Several years ago a dear friend told me she had been ill with a flu bug for two weeks.
“Two weeks in bed?” I exclaimed. “How long did it take you to get the house in order after you recovered?” She had eight children, and the oldest was only fourteen.
She gave me a curious look and said, “The house was fine. The kids took care of all the meals, cleaned the kitchen, and kept up with their other daily chores. Things were mostly in place, and the laundry was clean and put away. They functioned pretty well without me.”
“It’s just the way we do things.”
I was surprised and embarrassed, thinking about the last time I had been ill—three days in bed with three children still at home, all almost adults, and my house fell apart!
“How did you do it?” I asked my friend.
“Do what?” It was obvious she didn’t follow my train of thought.
“How did you establish habits that were faithfully continued when you couldn’t hold them accountable?” I replied. My interest was piqued now.
“Habits?” She thought a moment. “I never really thought about it as habits. It’s just the way we do things.”
This friend seemed to me like a superwoman in the realm of habit training. She wasn’t a drill sergeant at home, either. I thought long and hard about what she said. And I will admit, at first I had to overcome feelings of inadequacy. I saw flaws in my method of maintaining habits in my children. I also realized I had let some of my own carefully established habits slide. Do you relate to this experience?
You are training in habits.
All parents train their children in habits, intentionally or not. You are either passively or deliberately establishing habits, good or bad, in the life of your child. Building good habits that stick and develop into character takes time, so it is best to start when your children are young. But whether you have young ones or older children, you can start intentionally training habits today.
A habit is something you do without thinking about it; it is automatic. As my friend said, “It’s just the way we do things.” In order for a behavior, a task, or even a thought pattern to become automatic, conscious thought and effort must first be invested. Here lies the challenge: How to make the required effort interesting and appropriate, so your child can experience success.
Habit training must be relational.
Habit training must be relational. Envision yourself coming alongside your child and helping him to build strength of character and will. He will respond more positively to the effort required to establish a habit if he is convinced of your support, approval, and help.
Building habits develops responsibility in your child. Because of the effort required at first, only work to master one habit at a time. Then maintain each habit ever after. Even adults must maintain good habits in order to keep them.
I recently listened to a podcast by GiANT Worldwide about how to train a new employee to successfully accomplish tasks you have hired him to do. I smiled through the whole podcast because the steps are the same as helping a child learn a new task and then master it as a habit. Recently, I discussed these same steps with my daughter as they related to training two of her sons, ages eleven and thirteen, to do their own laundry. Here is what we considered.
How to get started.
Start with a cordial talk in a relaxed atmosphere.
- Genuinely praise them for the maturity you see in them, and explain that they are ready to take on the responsibility of doing their own laundry.
- Introduce the task from the perspective of learning how to be an adult.
- Discuss the advantages or rewards that will be theirs when they have mastered the new responsibility—sense of accomplishment, becoming a man, not having to dig something you want to wear out of the dryer because Mom hasn’t had time to fold it and put it away, and so forth.
- Be creative in your approach and be positive.
Then explain and follow these four steps:
- You do the task while the child watches. Remember to take advantage of having this time alone with your child, and make it pleasant.
- You do the task with the child’s assistance. Let him help you. See what actions he initiates. If he is unsure, allow him to help you with the task several times. Remember, you are doing the task, he is assisting.
- The child does the task while you help. Here you put the child in charge, but you are closely involved, assisting, but not instructing him, with the task.
- The child does the task, and you watch him do it. Move to this fourth step when you can see that he will be successful doing it alone. Be sensitive to the child’s schedule and your own daily routines,
and assign him a particular day or days in which he will have access to the washer and dryer. Watch, don’t help, while he washes, dries, and puts his clothing, sheets, and towels away. Praise his good work and effort. Give him accountability and support as you watch.
When you know he will be successful, stop watching overtly. And never do his laundry for him.. Gently give reminders, if needed. Sympathize, but don’t take over for him. Learning the consequences of putting off the task or failing to finish it will make the habit stick.
Your home will run more smoothly when your children are trained to take responsibilities that are reasonable and appropriate, and develop them into the way they do things.
For more practical help in becoming intentional about developing habits in your children, check out this new resource.