Before we begin, a disclaimer:
The processes of habit training explained below was gained from author James Clear in his incredible book Atomic Habits. If you are looking for a book on habits, his is one of the best I have ever read. It is not my intention to make it seem as though I developed these processes. My goal is simply to take the processes he outlined and apply them specifically to modern parenting with a Christ centered worldview, in order that you might find some practical strategies to apply in the small moments you have.
Do wish your day could be more productive?
Do you find yourself doing the same things over and over? Tripping over shoes, putting toys or electronics where they belong, hanging back packs or coats left in entryway… don’t you wish there was a way to get your kids to help you so you didn’t waste your time doing it over and over?
What if there was a way to get your son to hang up his coat and backpack when he came in the door? What if there was a way to get your daughter to put her shoes away when she came in from playing? What if the toys or electronics got picked up and put away where they belonged?
Most parents think they are just too busy and overwhelmed with all the other things in life to be able to train better habits in their kids. Most of the time they think they just don’t have the time to put in the work that is needed and that it just wouldn’t be worth the hassle it would take to get their kids on board.
But it might not be as difficult as you believe and it may be more worth it than you think. Habits are small actions or processes we do every day without thinking about them and ultimately these small actions can lead up to big rewards. The goal if we were to put it in modern scientific terms would be to automate as many processes as possible within our children (Note: our children are not robots. Automate is a modern way of saying we want them to be able to do things without having to put a lot of mental effort into it) so that our time and effort is used to its ultimate capacity.
The Can’s and Cannot’s of Habit Training
Think about all the processes you automate during the day to free up your time? Your paychecks are automatically put into your bank account. Your electricity bill or mortgage is automatically paid each month. Your favorite stores automatically send you coupons straight to your inbox. How much time and effort does this save you? In the same way, habit training can save you time and effort, making your life much more productive and in turn more peaceful. It can also help us reach that ultimate goal of “I want to make sure the things I’m doing are doing more good than harm to my kids.” For example it can help us to stop yelling “Put your shoes away.” in absolute frustration when we trip over them for the fifteenth time. Or ease the stress of trying to get out the door in the morning like in the example I talked about in “How to Parent Without Losing it in the Middle of Busy”. It can also build good character traits such as tidiness, obedience, truthfulness and being more attentive in our children. We want all of things things for our kids.
However sometimes when we think of good habits the picture we see in our minds is a good boy or girl that does as he/she is taught and trained so that they ultimately reach greatness. If we put enough good habits in, we will get good kids out that ultimately grow into good adults. But it is critical to remember two things: 1) It is not our job as parents to create good kids or make them do what is right. I talked about this when I wrote How to Rid yourself of Parental Doubt and Parent with Confidence 2) Just like us our children are affected by sin and the fall. What habit training cannot do is make your child good. It cannot guarantee your child’s salvation or even his/her success. If we try to use habit training to solve these problems we are setting ourselves and our children up for failure. We will only find ourselves frustrated saying things like “I did everything right, what happened?” But it is impossible for us to create good kids that ultimately become good adults. Only the grace of God can solve these problems for us.
Though God’s grace is immeasurable and can do with our children far beyond what we could ever imagine, I do believe we are given a certain amount of stewardship over our children’s lives and we can spare them a lot of struggle in the future and ourselves a lot of unneeded stress if we implement habit training. So with out further ado I present the best process for training good habits in your children in the middle of your busy.
The best way to train a new habit is to follow these four steps: first, must make the habit obvious, second, make the habit attractive, third, make the habit easy, fourth, make completing the habit satisfying.
Train A Good Habit Step 1: Make It Obvious
The first thing that you want to to train a good habit is to make sure your child is aware that they have a bad habit. This might seem overly simple but don’t skip it. Just because you are aware that it’s a bad habit and it drives you crazy, doesn’t mean your children see the same thing.
Then you need talk with them about the specific time and place you want them to complete the good habit. For example: “Every time you come in from outside, I want you to take your shoes off and put them away in the drawer.”
