Habits Q & A: Starting with Older Children; Dealing with Negativity

Habit training is easiest when we start when our children are little. It just makes sense, since habits are formed by repetition, that the longer we can repeat a certain habit, the more engrained it will become.

But those of you with older children, take heart. I love this quote by Charlotte Mason:

It is pleasant to know that, even in mature life, it is possible by a little persistent effort to acquire a desirable habit.

Home Education, p. 135

Don’t give up hope on your older children or on yourself! It’s never too late to start learning good habits. It will take effort, yes. It will take persistence, yes. But it is possible! And today we want to answer a couple of questions about habit training with older children.

If you haven’t had a chance to see our other Habits Q&A posts, check them out here. Here’s the first one for today:

Question: If the family just got to know Charlotte Mason and her philosophy of education, and they’re past the early years, you did say that it’s never too late to start learning habits, but how can those lost times be redeemed? Where and how do we start?

The good news is that God made our brains to be able to form habits our entire lives. With older children, one thing you need to think about is the role that triggers, or cues, can play in the process. Let me explain what I mean by “trigger.” The habit cycle is that

  1. There’s a cue, there’s a trigger that initiates that path in the brain. It prompts the brain to “go run this path”;
  2. You run that path, you perform the habit; then
  3. You feel rewarded somehow. So the next time you receive that cue or that trigger, it’s reinforced, and you feel like, “Yeah, I want to do that again!” That’s how the habit cycle works. That’s how a habit is formed—trigger, action, reward—but it all starts with a trigger or cue.

With younger children, usually, we are helping them set up those cues or those triggers. It might be a chore chart that prompts them. It might be a certain time of day that is the cue; for example, “we start school at 9:00” or whatever time it is. Those are cues or triggers. 

With an older child or an adult, they often need to think up their own triggers. They need to take ownership of the habit and determine what would make the best cue or prompt or trigger for them. 

Let me give you an example from my own life. If you’ve read Laying Down the Rails for Yourself, you know this story. I was a Coca-Cola girl forever, Amen. I drank only Coca-Cola for about 20 years. I did not like water. It was tasteless. It was boring. I drank only Coca-Cola. But a few years ago, I came to the point where I couldn’t do that anymore. I had to make a change. And that meant I had to instill a new habit. You see, rather than focus on the bad habit of “don’t drink Coca-Cola,” you focus on instilling a new, good habit instead, one that will take the bad habit’s place. That’s a key. Don’t focus on the bad habit you want to break; focus on the new good habit you want to put in its place. In this case, I decided to start a new good habit of drinking water every day.

So I knew I needed a cue, a trigger, that was very obvious—one that I would not be able to ignore. I went and got two bottles of water for every day of the week. I decided I’m going to start drinking a bottle of water in the morning and a bottle of water at night. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but it was huge at the time. So I set out those 14 bottles of water for the week on my desk, because my office is in my bedroom, which means I was going to walk right past it every day. I was going to see it. I lined them up there where I would notice them.

And then, just to make sure I noticed them, I took little sticky notes of different colors, and I labeled them with the days of the week and stuck them on the bottles. So now I had this big line up of water bottles and lots of color to attract my attention. And then, I went one step further: I took two of the days and switched them out of order. And some of you are thinking, “So?” and others of you are thinking, “You didn’t!” Those of you who are thinking, “You didn’t!” you know what I’m talking about. That not-in-order was like a flashing light: “Aaaa! It’s not in order!” It was an obvious cue, a visual cue, right there.

So when I got up, I would walk past, see that cue, and remember, “Oh yes, I want to drink a bottle of water in the morning.” That was the new habit track I wanted to lay down, but I needed that cue to remind me. I knew that if I had to walk to the kitchen, get a glass out of the cupboard, go to the sink, fill it up, and then drink it, it wasn’t going to happen. I needed something convenient and obvious. With the water sitting right there, I just grabbed a bottle, opened it, and started drinking. Very easy. Same thing in the evening. It was an obvious trigger to get me going with that new habit. 

Now, after I did that for about four weeks, I woke up one morning with the weirdest sensation I have ever felt in my entire life: I woke up thirsty for water. It was really weird. You see, that external cue had become an internal cue. That’s when I knew the new habit was in place. So now I don’t have bottles of water sitting on my desk. Now I just fill up my own water bottle at the sink, because now I have that internal cue. That new habit-track is laid down so deeply that I don’t need the external trigger anymore. 

I say all of that to encourage you that if your children are older, they need to start understanding how to form their own habits, how the habit cycle works. You might sit down with them and brainstorm, “Okay, what kind of cue, what kind of obvious, convenient, visual cue could you use to help you remember what it is you’re trying to accomplish here?” That can be very helpful.

Let me give you two other tips. First, you might sit down with that older child and say, “All right, here’s the habit we’re going to work on. Let’s talk about our expectations” As we discussed in previous posts, a habit is really a category that can have a variety of applications. So clarify what applications you want to see with this child’s new habit—What are we going to be working on specifically during these six to eight weeks?—so the child knows what the expectations are. Then go work on practicing it often. 

