Habit of Being–Reflections on a talk by Cindy Rollins

In my early days of both mothering and home education, I tended to make idols out of the wise older women who had gone before me. This many years later, I know that we all are as fragile as tissue paper some days, make that a LOT of days for many of us. I am now drawn to homeschooling mothers who are for real, who don’t necessarily display their battle wounds for all to see, but exude both the realism called “living in the trenches,” and the hope of the One they call Beloved.

That all said…I got all flustered fan girl when I saw Cindy Rollins sitting at the Friday evening retreat last week. (cue blushing) I think I even compared her to U2’s  Bono…Oh my goodness. See? We can still be silly giddy girls in our late 40’s! But Cindy is definitely someone who has been in the trenches of decades of motherhood and homeschooling her eight boys and one girl. Her humility and graciousness, in person, was just what I expected after following her online for a while now.

Cindy in the middle with my new friend, Pam!

These days, we hear the truth spoken less and less in the public square. It is refreshing to hear it loud and clear by people like Cindy Rollins and the organization she is affiliated with–Circe Institute. Cindy reminds me of the “why’s” of home education. I am grateful for the opportunity to have met her and hear her speak in person. I promise I’m not putting her on a pedestal, just passing on what the Holy Spirit lead her to say at our retreat!


Cindy’s talk was titled, “The Habit of Being.” She started off with this quote from the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, “Habit is ten times nature.” We aren’t in the business of changing a child’s natural inclination of being an introvert, or chatty, or spontaneous. That’s not what this refers to. I suspect that would be against CM’s first principle stating children are born persons, unique and individual ones at that. But, we must develop habits that encourage discipline in our children. This allows children to develop as God intended with their own personal gifts. Gifts are cultivated when habits are cultivated!  Habits formed well make for a surer path.

Modeling Good Habits

Cindy says that the best way to teach good habits is through modeling them! This is actually more important than WHAT we teach.  If you know my family, habits are…difficult. I just wanted to insert a “let’s be real here!” moment. We are not well-disciplined in some areas partly because of our medical issues and creative mindsets. We are very good at “rolling” with it. But I can see this year, we need to work on some habits of attention and discipline. This starts with me! I’m continuing to form my habit of morning prayer. This seems like a no-brainer, but after spending many years jumping out of bed and running to suction a little one’s airway with their trach…my prayer time was really “Ok Lord, let’s go!” and immediately tend to the urgent needs of a medically fragile child. While I am really no less busy, the tone has changed in some ways, since neither child has a trach or feeding tube. Now, I need to discipline myself to get up and immediately spend quiet time in prayer before the house gets a movin’. 😉 This is one way I can model to my children the discipline and habit of prayer.

The Habit of Narration

Another point Cindy made was that narration is a perfect tool for synthesizing new material. For narration to be the efficient mode of learning that it truly is, the habit of attention needs to be formed in children.  The goal for older children is to narrate every day. This is something that is developed over time, not mastered in a few days! She said there can’t be a habit of “hit or miss” with narration for it to be effective. For most of us, this means short passages read with good attention. It would follow that the narrations should be short as well, not overwhelming the child, but forming the habit of reading a passage once and then being able to narrate from that one reading. Read more about narration here.

Small Habits

Cindy stressed that small amounts of quality school time tended to faithfully over the long haul is way more effective than running to and fro chaotically, trying to make up for “lost time” by frantically pushing facts into their heads. Small habits add up to a lifetime of learning. In the end, that is what we want…children who are life long learners.  I think we can get there by tending the Garden of Small Habits!

Anchor to the past

I loved her idea that we need to “anchor” our children to the past, a past that the current culture eschews so much. By anchoring in the past, we can show our kids that ideas truly have consequences and consequences ALSO have ideas. Culture shows us this time and time again. Right now, we are living in a “post consequence” time of bad ideas. I had to chew on that one for a while. Wow. While we don’t run from some modern educational resources (math curriculum, etc) there is a richness  and depth with older works that is hard to find these days.  I see this in many things: Liturgy, hymns, Catechism….


Another point of Cindy’s to consider is that classical education should be humbling to us and our children. It’s ok not to know everything! In  Karen Glass’ book, “Consider This,” she makes the same point that the underpinning of classical education is humility! Without humility, we become unteachable!

Moral Fatigue

When we develop good habits, we limit our decisions that need to be made, thus decreasing “moral fatigue.” When we are constantly having to make decisions, we “drain” our moral bank. Again, wow! This makes so much sense and furthers my resolve to develop the daily habits that can not only make life run smoother, but allow learning to happen unencumbered by chaos. I write all of this knowing that, again, having special needs kids has its own set of rules that make following certain habits hard. But…I’m going to pray to be led to start with the ones that God wants first. Prayer…right there…first.


