The Young Man's Guide to the Harmonious
Development of Christian Character

by Harvey Newcomb, 1847


Besides what I have noticed in several of the foregoing chapters, there are many things of a general nature, which I shall group together under the title of habits. A habit is what has become easy and natural by frequent repetition. People frequently become much attached to practices, which at first were very unpleasant. You will sometimes see men chewing, smoking, or snuffing tobacco—a most filthy and poisonous plant, a little bit of which you could not be persuaded to take into your mouth, it is so nauseous; yet, by long use, people learn to love it. That is a habit. So, likewise, you see people very fond of drinking intoxicating liquors, which to you would be a nauseous medicine; and which are poisonous and destructive to all. It is practice which has made these drinks so pleasant. This is a habit.

Habits are both bad and good; and a habit is a very good or a very bad thing, as it is good or bad. Habits are mostly formed in early life; and a habit, once formed, is difficult to be broken—once fixed, it may follow you as long as you live.

I shall specify a few of the bad habits which boys of your age are liable to contract, with their opposite good habits. It is very likely I shall fail to notice many others, equally important; but these may put you upon thinking, and lead you to discover and correct other bad practices.

I. TARDINESS. The tardy boy is dilatory about rising in the morning. Although the birds are filling the air with their merry song, and the morning rays of the sun are peeping stealthily through the half-closed shutter, still he thinks, "There's time enough yet;" and instead of starting up with the lark, he lingers and delays, saying with the sluggard, "A little more sleep, a little more slumber, a little more folding of the hands to sleep." At length he rises, in a yawning mood, and proceeds slowly to pull on his clothes, lingering with every article, looking here and there, and stopping every now and then to play, or to amuse himself in gazing about his chamber. And sometimes he stops, half-dressed, to read a story from a piece of an old newspaper. In this and other ways, he amuses himself until the breakfast bell rings—and he is not ready. Perhaps he has been called half a dozen times to "do his chores," and as often answered, "Well, I'm coming;" until, wearied with his delay, his mother or sister have done the work that belonged to him, or his father has been called from his room, or from his work, to do it for him. At length, he makes his appearance at the table after the blessing, when the rest of the family have begun their meal. But, having just emerged from the foul air of his bedroom, he has no appetite for his breakfast, and feels peevish and fretful. A scowl appears upon his brow, and he turns up his nose at the food spread before him, forgetful alike of his obligations to his Heavenly Father for providing, and to his mother for preparing it. Or, if he sometimes gets dressed before breakfast, he is not in time to do his chores, or to complete the lesson which he left unfinished the night before. He hears the breakfast bell, but he is just now engaged, and thinks, "There's time enough yet—I'll just finish what I've begun;" and so he is not in time for the table. He has either detained the table until all are impatient of waiting, or else he takes his seat after the rest have commenced eating. In consequence of this loss of time, he is left at the table to finish his breakfast, and his seat is for some time vacant at prayers, when he comes in and disturbs the whole family. Or, if at any time, he gets his seat with the rest, he is dilatory in finding his place, and is never ready to read when his turn comes.

This dilatoriness goes on, until the school hour arrives, and he is not ready; or he delays on the way to school, and arrives, perhaps, just after his class have started. Sabbath morning, when the bell tolls, and the family are starting for meeting, he is roused from a reverie, and has yet to get ready. And so in everything else this dilatory habit follows him. When his father or mother call him, instead of promptly making his appearance, to serve them, as a dutiful son should do, he answers, "Yes, in a minute," or, "Yes, I'm going to." He must dispose of something else first; and before he comes, the service for which he was called has been despatched by someone else. He does not seem to know how to start quick. He is always in a hurry when the time comes to do anything, because he was dilatory in making preparation when he had time. He is always late—always out of time—vexing those who are about him, and injuring himself.

He seems to have started too late. You would think that he began too late in the beginning—that he was born too late, and has never been able to gain the lost time. Everything comes too soon, before he is prepared for it. If he ever becomes a man, and this habit continues—it will always be a source of vexation and disaster to him. If he is a mechanic, he will fail to meet his engagements, and disappoint, vex, and lose his customers. If he is a man of business, he will fail to meet his appointments, and thus lose many a bargain. His dilatory habits will be the ruin of his business. And if he carries the same habit into religion, he will ruin his soul—for death will overtake him before he is ready.

