Have you ever walked or driven all the way to work and not even remembered doing it? What about this: turning off the light when leaving a room, not realizing that someone else is still in the room? These are simple examples, but they illustrate the power of habits.

You don’t remember your route to work because it’s habitual—the same thing with turning off the light when you leave a room. When an act becomes habitual, we often don’t even remember doing it. “It’s just a habit,” we say when others ask why we did it.

Whether turning off lights, brushing their teeth, or eating healthily, we all want our children to establish positive habits. We know that positive habits can impact many aspects of their lives, including their health, mental well-being, safety, academic success, and more. Understanding a bit more about the science of habit formation can help us harness their power to improve our children’s lives.

The Science of Habit formation

When we say something is a habit, we are really saying that we don’t have to put a lot of thought into it; it has become almost automatic. If we have a habit of brushing our teeth twice a day, it means that we don’t even intentionally decide to brush; we do it automatically. But how does that happen? 

Psychologists have done quite a bit of study on this process of habit formation. It turns out that habits are formed through three main components: the cue, the action, and the reward. To create a habit, one starts with the intention to do a specific action. Let’s say it’s exercise every morning. We have to initially have the intention to exercise each morning. The cue is probably something like rolling out of bed and seeing our exercise gear next to us. We would need to establish a routine of exercising each morning and repeat it (a lot). The action, of course, is exercising. The reward is the good feeling we get after exercising (thank you, endorphins). Overtime (repetition is key here), we no longer even have to think about exercising each morning. We do it habitually because the contextual cue (rolling out of bed) is there. 

Put this way, forming a new habit sounds easy. In reality, of course, we know it is not always that easy. Finding the motivation to keep up the new routine initially is often a challenge. If you’ve ever tried to establish a new exercise routine, for example, you know this is true. Repetition is a vital part of what makes a new habit “stick.” Without enough repetition of the new routine, the habit will not form. Researchers find that, on average, it takes about 66 days to establish a new habit.

The Power of Habits for Children 

Now that we understand a little about how habits are formed let’s consider why habits might be helpful for our children. What are some actions that we would love our children to do regularly? Maybe it’s something like brushing their teeth, putting their clothes away properly, reading each night, or doing their chores. Any of these tasks could be formed into a habit. Wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t have to remind your child to do any of these things, but they just did them, almost automatically?

This is one reason why helping children establish good habits is so important–the power that habits have in our lives. When a task becomes so habitual that we don’t even have to think about it in order to do it each day, a major shift happens. We no longer have to engage our conscious intention to complete the task. This is especially helpful for children because, as we all know, sometimes motivating them to do tasks is challenging. Habits eliminate much of the need for motivation because the task is now automatic. Additionally, psychologists tell us that habits often kick in when your resources are limited. That means that even when you (or your child) is tired, upset, or hungry, habits will often kick in to help you complete a task without you even needing to think about it. Amazing!

Another reason why habits can be beneficial for children has to do with the issue of self-control. It’s natural to think that habits and self-control must be linked. It seems like it takes a lot of self-control, for example, for a professional swimmer to get up each morning and train for hours instead of just sleeping in. In reality, researchers find that it isn’t wholly reliant on self-control once a habit is formed. Once the automatic nature of a habit takes hold, not as much self-control is required.

This is great news for parents. Children, especially young children, are still developing self-control. This is one of the challenges we face as parents in encouraging children to behave appropriately–a lack of self-control. However, if we can help our children establish positive habits, we might bypass the problem of self-control quite a bit. Once a habit is formed, children no longer have to rely on their limited self-control alone to complete the task. If, for example, a child has established a strong habit of reading each night before bedtime, it might require less self-control to complete the task than if a habit had not been established. This is not to say that self-control has no role in initial habit formation. However, it does not play as vital a role as one might imagine. 

Helping Children Establish Positive Habits

We see now how powerful habits can be in our lives and those of our children. The question remains: how can we help our children establish positive, healthy habits? Many of us have had the experience of wanting to set up a new habit in our lives like healthy eating or exercise, and we often find ourselves still struggling to do it months later. Science can help us in this regard too. Now that we understand how habits are formed, we can use this knowledge to “trick” our brains into setting up smart habits. Here are a few tips to help your children set up positive habits:

Take away the friction. Try to eliminate anything that might impede you from completing your chosen task. For example, if you would like your child to establish a habit of reading before bedtime, you could:

  • Leave a book right next to their bed (visual cues help)
  • Make sure they have good lighting in their reading area
  • Make sure they go to bed early enough to allow time for reading
  • Do not allow electronics in their reading area

Although these are simple ideas, they all help remove any friction that might stop your child from reading at bedtime.

Look for the right reward. When it comes to habits, the “reward” is the natural consequence of completing the task. The reward is not meant to be an extrinsic motivator like stickers or dessert. Sometimes, however, when establishing a new habit, it can be helpful to tie something enjoyable to the new habit. For example, if you are trying to set up an exercise habit, you might listen to audiobooks or podcasts while exercising to help enhance the “reward” feeling of exercise. Although the great feeling that results from exercise is the built-in reward, this added enjoyment can help form the habit easier.

For children, we can help them see the intrinsic rewards of positive habits. For example, reading is enjoyable because it is relaxing and helps them fall asleep easily. Pointing out these rewards might be motivating to children as well. Additionally, we can perhaps add enjoyment to their reading by letting them listen to quiet music or cuddling with them while they read. Once they associate the new habit (reading) with these enjoyable feelings, the reward system takes over.

Repetition. As we’ve noted, the science of habit formation is clear that repetition is key to creating a new habit. This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of establishing a new habit–staying motivated to repeat the task repeatedly. 

With children, helping them keep up a new routine in order to establish a habit might require a little external motivation. For example, when trying to create a nighttime reading habit, you could place a chart on the wall tracking how many days in a row they read at night. Encourage them to see if they can keep up with the new reading routine for at least 60 days. This is about the length needed for a new habit to take hold. 

Habits are a powerful tool that can be used to create positive change in our lives and those of our children. Children can help influence their behavior in ways that can be beneficial for their entire life. By understanding how habits work, we can help our children establish habits that work to help them meet their goals, whether related to academics, personal life, or healthy living.

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