One of Cindy’s long habits while raising nine children was to read poetry during her morning time. She said, “Don’t explain poetry, just read it, and re-read it! Let them puzzle it out.” I love poetry, so it’s not hard or intimidating for me to read poetry to my kids. BUT…I do have to restrain myself from tramping all over the reading time with imposing my own reflections. I usually will read a poem once. Then, I’ll ask the kids to listen again, and to be listening for a line that particularly resonates with them, they don’t have to know the why or how, just that they like how it sounds. This takes away the “Oh, I need to explain why I like it” fear. Now, they still DO explain a lot of times why they like, or even love a certain line. But, that choice is their’s to be made. One of Lily’s favorite lines from poetry last year was by Emily Dickinson:

“Hope is a things with feathers…” 

To hear her little breathless reading of Dickinson’s words was one of the highlights of my year. Lily couldn’t verbalize why she loved it, but that’s more than ok. I’m convinced that good poetry resonates with us because it speaks the quiet language of our souls that has become increasingly difficult to hear since The Fall. But, lines like the one above whisper of it, that intimate and beautiful relationship with Our Creator, yes?

Again, the reality is, poetry isn’t necessarily “loved” by all of my kids. But I believe so strongly in it because poetry “sticks” its landing. The images are powerful tonics that we draw on for the rest of our lives. Cindy said this herself, relaying a story of how one of her boys, in the military, was on a ship that was undergoing quite a difficult time. Things were extremely tense but as he stood a long watch, he recited the poetry, Shakespeare and Bible passages he had heard all throughout the ongoing “Morning Time.”  This young man, and those around him, drew strength from the timeless truths in such things. It calmed everyone and they persevered. As Cindy reflected throughout her talk, it just takes a small amount of work, like reading poetry, done diligently, that forms the habit of attention and bears much fruit.

Closing Thoughts

“Routine is the condition of survival” says Flannery O’Connor. Yes, Flannery O’Connor, who lived with the debilitating effects of lupus, and died at the young age of 39. Her life was cruelly impacted by her illness, but in spite of that, she cultivated the habit of daily prayer and morning writing, every single day. What an inspiration to us all!

Cindy closed with this–duty and service are habit-forming and, ultimately, build the Kingdom of God.

Thank you so much, Cindy, for stepping in at the last moment and speaking at this retreat. It was a gift to us all! And thank you, again, to Ambleside Online for the beautiful retreat!

We Are Educating Minds! A Retreat Visited….Part One

My goodness, I was so amazingly blessed to be able to go to the Ambleside Online At Home Retreat this past weekend.  It was a nice “God-incidence” that this retreat was indeed, “At Home” for me– as in, back home in Indiana! I had just joined Ambleside Online Forum  last month, and found out about the retreat, and immediately signed up to go. While I have always used AO as a “resource” I plan on using AO as the foundation for this year with all three kids at home.

The lovely panel discussion was very for real and helpful.

I’d like to review the talks that were given in a series of blog posts. It truly was a rich feast of ideas. This was so much more than a “Oh, yeah, you can homeschool, Girls, Go YOU!” kind of retreat. Friends, the word, “epistemology” was used in the FIRST talk!! We got our philosophy hats on, and were challenged by the bigger ideas behind a Charlotte Mason style education.

The first talk on Friday evening was given by Karen Glass. Can I say she had me at “Anna Karenina?” Karen referred to a scene in AK where philosophical questions regarding the distinction between the brain and mind were made in an intense conversational scene. I’m going to admit right here that in 17 years of homeschooling I have never contemplated this. But why is this important to a humble homeschooling mom of five to think about as she does laundry, cooks and writes up lessons? Because it is really at the essence of who we are and what we are doing here.


So, what does that mean for us? It means as we are working out how we are to order our days, we keep in the front of OUR minds that our children’s minds need the food of rich ideas. Living organisms do not live on exercises and workbooks. When kids are hungry, we don’t say, “Go exercise!” We feed them good food. We should be basing our educational processes on what we believe about our child. And what do we believe? Our child’s mind needs to be fed. We lay out a feast of ideas and we allow them to take in and digest what they consume. We don’t digest it for them.

Here’s an example. Memory drills are exercises, right? But this is not truly educating our child, to simply have them memorize facts to be regurgitated back out on a test sheet. Memorizing certainly has its place, but not over the feast of ideas. Memorizing is fine for developing our brain’s capacity, and again, these things have their place just like other exercises, but they aren’t FOOD. The brain is an organ. It does need food and exercise. But the mind is a spiritual organism, it needs, more than anything, the spiritual food of ideas.

