Changing your child's bad habits
How can we help our kids change habits that are undesirable?
The formation of habits is a core aspect of a person’s character development. George Boardman once said, “Sow an act, and you reap a habit; sow a habit, and you reap a character; sow a character, and you reap a destiny.” In short, who we become is a product of what we repeatedly do – our habits.
As parents, we naturally desire to help our children cultivate good habits with the hope of raising them into responsible, independent and decent human beings. These may include brushing their teeth daily, doing their homework diligently (without being asked to), putting away their toys, greeting elders with respect, etc.
However, children develop habits naturally through their daily actions, and not all habits are desirable.
How can we help them discard habits that are undesirable?
First, we need to understand how habits function and how they are formed. Habits are what we do unconsciously without having to think about them. They represent how we have been conditioned to respond automatically to situations or stimulus. The conscious mind can only attend to a limited number of thoughts. Our habits allow us to take care of the familiar without much thinking by triggering off a specific thought pattern, thus freeing up the mind to attend to the unfamiliar.
Habits are formed through repetition. Each time we repeat an action, the neurological connections in the brain are further strengthened. The thought pattern associated with the action is etched into the brain much like how a new pathway across a lawn is created when people repeatedly walked on it.
Conversely, to alter a habit, we need to weaken the existing neurological connections and to generate new ones. To help our children discard undesirable habits, we need to help them replace them with new alternatives. Understanding this helps to dispel the myth that changing a habit requires enormous willpower. There is a simpler way, and let me illustrate it through a personal story.
When Sean, our elder son was much younger (he is currently 10), he had the habit of dropping his clothes all over the house as he made his way to the bathroom. The ‘striptease’ was a ritual that had gone on for many months, one that is laughable now but used to annoy his mother tremendously. She was tired of nagging him to pick up his clothes almost every day. One day, we decided to do something different – to have him go through the desirable actions. We gently guided him to reverse the entire motion by removing the clean clothes that he had put on after his bath, tracing back his steps, putting on the old clothes piece by piece, and then starting again by depositing them directly into the laundry basket. That was the last time his mother ever needed to nag about dropping his clothes around the house.
What did we learn from this experience? Words or will power alone does not change a habit. Taking new actions does. To help our children discard undesirable habits, we need to guide them towards acquiring new ones. No screaming or nagging needed. Just a little patience on our part to support them until the new habits are gradually formed.
In closing, let me leave you with the words of wisdom from Aristotle:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”