THE FORMING OF A HABIT—‘SHUT THE DOOR AFTER YOU’
“Do ye next thinge.”
“Lose this day loitering, and ’twill be the same story
To-morrow; and the next, more dilatory:
The indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost, lamenting o’er lost days,”
says Marlowe, who, like many of us, knew the misery of the intellectual indolence which cannot brace itself to “Do ye next thinge.” No question concerning the bringing up of children can, conceivably, be trivial, but this, of dilatoriness, is very important. The effort of decision, we have seen, is the greatest effort of life; not the doing of the thing, but the making up of one’s mind as to which thing to do first. It is commonly this sort of mental indolence, born of indecision, which leads to dawdling habits. How is the dilatory child to be cured? Time? She will know better as she grows older? Not a bit of it: “And the next, more dilatory” will be the story of her days, except for occasional spurts. Punishments? No; your dilatory person is a fatalist. ‘What can’t be cured must be endured,’ he says, but he will endure without any effort to cure. Rewards? No; to him a reward is a punishment presented under another aspect: the possible reward he realises as actual; there it is, within his grasp, so to say; in foregoing the reward he is punished; and he bears the punishment. What remains to be tried when neither time, reward, nor punishment is effectual? That panacea of the educationist: ‘One custom overcometh another.’ This inveterate dawdling is a habit to be supplanted
only by the contrary habit, and the mother must devote herself for a few weeks to this cure as steadily and untiringly as she would to the nursing of her child through measles. Having in a few—the fewer the better—earnest words pointed out the miseries that must arise from this fault, and the duty of overcoming it, and having so got the (sadly feeble) will of the child on the side of right-doing, she simply sees that for weeks together the fault does not recur. The child goes to dress for a walk; she dreams over the lacing of her boots—the tag in her fingers poised in mid air—but her conscience is awake; she is constrained to look up, and her mother’s eye is upon her, hopeful and expectant. She answers to the rein and goes on; midway, in the lacing of the second boot, there is another pause, shorter this time; again she looks up, and again she goes on. The pauses become fewer day by day, the efforts steadier, the immature young will is being strengthened, the habit of prompt action acquired. After that first talk, the mother would do well to refrain from one more word on the subject; the eye (expectant, not reproachful), and, where the child is far gone in a dream, the lightest possible touch, are the only effectual instruments. By-and-by, ‘Do you think you can get ready in five minutes to-day without me?’ ‘Oh yes, mother.’ ‘Do not say “yes” unless you are quite sure.’ ‘I will try.’ And she tried, and succeeds. Now, the mother will be tempted to relax her efforts—to overlook a little dawdling because the dear child has been trying so hard. This is absolutely fatal. The fact is, that the dawdling habit has made an appreciable record in the very substance of the child’s brain. During the weeks of cure new growth
has been obliterating the old track, and the track of a new habit is being formed. To permit any reversion to the old bad habit is to let go all this gain. To form a good habit is the work of a few weeks; to guard it is a work of incessant, but by no means anxious care. One word more,—prompt action on the child’s part should have the reward of absolute leisure, time in which to do exactly as she pleases, not granted as a favour, but accruing (without any words) as a right.
Habit a Delight in itself.—Except for this one drawback, the forming of habits in the children is no laborious task, for the reward goes hand in hand with the labour; so much so, that it is like the laying out of a penny with the certainty of the immediate return of a pound. For a habit is a delight in itself; poor human nature is conscious of the ease that it is to repeat the doing of anything without effort; and, therefore, the formation of a habit, the gradually lessening sense of effort in a given act, is pleasurable. This is one of the rocks that mothers sometimes split upon: they lose sight of the fact that a habit, even a good habit, becomes a real pleasure; and when the child has really formed the habit of doing a certain thing, his mother imagines that the effort is as great to him as at first, that it is virtue in him to go on making this effort, and that he deserves, by way of rewards, a little relaxation—she will let him break through the new habit a few times, and then go on again. But it is not going on; it is beginning again, and beginning in the face of obstacles. The ‘little relaxation’ she allowed her child meant the forming of another contrary habit, which must be overcome before the child gets back to where he was before.
