We live in a materialistic world and often when thinking of presents for our kids, we’re thinking of the next awesome piece of technology or the next new designer item. Sometimes, we don’t even have to think because they have ready lists anyway, quite possibly something they’ve seen on TikTok.
I do think though, regardless of the materialistic pleasures we can or can’t afford, one of the one of the most important gifts that we can and ought to give to our kids is just a set of good habits.
Habits that can keep them going through good times and difficult ones too, while we’re with them and in moments when they don’t have us by their side.
You’re probably thinking ‘what habits do I pass on?’ or maybe ‘where’s the time?’
I get it — it’s not easy sometimes.
Especially when we’re trying to juggle home and work or even battling with our very own demons such as our battles with self-worth or procrastination, we could find ourselves wondering what we’ve got that’s worthy of being passed on to them?
So sadly, sometimes, in complete overwhelm ourselves, we simply don’t begin. At other times, we’re found waiting for the right time.
But is there such a thing as the right time? If yes, then what’s a good time to form habits?
Habits Can Be Formed Even In Adversity
Although we feel that conditions need to be perfect for learning to take place in actual truth, there’s seldom a right time for learning. It’s happening even when you don’t try and even when you’re unaware.
If we don’t help or children to form great habits, it’s not as though they’ll grow up with no habits. Chances are that they’ll make some anyway. After all, habits are simply nothing but what we repeatedly do.
And we all know that changing from a bad habit to a good one is harder than forming a good habit to begin with.
“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” Warren Buffet
So perhaps the simpler thing is to try and subtly channel their energy such that they can learn the right things from the start.
As for the conditions needing to be perfect, I’ll give you a little yet powerful example.
Isaac Asimov, the famous American author and biochemistry professor at Boston University spoke of the candy store routine that he maintained throughout his life.
It’s a routine he picked up from his father. When Isaac was a child, his father owed candy stores in Brooklyn and ran them from 6.00am to 1.00am every day of the week. As a result of this routine, Issac also woke at 6.00 am and delivered papers. After school, little Isaac returned to help at the store.
In his posthumous memoir, he speaks of how he kept the routine throughout his life, waking at 5.00am and working as long as he could every day of the week, including his birthday and New Years Day.
‘I am still and forever in the candy store, …the schedule is there, the schedule is ground into me.’
There’s so much to learn from that one life. At a personal level, I too formed my habits early on imbibing a lot from my parents though more so, my grandparents. And today, it’s unto me to pass them on to my children.
But like most parents perhaps, I was caught in the daily rush of life and didn’t quite take it so seriously as I should have done. I thought that their learning happened primarily at school and then back home, I tried to be a gentle and encouraging parent but didn’t specifically focus on habit formation as a specific point.
But my thinking began to take shape during the lockdown. Here’s how it happened.
My Guilt Began During the Pandemic
I’m a single parent living in London. My daughter is 17 and my son is 12
My 17 year old is more mature and fairly independent with well formed habits so in this piece, I’ll be speaking specifically of my conscious work with my son.
Before the pandemic, I walked my son to the bus stop for school before taking the train to the office. Later in the evening, I was home in reasonable time but usually tired by then, I didn’t really think too much about the habits.
But like many parents, as I worked from home during the pandemic, I began to notice little details in his daily patterns — things that I’d not thought of earlier. It was almost as though the space gap between the school and the office had collapsed and both the ecosystems were now co-existing in the same living room. Gradually, the guilt began to hit.
I work at a global bank as have a demanding role. Juggling between meetings, I noticed that while I was working in a highly disciplined way, doing sophisticated problem solving and constantly stretching myself and encouraging others in my team to do so, my son we doing very little.
Beyond the screen of my laptop, I could see my son, who naturally unable to step out, was keeping himself entertained with the Xbox, What’s App, Snap and TikTok. The gap in our habits and our choices was too stark to ignore.
Sure, I get it that I’m a lot more mature but all the more so, this abhorrent wastage of time hurt my autodidactic brain and I felt that it was unto me, the adult, to help inspire meaningful change.
But I was also very conscious that I wanted to be gentle. There were two key reasons.
- First, we’re all unique and he doesn’t need to be me. The idea was not to clone myself but just help him form some good habits of his own.
- Second, I knew that he was doing an incredible job already because he’d wake up happy and be happy until he went to bed. Not once did he complain about me being at work or him unable to go out. He just woke up and adapted, building a mini-routine of his own, he’d phone his friends, chat to them, play the Xbox with them, then work for a bit, even practise football on his own. So I knew that he was doing okay overall.
The change had to be pleasant
Given the above, I felt that it was important that I didn’t become this unpleasant person who made home a total nightmare. The changes had to be subtle and the aim was for his new habit to serve him better, not me.
I’m aware that many of us carry unpleasant childhood memories of things we were forced to do as kids and we grow up hating them so much that we go to great lengths in life to avoid doing those things, such as excessive cleaning routines or forced studies. Mental health and confidence is critical and I really didn’t want this to become a dread and drudgery.
So I decided to take it slow.
And here I’ve shared three personal stories of the small yet meaningful changes we’ve made thus far. I’ve also share the stories of the resistance and reasoning as they may help if you were to try some habit formation too.
