The Ultimate Guide For Helping Your Kids Create a Habit. Any Habit.

(This article is part of our series on Habits.)

good_habits_are_as_addictive_as_bad_habits_but_much_more_rewardingEver wonder why some routines stick, while others fall flat?

Maybe you’ve got your kids into the habit of getting to bed on time each night, but come morning, try as you might, you can’t get them out of bed and out the door on time without a few screaming matches… (or is it the other way round?)

What gives?

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just figure out the secret of creating habits consistently?

As it turns out, there is a method to this madness!

In the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, author Charles Duhigg reports some amazing research from the field of neuroscience and lays out the blueprint for us to create any habit we wish.

Today, let’s see how to put this science to work for us!

The Blueprint For Creating a Habit

According to author Charles Duhigg, every habit that sticks is actually a habit loop, and to create any new habit, we just need to make sure that all the elements of this loop are present -

Habit_Loop

#1: The Cue

The cue is the trigger that instructs the brain to check if there is a pre-established routine to handle this situation and if so, to set it in motion.

In some cases the cue for repetitive tasks is already present. For instance, in the mornings, the ringing of the alarm or you waking up your child is the cue to get the morning routine going.

In other cases, we may need to explicitly create a cue – for instance, our child finishing the evening snack or supper, could be the cue to start doing homework.

The most critical part here is to make sure that the cue is a very specific event and everyone involved knows when it has occurred.

#2: The Routine

The routine is just the series of steps that are followed upon a cue to achieve the objective. Consider for example the morning rush to get out the door. What happens between the times that the kids wake up until they head out the door?

Here are some tips to help establish effective routines –

  • Keep them simple. For the morning routine, this could be something as simple as wakeup → freshen up → breakfast → get dressed → grab bag → leave. This means anything else that does not fit in this sequence needs to be handled ahead of time. For instance, homework needs to be done and placed in the bag the previous night. If your child is choosy about the clothes she wears, then she needs to pick out her outfit on the night before. And so on.
  • Establish firm rules. For example, “If we are ready before it’s time to leave, we can play for a while” (in other words, no playing until we are ready.)
  • Stick to your rules — consistency is key. The exact series of steps we choose in our routine and the rules we pick to establish that routine are not nearly as important as following through. Consistency is what matters while establishing the routine. So focus on being consistent even if it is not very convenient to you, at least during the first few times. For the morning routine example above, this means we will have to ensure that the breakfast is ready by the time our kids freshen up, even if it means we have to wake up a little earlier to make it happen. Note that we could as easily make the rule stating “play for few minutes until mom/dad gets breakfast ready”. The key is figure out the balance between convenience and practicality that work for our families and then stick with the rules.
  • Build in some margin into your routine. As parents we all know that things don’t always go as planned! There will be spilt milk that needs to be cleaned, one sock that has suddenly gone missing, the handle of the lunch bag breaks, the water bottle starts to leak… and pretty much anything that can go wrong, will, at some point or the other. We need to build in some margin to absorb these.
  • Build in some fun into your routine. A fun routine is just plain better than marching orders. If we want results, we need to find a way to make it fun for everyone. Simple.

#3: The Reward

The reward is what makes our brain determine if a routine is worth committing to memory.

Most people think that the reward is the key piece, and focus entirely on it. From my personal experience however, the reward is actually the least critical piece of the puzzle!

Don’t get me wrong, it is a required piece to get the ball rolling. But once a habit is established we can easily remove the reward, and the habit still stays in place. So there is no need to stress on getting the reward just right.

So, for now pick any reward that you think might work for your family. A sticker chart, a trip to the zoo, a visit to the park – anything that you can deliver on is fine. Keep in mind however that everything we do as parents depends on trust. So, it goes without saying that if we promise a reward, we need to come through on it – rain or shine.

#4: The Craving

This is actually the most critical piece of the habit loop. The craving is what makes us repeat the routine over and over, until it is gets firmly etched in our brain’s memory circuit, so much so that we will continue to execute the routine even when the reward is removed at a later time.

In our case, when we look at cravings, we have two things at play -

  1. The “artificial” craving that is created by the reward we chose and
  2. The “natural” cravings that was created for us by Mother Nature!

The “artificial” craving is the tangible gratification from getting the reward. The “natural” craving on the other hand is intangible, but a whole lot more deeply satisfying. Even in this, there are two levels – the first level is the child’s craving for love and approval from parents. At the next level, is the inherent, intrinsic joy every person gets when they do the right thing, for the right reasons.

Our goal is start out with the easiest of all – the artificial craving and then slowly guide them towards being more and more intrinsically motivated.

