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How often do you talk about habits? Is it every day? Maybe it’s much less? When I hear adults talk about habits, it mostly involves food and exercise related habits. We don’t give enough credit to habits, which carry us through many of the activities in our day. How often do we say something, eat something, go somewhere, or do something on auto-pilot? That’s because habits save our brain from constant thought, which wears us out.
The concept of forming positive habits seems so freeing to me. I spent years trying to convince children to do the “right thing” with sticker charts, treasure chests, and special pizza lunches. It was easy to get discouraged when they weren’t doing what I asked. I thought that they were personally attacking me. I had even read an education book, Why Don’t Students Like School? that had research-based explanations on how much we rely on habits. But I didn’t get it.
When I learned the Charlotte Mason philosophy, I realized that classroom management and trying to control children with incentives could never work. Maybe some students were motivated by a pizza party, but those things could never really benefit a child. Habits do. They benefit a child because once they are developed, they can be used throughout their whole life to guide them through their education, relationships, and work.
You’ve heard the saying that it takes 30 days to form a habit. It can, or it can take much longer. Habit formation takes diligence and perseverance. A habit that your child had mastered before can yield to bad habits if you let it. In Home Education, Charlotte Mason talked about the process of habit formation through an example of a mother who helped her son get into the habit of closing a door after him. *Note* This post has been updated. In the past few months, I’ve learned so much more about habit formation. Mainly, I’ve learned that it is a process instead of a system, so I modified this post (and the step-by-step graphic I had made- ha!) to reflect that.
Discuss an inspirational idea to lay down a new habit that replaces a negative one. For example, “Eating dinner makes us strong and healthy, so it’s important to stay at the table during meals.” You can also read books that reflect the desired habit, memorize Bible verses, or observe the positive habits in others.
Explain to the child what the desired habit looks like. We can’t actually get rid of bad habits, but we can replace them with better ones. Explain to your child what that will look like. Make sure to look at every possible way the bad habit could manifest itself so you are prepared with a distraction or better alternative. Also, establish some sort of signal to remind the child to stick with the good habit. This can’t be saying it over and over again- that’s nagging and it’s actually detrimental to this process!
This is the most difficult part for me. I have to be sure that my children aren’t slipping into the old habits, or all of our work is wasted. I follow through with directions and plan ahead to remind myself what we are trying to work on.
Progress and hard work should be celebrated. Just remember that the habit formation isn’t about you, it’s about helping your child develop beneficial, life-long habits. I wrote about overpraising kids here.
Whenever I start to feel frustrated with my children, I realize there’s a habit we need to work on. It’s a challenge to determine a course of action, but it’s definitely worth it for their well-being.
Habits We’re Working On
So far, we’ve worked on the habits of prompt obedience and truthfulness. We plan to work on the habit of gentleness soon. Habits can really be anything that benefits your child and your home atmosphere. I’ve learned that it’s best to look for the over-arching principle of the habit you want to form. For example, when we wanted to teach Miss H to stay at her seat throughout dinner time, the habit was actually having courtesy for others. Working on this habit has a bigger reach than something so specific like staying in her seat.
There is so much more to say about the topic of habit formation, so I wrote an eBook to explain the process, and also to share habits that are important to work on during the early years. Habits for the Early Years: A Mother’s Journal, is available in the My Little Robins shop!