Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Disciplined Will

His thoughts are wandering on forbidden pleasure, to the hindrance of his work; he pulls himself up, and deliberately fixes his attention on those incentives which have most power to make him work, the leisure and pleasure which follow honest labour, the duty which binds him to the fulfilling of his task. His thoughts run in the groove he wills them to run in, and work is no longer an effort. ~Vol.1, p.324
Isn't this the result we all want in our children? That they would consciously choose to do right even when it is not easy to do. Whether it be finishing a hard job well, forgoing the extra piece of pie, controlling their temper or sour mood; whatever it may be - we want to train our children to make the right decisions in life.

CM defines the will as the controller of the passions and emotions, the director of the desires, the ruler of the appetites ... it becomes vigorous and capable in proportion as it is duly nourished and fitly employed. ~Vol. 1, p.319

Left to our own devices, what do we as Mothers often find ourselves doing to train our children?

"Pick up those clothes!" "Clean up your toys!" "Change that attitude!" "You just bumped her, say you're sorry!" "Put your plate away!" "Stop dawdling and get to it!"

Whose will are we training our children to obey when we are constantly after them? Ours.

CM believed we should train them how to use the power of their own will.

And here is the line which divides the effective from the non-effective people, the great from the small, the good from the well-intentioned and respectable ... that he can depend upon himself, and be sure of his own action in emergencies. ~Vol. 1, p.323
Is that possible to train our children this way - to compel themselves to right action? How is it done?

She says that the one who controls his will does not do so by sheer coercion saying "Thou shalt" or "Thou shalt not", nor is it by reasoning "This is very wrong in me. So-and-so is not so much to blame, after all." She says they are not ready for that. (No age reference is made here)

Rather, she claims it is by seemingly inadequate means. A simple "transferring of our attention from one subject of thought to another." She gives this example:

...some slight affront has called up a flood of resentful feeling: So-and-so should not have done it, he had no right, it was mean, and so on, through all the hard things we are ready enough to say in our hearts of an offender against our amour propre. But the man under the control of his own will does not allow this to go on ... he just compels himself to think of something else - the last book he has read, the next letter he must write, anything interesting enough to divert his thoughts. When he allows himself to go back to the cause of offence, behold, all rancour is gone, and he is able to look at the matter with the coolness of a third person. And this is true, not only of the risings of resentment, but of every temptation that besets the flesh and spirit. ~Vol. 1, p.324

But is it really that simple? Just change your thoughts? She gave an example of the baby that falls and cries and the experienced nurse who distracts him. I have tried that with my 2 year old and the distraction still works with her, but how is that training the child's will if we are the one doing the distracting?

Here she makes the transition from us doing the distraction to teaching the child to train his own will. And I believe it is a progression that occurs with age. I would think that by four or five years old, a child would be capable of understanding this.
let him know the secret of willing; let him know that, by an effort of will, he can turn his thoughts to the thing he wants to think of - his lessons, his prayers, his work, and away from the things he should not think of; - that, in fact, he can be such a brave strong little fellow, he can make himself think of what he likes; and let him try little experiments ... that if he feels cross, naughty thoughts coming upon him, the plan is to think hard about something else, something nice - his next birthday, what he means to do when he is a man. Not all this at once, of course; but line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little, as opportunity offers. Let him get into the habit of managing himself, controlling himself, and it is astonishing how much self-compelling power quite a young child will exhibit. ~Vol. 1, p.328

I love the encouraging tone of that. And it is little by little. Starting with something small, help them discover this ability and power to manage their actions. We want to help them succeed.

I wonder if CM's "I can, I ought, I will" doesn't tie in nicely here. Children often like to say "but I can't!" instead of "I can, but I'm really not willing to." My 2 year old does this a lot, when I ask her to walk somewhere or go upstairs or pick something up and put it away.
When she doesn't want to so she says "I can't!" Just this morning I asked her to unload the utensils from the dishwasher and put them in the drawer. She did a couple haphazardly while holding onto a toy in her other hand. Then she stopped and said "I can't!" I said "Yes, you can. Put them away." again she said, "But I can't!"