Although this seems natural to him, it is only 'tardiness indulged'—until it has grown into a habit. But by timely resolution, diligence, and perseverance, the habit may be broken.

The opposites of this are the good habits of promptness and punctuality. When the gray dawn steals in at his window, the prompt lad springs from his bed; and in a few minutes he is washed and dressed, and on his knees at his morning devotions. Soon he appears at his work; and before breakfast, all his chores are done. Thus he has redeemed the time between breakfast and school, which he has at his own disposal, for his lessons or his sports. He is always in time. He never keeps the table waiting for him, and never comes after the blessing. He is never late at prayers—never late at school—never late at meeting; and yet he is never in a hurry. He redeems so much time by his promptness, that he has as much as he needs to do everything well and in season. He saves all the time that the dilatory spends in sauntering, in considering what to do next, in reading frivolous matters, and in gazing idly at vacancy. Do you desire to possess these good habits? Only carry out for one day the idea I have given of promptness, and then repeat it every day, and, in a little while—you will have the habit established.

II. SLOVENLINESS. A slovenly boy makes himself a deal of needless trouble, and greatly tries the patience of his mother. If you go into his room, you find it always in confusion. His things are scattered about, here and there, some on the bed, some on the chairs, and some on the floor—but none in their places. He either has no particular place for anything, or else he takes no pains to put things in their places. He leaves a thing where he uses it. Hence, if he wants anything, he never knows where to look for it, unless he happens to remember where he used it last. He must waste his time in hunting for it. Hence you will often hear him impatiently inquiring if any one has seen his things; when he ought himself to know where they are. If he goes into another person's room, whatever article he lays his hand upon is misplaced. And so it is, if he uses any of his father's tools. He never thinks of putting anything where he found it. He throws it down carelessly wherever he happens to be, or else puts it in the wrong place; so that, when wanted, it cannot be found. Thus, he not only wastes his own time, but hinders and vexes others. If he goes into the library, and takes down a book, he either puts it in a different place, and so disarranges the shelves, or lays it down on the shelf in front of other books, for his father or mother to arrange. His school books are torn and dirty—disfigured with pencil marks, blots of ink, grease spots, finger prints, and dog's-ears; and if he borrows a book from the Sabbath school library, or of a friend, it is returned with some of these his marks upon it.

Whatever he undertakes to do is done in the same slovenly style. If he brings in water, he spills it on the floor. His wood he throws down in a sprawling manner, instead of laying it in a neat, and tidy pile. Nothing that he does looks neat and finished.

Nor does he appear to any better advantage in his person. His clothes are put on in a slouching, uncouth manner; and he always contrives to have them dirty. He cannot have on clean clothes half an hour without soiling them. He rubs against whatever dirty thing he passes. If he carries milk, he spills it on his clothes. He drops food on them at the table. He plays in the dirt. He rips his clothes—for his mother to mend. If left to himself, his face would never come in contact with water, nor his teeth with a brush.

He comes into the house with his shoes covered with mud, and never thinks of wiping his feet, but leaves the prints of them on his mother's clean floor or nice carpet. He seems to forget what scrapers and mats are made for, for he passes by without using them. He lays his hat on a chair, or throws it upon the floor, instead of hanging it in its place. Thus he tries the patience of his mother and sisters, and makes himself unwelcome at his own home.

And with this habit is generally associated carelessness. He never seems to be thinking what he is doing. He does not see things that are in his way, but stumbles over them, breaking, bruising, or otherwise injuring them, and often hurting himself. You dread to see him approach, lest some mischief should happen. He does not look to see what he steps on, nor whether his hands have firm hold of the article he takes up. If he passes through a door, he does not mind whether it was open or shut; and most likely, if he finds it open, in a warm summer's day, he will close it; but, if he finds it carefully shut, on a freezing day in mid-winter, he will leave it wide open.

A careless person will be constantly meeting with accidents and misfortunes, and continually subject to the most vexatious mortifications, which a little thoughtfulness and care would prevent. This habit is a very great fault, and, when confirmed, very difficult to correct. It is therefore the more important, that it should be mended in season, and nipped in the bud.

