“The Hand will Teach the Heart”: the Importance of Habit Formation

Linda Dey makes a case for seeing the development of good habits as a central task of early schooling.
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Toward the beginning of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Peter, Susan and Lucy make a choice that propels them into the land of Narnia and the events there that will change their lives forever. At the moment it did not announce itself as a crucial decision, a very important choice. It comes just after they’ve all arrived in Narnia and discovered that the faun Lucy had met had been arrested and was accused of treachery against the White Witch. Susan suggests they might as well go home—it’s not very safe and certainly not going to be fun to stay here. Lucy insists that they can’t go home; it was because he was nice to her that the faun is in trouble. “We simply must rescue him,” she says. Hearing it put like this, both Peter and Susan agree immediately that trying to rescue Tumnus is the right thing to do in spite of whatever difficulties or danger it might involve.

This decision begins the whole adventure which ends with their meeting Aslan, defeating the White Witch, and taking their positions as Kings and Queens in Narnia. A decision made in a moment with very little deliberation had momentous consequences. The decision was made so quickly and easily; we might say it was almost an automatic response for Susan and Peter, a duty that had to be done once it was clear that by helping Lucy the faun had gotten in trouble. C. S. Lewis calls responses such as this “stock responses”, and he explains that they don’t happen spontaneously but are the result of deliberate training. A sense of duty to someone in trouble had been instilled in Peter, Susan, and Lucy by a parent or a teacher.

C.S. Lewis says that stock responses can and should be taught. “All that we describe as constancy in love or friendship, as loyalty in political life, or, in general, as perseverance—all solid virtue and stable pleasure— depends on organizing chosen attitudes and maintaining them against the flux…of mere immediate experience.” Lewis is talking about the importance of developing
good habits. These “chosen attitudes” are habits, and by maintaining them in the face of our immediate impulses we develop dispositions or inclinations to act or react in certain ways in given situations.

This kind of training can and should begin when children are very young. Their reasoning power does not need to be highly developed for them to be taught how to notice the people around them and respond with certain words and actions—to greet an adult, to offer help to someone who has too much to carry, to offer one’s seat to a senior citizen. Pre-cognitive habit formation of both social and academic behaviors should be a key part of what is happening in K – 2 classrooms.

The common expression “we are creatures of habit” is actually getting at something true and important about how we are made. We fall easily into repeated patterns of behavior. This is a good thing, and an obvious one, when it comes to common physical practices such as walking, driving, or eating. What if driving always involved that intense concentration it took when you first got behind the wheel of a car! Life would be impossibly exhausting if a lot of our oft-repeated actions were not done automatically. It’s important to see that non-physical actions, manners and moral behavior, are also a matter of learning responses that can become “second nature” like the decision Peter and the others made to rescue Mr. Tumnus.

Consider this term “second nature”; it helps us see that the things we do habitually have come to seem natural. But they are not natural in the sense of being something we were born with; they are, rather, learned behaviors which we do without thinking and have come to be part of who we are. This is a topic which James K. A. Smith treats at length in Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. We are, according to Smith, a “complex of inclinations or dispositions that make us lean with habituated momentum in certain directions.” We have, over time and in a variety of ways, some conscious and many others not conscious, developed certain dispositions that direct our actions. Smith points out the fallacy in modern thinking that sees us as primarily autonomous, rational individuals. He says,

We simply are not autonomous animals who float in the world unencumbered except by our own freedom. The autonomous ‘rational actor’ is without dispositions or inclinations—without habits—and that is precisely the problem: such
a theory of human persons will never truly understand human action because it fails to recognize the ‘inertia’ of habitus…We don’t decide our way into every action.

Smith calls habits “embodied know-how”, things our bodies do without thinking. It’s important to recognize the crucial role the body plays in our developing habits. When our bodies have performed an action in a certain way, we are inclined to repeat that action in the same way the next time. We acquire bodily knowledge. After you’ve learned to type and you’ve practiced this skill for a period of time, you don’t consciously engage your brain to find the letters; your fingers “know” where to go. In little things and in bigger things as well the body often leads the mind and the will rather than vice versa.

In working with young children instilling bodily knowing is a major part of what we are doing. We train children to act in a certain way before they have the cognitive ability to understand the goodness of the action and choose it for themselves. When we teach a child good manners, we are often training their bodies. For instance, we train them to look at the face of the person who is speaking to them. We are teaching them to physically acknowledge the presence of another, and in so doing we are shaping not just their actions but their hearts. Good manners shape respectful attitudes. Jewish culture has an expression for this: “the hand will teach the heart.” The body leads and the heart follows. This is what Solomon is talking about in Proverbs 22:6 when he says, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”

Habit formation always involves repetition; there is no formation without repetition. We live in an age which puts a huge premium on novelty and originality. The new often is preferred over the old just because it’s new. Repetition is seen as a negative thing about which we use such words as “monotonous”, “boring”, “deadening”. This attitude is a denial of the way things are; we’re surrounded by repetition. It is a key feature of the natural world as God made it—day and night; sunrise and sunset; spring, summer, fall, winter, and spring again. There’s repetition in our bodies: breathing, walking, our hearts beating. Poetry and music speak to our souls because of their rhythmic nature and the repetition of words and lines. G. K.

Chesterton describes repetition as a positive thing: It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire.

A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue…the sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush
of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke
that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.

Chesterton understood something significant about repetition and about the nature of children, something that means we are working with their nature and not against it when we strive to instill good habits in them. It is easy for us teachers to grow weary of the need to remind students constantly to do things in a certain way, but it helps to remember that we are instilling habits that will, with enough repetition, become “embodied know-how”; we are forming bodies in order that these little embodied spirits in our care will become the persons—body, mind, heart, and will—that God made them to be.

Another factor to consider in examining habit formation is the important role that community plays in instilling patterns of behavior. We acquire certain ways of relating to the world and to one another from the community we inhabit. We will inevitably acquire habits; it’s not a question of habits versus spontaneity. We are habit-forming creatures; the choice isn’t between developing habits or being “free spirits.” The real issue is whether one develops good habits or bad habits, and this has a lot to do with the community under whose influence one comes. We in Christian schools have a lot of competition; the surrounding culture has lots of tools and does a very good job of instilling patterns of behavior in our children. (Jamie Smith’s two books on cultural liturgies do a great job of spelling this out, and I commend them to you.) We must come to see ourselves in Christian schools and in the Church as communities charged with shaping the practices and thereby shaping the hearts of our children. We need to help our children see themselves as members of a community with a long history rich in traditions, rituals, and stories. This is how God instructed the children of Israel to teach their children; the annual repetition of festivals, rituals and stories instilled in their children a sense of who they were and to whom they belonged. What kept Daniel and his friends from being assimilated into the Babylonian culture? They knew that they belonged to a different people and were part of a different story. It was a stock response for them to refuse the Babylonian food as well as to refuse to bow down before a Babylonian idol. The understanding that we are creatures of habit, that much of what we or our students do is not the result of a conscious, considered choice, should impel us as teachers to think carefully and work deliberately to instill patterns of behavior that will enable our children to live as the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve they were created to be.