay down lines so invitingly smooth and easy that the little traveller is going upon them at full speed without stopping to consider whether or no he chooses to go that way.
Habit and Free-will.—But,—supposing that the doing of a certain action a score or two of times in unbroken sequence forms a habit which it is as easy to follow as not; that, persist still further in the habit without lapses, and it becomes second nature, quite difficult to shake off; continue it further, through a course of years, and the habit has the strength of ten natures, you cannot break through it without doing real violence to yourself;—grant all this, and also that it is possible to form in the child the habit of doing and saying, even of thinking and feeling, all that it is desirable he should do or say, think or feel,—and do you not take away the child’s free-will, make a mere automaton of him by this excessive culture?
Habit rules ninety-nine in a hundred of our Thoughts and Acts.—In the first place, whether you choose or no to take any trouble about the formation of his habits, it is habit, all the same, which will govern ninety-nine one-hundredths of the child’s life: he is the mere automaton you describe. As for the child’s becoming the creature of habit, that is not left with the parent to determine. We are all mere creatures of habit. We think our accustomed thoughts, make our usual small talk, go through the trivial round, the common task, without any self-determining effort of will at all. If it were not so—if we had to think, to deliberate, about each operation of the bath or the table—life would not be worth having; the perpetually repeated effort of decision would wear us out. But, let us be thankful, life is not thus laborious. For a hundred times we act or think, it is not necessary to choose, to will, say, more than once. And the little emergencies, which compel an act of will, will fall in the children’s lives just about
as frequently as in our own. These we cannot save them from, nor is it desirable that we should. What we can do for them is to secure that they have habits which shall lead them in ways of order, propriety, and virtue, instead of leaving their wheel of life to make ugly ruts in miry places.
Habit powerful even where the Will decides.—And then, even in emergencies, in every sudden difficulty and temptation that requires an act of will, why, conduct is still apt to run on the lines of the familiar habit. The boy who has been accustomed to find both profit and pleasure in his books does not fall easily into idle ways because he is attracted by an idle schoolfellow. The girl who has been carefully trained to speak the exact truth simply does not think of a lie as a ready means of getting out of a scrape, coward as she may be.
But this doctrine of habit, is it, after all, any more than an empirical treatment of the child’s symptoms? Why should the doing of an act or the thinking of a thought, say, a score of times in unbroken succession, have any tendency to make the doing of that act or the thinking of that thought a part of the child’s nature? We may accept the doctrine as an act of faith resting on experience; but if we could discover the raison d’être of this enormous force of habit it would be possible to go to work on the laying down of habits with real purpose and method.