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The Way of the Will 3: Diversion

If you’ve had a toddler, you know this tactic.  When your child reaches for a fragile or unwholesome object, you divert his attention with some other attractive activity.  Aunt Grace’s shiny knickknack is not good to touch, but the silky ears of her puppy are!  But for children who are learning boundaries, it is not good to rely exclusively on diversion; they do need to be taught that some things are simply forbidden.  So as they get older we drop this ploy and expect them to develop self-control.  But happily, some few children discover how to divert themselves.

As explained in the last post, the Stanford marshmallow experiment showed that children who successfully resisted the temptation to eat a treat went on to have greater success in many areas of their teen and adult lives.  What made these children special?  How were they able, at such a young age, to control themselves while temptation was staring them in the face?  They used what Professor Walter Mischel calls “strategic allocation of attention.”  In other words —they distracted themselves.

STRATEGIC ALLOCATION OF RESOURCES: UR DOIN IT WRONG“Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow…the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from Sesame Street.  ’If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,’ Mischel says. ‘The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.’”

Many of the children who failed had engaged temptation head on.  They would attempt to stare down the marshmallow, trying to control themselves by force of will.  This approach is doomed.  What we would think of as summoning up determination —“I will not eat the marshmallow, I will not eat the marshmallow, I will not eat the marshmallow,” is not effective at all.  What does work is distraction, or as Charlotte Mason termed it, diversion.

Collapse )*cross-posted to frommotherwit.wordpress.com

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The Way of the Will part 2: Will Like a Muscle

Last year, Roy Baumeister’s Willpower made a big splash in productivity circles by reviving the idea of will.  Building on research done by his team over the last 15 years, he coined the term ‘ego depletion’ to describe the way in which, like a muscle, a person’s willpower becomes fatigued with use.  In other words, after successfully using the will for a difficult task, subsequent attempts to resist temptation are more likely to result in failure.

I have not yet read this book, so I do not pretend to a full analysis.  My thoughts here are based on book reviews, interviews, excerpts, the usual meme-trail things leave on the internet.  I got excited about it because modern science was corroborating my biggest find of the 19th century.  Some years ago while researching homeschooling I had found a mentor in Charlotte Mason, a turn-of-the-century British teacher who led a small revolution in children’s education.  She rejected the current Darwinian idea that lower-class children were not suited for a full education, and laid out a rigorous yet humane course of instruction based on use of the best literature, careful formation of mental habits, and respect for the student as a self-governing individual.  Her six-volume series on education is a rich source of wisdom on not only child-training, but human nature and character development in general.  When I read the sections about training your child’s will, it was game-changing for me.  I realized that the first child in my life who needed this training was ME.  This was a whole new way of looking at self-control, habits, and character which answered many of the questions I had about my own inner struggles.  My chief feeling was a cry of, “WHY HAS NOBODY EVER TOLD ME THIS BEFORE?  WHY ISN’T EVERYBODY TOLD THIS?”

In a back-handed compliment Baumeister credits the Victorians for having “this vague idea of it (willpower) being some form of mental energy.”  Mason’s understanding of the will was anything but vague.  Excited by recent research in her era into the physiology of the brain, and informed by her experiences and spiritual beliefs, she detailed her unique understanding of will, habit, and personality that modern psychology is just now beginning to catch up to.

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“Another thing to be observed is that even the constant will has its times of rise and fall, and one of the secrets of living is how to tide over the times of fall in will power.” —Charlotte Mason

Next time we will learn how to create a diversion.

*cross-posted to frommotherwit.wordpress.com

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The Way of the Will: part 1

‘Will’ is a word that gets tossed around a lot: willpower, the strong-willed child, break your child’s will–but don’t break his spirit, where there’s a will there’s a way, men of good will. But does anyone ever say what will actually is? Take a moment–do you have any idea what will actually is?

  • A toddler pushes everyone’s buttons to get his own way, and we say he’s strong-willed.

  • But if a woman stops smoking, loses weight, and starts running marathons we say she has a lot of willpower.

How can an unruly 2 year old have a lot of will, but so does the disciplined athlete?

‘Will’, like ‘love’, is used for many things, some of them mutually exclusive. The Free Online Dictionary has 42 definitions for it. The definition I want, the one that makes or breaks your life, is the first:

The mental faculty by which one deliberately chooses or decides upon a course of action

The Will is our chooser. It looks at all the conflicting impulses inside of us, and decides which one of them we’re going to follow:

  • What we’re going to think.

  • What we’re going to believe.

  • How we’re going to act.

Theology tells us that we have free will. In other words, we are free to choose as we like, not constrained by fate or circumstances. Free to choose according to our desires, or according to our principles. Free to choose good or evil.

