The right thing to do was obvious, but I didn’t choose to do it. I want to do what is right. Why can’t I always choose to do it? Didn’t Paul write about this in the book of Romans? Why is my will power inconsistent? How is the Holy Spirit involved in this dilemma? What is my part, and what is His work?
Have you ever pondered these questions? Have you desired to see change in your own life and in the lives of your children, but not known what to do, except pray? Don’t misunderstand me. Prayer is vitally important. We need to pray; we must pray. But prayer isn’t begging God to change our circumstances or our children. Prayer is a conversation. We have the privilege of pouring out our needs and our hearts to Him, knowing He hears and He cares. We can, therefore, trust Him to direct us to take appropriate action.
A deeper look into habits
This post is not a study of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, nor is it a treatise on prayer. My purpose is to take a deeper look at the development of habits. A habit is an action or a thought process which has been repeated enough times to become automatic, something that is natural to you. Habits give the will a chance to rest because with most habits, the will is relieved of the effort required to make a choice.
Plutarch said, “Character is long-standing habit.” Good habits lead to the development of character. We all desire to see noble character established in the lives of our children and in our own lives as well. But sometimes we get the cart before the horse. We zero in on character and character training first. Have we taught our children about cheerfulness, humility, self-control, and so forth, and then just expected them to choose to be cheerful, humble, and governed by their own selves? If so, we have missed the mark. And here’s why.
Knowledge, will power, or habits?
Knowledge alone does not change us or our children, as I’m sure you’re aware, if you have struggled with the questions I asked in the first paragraph. Will power alone doesn’t accomplish the change we desire. It cannot stand on its own because it is easily drained and needs periods of rest. As Plutarch and many others have explained, habits lead to change and good habits lead to noble character. Knowledge and will power are parts of the equation, and so is motivation, but the power to change is in the habit.
Through training, we form habits of thought and action in our children so their minds will be renewed and their character developed. The transformation of our children, what we Christians recognize as sanctification, is not our work. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. Our job is to intentionally train our children in habits to help take the effort or burden of decision off of them. For example, to explain to a child about the character quality of cheerfulness, and then tell him he must choose to be cheerful is placing a heavy burden on the child. He doesn’t have the power of will, and he lacks appropriate motivation to always make that choice well. Setting a goal to be more cheerful is also not enough. God has provided help for us and for them in the form of habits.
Help that Brings About Change
To develop a habit of cheerfulness, we start with small, simple steps of cheerfulness that are repeated often enough to become automatic. The secret to success is SMALL. Small, simple, and easy steps should be the start for any desired habit. As the action is practiced with more and more success, eventually, a choice will no longer be required in order to be cheerful in that circumstance. It happens naturally. The process is physical as well as mental. The neural pathway in the brain used to complete the action, task, or mental process is strengthened with practice. As the neural pathway is strengthened, it becomes more efficient and the messages move more quickly through the brain. The action is eventually automated. A conscious decision is no longer required.
Visualizing who we want to become as motivation for mastering a habit is a job for very mature older children and adults. A child may not care if he becomes cheerful in character. The immaturity and self-centeredness of childhood limits his ability to see the need. He does not have the maturity to desire, nor the ability to envision, becoming a cheerful person. Most children do not have the ability to think about who they will become except by watching noble character in action. Then they may say, “I want to be like that.” Identity is formed by habits. Mature persons desiring to change who they are embrace small habits of thought and behavior to become who they want to be. Most lofty resolutions or goals are never achieved because the little habits of thought and action necessary for success were overlooked. This is why I choose to call the process habit training and not character training. Small habits, intentionally trained and carefully maintained will help move the child toward the character. The secret is to make the desired action or thought process small.
A Personal Example
Another example: I have been working on the habit of physical fitness. I see four main parts to this habit: 1) strength training or workouts, 2) cardio exercise, 3) water intake, 4) diet. You might say the habit is actually four habits, but I think it is more. There are the habits of structuring my day so I have time for exercise, of planning meals and trips to the grocery store, of avoiding certain aisles of the grocery store, of eating from a smaller plate, of keeping a glass of water nearby, and so forth.The list could be very long, but each small habit developed moves me toward the habit of physical fitness. A young adult (pre-teen or teen) could work on several of those mini-habits at one time.
Mastering the habit of cheerfulness does not indicate a person will be cheerful in every area under every circumstance for the rest of her life. And habits that have been mastered, such as physical fitness, will need to be adapted and refined as one’s physical abilities change with age and health. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Last Battle, “Further up and further in!” God’s work of transformation will continue as we intentionally guide our children and ourselves to develop good habits of thought and behavior. But this won’t be a great burden because we have developed a habit of training in habits,* and we have the help of the Holy Spirit who guides us in the process.
*For more information on developing a habit of training in habits, check out The Lost Art of Habit Training, now available.