Karen gave an example of how if a child’s shoe size is a little small, we don’t step in and  micromanage the child’s foot growth. There isn’t a plan of “exercise” that will increase the foot’s size, in which we do exercises and then religiously measure the growth of the foot after each exercise. We just do the next right thing. We feed the child good food, buy good shoes and trust that their feet will grow in time. It made me think of “foot” binding that the Asian communities did long ago. They wanted the shape and size of women’s feet to be something they weren’t meant to be. They bound those feet into awful contortions and these poor women were in pain and had deformed feet! Do we do this with our children’s education sometimes? Nervously trying to shape their brains solely into college material? Is that what this is all about? No….we are feeding minds for the Kingdom!

We look at what the child is, a spiritual being with a spiritual mind that needs to be fed good ideas. BUT…it is NOT for us to digest this food and plop it into their little gaping baby bird mouths. We don’t nervously hover over their heads, seeing to it that each “idea” has taken root. Instead, we TRUST the process.

The process includes this–we set the table with living books, with poetry, with beautiful music, with the right order of math, science and studying nature. And we accompany our children throughout the feast. We develop, with our children, the habit of consistently sitting AT the table, trying new foods….but never pushing and using our “authority” to insist on more and more.

So what does this look like in real life? Let’s get one thing straight right now…Charlotte Mason’s ideals have not perfectly played themselves out in my house for the last 17 years of home education. Real life has happened in the last 17 years. But I can say as a “veteran” home educator who has graduated a few guys from our humble abode, Charlotte Mason’s ideals have always shaped my ideals.

This year, I am, as Karen Glass said in the talk, “trusting” the process. Part of that trust is in the fact that the proven, most effective form of education takes place in the literary and storytelling form. Think…Jesus…and the parables. He didn’t tell His story and then go, “Now…you got that, right?” and micromanage the response. He spoke Truth…He answered questions….but He also let people percolate on His Word, and to hear those words with their own ears, with their own living minds.

For us at home, this means reading the good books to our kids, but not chasing after reactions, nervously saying, “Did you GET that??” Instead, we develop in our children the habit of attention. We start slowly with this formation. In younger kids, this means reading aloud and discussing the book. In older kids, it’s reading aloud, or having them read a selection from a book of historical fiction, and having them orally narrate (or “retell”) the passage. Narration, worked on slowly but consistently, becomes the evidence of knowledge digested, absorbed and made one’s own. The child does eventually work up to written narration. I’ll talk about that more with a post about Lani’s narration talk. 🙂

I want to speak from my own heart about something I wrestle with when I hear some of these kinds of wonderful talks. I have a few children who have learning differences. They just don’t learn the way a lot of kids learn. Learning can be downright HARD. But when I really examine the last several years…what was really hard was when I started insisting on things they weren’t quite ready for….pushing “exercises” over ideas and relationships.

-It looks like this-

I’m really nervous about one of my kids not reading when they are of that “age” when they should, by golly, be reading! My anxiety causes me to, through gritted teeth, insist my agitated child do those phonics workbooks, “JUST ONE more PAGE!” looking at my child as a project to finish. Sigh. Yes…they do need to learn to read. Yes yes yes. BUT, they also need to see beauty. They need to sit on the couch with me and read “The Secret Garden” much more than they need “just ONE more lesson of phonics since we are SO behind.” Yes…the short phonics lesson…do it. But never at the expense of the good stories, the picture studies, the beautiful poetry, the nature walk. They need our RELATIONSHIP first before they need the phonics lesson.

My youngest struggles with reading. Her little life has been filled with lots and lots of medical drama. I respect who she is as a PERSON first,  a lovely child of God who also happens to have medical issue and learning delays,  (remember, that is Charlotte Mason’s first maxim, children are born PERSONS!) While it might take longer to learn to read, it is equally important that she is fed ideas that grow her mind, not just her phonetic awareness. Do you see the difference? Education does include things like learning to read, obviously that is critical to brain development. But on equal ground with that (and I dare say, even more important) is the feeding of her mind. I will continue to read saint stories, and do picture and nature study. I will continue to gently guide her with math and reading…I will calmly trust in the process. God knows all of her needs more intimately than I do. He will guide us as we prepare the feast.


I am truly not doing Karen Glass’ talk the justice that it deserves, so I am going to encourage you to buy her book, Consider This. I purchased my copy at the retreat, and am already furiously taking notes and pondering her wisdom. This Charlotte Mason jewel is at Karen’s website.

I want to close out with what Karen said at the end of her talk Friday. Believe in our minds. Believe in our children’s minds and what they are created to do.

Trust the process of leading our children to the feast and the Holy Spirit working with those ideas specific to our children’s needs in which He will work and animate. Take courage in our convictions! Root those convictions in God’s great mercy and love for us and our children. We are feeding those minds that God Himself breathed His life into, He will lead us where we are suppose to go!


May God richly bless all of those ladies and their families from Ambleside who sacrificed so much of their time and efforts to put on a truly edifying retreat.

I will be back soon with Cindy Rollins’ talk: “Habit of Being.” 🙂