As a matter of fact, this misguided sympathy on the part of mothers is the one thing that makes it a laborious undertaking to train a child in good habits; for it is the nature of the child to take to habits as kindly as the infant takes to his mother’s milk.
Tact, Watchfulness, and Persistence.—For example, and to choose a habit of no great consequence except as a matter of consideration for others: the mother wishes her child to acquire the habit of shutting the door after him when he enters or leaves a room. Tact, watchfulness, and persistence are the qualities she must cultivate in herself; and, with these, she will be astonished at the readiness with which the child picks up the new habit.
Stages in the Formation of a Habit.—‘Johnny,’ she says, in a bright, friendly voice, ‘I want you to remember something with all your might: never go into or out of a room in which anybody is sitting without shutting the door.’
‘But if I forget, mother?’
‘I will try to remind you.’
‘But perhaps I shall be in a great hurry.’
‘You must always make time to do that.’
‘But why, mother?’
‘Because it is not polite to the people in the room to make them uncomfortable.’
‘But if I am going out again that very minute?’
‘Still, shut the door, when you come in; you can open it again to go out. Do you think you can remember?’
‘I’ll try, mother.’
‘Very well; I shall watch to see how few “forgets” you make.’
For two or three times Johnny remembers; and then, he is off like a shot and half-way downstairs before his mother has time to call him back. She does not cry out, ‘Johnny, come back and shut the door!’ because she knows that a summons of that kind is exasperating to big or little. She goes to the door, and calls pleasantly, ‘Johnny!’ Johnny has forgotten all about the door; he wonders what his mother wants, and, stirred by curiosity, comes back, to find her seated and employed as before. She looks up, glances at the door, and says, ‘I said I should try to remind you.’ ‘Oh, I forgot,’ says Johnny, put upon his honour; and he shuts the door that time, and the next, and the next.
But the little fellow has really not much power to recollect, and the mother will have to adopt various little devices to remind him; but of two things she will be careful—that he never slips off without shutting the door, and that she never lets the matter be a cause of friction between herself and the child, taking the line of his friendly ally to help him against that bad memory of his. By and by, after, say, twenty shuttings of the door with never an omission, the habit begins to be formed; Johnny shuts the door as a matter of course, and his mother watches him with delight come into a room, shut the door, take something off the table, and go out, again shutting the door.
The Dangerous Stage.—Now that Johnny always shuts the door, his mother’s joy and triumph begin to be mixed with unreasonable pity. ‘Poor child,’ she says to herself, ‘it is very good of him to take so
much pains about a little thing, just because he is bid!’ She thinks that, all the time, the child is making an effort for her sake; losing sight of the fact that the habit has become easy and natural, that, in fact, Johnny shuts the door without knowing that he does so. Now comes the critical moment. Some day Johnny is so taken up with a new delight that the habit, not yet fully formed, loses its hold, and he is half-way downstairs before he thinks of the door. Then he does think of it, with a little prick of conscience, strong enough, not to send him back, but to make him pause a moment to see if his mother will call him back. She has noticed the omission, and is saying to herself, ‘Poor little fellow, he has been very good about it this long time; I’ll let him off this once.’ He, outside, fails to hear his mother’s call, says, to himself—fatal sentence!—‘Oh, it doesn’t matter,’ and trots off.
Next time he leaves the door open, but it is not a ‘forget.’ His mother calls him back in a rather feeble way. His quick ear catches the weakness of her tone, and, without coming back, he cries, ‘Oh, mother, I’m in such a hurry,’ and she says no more, but lets him off. Again he rushes in, leaving the door wide open. ‘Johnny!’—in a warning voice. ‘I’m going out again just in a minute, mother,’ and after ten minutes’ rummaging he does go out, and forgets to shut the door. The mother’s mis-timed easiness has lost for her every foot of the ground she had gained.