1. Making his bed
Normally, in a rush to tidy the home before leaving for work, I’d just make the beds. I’m a vert fast worker and usually don’t care who does the work as long as it gets done. So I didn’t think much of it.
But then I began to realise that I was wrong and he should learnt to make his own bed. So to change his habit and teach him to make his own bed, I had to first change my habit and stop making the beds. I then began asking him to make his bed each morning.
That’s when I got a barrage of questions, mainly of curiosity.
‘Why does it matter, I have to go back in the same bed anyway?’
To which I explained to him reasons such as that it is the first complete chore of the day and gives us a small sense of achievement. I explained that this will pave the way for the next set of tasks in the day and so on. Also he’ll have a clean bed to come back to.
‘I just asked one question,’ he said, as he sometimes feels that I explain in great detail.
In case you’d like to teach anyone the value of bed-making, try sharing this video where US Navy Admiral William H McRaven explains this in his commencement address to the graduates of The University of Texas at Austin on May 17, 2014.
I’m very pleased to say that this habit is now fairly well formed though yes, I do need to keep reinforcing it. I’ll come to that when speaking of the habit loop.
2. Leave his phone outside the bedroom
Again, I believe most parents would agree that children spend too much time on their devices.
I knew that the phone was his primary source of connection with his friends and the outer world during lockdown so I didn’t want to go harsh and I thought just going off the phone close to bed time would be a good start.
I began with asking him to leave his phone in the living room before going to bed so that that there are no phones in the bed room.
This was a little complex to begin with as he constantly wanted to check things, such as a football score, before falling asleep, but eventually, we worked it out.
He now automatically associates the living room charging spot as the station for his phone at night.
In fact, we’ve been able to extend this habit this even after the schools have reopened because now, I stretch the no phone time in the morning too so that he can’t check the phone until he’s totally ready for school.
3. Encouraging him to read
Finally, reading. I guess that in this case too, parents would agree with me that children these days simply don’t read enough books.
In fact as adults too, many of us also complain that though we read articles and the like on devices, we don’t read enough books.
So this time I asked that we set out 30 minutes per day to read a book.
Here’s how it went.
‘You need to read books.’
‘Why do I need to read books?’
‘What do you mean why?’
I found the question totally absurd but he was being genuine.
‘I mean I read stuff on my phone, why do I have to read a book specifically?’
‘Well why do you go to play football matches with your team?’ I ask.
‘What do you mean why?’ This time round, he finds my question absurd.
‘If football is all about kicking a ball, then you get to practice around home and in the park, so then why do you bother wearing a kit, playing for a team, seeing a game from start to finish and then tracking your team’s progress? It’s about turning a small potentially fun activity into something bigger and more meaningful, taking an idea from start to finish and then charting how far you’ve come.’
‘I just asked one question!’ he exclaimed again.
I do note though that each time, even though he moans about the long reply, he does ask and he does listen to the full reply.
But the battle was far from over. He finished one book and we began again.
‘There’s nothing good to read.’
So the following day, we took a walk to Waterstones and he’s now reading Night Bus hero by Qnjalu Q. Rauf.
Gradually, we’ve increased the reading time from 30 minutes to an hour and I don’t allow breaks even for Sundays. In fact we also read on 31 October 2020, which was the weekend and Halloween.
The Habit Loop
While we’re trying to form habits, it’s important to understand how the habit loop works.
The concept of a habit loop was first introduced back in 1937 by B.F. Skinner and. It was then popularized by Charles Duhigg in his book ‘The Power of Habit’ where he presents a habit loop formula.
According to this formula, the key steps to habit formation are to have a cue or a trigger, followed by a routine and then finally a reward.
For example, some of the cues in the above experiments would be those such as if he was to place his book on the clean bed before leaving then that act of placing the book would be a cue. Alternatively, my reminder acts as a cue. At bed time, the charger being plugged in the living room acts as a cue because to leave the phone on charge, he’d have to leave it outside the room.
The next is the habit which is the routine or the habit itself.
As for the reward, I’ve tried not to put extrinsic rewards so that the habit is it’s own reward. It might take some time, but I believe that if we persist long enough, he will begin to see the benefit of the habit and it will happen. For example, when he began reading, he’s ask every ew minutes if it was time to finish. Gradually he began asking less and less and last evening, I was thrilled to see him absorbed in the book, actually smiling to himself! It was a beautiful moment and I felt that the small steps seemed to be paying-off. Somewhere, the parent in you feels reassured that you must be doing something right.
I asked, ‘are you enjoying the book?’
To which he replied, ‘yes because I chose it.’
I hope he begins to enjoy the habits and can say one day that he chose them.
I suppose we still have a long way to go and that’s fine.
What my little experiments have proven to us is that it’s possible to start small and with little minds, it’s possibly the best way to go.
After all, habits are about small things done repeatedly and that’s precisely what we are trying to inculcate.
Just one habit at a time is a great start. We only need to keep going.
“Knowledge is not only power; it is happiness, and being taught is the intellectual analog of being loved.” — Isaac Asimov
Previously published on medium
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