I think most people picture a sort of inner set of scales. Our desires, morals, influences, habits pile up here and there, and when the pans tip decisively one way or another—we act. Under this view we have no free will, only complex reactions to particular inputs. The danger of this determinism is that, largely, it is true for you to the extent that you believe in it. If you think you have no real control over your own actions, then guess what, you won’t. If you believe you’re a victim of circumstances, you will be. If you ‘can’t help’ your feelings, you’ll be a slave to your emotions. The extreme end lies in fatalism and apathy, but one need not go so far as that to suffer from an atrophied will.

“Unlike every other power…the will is able to do what it likes, is a free agent, and the one thing the will has to do is to prefer. “Choose ye this day,” is the command that comes to each of us in every affair and on every day of our lives, and the business of the will is to choose. But, choice, the effort of decision, is a heavy labor, whether it be between two lovers or two gowns. So, many people minimize this labor by following the fashion in their clothes, rooms, reading, amusements, the pictures they admire and the friends they select. We are zealous in choosing for others but shirk the responsibility of decisions for ourselves.”  — Charlotte Mason

Stories dramatize the choice between good and evil (don’t give in to the dark side, Luke!), but in everyday life the number of people who deliberately, knowingly choose evil is small. Some do; they shake their fists at the cosmos in pain, and turn their backs on God and man in an orgy of angry selfishness. Much more common is to drift into an insipid, proxy evil by declining to choose at all. It’s perfectly possible to live an entire life, even a respectable one, without ever once exercising the will. Just go along to get along. Learn to behave, to do well in school, to be nice to people because it’s easier. Praise is pleasant. Being in trouble is a pain. It becomes very easy, once in the habit of not making waves, to do what everybody else is doing, think what everybody else approves of, and be a perfectly inoffensive person absolutely without any will of your own. The balance tips toward the path of least resistance and you follow it as naturally as water runs downhill.

thumb on scalesIn defiance of this, the Will puts its thumb on the scale. It weighs all considerations in the balance: desire, consequences, commands, beliefs, practicality, principles, and a hundred others. But the balance is never so heavily tilted that a sufficiently strong will cannot say, “No. These considerations may be weighty, but I choose otherwise. This I will do, that I will not.”

A sufficiently strong will—there’s the catch. Well, some are born strong-willed, and some of us aren’t. You see it even in babies. Not much we can do about it, is there?

Actually, there is. Not only can you do something about it, you must, because every day you don’t control yourself, make decisions, choose your actions—someone or something else is gaining control. You have to develop strength of will. Work on it, put effort into it. It’s not easy to fight yourself, your own lazy inclinations. It’s worth it because gains made in self-control make everything else easier.

I know I promised you last post to tell you how-to, but first we needed our what and ourwhy. Next week I’ll talk about how to strengthen the Will—about muscles and marshmallows and Mason.

“… just as to reign is the distinctive function of a king, so to will is the function of a man. A king is not a king unless he reigns and a man is less than a man unless he wills.”  — Charlotte Mason

*cross-posted to frommotherwit.wordpress.com

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Why all the ‘How-To’s are really ‘What-To’s, and what I’m going to do about it.

Consider the average citizen.  Socialized by ubiquitous television, standardized schooling, and carefully edited sound bites he comes to embrace a shockingly unremarkable set of behaviors.  Insulated by the echo chamber of contemporary media and congenial conversation, he rarely engages unsympathetic ideas or impulses, except to mock them, or perhaps sadly shake his head.  All his decisions are foregone conclusions.  Easy middle-class morality, commercials, force of habit supply the input–and behavior results.

Now, few people are as average as all that.  Our passions and our causes differentiate and invigorate us more or less.  For a few important things we will stir ourselves, really think and really act.

This is the challenge: Think and act.  Just a little more than you did yesterday.  Every day.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.

“Hey!” you object.  “Who is this ‘Mother Wit’, to insult the average citizen?”

I am a fellow traveler on the way.  Many of the things I will blog about here I am currently thrashing out in my own life.  It can be a long road to:

  • see a truth

  • understand it

  • know how to implement it for yourself

  • be able to communicate it to others

It doesn’t always happen in that order.  It has taken me roughly 35 years at playing around with writing to believe I had learned something worth sharing that hasn’t already been said better elsewhere.  What have I learned?

Everybody tells you what to do.  Your parents, your teachers, your pastor,  your doctor.  OTHER people’s parents, teachers, pastors, doctors.  Your boss, your husband, wife, kids.  The guy in the coffee shop.  Blogs.  Books.  But how many people tell you how to do it?  Oh, sure, there’s a million how-to guides.  But they never really tell you how-to, they only tell you what-to, in order to achieve some end.  But how do you actually follow the how-tos?  How many times have you tried and failed?

I’ll be talking about how to do the things you already know to do.  Build yourself into the you you want to be, were meant to be.

  • How to think and how to think for yourself

  • Habits and what to do about them

  • Where to look for wisdom

  • The difference between work and play

There may be more urgent issues or more important truths but, as C.S. Lewis said,  I will go where I see the line is thinnest.

