Habits Q & A: Avoiding Pressuring a Child; When to Move on to a New Habit

Today we have two more habit-training questions to answer. We’ve already discussed how habit training works; how to think of appropriate consequences and use them effectively; how to do habit training with multiple children, with older children, and with children who have special challenges; what to do about bad habits; and much more.

Avoiding Pressuring a Child

Today, our first question is 

How would you know if you’re putting too much pressure on your child in the process of habit training?

That’s tricky, because sometimes in habit training, you have to be the “bad guy” in your child’s eyes, especially when it comes to consequences. Plus, you have to be consistent; you can’t expect Joey to take out the trash this time but not next time. And those aren’t usually popular positions to take. Your child probably isn’t going to give you a hug today and say, “Thanks so much for standing firm and helping me to grow in self-control” or “in obedience” or “in orderliness.”

But I think this question draws an important distinction: You need to stand firm in expecting your child to grow, but you must be careful not to attack or pressure your child to grow faster than he is ready to. How do you know the difference? I think there are some warning flags that may signal when you might have crossed the line into pressuring rather than encouraging growth. Let me give you four that came to my mind; you’ll probably think of others too.

You need to stand firm in expecting your child to grow, but you must be careful not to attack or pressure your child to grow faster than he is ready to.

First, if you have become more concerned about your child’s outward appearance than about his heart, you may have crossed the line. Most of the time, the main way you can judge whether a habit is taking root is by watching what your child does, his behavior. For example, if you’re working on the habit of orderliness, and the application is unloading the dishwasher and putting the dishes where they belong, you’re going to be watching your child’s actions. Did he put the dishes where they belong? Did he perform the habit you’re working on? 

But we all know that there are moments when a child might do the correct actions on the outside but harbor a bad attitude on the inside. As parents, we need to have our radar up to notice those moments. If we don’t deal with the heart attitude, habit training can become something it was never intended to be: a tool of division, turning our children’s hearts away from our own. 

So if you’re so focused on Did Joey do the action? and are discounting or ignoring a root of bitterness that is springing up in his heart, you’ve probably crossed the line into pressuring rather than encouraging growth.

If we don’t deal with the heart attitude, habit training can become something it was never intended to be: a tool of division, turning our children’s hearts away from our own.

The second warning flag is if you are more concerned about what others will think than about what is best for your child in the moment. This warning flag is especially important when you’re in public. Our children know how to embarrass us; but let’s be honest, usually that is not their intent. Usually there is a different factor involved in the situation: perhaps the child is confused or feeling insecure or trying to lighten up a heavy discussion or battling fear or pride. Our job as parents is to focus on what is best for this child in this moment, not on what will help us save face. So if your focus has shifted to What will others think? rather than What is best for my child right now?, you might be pressuring rather than encouraging growth.

Third, if you are using bribes or threats rather than well-thought-through, appropriate consequences, that’s another potential warning flag. Bribes and threats are usually employed when the parent doesn’t know what to do but feels pressure that she has to do something . . . now! We need to keep in mind that habit training is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a way of life, not a quick band-aid. So take a deep breath and remind yourself that habit training is not about manipulation tactics. It’s about building and protecting that firm foundation of a heart-to-heart relationship with your child, and then coming alongside him and working with him to help him become the best version of himself that he can possibly be. You can’t force him to do that, to make those good decisions, but you can model it in your own life; you can nurture a desire for it through the books that you share with him; and you can make it an integral part of your family culture to lovingly help each other grow step-by-step in that direction.

We need to keep in mind that habit training is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a way of life, not a quick band-aid.

So that’s the fourth warning flag that comes to mind: If you catch yourself thinking that it’s all up to you whether your child is a success or a failure, you may have crossed the line into pressuring him. Yes, put forth effort. Yes, be faithful. But be careful that you don’t cross the line into manipulation. Often, we cross the line when we start to feel pressure ourselves, and that’s when it’s easy for the pressure to overflow onto our children. 

But it’s not all up to you. God has put you in this position to walk with one of His children, to point out the best way, and to encourage him in that way. But you are not alone. God is also working in that child’s heart and life. All He requires of you is that you are faithful—that you stand firm, pointing out the best way with love and with grace—and remember that you are working in cooperation with God. So when you feel the pressure mounting, take a good look at it, call it what it is, then give it to God. Exchange that anxiety, that pressure, for His peace. And if you’re living each day in His peace and His grace, you will be able to encourage your child to grow without all the pressure.

When to Move on to a New Habit

The second question we want to discuss today is

How do we know when we are ready to move on to the next habit?

Before I answer this question, let’s review something we talked about in previous posts. The habits that Charlotte Mason recommended we work on are broad categories: the habit of kindness, the habit of thankfulness, the habit of health, of truthfulness, of a sweet, even temper. You could call them character traits. So as we work on each of those habit areas, we focus on whatever specific application is appropriate for each child during this season of life. And as your child grows, you can revisit a habit category and focus on a different application during that season. 

The beauty of focusing on habits of character is that there is always room for growth, no matter how old you are. You can keep growing in kindness and thankfulness and health habits as an adult. So it’s good that there is always room for growth, but that also means that you never really completely finish those habits. There will always be more possible applications for each one. It’s a continual process, layer upon layer of growth.

So, to answer the question, Charlotte encouraged us to focus on one habit, and the specific application(s) of that habit, for six to eight weeks. Scientists today have confirmed that it takes about 40–60 days to get a new habit path established in the neurons of the brain, or, as we like to put it, to get that plate up and spinning. 

So be careful not to shortchange that process. Don’t quit working on a habit before that path is firmly in place: six to eight weeks. On the other hand, don’t drag it out and keep focusing on the same habit forever until your child is sick of hearing about it. Familiarity breeds contempt. Six to eight weeks is a good guideline. 

If your child seems to have taken to one particular application of that habit area quickly, you might be able to broaden that application during those weeks. So if you’re focusing on the habit of attention, for example, your main application for one child might be paying full attention during the math lesson. If he’s getting the hang of that, you might be able to broaden the application to include paying attention during the history lesson too. Or for some children, you could make their initial application the broader one of paying attention during school time, and if they’re ready for more, you could then broaden that application to paying attention during church or when a parent is giving instructions for chores. A child with special needs may need to work on a very narrow application for the whole eight weeks. How narrow or broad the application is depends on each child. So you can have some flexibility to adjust those applications during those six to eight weeks as needed, but just remember that even one habit application, firmly set in place, can make a big difference in your child’s life and in your home. Focus on one at a time, and don’t despise the day of small things. 

At the end of the six or eight weeks, pick a different habit area and shift your focus there. Just as we try to use different parts of the brain during our daily school schedule, and we try to keep variety in our weekly school schedule, we’re doing the same thing with habits. Moving to a different habit area will refresh your mind and keep motivation high. So move on, but keep an eye on the previous habits already established. Just like that plate spinner, your focus is on the new plate but you are aware of the others that are already spinning, and you can give one a little nudge if needed.

Let me close with one more thought about moving on to a new habit: When you have finished those six to eight weeks, as you are contemplating what new habit area to move on to and what applications would be best for each child, I encourage you to pause and look back at that new habit you just finished working on and recognize the growth that happened. It might not be as much growth as you were hoping for, but there was growth. Find it and celebrate it! Or maybe one child excelled even more than you were expecting in that habit area. Celebrate that! 

There is always room for more growth, but let’s get in a habit of celebrating the growth that happened. And then, I think, it will be easier for us to keep going, to keep laying down the rails that will set our children up for success and give us smooth and easy days.

If you would like to learn more about instilling good habits, take a look at our family of Laying Down the Rails resources.