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Secular CM habit training: dawdling

Habit training:  give me a shout if you love it.


Yeah, me neither 🙁

I think habit training is one of the areas that we get asked about the most, both from a Charlotte Mason lifestyle perspective and simply a parenting one.  In particular, ones that don’t come from a strictly Christian viewpoint.

While I don’t have any modern secular resources to offer you, we do have Charlotte’s own words from the May 1890 Parent’s Review.  Yes, that’s right:

Parents have been struggling with dawdling children for at least 120 years.

You are not alone, my friend.

How to cure a dawdling child

p 243:  “How is the dilatory child to be cured?  Time?  She will know better as she grows older?  Not a bit of it”

Don’t think this is something your child will grow out it.  She won’t.  At least, not on her own.  However, we have specific instructions on what we can do to help our child break this habit.

p 244: “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.”

Here we go — dawdling is a habit, and can only be countered by replacing it with the habit of *not* dawdling.  This requires the parent’s devotion for several weeks.

Not a day or two, but several weeks of determined effort.


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“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.”

We’re not going to give a long lecture.  We all know that kids tune those out anyway, right?  We tell them short and sweet why dawdling is bad, and get their agreement that they will work on it.

Note the “sadly feeble” will of the child.  Miss Mason didn’t pull any punches here, did she?  LOL  She knew that your child is likely to give you a sigh and “ok” rather than an enthusiastic “yes!” to which you will have to put in no further effort.

Here’s how she sees it playing out:

“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.”

Kid is tying her shoes and starts day dreaming mid-tie.  (is CM spot on here or what?)  Kid feels mom’s eyes boring into her, and glances up — yep, mom is looking at her with a pleasant face and eyebrows raised.  Not scowling.  Not rolling her eyes.  Just that gentle reminder… maybe a cough is in order here, a gentle reminder if Kid says in confusion, “what?”

“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.”

There.  Right there.  Our child, whom we have just reminded not to daydream while tying her shoe, is now daydreaming while tying the other shoe. 

We’ve all been there.  Moms have been there going back generations.  Here’s your proof.

“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 on the subject, 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.”

Note here, that the pauses become fewer day by day.  Not that this is an instant fix, but that it has to be done day by day.  And probably with both shoes day by day 🙂

I also want you to notice the next part — we are not yelling at the child.  No “come on, Sally!  How many times do I have to remind you?”  Just an expectant look, or for those kids who are so caught up in a daydream they don’t see it, a light touch.  Maybe a cough (my own mother’s favorite prompt)

The habit is formed

“By and bye, ‘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 tries and succeeds.”

Yeah!  Success!  And we are done now, right?


“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 worn an appreciable track 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 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.”


How many of us have done this?  I know I have.  “Oh, just this once, she’s been so good lately!”

And then we’re back at square one.

It has taken us weeks (or longer!) of sustained attention on our own part to help our child overcome the dawdling habit in this one area.  Now it will take months of a watchful eye to avoid relapse.

Habit training is not for the faint of heart.  It requires as much discipline in the parents as it does in the kids.  More so, I’d wager.

“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 words) as a right.”

What this means, is that if you’re working on not dawdling while getting dressed for an outing, then if the child does everything promptly and it’s not yet time to go, the child should have that time to play, to read, to do whatever she wants (within the rules of course).  She shouldn’t have extra chores piled on top of her (oh, since she got ready so fast she can quickly clean the bathroom).