I suppose I could have disciplined her somehow and made her finish the job. After all, she was being 'disobedient' wasn't she? But was it rebellion? And had I taken the time to train her in this job before? No. Would distraction have worked here? What did I want? I wanted her to finish the job as best as she could without fussing about it and begin training her will to do the thing she thinks she 'can't'.
Every effort of obedience is valuable only in so far as it helps the child towards making himself do that which he knows he ought to do. Every effort of obedience which does not give him a sense of conquest over his own inclinations, helps to enslave him, he will resent the loss of his liberty by running into license when he can. That is the secret of the miscarrying of many strictly brought-up children. But invite his co-operation, let him heartily intend and purpose to do the thing he is bidden, and then it is his own will that is compelling him, and not yours; he has begun the greatest effort, the highest accomplishment of human life - the making, the compelling of himself. Let him know what he is about, let him enjoy a sense of triumph, and of your congratulation, whenever he fetches his thoughts back to his tiresome sum, whenever he makes his hands finish what they have begun, whenever he throws the black dog off his back, and produces a smile from a clouded face. ~Vol. 1, p.328

On an average day, I might have just let her go with "I can't!" having had the last word. But being intentional after having read about training the will, I grabbed up all the remaining utensils - there were only a few, I told her to put down the toy she had in her hand, handed her the utensils and encouragingly said "You can! Now go put them in the drawer." So she did, and I praised her for doing a good job and she beamed.

I think if she would have had cried and fussed about doing the job, then distraction may have worked to change her mood after the job was done.
CM does say that much must go before and along with a vigorous will if it is to be a power in the ruling of conduct. The power of attention; applying the whole of their mental faculties and also good habits. In fact, she says that habit trumps the will and reiterates that it is the duty of parents to ease the way of their children by laying down for them the lines of helpful habits.

Habit is either the ally or the opponent, too often the frustrator, of the will. ~Vol. 1, p.326

In reading this, I was reminded of how much of her philosophy is weaved throughout her methods. Narration to train attention, habit training to ease the way.

She goes on to say ...only the man of of cultivated reason is capable of being ruled by a well-directed will. If his understanding does not show good cause why he should do some solid reading every day, why he should cling to the faith of his fathers, why he should take up his duties as a citizen, - the movement of his will will be feeble and fluctuating, and very barren of results. ~Vol.1, p.327

Even development of 'cultivated reason' is weaved into the curriculum through living books and the conversations that arise from reading them. Again, as I so often am when I read about and apply this philosophy and these methods, I am gripped in wonder and awe at the breadth and richness of this education afforded to us by the very grace of God.

As to the reason why we train our children in the knowledge and application of a disciplined will, CM claims
that knowing what to do with ourselves when we are beset is the secret to a happy life. She also says that while it is not a necessary condition of the Christian life, it is necessary to the development of the heroic Christian character. A Gordon, A Havelock, A Florence Nightingale, A St. Paul, could not be other than a person of vigorous will. ~Vol. 1, p.322

The Penitent Magdalene, Guido Reni 1635
Photo courtesy of Web Gallery of Art via AmblesideOnline
Speaking of this painting, she says ...but you look up to the eyes, which are raised to meet the gaze of eyes not shown in the picture, and the countenance is transfigured, the whole face is aglow with a passion of service, love, and self-surrender.

All this the divine grace may accomplish in weak unwilling souls, and then they will do what they can; but their power of service is limited by their past. Not so the child of the Christian mother, whose highest desire is to train him for the Christian life. When he wakes to the consciousness of whose he is and whom he serves, she would have him ready for that high service, with every faculty in training - a man of war from his youth; above all, with an effective will, to will and to do of His good pleasure.
~Vol.1, p.322

And in quoting Dr. Morell's Introduction to Mental Philosophy, she says: The education of the will is really of far greater importance, as shaping the destiny of the individual, than that of the intellect ~Vol.1, p.329
While we may not be sure exactly how to apply this to every instance that arises in our home, little by little, one foot in front of the other, prayerfully, and with much grace for our shortcomings and theirs, we can hope to persevere. It is, in fact, as Mothers, I believe our high service isn't it?

...discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness ~1Tim 4:7


  1. This is brilliant Naomi! So helpful and so encouraging to me. Thank you.

  2. I'm so glad - I'm trying to post what I learn from our monthly meeting topics here every month for those who can't make it but are interested in learning more. I wish you could attend!

  3. For anyone interested, there's an interesting discussion that arose from this post here:


    Also, I do want to say that the topic of The Will in Vol. 1 is followed by "The Conscience" and "The Divine Life in The Child" which perhaps may further shed light on this topic.

  4. Hi, I popped over from the CM carnival. I liked your last paragraph:

    "While we may not be sure exactly how to apply this to every instance that arises in our home, little by little, one foot in front of the other, prayerfully, and with much grace for our shortcomings and theirs, we can hope to persevere. It is, in fact, as Mothers, I believe our high service isn't it?"

    yes it is! I fully agree. We are the ones who listen and pray and walk steadily through the day righting the bicycles of the will as our children wobble on them into maturity. It was helpful to hear so much of CM on this today.

  5. This is so helpful, especially the specific examples! Thank you!