Some of these are ideas long forgotten and due for a revival, some will be from the newest corners of the internet.  Some are from my own observations.  They will all be filtered through my own mother wit.

“…every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his storeroom new treasures and old.”

Matthew 13:52

*cross-posted to frommotherwit.wordpress.com
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On a mission from God.

Heads up: I've started a WordPress blog, and will be cross-posting here.  It is the working-out of ideas percolating in my head for some time.  You, my patient long-time LJ friends, get a sneak peak at upcoming topics:

  • Why all the ‘How-To’s are really ‘What-To’s, and what I’m going to do about it.

  • The Way of the Will

  • Will Like a Muscle

  • Diversion

  • Habit a Path in your Brain

  • Training a Child's Will

  • The Instructed Conscience

  • The Democracy of the Dead

I'd really like to get a conversation going over there, but you are of course free to comment here if you prefer.

Watch this space for further developments!
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(no subject)

The first five people to respond to this post will get something handmade by me! My choice. For you.

This offer does have some restrictions and limitations:

* I make no guarantees that you will like what I make!

* What I create will be just for you.

* It'll be done within a year. No guarantees when, it will be a total surprise!

* You have no clue what it's going to be. It may be poetry. I may draw or paint something. I may bake you something and mail it to you. Who knows? Not you, that's for sure!

* I reserve the right to do something extremely strange.

The catch? Oh, the catch is that you have to repost this and play, too. We can all make stuff and make someone's day a little bit brighter!

(from carbonelle
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Poem, villanelle - Sherlock, John; gen, G


An Apology of Sorts


I'm sorry that I ever cause you pain

with mad hours, mad messes, madness without end.

It is the only thing that keeps me sane.


You are the last of people I'd disdain

with slights and insults that I don't intend.

I'm sorry that I ever cause you pain.


Singledminded focus only reins

in impending chaos; comprehend--

It is the only thing that keeps me sane.


I wish, occasionally, I would refrain

from wounding you--you are my only friend.

I'm sorry that I ever cause you pain.


The watchful eye of all this hurricane:

a steady hand, a steady mind, ready to defend,

You are the only thing that keeps me sane


For reasons of your own you yet remain,

and though I don't repent, I still contend

I'm sorry that I ever caused you pain,

It is the only thing that keeps me sane.


Potterdammerung, Harry Potter

on Cutting Childrens' Reading into Tiny Pieces for Them

“But in school ONE of our requirements in the teaching of reading is to teach the skills of reading. One of the goals of the reading assigned inside and outside of school is to get the students to stop and think about what they are reading (ask questions, make inferences, make connections, understand the author’s purpose and possible bias). As older readers, we do all of this naturally. Most younger readers have not made these skills automatic. They are just enjoying the story ...they simply cannot enjoy reading until they have been given the tools & strategies in which to do so.”

Does anybody really do this in the way described? I admit to making inferences and connections, and to coming to understand the author’s mind, but (absent heavy science or philosophy) not to “stopping and thinking” in order to do so. Does a mature reader really stop dead in the middle of a story to ask himself, “What do I think Sasha will do next? What would I do in her situation? How do I know this?” No, but educationists assume that requiring kids to artificially produce the kinds of synthesis that a mature reader produces organically will somehow jump-start the process. But ‘younger readers’ have become fluent ‘older readers’ for centuries without this kind of mental dissection. What kids who don’t comprehend are missing is not “tools & strategies”, but experience and context.

It’s as if we observed that children were unhealthy from sitting and eating junk food, and then instead of providing wholesome, delicious fresh food to nourish them and train their palates, and then sending them outside to run around, we gave them little doses of questionable processed foods and vitamins designed by experts, kept them inside, and then lectured them on incomprehensible “food pyramids” that change every few years. Oh, wait….

I read an article recently by a professor at an ivy-league who described decreasing ability in his students to understand a particular movie he showed every year. I wish I remember which film classic it was, but the point was that this movie hinged on understanding that the things characters said were not necessarily the things they were thinking, and ‘making connections’ between successive vignettes in order to grasp the overall point. Just the kind of ‘critical thinking’ that teachers hope to inculcate through their ‘reading strategies’. But what this professor found was that young adults were getting steadily worse at sussing out the characters’ true motivations, and failing to get the point of the movie at all. Were these well-educated students lacking in ‘tools & strategies’? No. Divorced from the past of their own culture more than any generation before them, and fed from infancy on a diet of obvious and spoon-fed storytelling, they lack common reference points for any thought produced before they were five years old, and have no experience in grappling with beautiful and sophisticated literature.

Sigh. I had rather have my daughter spend half an hour reading about Peter Rabbit’s “soporific lettuces” than filling out a vocabulary worksheet any night of the week.