Building Family Culture: On the power of habits

June 26, 2014 in Education


Working on the habit of sharing!

Years ago, in a particularly frustrating phase of parenthood when it seemed like I would never get my head above water, a wise mentor mama encouraged me with words that I’ve hung on to and passed along over the years:

“It’s not what you do in any given moment, it’s what you’re characterized by.”

I can’t tell you what a load that took off of my heart. Most parents try so hard to do it all “right,” to create perfection for our kids, to be the poster parents we feel pressured to be, to have homes filled with joy and light and creativity at every moment and every turn. And we’re so hard on ourselves when we, inevitably, fail at the task!!

If you are at all familiar with the work of Charlotte Mason, you know the emphasis she put on the development of habits in the education of a child. It was her belief that we are driven by our habits and that the very best thing we could do for our children was to expend daily effort in helping them form the habits that would lead them to a happy and productive life. I happen to agree with her. It was her encouragement toward that end which kept me going when I was tempted to throw up my hands and adopt a “whatever works” philosophy of survival during those difficult younger years with my kids. I am so thankful now, that I didn’t.

If you are working at developing an intentional family culture then the formation of habits can be one of the biggest tools to use to your advantage.

For it’s not the herculean efforts we make for a special occasion, or the dismal moment when we lose our cool completely that tell the tale of our family culture, it’s the habits we form in ourselves and in our children. It is hard, sometimes, to form habits, because the effort seems great and the results meager. Is it really worth forming the habit of a family dinner hour when your two year old is reticent to sit in his chair? Is it really worth forming the habit of reading aloud when your four year old doesn’t appear to be listening? Is it really worth developing diligence when it’s just easier to go behind a child and do the job yourself? What about the moral habits of patience, gentleness, self control and the consideration of others? It seems we pour our heart and souls into the development of those habits and it might be years before we see the rewards. When weighing the value of your time spent in developing habits with young children the question to ask is, “And what if I don’t bother?” Sometimes the answer to that question will cause you to let things go, and let the child grow a while before trying again. Other times the answer will renew your determination to dig deep and lead by example. No one said building culture was easy, only that it’s worth it.

What are some of the habits that are worth building into a family culture?


Waiting with a happy spirit. It’s a good thing to work on developing as a habit, for the young and the old: between parents and children, between siblings, with people of differing abilities, or ages, when we must wait, when we are eager.


Doing my best job. Life is hard, work is hard, and some things come easier than others. Teaching children to work with diligence is a life long task; we’re still at it as parents! Equipping the young to tackle a task with diligence is a gift that will serve them well forever. It will begin simply, with carrying trash cans, and sweeping the floor by your side and it will grow into university level Algebra and beyond.


The ability to behave properly in social situations. This is not a particularly popular topic in current parenting circles. The idea that children should be allowed complete freedom is prevalent. I disagree, not because I find children bothersome, but because it’s not a realistic introduction to their place in the world. We are social animals. We live in communities. Other people matter, and the sooner that children learn their place in that circle and how to co-exist in a way that is pleasing and productive for everyone, the better.

I would argue that a young child with a high degree of self control is a child with more freedom than his friend who has no internal restraint built in by his parents. Why? Because a young child with self control can be taken to museums, concert halls, lovely restaurants, adult parties, on outings that are a little bit dangerous and a hundred other places that a child without self control simply cannot.


A happy disposition. Some people are born Eyeores, and some sanguine, it’s easy to see from the beginning. However, everyone can learn to choose a cheerful disposition. One of my favourite mothers has a habit of telling her little ones to “Choose cheerful!” when they are in a situation they don’t like or are tempted to make the worst of it instead of the best. The understanding that we can, to a large extent, choose our emotional disposition (or at very least the expression of it) is a great gift to a child.


A thankful spirit, or “Happy for what I have.” It goes beyond verbal manners and saying, “Thank you,” for birthday gifts. A family with a culture of gratefulness is profoundly happy for what they have, actively cultivating contentment and reducing the presence of greed or avarice. A grateful child will eventually learn to be happy for the fortune of his sibling, even if he got nothing, and will understand that even in the absence of every tangible thing, there is much to appreciate in life, internally, and socially.


Keeping at it. There are so many things that it would just be easier to give up on, aren’t there? From tying shoelaces, to mastering an instrument, to honing writing skills, to geometric proofs, to paying off debt, to pushing hard towards a big dream as a family. One of the most significant habits we can help our children develop is the habit of determination. The willingness to keep pounding away at a hard thing, stepping back, evaluating, taking another tack, analyzing the struggle and then trying a different angle, over and over again until there is a breakthrough and the thing is accomplished. Determination might be the difference between success and failure at any number of significant things. My Dad accomplished this by giving us tasks that he knew were slightly too big for us, that we perhaps weren’t quite capable of completing or solving on our own, and then letting us struggle until we cried. Does that sound harsh? It wasn’t. He’d then come alongside, talk us through it, introduce new information, give a history lesson if necessary and we’d try again together until we succeeded. Determination includes a certain willingness to suffer in the present for the reward in the future. It’s a good habit to acquire.


Taking a break. You wouldn’t think that rest is something we’d need to cultivate as a habit, but I believe it is. So many people are work-a-holics, and health suffers as a result. Hard work and diligent effort are important habits, but so is the habit of rest. Taking a break as a family. Doing something fun and different. Making memories together. Every day should include work, every day should include rest too. The ability to lay quietly and rest physically, the ability to play hard and rest mentally, the ability to separate one’s self from the mountain of tasks at hand and enjoy the moment. Rest should be a habit in every healthy family culture.


Those are seven habits that any family can begin on at a moment’s notice and that will form a hardy foundation to the culture you’re carefully building. There are many more, of course. Perhaps looking back on your own child you’ll identify some more that you really want to include for your children. Perhaps you’ll identify a few that you definitely don’t want to replicate. There is value in that too, knowing what we don’t want, is a good place to start thinking hard about what we’d rather build instead. Bad habits will build culture as surely as good ones… just of an entirely different sort.


What do you think about the formation of habits in childhood and families? What are you learning? What are you trying to build? Do you have any “tricks” to encourage other families? Share your experiences!