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Children And Control Of Habit Formation

( Originally Published 1916 )

EVERY person who has had even a slight opportunity to observe children and adults, will have noticed the one great fact about the economy of habit. The thou-sand things that you do during a single day, from the time you dress yourself to the time you brush your teeth at night, are mostly acts of habit. If each act were not habitual, it would require so much thought and attention, that you could hardly do much more than get past your breakfast before bedtime. Habits enable us to do the necessary everyday things without conscious effort, thus leaving the mind free to do the new things, to attend to the really interesting things, to solve the new problems that constantly arise.

A great thinker has said that habit is nine-tenths of life. Whatever the exact proportion may be, the importance of habit is so great that we cannot afford to neglect the habits that our children. are acquiring. And it is well for us to appreciate how far the habits of our children depend upon ourselves. Most of the habits that have to do with everyday things are fixed in childhood. When children get to the high school age, they acquire new sets of habits as a result of their thinking about life and character. That is, they develop ideals and try to live up to them. It is therefore the first duty of the mother to see that her younger child acquires the fundamental habits that are necessary for his welfare and for his happy association with others. And it is her next duty to see to it that as the child approaches adolescence, he has the opportunity and stimulus to acquire lofty ideals.

The forming of a habit has been compared to the wrinkling of a garment that has been worn a great deal. The cloth is bent along certain lines a number of times, and sooner or later it stays bent. In much the same way a series of actions that have been per-formed in connection with a given situation is repeated. After you have changed your wardrobe from one closet to another, you will find yourself going to the first for many days, whenever you start to get some clothes. If you have been answering the telephone call, you will start at the ring of the bell, even in another person's house, like an old war horse at the sound of the bugle.

A child forms new habits much more easily than an older person, and there is therefore the greater danger of the formation of undesirable habits. On the other hand, the young child is for the same reason all the more teachable, and can more easily learn good habits.

A baby of eleven months, whose mother had carefully watched her development, and had especially guarded against the forming of bad habits, was awakened one evening by some noisy visitors. These insisted on seeing the baby, who, when she was taken into the lighted room, seemed to enjoy the fun as much as the admiring friends did. But the following night she awoke again, and this time she cried until someone came to her. She had no pain; she was not hungry and there was apparently nothing else the matter with her; for as long as anyone staid with her and talked, she was happy, but when she was left alone, she began to cry again. Her mother concluded that she was simply calling for a repetition of the previous evening's amusement and let her cry for half an hour. Had she been indulged a second and a third time, it would have, no doubt, been very difficult later to get her back into her regular ways. For she would have established a new habit through a few repetitions of the experience, accompanied by pleasurable feelings.

It is possible to begin the training of the child's habits much earlier than most people believe. At the age of only a few days most children can be trained in regular hours of feeding. As they sleep most of the time at first, the habit of going to sleep does not concern the mother. But in a few weeks it may be observed that the child's going to sleep at fixed hours can be controlled by putting him in the right position, darkening the room, etc. Modern mothers do not rock their children, and some of the older women find it hard to understand how the child can be put to, sleep without rocking. But dependence upon rocking is an acquired habit on the part of the child; and he can acquire a different habit just as easily.

It is one of the fundamental principles of human conduct that any act which leads to a happy conclusion tends to repeat itself. And this is just as true of thinking and feeling as it is of doing something with the hands. So if you make it worth while for Jimmy to persist in teasing for what he wants, he will surely repeat the act, until he gets the habit.

A mother spoke rather complainingly of her inconsiderate son, who was shrewd enough to make his campaign for air-rifles or tickets for the circus, or whatever else he wanted, just when the mother had a head-ache and was unable to resist his importunate demands. The boy had probably learned from experience that certain conditions were more favorable for his suit than others, and he naturally took advantage of this knowledge. There was no calculation in the matter, and the boy was no more inconsiderate than other boys of his age. His mother had simply allowed him to acquire the habit of recognizing certain " signs " as." lucky " for his purpose.

Every habit is the result of repetitions. If we wish a child to acquire any particular habit, whether it has to do with learning to play some instrument, or with a manner of speech, we must make sure that he repeats the desired act a sufficient number of times—and the habit will be there. The problem is thus largely one of providing suitable inducements for repeating the act. This does not mean that we must offer children some reward for practicing, or for doing things in general the right way. There are various ways of providing the inducements for repetition. Thus, the child who mispronounces words from infancy, needs usually but to hear the words pronounced properly, and through imitation he will repeat, the correct sounds until they become habitual with him. Most habits are acquired by children because certain acts which they perform bring with them various satisfactions, which in turn furnish the inducements for further repetition, until the habits are fixed.

When we are trying to fix habits in a young child we should introduce the desired actions into the child's routine, and insist upon their performance on every occasion—whether it is saying the prayers nightly or putting the toys away. And the desired bits of conduct must be practiced at the time when they have meaning in relation to other affairs. It is not enough to take the single step correctly all by itself. The dancing master makes the child go back and start over again, so that the right step may become one of the fixed series of right steps.

Until the habits are fixed, allow no exceptions to occur. Every exception has its dangers, because it may introduce new interests, new satisfactions, tempting to a repetition of the exception and making this the new order.

The same principle applies to the breaking of habits. Every exception is like a switch that may let the train of events get side-tracked, with possibly disastrous results. The child must stop chewing his gum at once. Whatever it is that must be stopped, must be stopped the instant the action is noticed, and not allowed a little extension of time for practice in the objectionable act. " Just this once " is the greatest enemy to the development of good habits; and it is the greatest obstacle to the conquest of bad habits.

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