Charlotte gave a simple example that you might share with your child. If he plays a musical instrument, remind him that a person doesn’t get better at playing the piano unless he practices it every day. The more you practice, the better you’re going to get. If your child is in sports, remind her that a person doesn’t get good at dribbling a soccer ball with her feet unless she practices. The more you practice that skill, the better you’re going to get. It’s the same with any habit. The more you practice it, the better you’re going to get. So here’s the habit we’re working on; here’s what it’s going to look like, with specific expectations and applications; then let’s set to work and try to practice it as often as you can.

The second tip has to do with choosing the habit for that older child to work on. With your older kids, I would recommend that you ask yourself what one habit is most important for that child as he goes into his adult years? What is the big area you think is lacking? For example, if the child dawdles a lot, that could be a real disadvantage at a job later on, so maybe you need to focus on that. Or if the child does not have self-control, she loses her temper, flies off the handle, and lashes out. That could be a real disadvantage for relationships in adult life, so that would be a good one to work on.

Just think about what is going to benefit that child most in the few years that you have left to get him ready for adult life. Or pick your first habit by just identifying, “This is the one that really bugs me the most about this kid, so let’s do something about it.” Obviously, you don’t tell him that. You don’t approach the habit that way with him. You want to approach it as “Here’s how this habit is going to benefit you, and this is why we’re working on it.” 

I hope those ideas help you as you guide your older students into cultivating good habits. Read through Laying Down the Rails for Yourself together and discuss the ideas with your young adult as you help him learn how to form his own good habits for the rest of his life.

The next question addresses one particular bad habit and how to go about replacing it.

Question: My almost teenage son tends to think negatively in any situation. Is there any way to change this mindset and build a habit of positivity?

That’s a good question. First, I want to encourage you to ask the Lord for wisdom about whether this is a part of his personality, just the way he’s wired, or if it’s just that he’s in a slump emotionally. Some personalities are wired to look for potential problems in any situation, and that can be a good thing. That can be a good safety feature. If we tend to run off in a direction without counting the cost and looking for what might possibly go wrong, that kind of personality can really help save our hide. So don’t necessarily think about it automatically as a fault. It might be that it is how he’s wired, to look for potential problems. What we want to work on is how he expresses it and make sure it’s not just complaining and discouraging everybody around him.

We want to make sure that our children don’t slip into a victim mentality that, “Oh, this is all happening to me and I can’t do anything about it,” instead of, “It’s happening around me and I can choose how to respond to it.” See the difference between those two? So we want to make sure he doesn’t slip into a victim mentality. 

I guess what I would encourage you to do is, if you see that he does tend to think of the potential negatives in a situation automatically, that’s where his brain goes, then the positive habit that you want to put in its place is to also think of some potential solutions to that negative situation. So he’s not just saying, “Here’s what’s wrong, that’s it”; he’s saying, “I see something that’s wrong, and here, let me think of a couple of different ways we might be able to change that and solve that issue.” I think that’s the new habit that we want to encourage. For example, if he comes to the table at supper time and says, “Are we having chicken again?” Okay, he’s identified a potential problem to him. It’s a negative to him. So let’s encourage him to think of options to solve that perceived problem. For example, one option that he could choose, which would also be a related consequence, might be, “You can either eat the meal without complaining, or you can not eat this meal. It’s up to you. Your choice.”

But you could also encourage him to think of creative solutions like, “Alright, would you like to cook supper tomorrow? You can come up with the menu,” or even ”Help me with the menu planning for next week. Help me with the grocery shopping, so that we are getting a variety of healthful things, but not always chicken (in your mind).”

Another option could be, maybe he decides he’s going to go eat at a friend’s house. Maybe another option is, “You can order pizza and pay for it with your own money, if you would prefer.” 

The thing is, don’t take it personally: ”I spent all this time in the kitchen cooking, and you don’t want to eat my meal?” Don’t take it personally. Instead, try to help him use those situations for practicing the new habit: coming up with some possible solutions. Try to change your own mind-set from dread to anticipation: “Oh, good! Here’s another opportunity to practice the new habit.”

And by the way, when you’re discussing this habit with him ahead of time, let him know that it’s going to be a huge benefit when he starts a job. Bosses don’t want to be told what they’re doing wrong, period. They want employees who come and say, ‘’Hey, I noticed this potential problem, and here are a couple of ways we might solve it.” So when you’re sitting down with your child during a neutral time, and you say, ”Here’s the habit I think will really benefit you and here’s why,’’ that’s your why.

Yes, it is glorifying to God when we don’t dwell on the negatives. But again, it might just be how he’s wired to think that way. So try to help him put in place a good habit of thinking of potential solutions to the problems. That’s where I recommend you go with it.

We have more Habit Q&A posts coming up in future weeks. Thanks for joining me.