After you clarify the exact time and place you should design their environment so that its completely obvious what they need to do. Have you ever been in a preschool or kindergarten classroom where they have pictures of all the toys on shelves where they are supposed to go? This is a great example of designing the environment. Now, as a busy parent I know you don’t have time to go through and put picture labels on everything! But, we can make sure the basket/drawer/bin for shoes is placed in a completely obvious location near where they come from outside. The idea is to creat a cue for the habit. When they see the basket/bin/drawer it automatically signals a cue in their mind that says “Hey, this is where your shoes need to go.”
(Just a note: if you tell your child to put their shoes away, science shows that you are actually inhibiting child’s brain from creating the pathway of a habit. You are better off sweetly calling them over, letting them see the cue, and doing the process on their own than using your brain (aka your voice) to stimulate the habit.)
Train a Good Habit Step 2: Make it Attractive
The second thing you want to train a good habit is to make it as attractive as possible. This is likely to be one of the most challenging parts of habit training. Most of the time the habit that you are training has either long term pay off or is more beneficial for others than ourselves so the reward for them is not as obvious.
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear suggests using a method called temptation bundling to help with this. The general idea is to pair something you really want to do with something you need to do. So for the example of getting your child to put their shoes away it would could go something like this: “After you put your shoes away, feel free to grab yourself a snack.” The snack is something they want that can tempt them to do the action that is less attractive like putting their shoes away.
Another way of making the habit look more attractive is to make sure you are doing the habit yourself. Humans are huge imitators of their environment. A great example of this is the cultural tradition in Thailand of taking your shoes off before entering a home. It is considered extremely rude to wear shoes in any home. So at a gathering of people you will always see tons of flip flops and sandals piled outside the doorway. If you saw everyone else around you taking off their shoes wouldn’t you take the hint and do it too?
Train a Good Habit Step 4: Make it Easy
The third thing you want to train a good habit is to make it easy. Now, this does not necessarily mean the task itself should be easy. Creating a new habit is never really easy. But as James Clear states in Atomic Habits “The goal is to make the task as easy as possible in a hard moment.” Going back to our example of putting their shoes away….when your child is coming through the door from being outside and their mind is focused on going straight to their snack or toys, this is the hard moment. Remember their mind is on the pathway to snack and your goal of staying tidy is nowhere on their radar! So, you need to make it as easy as possible for them to remove their shoes and put them away. So you prep the designed environment. It could look something like making sure the shoes they wear can easily come on and off. Move the basket/bin/drawer so its extremely visible when they walk in. It can always be moved back a little later once the habit is formed. We want this task to be as easy as possible in the hard moment.
Training A Good Habit Step 5: Make it Satisfying
The fourth and final thing you need to do to train a good habit is to make it satisfying. This is probably the part of the processes of habit building that we are most familiar with. The reward at the end. Just like when you potty trained and gave stickers on a chart or a small treat, the idea is still the same. But external treats and charts take a lot of time and effort to both create and stay on top of. And I know you need something that can fit into the small moments you have and not add more to your already full plate. The great thing is that praise in itself is very satisfying. And it doesn’t take much time or effort to recognize them verbally for the great job they have done. You can talk about how much how proud you are of them for their new habit when you seeing them do it. And as we already talked about in the make it attractive section, make sure you use a temptation bundle that is an immediate reward. Once I put my shoes away, I can have my snack.
Another point to remember in making it satisfying is to only praise the good and ignore the bad. Remember that they are building into this habit and its going to take time to get it established. So make sure to focus on the good they are doing and use positive reinforcement to tell their brain “Hey, I liked that. Let’s do that again.”
Putting it All Together
Habit training can have a profound affect on making our lives more productive, peaceful, build good character traits, spare our kids future struggles, and spare ourselves unneeded stress. The best possibly way to train a new habit is to make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it satisfying. This process can be used for creating any number of new habits from putting their shoes away to being more attentive in school. And its not nearly as difficult as you think it might be. Small simple changes in your daily busy can make large affects on your daily life. So commit to building one new habit today and see if you find that the work put in is totally worth the habit that comes out of it!