The takeaway

Habit training for dawdlers in a nutshell:

  1.  The child will not ‘grow out of it.’  It is up to the parents to help replace the habit of dawdling with the habit of prompt action.  Take on one thing at at time.  Not all dawdling, but start with a single instance, like dawdling while getting ready to go out.
  2. Talk to your child briefly (don’t lecture) and get her agreement to work on this.  This does not mean you then call it done and start yelling the next day when she doesn’t.  The child has a “sadly feeble will.”  It’s normal.
  3. Be diligent!  Kid will daydream while tying shoes.  A light cough or touch if she doesn’t catch it herself, and you don’t yell.  A raised eyebrow with expectant look, or a very, very brief reminder if the child is truly clueless why you’re looking at her.
  4. Again with the second shoe.  Really.  It’s normal.  Count to 10 internally and smile, and remember that your great-great-grandmother had this same struggle with your great-grandmother.
  5. Repeat, day after day, week after week, never letting down your guard on this one expression of this one habit.  It will be weeks.  This is not Jello Instant Pudding.
  6. When the habit is formed, child will slip and you’ll be tempted to let it go.  Stay strong.  One false move and all is lost.
  7. Guard this habit as if your sanity depended on it (because it very well might).
  8. And last, don’t add extra work as a “reward” for not dawdling.

How are you at habit training?  Is this something you want to try?

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  1. Couple of questions:
    1. What age is this referring to or is preferred?
    2. Why is dawdling bad or at least unpreferred?
    3. I find myself quite tripped up when reading Mason’s affirmative words sometimes. I have known many children who did in fact outgrow this trait without training. Do you ever have the same experience when reading portions of CM? Do you ever do a head tilt and say “thats not quite so?”

    This standing over a child I can certainly see how it would solicit a desired behavior modification for parents, but I wonder if it has the potential to create anxiety in a child they would carry into adulthood? For example might it create a fear of someone always looking.over your shoulder and you must stay on task or else disappoint someone? Could this lead to unhealthy OCD behavior to cope with developed anxiety?

    Im thinking aloud and just wondering. Curious what others have experienced. 🙂

    Bonus question: For neuro diverse children, for example those with adhd, this structure could definitely be an aid into helping them stay on task but if it never modifies the behavior to act independently (which is often the case with adhd because its not a matter of will but rather an effect of atypical neurotransmitters and a decrease of frontal lobe [i believe its the frontal lobe] activity), I wonder where would CM go from there?

    I do like this.more gentle approach versus the hurry rushing of “come.on lets go.” In CM is there room for a child to ever dawdle.or is all dawdling seen as undesirable?

    1. I know this comment is old, but I thought I would still offer this- if someone happened to be looking now. My guess- the child in question DID have ADHD/ADD/ASD. They didn’t have a word for it, but my bet is it existed. (I know some feel the uptick is environmental and that’s possible- but I notice it in some of the characters in old children’s books- like Alice, she’s created a whole day dream world to live in because she saw a bunny). My neuro typical kid isn’t distracted to a degree I would ever feel the need to “train” them out of it. My ADHD kid on the other hand…. I think she is talking about neuro diverse kids, even if she didn’t know it. She would have just observed some kids need you to be right there and keep them on track. Yelling isn’t helpful. They have “sadly feeble will”- they can’t help it. Obviously I can’t prove this- but it was just my impression on reading it. 🙂

      1. Great point, Kate! I often see evidence of neuro-diversity in older books. It’s not new, but our labels for it are. While dawdling is just one expression of habit training that Charlotte Mason spoke of, the same method applies to all habits. Just that constant vigilance until it is well and firmly established. My husband thinks we should be able to tell our daughter to develop a new habit and POOF! It should be immediately established, but habits don’t work that way.

        I remember my mother calling me back from outside to turn the light off in my room. I would say, “but you were closer!” and she would reply, “but if I do it for you, you’ll never develop the habit of turning it off yourself.” It would take a few weeks of her calling me back to turn the light off, but eventually I would just automatically do it when I left the room. Then a few months later I would run out of the room, realize I hadn’t turned off the light, waver, and think “oh, just this once it’s fine” … and if she didn’t call me back, I would be right back to not turning off the light again.

        1. I am totally using your mother’s wise reply!!! “If I do it for you, you’ll never develop the habit” 🙂 I always find myself befuddled when my son (8 yo) questions why he has to do something I ask him to…it is an act of sheer willpower NOT to revert to my own parents’ typical “because I said so” response – which may have gleaned obedience, but never understanding or respect.

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