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Whether you are instilling a new habit in your own life or in your child’s life, you need to make the initial decisions about which habit you want to work on, what it will look like, whether you need to break it down into smaller more manageable stops along the way, when you are going to start working on it, and how you are going to practice it. Repetition is a key. Repeat the new habit as often as possible.
It helps to know the reason behind that repetition. Scientists tell us that habits are a three-step process. First, there is a trigger or prompt that cues you to do the desired action. Second, you do the action in response. Third, you experience some kind of reward that makes you want to repeat the process. The more you repeat the process, the deeper it becomes engrained in your brain.
As an adult you have to determine the triggers that will cue you to do the desired action for each habit you want to form. You have to come up with ways to make the trigger obvious for yourself so you will be sure to notice it and perform the action every time, especially in the initial stages of instilling a new habit.
One mom I talked to wanted to start a habit of exercising every morning. She found some exercise videos that she liked and that would run on her laptop. So she put her computer on the kitchen counter before she went to bed. When she got up in the morning and went into the kitchen, she saw her computer sitting there and remembered, “Oh, yes, I wanted to exercise this morning.” Her computer on the counter was her trigger. It prompted her to perform the desired action.
When it comes to habit-training your child, a parent can come alongside to help the child by spotlighting the trigger for him. For example, if you are cultivating a habit of orderliness in your child, you might decide that the first step will be picking up the toys before bedtime. As the time draws closer, you can give the child a heads-up: “We have five minutes left before we need to put things away for bedtime.” You are letting him know what will be expected.
When the five minutes are up, you spotlight that time-trigger by saying something like, “Okay, it’s time to get ready for bed. What do we do first?” If necessary, you could spotlight even more by making that statement while standing beside the toy box, maybe even holding out your hand near it. You are spotlighting the simple phrase, “It’s time to get ready for bed” as the trigger. You want that phrase to prompt him to pick up his toys and put them away.
Of course, your long-term goal is that the trigger will become an internal one. When the child is old enough to look at the clock and see that it is bedtime, his mind will run the engrained path, It’s bedtime. Put my things away. But in the beginning stages, you spotlight that trigger for him.
Notice, though, that the parent does not combine the spotlight with a direct command of what to do. The parent should not become the trigger. More on that next time.
(For more on the habit process and triggers that will remind you of your desired habit, see Laying Down the Rails for Yourself: Good Habits Are Not Just for Kids, a new book from Simply Charlotte Mason.)