Thursday, April 15, 2010

How We Parent Using Habits

When it comes to parenting, we tend toward the old-fashioned.  We have high expectations of our kids.  We expect them to be kind, respectful, honest, obedient and generous.  At the same time, we expect them to act like children.  If they didn't, we'd be worried.  What has been challenging for us is to set those high (yet reasonable) expectations for our children without causing them to feel like failures when they mess up.  Because they will (and do) mess up.  A lot.

When I think about parenting, I think about how I'm parented by God.  He has expectations of me.  I need to do my best to live up to them.  I know I'm going to screw up.  I know He's going to forgive me.  Completely.  I can either feel like a failure when I mess up, or I can acknowledge that me screwing up is sin (defined most often in the Bible as independence- going our own way versus God's way) and try to change that behavior and distance myself from that sin.  When I put a name to my screw-uppy-ness (sin), it makes me feel less like a failure and I'm more apt to pick myself up and try to live up to those expectations afresh.

Back to parenting our kids.  As a way of helping them put a little distance between their behaviors and themselves, so they don't feel failure so acutely, we talk a lot about habits.

Back a few months ago, Sam, who in general is a very sweet, smart and delightful boy, began lying.  A lot.   He would lie about if he finished a chore.  He would lie about whether he hit Sadie.  He would lie about whether he was the one who made the mess.  He would lie to get Sadie in trouble (I have no tolerance for this kind of lie).  It is not uncommon for kids to go through phases like this, but for Sam, it became a knee-jerk reaction.  We'd ask him a question and he'd lie without pausing to think.

Here's how our conversation went..."Sam, I've been noticing that you've developed a habit of lying.  A habit is something we do without really thinking about what we're doing.  We just do it automatically.  I think that when we ask you a question, you lie without thinking about what your answer will be and we'd like to help you break or stop this habit.  Would you like me to help you break this habit?  From now on, when I think you are lying, I'm going to remind you that lying is a bad habit and ask you to tell the truth.  Soon, telling the truth will become your new, good habit.  You can help by being honest and trying hard to stop the bad habit of lying."

Sam was agreeable and over the course of the next few weeks, we broke his lying habit.  At first, he continued to lie.  When I suspected a lie, I'd remind him gently (this is key!) that I want to help him break the habit.  He would more often than not fess up.  He would still receive a consequence if he had really done something wrong (that he was lying to get out of), but I would praise him for telling the truth.  Before long, telling the truth (even when it meant he'd get in trouble) became the norm.  By putting the focus on the habit and not on Sam himself, I think it was easier for him to bounce back each time and try again.  He formed a new habit.  Now, we're not talking about avoiding responsibility here.  Sam knows he's responsible for his habits.  As we are of our own habits.  Kind of scary, no?

This is just one example, but this technique can be used for many different bad habits.  Often, if Sam and Sadie are both working on habits that need changing, I'll add in one for myself, like not raising my voice.  I ask them to help remind me and we all work on changing our habits together.

Charlotte Mason was a big proponent of focusing on habits.  Two of my favorite quotes of hers are...

Thoughts produce action.
Actions produce habits.
Habits produce character.


The habits of the child are, as it were, so many little hammers beating out by slow degrees the character of a man.

Simply Charlotte Mason, an excellent website (based on the teachings of Charlotte Mason), has put out a book called, Laying Down the Rails: A Charlotte Mason Habits Handbook.  You can read about this book here.  I own the book and do refer to it now and again for guidance, but you do not need a book to work with your children on their habits. 

Update 4/22/10:  Another reference tool is this FREE downloadable e-book called Smooth and Easy Days by Sonya Shafer.  You can read about it and download it here.

Using the example above, you can jump right in today.  I'm not promising it will work for all parenting dilemmas, but we find it an easy, gentle way to begin.  When it comes to parenting, we need all the little helps we can get.
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  1. Great post...this is a great way of dealing with habits. I have to say, I probably didn't deal with it as well as this...but we tried not to make it "you are a bad person becuase you did such and such"...but more of a "we love you but we don't love the behavior."

    I really like the Charlotte Mason philosophies...back when I was considering home-schooling there were many aspects of her techniques that I wanted to incorporate into our days. (And I just still might!! Still praying on that...xo)

  2. Good stuff. I'm feeling the pain of not having habits. Stressful times, where regular activities are not in place, tend to bring out the worst moments.
    Looking forward to using these concepts more effectively.
    I appreciate you example of talking with Sam.
    Thanks- as always for your post- Laura

  3. Just wanted to say that I love your blog! Have been making your skillet granola for the past several weeks and can't get enough:) The quote above is very similar to one of my favs.
    "Watch your words, for they become your actions.
    Watch your actions, for they become your habits.
    Watch your habits, for they become your character.
    Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny."
    Keep up the good work! ~Amanda

  4. Excellent post! We are dealing with lying with our five year old right now. About the most inane things....washing hands, which shoes are being worn, whether or not anyone saw a bird fly in front of our car. While we have focused on the behavior and still reinforced that it does not diminish our love, I really like this approach of discussing the habits we want to form. I am going to talk to Todd about this tonight!

  5. This is great. Thank you for sharing this wisdom. I have a child with a habit I want to help her with.



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