Don’t Become the Trigger: Habit-Training, part 4

Parents can help children establish good habit triggers

We talked last time about the importance of having a trigger that will prompt you to do the desired habit every time. Adults usually have to come up with triggers for themselves, but parents can help their children by spotlighting triggers for them. The trick is to not become your child’s trigger.

This is where many parents veer off course in habit-training. They confuse spotlighting the trigger with directly telling the child what to do. Yes, you should explain what you expect from the child; but then when it comes time to practice the action, you want the child to connect the action with the trigger, not with your command. That is the only way the habit will eventually become internal—the child’s own possession.

If you are constantly telling the child what to do, he will connect the action with your command. Your command will become the trigger, so you will have to tell him what to do every time you want him to do it: “Clean your room. Stand up straight. Get your work done.” He will soon tire of your “always telling him” and start to tune you out. No habit will be formed . . . well, except the one of tuning you out.

Charlotte hit the nail on the head in her description:

“ ‘I’m sure I am always telling her’—to keep her drawers neat, or to hold up her head and speak nicely, or to be quick and careful about an errand, says the poor mother, with tears in her eyes; and indeed this, of ‘always telling’ him or her is a weary process for the mother; dull, because hopeless. She goes on ‘telling’ to deliver her own soul, for she has long since ceased to expect any result: and we know how dreary is work without hope. But, perhaps, even his mother does not know how unutterably dreary is this ‘always telling,’ which produces nothing, to the child. At first he is fretful and impatient under the patter of idle words; then he puts up with the inevitable; and comes at last hardly to be aware that the thing is being said. As for any impression on his character, any habit really formed, all this labour is without result; the child does the thing when he cannot help it, and evades as often as he can. And the poor disappointed mother says, ‘I’m sure I’ve tried as much as any mother to train my children in good habits, but I have failed’ ” (Vol. 2, p. 174).

Put the spotlight on the trigger that you want your child to eventually internalize; don’t become the trigger yourself.

So what do you do if you spotlight the trigger but the child doesn’t respond? That’s when consequences come into play. We’ll talk about consequences next time.

(Learn more about the differences between habit-training yourself and habit-training your child with Laying Down the Rails for Yourself: Good Habits Are Not Just for Kids, a new book from Simply Charlotte Mason.)


  1. Would a chore chart be a trigger for doing daily household chores? If so, my mistake is “reminding” (nagging) the children to consult the chart and get busy. So they ignore me and the chart. *sigh* This blog series is very helpful and right on time! Thank you, Sonya. 🙂

    • Yes, I think I would consider a chore chart a trigger. If they are ignoring it, however, you may need to take steps to make it a more obvious trigger that will catch their attention without your “reminding.” Maybe put it in a more conspicuous place for a while. Consequences can also be good motivation. We’ll discuss that next time.

  2. Thank you!!! I’ve just discovered this page and am loving this series, especially the audio of it so I could listen while driving! I could use some advice though. The behavior/habit I want to work on with my 8 year old daughter is her back talking/bad attitude. I don’t know if there’s a trigger I can come up with other than my reminding her. Help please!

    • With a bad habit that you want to break, the best thing to do is to focus on the good habit that you want to instill in its place. So rather than talking back with an attitude, what is it you want to see? Focus on that habit instead. Have a short heart-to-heart with your daughter. Explain why the new, good habit will be a benefit to her throughout life. Outline your expectation in brief, specific terms. What is the one thing you want to start with: responding with “Yes, mom” in a kind voice, perhaps? Then focus on that one habit. The prompt would be your saying something to her. Practice with good and encouraging comments coming from you, to which she should respond appropriately. Use good examples, encouragement, and consequences to reinforce and to motivate. Once the habit is starting to take hold, you might expand your comments to asking her to do something you know she would rather not. Step into it a little at a time, and focus on the good habit. You move toward what you focus on.

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