Bringing it All Together…

So, here’s how our sneaky master plan works -

  • Pick the cue, routine and reward.
  • During the first few days, gently guide your kids through the steps of your routine.
  • Expect that in some cases initially there may be some resistance and things won’t go as smoothly as you might wish. Resolve to keep your calm. Remind yourself that this effort is temporary — once the routine is established, you won’t have to exert yourself as much.
  • Wait for that one instance where you catch your child doing things right, and pounce on that opportunity to express your happiness. You don’t necessarily have to be exuberant or overdo it. Just make sure you acknowledge it in a positive manner with an accompanying smile, hug, pat on the back etc. For a quick example, going back to our morning routine scenario above, the day you make it out the door without any issues you can say – “You were so quick with your breakfast today! Look at that, thanks to your effort we are headed out just in time and we can be so much more relaxed on the drive to school. Let’s listen to your favorite music on the way!
  • Next, remind your child of the initial “little victories” every chance you get, especially at times when they fall behind on something else. For instance, at dinner time if your kid is playing with the food more than eating it, resist the temptation to nag. Instead, smile and mention “Hey, daddy, guess what, Johnny finished breakfast so quickly this morning! We celebrated by singing along to Johnny’s favorite music all the way to school. Want to tell daddy about it, Johnny?” And then gently remind him to eat his meal with a non-verbal cue. Sit back and enjoy your dinner as you watch your child regale daddy with how he vanquished his breakfast in the morning. While he is at it he will probably finish up his dinner quickly too because being reminded about the first little victory subconsciously motivates your child to achieve another one. (If that doesn’t happen just yet, be patient, it eventually will.)
  • Build up one little victory over the other. As your child works through dinner, have a surprised look on the face and say “There he did it again, he’s almost done with his dinner! Only 4 bites left.” Repeat the next morning as you guide your child through the routine. And so on.

It’s funny how well this works. You really can’t appreciate just how effective it is until you try it – at least, I didn’t!

Getting that first victory is the hardest part, but once you get past that hump, it leads to an amazing virtuous circle. When you have successfully established a momentum, you’ll be building smooth routines at a pace that far exceeds your own expectations!

The Key Takeaway

So, to sum it up, if we want to help our kids succeed at creating habits, we need to ensure that -

  • We start with a clear cue, a simple routine and a reward that our kids want.
  • Our job is do our best to help them somehow succeed with the routine consistently the first few times.
  • When they are successful, at first we give them the reward they expect + the additional reward of positive reinforcement.
  • Over a period of time, the temporary reward does not hold much appeal. Slowly phase it out. We need to follow our child’s cues on this. We continue to offer praise, support and positive reinforcement.
  • Over a longer period of time, as our kids start to get more and more intrinsically motivated, we take ourselves out of the equation and let them create their own routines that work for everyone.
  • Before we know it, life will be a beautiful simple sail — as it should be!

It’s like choosing what you want to put in your garden. You can put a few quick-grow plants and get a quick harvest – but you need to keep planting and pruning year after year. Or, you can put in a little bit of extra effort up front and plant an orchard. You’ll have to wait longer for the first harvest, but you can keep reaping the fruits of your labor year after year for decades to come!

The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents

Pick one of the routines in your house that is a source of constant power struggles and inspect it

  • Is there a clear cue?
  • Is there a simple routine that works for everyone?
  • Is there a clear reward that you kids want that makes them want to do the routine? If not, can you add a reward to make the routine more enticing to them?
  • Are you providing sufficient support to ensure that they are successful in carrying out this routine?
  • Are you providing sufficient positive reinforcement that the artificial rewards will become obsolete after a while and they’ll carry out the task just because?

As always, there are no right or wrong answers – just a LOT of trial and error. The good news however is, once you figure out how to engineer your first successful habit, you will find it easier to engineer your next one and even more on the one after that and so on. Stick with that first one, and you will be glad you did!

The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents

We’ll focus on one simple task this week – take on one routine, help your kids be successful by hook or crook, and then figure out a way to make it stick through positive reinforcement. Trust me, its totally worth the effort!

And don’t forget to come back next week for our final installment of the habits series – breaking our bad habit of nagging and screaming at our kids! (Sign up here if you haven’t already done so, to receive the article directly in your mailbox).

Other Articles in This Series:

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  1. says

    I LOVE this article. I have read so much about habits and feedback loops but I have never seen it put in such an easy to understand and simple way. After reading this article anyone can use your blueprint to set up habits. Thanks so much for writing this, it is very inspiring.

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      Thanks Shannon! We were having very rough mornings some time back, and I tried all kinds of things to smooth it out with various degrees of success …. Finally, what worked seemed to have this format. I tried it with some other routines like homework, toy clean up etc. and it seems to work. Now if only I could figure out how to apply this to my daily exercise habit which has gone off the rails…. *again*! :)

  2. Bernadette says

    Sumitha you must be reading my mind. I was thinking about your last blog entry last night and thought now that Easter break is coming up, there go any routines out the window. It’s nice to relax but sometimes slacking a bit in schedules and routines aren’t worth it when it comes time to go back to school.

    I haven’t been good about allowing margin time but I am fairly good about the night before prep, whether it be lists or packing for a trip, clothes and lunch and things like that before school. I am generally organized and detailed but the early enough to rise and to bed routines are not what I would like for myself or my daughter. Consistency, discipline, all of that (again!) . . .once it’s implemented, it does work pretty well, though, I’ll say that for most routines. There’s a balance between structured and flexible that I haven’t come close to mastering yet. . . .

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      From all your different comments here so far Bernadette, it seems to me like you sure are headed in the right direction!

      For some routines, you can set it once and be done with it (eg. brushing teeth, having a bath daily etc.) For others, we’ll have to keep going back to square 1 after each break (I’m already dreading the week after the long summer break!). I think over the course of years though, even that might start to smooth out — don’t you think?

      Either ways, hang in there. I think we’re doing great, and things will only get easier and more fulfilling as the years pass by :)