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Purposeful Habit Formation

By Melissa Martin

PCS Grammar School Principal, Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin has served at Providence since the fall of 2001 as a 2nd-grade teacher, a 4th-grade teacher, and presently the Grammar School Principal. From the beginning, Mrs. Martin felt so blessed to go to school daily with her three children and five nephews and niece. While they have all moved on from here, it is her privilege to continue to pour into the PCS culture training young men and women to lift their eyes to experience God’s goodness towards them and see all that they do as worship to their God and King!  

The focus of Grammar School Chapel this year has been loving God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matthew 22:37-40, Mark 12:30-31). Recently, Mrs. Christy Benthem, our Upper School Biology and Anatomy teacher, spoke to the students concerning what it means to love God with our minds. The brain truly is remarkable, not to mention powerful! It takes information in constantly to help us navigate the world. When the neural pathways in the brain are used often as we repeat certain behaviors, they get stronger and faster. When they are not used, they get weaker or become useless. If I want to memorize the multiplication facts through 12, I commit them to memory by practicing them over and over.

Here at Providence, students always greet adults by looking them in the eye and saying, “Good morning!” Because of repeated practice, the neural pathways for these behaviors are strong and respond quickly. But what if I keep repeating the behavior of ignoring my mother’s voice or complaining when I am not first in line? These behaviors also form strong pathways in our brains. The neural pathways get stronger if the action or thought is being repeated whether that action is good or bad. Think of this as inscribing something into the very fiber of your being.

We see the well-worn pathways in our brains daily through our habits.

Habits are our inclination or natural response in each situation. They are formed with repeated practice. Charlotte Mason, an English educator at the turn of the twentieth century, says that habits are to life as rails are to a train: it is much easier to lay rails down properly in the beginning for the train—or child—rather than having to pull crooked rails up to lay them straight again. We desire to lay the rails in the right direction the first time for our children.

James K.A. Smith calls habits “embodied know-how,” things our bodies and minds do without having to think. When our children are young, we train their bodies in order to shape not just their actions but their hearts as well. We teach our children to say thank you, and yes, sir. We expect them to obey without delay and pick their clothes up off the floor. These are the kinds of habits we want them to build, the neural pathways we want to strengthen. We encourage our children to continue to make these habits—both of thinking and of behavior—a lifetime practice.

Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
Proverbs 22:6

But what do we do when bad habits have formed and developed strong neural pathways?

Our children do not wash their hands before dinner. They lie to keep from admitting they’re wrong. They spend too much time playing video games. They fight with and pick on their siblings. Do we simply abandon children to these poor habits? Do we excuse these behaviors as immaturity? Do we simply say, “This is just who they are; there is nothing to be done,”? By no means!

In order to change these habits and lay the rails straight again, we can begin by recognizing the presence of a poor habit. We admit that, as parents, we have permitted it. Allowing the poor habit has not helped the child, the family, or others in the community. We take time to talk about it, pray over it, and model the proper behavior. We must help our children to “put off” the bad habit and “put on” the good habit. We repeat the desired habit over and over to build that strong neural pathway in the brain, and we lend our strength to our children by reminding and encouraging them as they lay a new habit. As always, we continue to engage our children in communication about their habits (Shepherding a Child’s Heart, chapters 8-10).

Our core, our heart, is at work as well.

As Christ-followers, I think it crucial to mention that we cannot separate the mind from the heart or from the soul. Let us be about training our children in proper habits, building strong neural pathways for those things that are true, good, and beautiful. But let us also realize that our causal core, our heart, is at work as well. Due to our selfish sinful nature, we want to do what we want to do when we want to do it, “…for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”(Romans 3:23). It is a struggle to want to do the right thing, to think the right thoughts, to honor others above ourselves. But thanks be to God, He did NOT leave us—or our children—unto ourselves. The good news is that God loved us first and sent his son to die for our sins. His blood covers our sins (1 John 4:10). When we understand this, it stirs our hearts to want to love Him, love others, and obey His commands (1 John 5:2). Forming habits that honor God and others is what we are called to do. Habits that are grounded in this love take the focus off of us and turn our desires towards God. We get to put off the old self and take on the new, which gives us a new identity – we are now clothed in His likeness – Christlikeness (2 Corinthians 5:17; Colossians 3:1-14).

Education is not a subject, and it does not deal in subjects. It is instead the transfer of a way of life.
G.K. Chesterton

While good habits or systems create certain behaviors, they will never deliver us. We must be made aware of our ignorance sometimes in order to do better, and as we learn right from wrong, we see our need for a Savior. Forming habits that display a love for God and others strengthen the good pathways, but ultimately, they get to the deeper part of us. These life-giving habits or virtues are for the good of others and for the glory of God. They set us free from our own selfishness and sin. Remember, we and our children are made in the very image of God; He does not leave us – He desires to help us grow into Christlikeness. Do not believe the lie, “This is how my child will always be.” God works to form sound habits in those he loves.

 …for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
Philippians 2:13

Deuteronomy 6 reminds us that loving God and others is a habit formed through everyday living. Correcting a poor habit is loving oneself less and loving others more. If we teach and train the habits and the heart, there will be an inner transformation that lies within the core of who we are – image-bearers of the living God. Because we desire to be a community that just doesn’t impart knowledge but trains the affections and loves of our children’s hearts, we begin by being willing to daily plant and water the seeds of “embodied know-how” for our children’s sake.

May I encourage you and your spouse to take the time to ask yourselves what formative practices are happening in your home to direct your children’s loves towards good moral habits or virtues.

Recommended Reading:

Laying Down the Rails by Sonya Shafer
Shepherding A Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp
You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith

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