I need not tell you what are the opposites of slovenly and careless habits. The neat, orderly, and careful boy has an invariable rule—"a place for everything—and everything in its place." Go into his room at any hour, and you will find everything in order. He can go in the dark, and lay his hand on anything he wants, so that he never runs the risk of setting the house on fire, by carrying a light into his bedroom. He is so much in the habit of putting things in their proper places, that he never thinks of doing otherwise. He never leaves a thing at random, where he happens to be using it; but always puts it where it belongs. When he undresses, every article of his clothing is folded, and laid together in the order that it will be used in the morning; so that he loses no time in hunting for it. His clothes are put on and adjusted so as to show a neat fit, and every button does its office. His shoes are regularly brushed every morning, and the strings neatly tied, so that your eye is never offended with the appearance, nor your ear distressed with the sound, of dirty, slip-shod, flapping shoes.

To whatever part of the house he goes, he leaves it in the order in which he found it; for it is his invariable rule, when he uses anything belonging to another, to replace it exactly as he found it. When he takes hold of a cup, or a lamp, or any such article, he is careful to get good hold, and then to move moderately, and not with a jerk; and by this means, he seldom meets with any of those accidents which are so annoying to tidy parents. If he goes to the library, he is careful to replace every book or paper he takes in his hand, exactly as he found it. If he takes a book to read, he carries it with care, firmly grasped in his hand, and avoids letting it fall, or hitting it against anything to bruise the cover. He holds it in such a manner as not to strain the back or crumple the leaves; and if called away from his reading, he puts in a mark, shuts the book, and lays it in a safe place. He never thinks of using a book for any other purpose than that for which it was made. When he has finished reading it, he carefully replaces it in the library, just where he found it. He does not place it wrong end upwards, nor the title towards the back of the shelf; but puts it in the place where it belongs, makes it stand straight, and puts it back even with its fellows. All his school books are kept neat and clean. No blots of ink, nor pencil marks, nor thumb-prints, nor dog's-ears, any where appear. If he passes through a door into or out of a room where others are sitting, he leaves it open or shut as he found it; judging that the people occupying the room, have adjusted its temperature to their own liking.

He is equally careful of his person. He never considers himself dressed, until he has washed his hands and face, cleaned his teeth, and combed his hair; and he never thinks of sitting down at the table with dirty hands. He learns to keep his clothes neat and clean. At table, he avoids dropping his food upon them. At school, he is careful of his ink, not to bespatter his clothes with it. And at play, he keeps himself out of the dirt. He will wear his clothes a week, and have them appear cleaner, at the end of it, than the sloven's when he has worn them a single day.

He has a care, also, of the appearance of the house. He never forgets to use the scraper at the door, to remove the mud from his feet; and then he makes it an invariable rule never to pass a mat without wiping his shoes. He never says, like the sloven, "I didn't think," to excuse himself. He would consider it unpardonable in him not to think; for what is the ability of thinking worth, if it never comes when it is wanted.

The neat, orderly boy, makes himself agreeable to his mother and sisters, who are always glad to see him coming; and home is a delightful place to him, because he meets with smiles and pleasant words. But the sloven exposes himself to sour looks and chiding, by his dirty habits; and he finds home a disagreeable place, because he makes it so.

III. RUDENESS. This term does not describe any one habit in particular, but a great many little ones. Webster gives the following definition: "RUDE: rough; of coarse manners; unpolished; clownish; rustic." It is not, therefore, a single habit, but a series of habits. These are so numerous, it can hardly be expected that I should think of them all. The rude boy is rough, clownish, and boisterous—in his manners. He is rude in speech and rude in behavior. He will stalk into the house with his hat on; and if there is company, he does not notice them. He talks in a loud and boisterous manner, often breaking in abruptly upon the conversation of others. If he hears part of a conversation, and desires to know what it is about, he abruptly breaks in, "Who is it? Who is it? What is it?" And, often, he keeps his tongue running continually, like the incessant clatter of a mill.

It is rude and vulgar to interlard conversation with by-words, or unmeaning phrases, thrown in at random between the sentences. It is much more so, to throw in little oaths, or low, vulgar expressions. All this shows a disposition to be profane. It is saying, in effect, "I would swear, if I dared." If indulged, this habit will be very likely to lead on to profaneness.

