Charlotte Mason and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Have you or has someone close to you ever struggled with depression? Not just a short-lived slump, but a pervasive and unyielding sadness? I’ve had seasons of grief or disappointment, but I have never felt unable to (eventually) pull myself out of those feelings. I do, however, have some very close family members who have struggled most of – if not the entirety of – their lives with depression.

Treatment for depression is varied and not always successful. What works for one person will have no effect or perhaps even a negative effect on another person. I’ve seen my loved ones positively deal with depression through counseling, psychoanalysis, testing for specific mental disorders, anti-depressant medicine, and healthy eating and exercise. I’ve also seen them negatively deal with depression by self-medication and removing themselves from society altogether, including social as well as employment situations.

One specific non-invasive and affordable treatment that has worked for many people I know is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and, after reading Charlotte Mason’s seventh principle, I think I know why this particular treatment it is so effective.

Charlotte Mason

Mason’s seventh principle is the one that says we can train children to have the habit of discipline, which basically means good habits and self-control can be taught and not just caught. At the core of Mason’s philosophy is the idea that anyone can (and should) be educated. (Gosh, can I just say I LOVE her for that?) Mason believed a child from any social class or family tree was not only capable of learning, but that that child deserved to be educated.

We Are Creatures of Habit

Early in her teaching career, Mason noticed that children (and people in general) are creatures of habit. Most of what we humans do each day is predetermined by the habits we have formed, which is a good thing since without habits our days would be full of meaningless decisions. Should I eat today? Should I sleep in my bed at night? A habit is a neutral idea. It’s just repetition.

Human Nature, Individual Tendencies, and Physical Conditions

Mason also noticed that children have individual natures that go beyond human nature. She wrote that all humans share similar desires (i.e. curiosity, need for society, want for esteem) and affections (i.e. our range of emotions), and a consciousness of God or a higher being – all of which add up to what we call “human nature.”

But, in addition to human nature, each person also has inherited tendencies (like, musical talent or bad handwriting) that can seem unchangeable. And, in addition to human nature and individual tendencies, Mason also acknowledged that a child may also have a physical condition that affects his individual nature. A good example of a physical condition affecting an individual nature is dyslexia. Although I’m far from an expert on this disorder, from what I understand many children who learn in spite of dyslexia also learn to become creative problem solvers. In fact, many professions that require creative problem solving have a high percentage of dyslexic people working in them (e.g. architecture, engineering). Mason’s solution for overcoming undesirable or unruly individual tendencies was habit training.

Habit Training

Mason wrote extensively on the habit of discipline. She compared a habit to a rut in a road. The more the habit was performed, the deeper the rut was carved. Also, way ahead of her time, Mason discussed how a habit is linked to a neurological pathway – habits actually alter our brains. Her solution to altering negative individual tendencies was to help a child learn a new habit. Literally, we can change the neurological pathways by performing a new habit until it sticks. In fact, she famously wrote: “A good habit can overcome 10 bad natures.” So, although a natural tendency can be very difficult to overcome, a positive habit can overpower it.

The metaphor Mason uses for purposefully forming a new habit is that of railroad tracks. By purposefully forming a new habit (laying down rails), a child will no longer revert to an old habit (jump the rails and fall into the rut). Her most well-known example of habit training is the “shut the door” habit. If a child has a bad habit of walking into a room and not shutting the door behind him (this is from the drafty days before central heat and air), he is in a rut of not shutting the door. By purposefully forming a new habit of shutting the door each time he passes through it (and being prompted to go back and shut it each time he forgets), he will eventually form a new habit of shutting the door without consciously thinking of it. Instructing him every time he forgets to go back and shut the door is laying down new rails (aka forming new neurological pathways) so that he no longer (a) forgets to shut the door or (b) has to even consciously think of shutting the door.

It’s important to note that Mason instructed parents to help their child form one new habit at a time and to stick with that particular training until the new habit has replaced the old one. Trying to form several new habits simultaneously would fall into the category of nagging.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy

I think that most people who have been around depression would agree that this type of mental disorder is the result of inherited tendencies and / or physical conditions. Depression seems to be more likely in families (if not directly inherited), and some people link their depression to their physical body (e.g. a body that doesn’t make enough serotonin).

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that emphasizes how our thoughts affect the way we feel and what we do. Rather than letting external factors control our emotions, CBT stresses that our thoughts have power over our emotions and, therefore, our behaviors as well. Because CBT is based on the assumption that most emotional and behavioral reactions to situations are learned, this type of therapy is designed to help a person unlearn unwanted reactions and replace them with desired reactions. Cognitive Behavioral therapists help their clients habit train their emotions!

Let me give you an example. My husband’s day job is fairly stressful. He manages an entire department, juggling people, budgets, and deadlines, and 40 hours is not even close to enough time each week to accomplish what the job requires of him. But, overtime is not an option, and we kinda like seeing his face around the house anyway. So, when it is time for him to leave work and come home, he has to take charge of his emotions. At first it was a conscious decision. He didn’t want to be stressed every evening during family time, but he had formed a habit of holding onto the emotions of the day, so he (and his therapist) decided to create a new habit by designating certain reminders to leave the stress of work at work. At first he began consciously touching the door frame of his office door when leaving work and telling himself, “I am no longer at my desk” or “I’m done.” After forming a new habit (neurological pathways), he no longer has to tell himself to touch the door frame or what that action means. He does it automatically, and the feeling of relief upon leaving his office is also automatic. This is only one of several reminders he has built into his life to keep anxiety at bay and help him take charge of his emotions.

Mason in the Modern World

It’s amazing to me to see Mason’s ideas floating around in our 21st century. I mean, some of her ideas are a collection of existing ideas dating as far back as the classical period, so it may not always be fair to call them hers (and she often gives credit where it’s due in her writings). But, I give her full credit for her life’s work with children, parents, and governesses-in-training, implementing her ideas, and for her volumous writings. It never fails. When I crack open one of her volumes, I quickly find that our world and hers really aren’t so different.

Until next Friday (or so).

I’m reading:


Moderately challenging books:

Stiff books:





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