The Importance of Habit and Example

Another way in which things are very pleasant on Locke's method is that there are almost no rules to follow. Locke points out that children rarely understand rules, and that they cannot remember too many at a time. If they are given many rules, therefore, one of two bad consequences will follow: either they will be punished constantly for transgressing the rules, in which case they will despair of ever being good, and give up the attempt; or else, their parents will ignore most of the transgressions, in which case the child will develop contempt for parental authority. To avoid these unfortunate situations Locke suggests starting with just one rule, and only slowly adding more, one by one, as the child becomes fully accustomed to each rule.

Instead of teaching by rules, Locke suggests teaching by habit and example. If you want a child to do something, he tells us, have them do it again and again until it is a habit. This method has two advantages: First, it allows you to make sure that they are actually capable of performing whatever it is that you want them to perform (say, bowing gracefully). Second, by making the act into a habit you bypass two of the weaknesses of childhood, bad memory and a lack of reflection. Once something is a habit it does not require memory or reflection; it just gets done automatically.

Locke also emphasizes the importance of example in education. Most of what a child learns about manners and breeding he learns by watching those around him. There is no reason to enforce a whole slew of rules about etiquette and graceful behavior; simply by having a good nature and observing well-bred people, the child will naturally come to exhibit impeccable manners. For this reason it is of crucial importance that everyone around the child acts in the best possible manner. Because the servants cannot be expected to be well-bred, Locke suggests keeping the child away from the servants as much as possible. Instead he should be constantly in the company of his parents and of his tutor (who, himself, must be extremely well-bred).

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