Another rude habit, which boys often indulge, is, what is familiarly called "CRACKING JOKES". The object seems to be, to see who can say the wittiest thing, at another's expense. But, in such attempts, generally, wit fails; and the strife is, which can say the silliest thing, in the silliest manner. All such low witticisms may be set down as decidedly rude and vulgar.

Rudeness of behavior manifests itself in so many forms, that it is scarcely definable. I can only glance at a few things which indicate a lack of good breeding. It is rude to be so forward as to treat your superiors as equals, or to take the lead in all companies. On the other hand, it is rude to be bashful—to hang down the head, with a leer of the eye, in the presence of company, and refuse to speak when spoken to, or to speak in a confused and mumbling tone, as though you had never seen anybody before. It is rude for a boy to take the best seat in the room, or to take the only seat, while others are standing. Tilting one's chair; sitting awkwardly on one side of the chair, or with the feet stretched out at full length; putting the feet on another's chair; sitting on two chairs; rocking; drumming with the fingers or feet; scratching books, furniture, window-frames, or walls—these, and a hundred other things that might be named, are rude habits, which indicate not only the lack of good breeding, but the absence of good taste and a sense of propriety.

There are other rude habits, which boys often contract, while abroad, that are wholly out of character for one that would be a gentleman; such as 'hellooing' in the streets; jumping on the backside of carriages; calling out to strangers that are passing; collecting in groups about public places, and staring at people. All such behavior is intolerable; and those who are guilty of it will be set down by all sensible people as low, ill-bred, rude boys.

IV. EVIL HABITS. I am sorry to say that some boys indulge habits, that are worse than any I have mentioned. Boys may be seen strutting through the streets, puffing cigars; and even sometimes filling their mouths with that loathsome Indian weed, tobacco, as though they thought such vile habits necessary to make them men. And often you will hear the profane oath issuing from their mouth, along with the foul breath created by this nauseous potion. A disposition to smoke or to chew this filthy, poisonous substance, indicates the existence of an intemperate appetite, and the love of base company. You will, perhaps, see the same boys at the shops, drinking beer. But this is only the prelude to something stronger. Tobacco is one of the most active poisons. It disorders the system and creates an appetite for stimulants. It is dangerous to use it in any form. But when a boy goes so far as to contract a relish for intoxicating drinks, his ruin is well near accomplished. After once giving indulgence to any of these practices, the downhill road is easy and rapid. About the time when temperance societies began to be formed, I was conversing with a mechanic, who informed me that almost every one of his fellow-apprentices, who were in the habit of occasionally drinking intoxicating liquors, had become drunkards. Many years ago, there were, in one of our large cities, fifty young men, clerks in stores, who used to frequent a particular place, to spend their evenings in a social way, with the wine bottle as a companion of their social cheer. One evening, one of them, after retiring, began to reflect upon the consequences of the course he was pursuing. He came to the conclusion, that, if he went on, it would be his ruin. He resolved that he would never go again. The next evening, he found himself on the way to the same place. But as he came to the corner of the street which turned towards the place, he thought of his resolution. He hesitated a moment, and then said to himself, "Right about face!" He returned, and was never seen there again. That man is now one of the most wealthy, respected, and useful men in the country; while forty of those who continued their resort to the public house, became intemperate, and I believe have all gone down to the drunkard's grave.

Gambling is another evil habit, which leads to all manner of evil company and evil practices. It has proved the destruction of thousands of promising youth.

Never allow yourself to become the slave of any habit! Abstain entirely from intoxicating drinks, tobacco, gambling, and profane language. For when you once begin, with any of these, it is like "the letting out of waters." At first they run very slowly; but soon they wear away a channel, and rush on with an impetuosity, which defies all attempts to stop them. On the coast of Norway, there is a great whirlpool, called the Maelstrom, which sometimes swallows up great ships. When a vessel comes near this terrible abyss, it is first drawn very gently, with a circular motion. But after it has made one or two rounds, it goes more and more rapidly, and draws nearer and nearer the center, until finally it reaches the vortex, is swallowed up, and is seen no more. So it is with these bad habits. When one gets fairly within the circle of their influence, his fate is well near sealed. The only safety, with young men and boys, is to keep far away from the very outer edges of the whirlpool.