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The Power of Habit: Clean at last!

I have a weakness for books that take brain research and attempt to apply it to our everyday lives. I think this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the time we’re living in: We’re amassing all this new information about how our brains work… so what do we do with it?

My husband knows my weakness, and recently passed on a book he was reading, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It’s a quick read, and not necessarily life-changing. Duhigg offers brain research and lots of anecdotes to back up what I think most of us instinctively know: Habits are easy to form and usually hard to break. Except sometimes, when we seem to drop a habit as easily as a smoker drops a cigarette butt.

You can read the book to get the particulars about the research and the real life anecdotes. But what interests me after reading this is thinking, How does this apply to parenting? And that’s where the point of the book becomes very interesting to me.

I’m sure your kids are a lot like mine. My husband and I have a joke that we have to think about every thing we ever allow our kids to do, because one time sets a precedent, and then suddenly one time becomes habit. One day you break down and let the kids drink a soda at Grandma’s friend’s house, and then suddenly kids who have lived their entire lives without touching soda are begging you every time you pass a convenience store.

Duhigg explains this phenomenon as a “habit loop”: You get a cue (passing a store that sells sodas), it clicks into a routine (one time when you begged and made puppy-eyes, mama said yes to a soda), and then you get your reward (the soda, sugar, caffeine, yay!). He shows that it takes a shockingly short time for our brains to develop habits, and then even if we suffer extreme brain trauma to the point that we can’t remember what someone just said to us, we still can remember—and perform—our habits.

I believe that a huge part of parenting is helping our kids set up healthy habits. Depending on each family, healthy changes its definition. In our house, we limited screen time because we thought too much was unhealthy. We emphasized filling yourself with healthy food before thinking about sweet, fatty, salty snacks. We set up the habit of reading just by doing it so much it became natural to our kids. We do the work we need to do no matter how much we’d rather do other, unnecessary things because that’s the habit that leads to a more successful life. And conversely, we’re willing to throw practical concerns to the wind if we are taken with a fun, creative idea, and we think that’s another habit worth cultivating.

But in reading this book I wondered, first, whether it is possible to be conscious about the habits you develop. Will our constant reminders ever help our kids remember to become good tooth brushers, have a neat house, or know where their jackets are? None of that seems to be catching on at all. In fact, Duhigg’s model is consistent with this: If we make a habit of reminding our kids to do things, will they just develop the habit of waiting to be reminded before they do the thing?

And that leads me to wonder, second, whether there is a better way for parents to help kids develop good habits. Should we ask them to consciously dissect their habits and decide whether they are healthy ones? Should we have them go through the process of doing things the right way, just for practice, so that it gets ingrained in them? How can we help them develop the healthy habits without inserting our own presence into the habit formation?

Lots of interesting questions here. From what I see, our successes and failures have been scattershot. On the one hand, we have a kid who would never consider leaving the house without brushing her teeth. (One time she forgot and she asked if we drive back home so she could do it. I gave her a stick of gum and hopefully didn’t set a bad habit in motion!) On the other hand, we have a kid who has never remembered, no matter what method we have used, to pick up his dirty clothing from the bathroom floor after his shower. Yes, we’ve tried it all, and still, the wrong habit persists.

Finally, Duhigg mentions the phenomenon of changing a “keystone habit” to create a larger change in life habits. In his example, a woman who decided only to give up smoking actually ended up changing every aspect of her life which was heading in the wrong direction. Is it possible that what we really need to do is—who knows?—change the way our son gets to his bathroom for the shower, or take away a picture he always looks at on the way to the shower, or…?

This sounds a bit too much like the kids I knew whose mom was getting a degree in psychology. She practiced everything she was learning on them, and drove them—not surprisingly—a little bit crazy. I don’t want to do that to my kids, but this has definitely given me some food for thought.

Ask me again in six months, and perhaps the floor of that bathroom will be clean at last.


Posted in Parenting, Psychology.

3 Responses

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  1. P says

    How about letting him be in charge of doing his own laundry, giving him a lesson in doing laundry, then “nudging” his dirty clothes into a corner until he runs out of clothes or has to wear dirty ones….

    • Suki says

      Yes, I think we are getting to that point. Except, knowing my kid, he’d probably just wear the dirty ones and not notice the stink! 🙂

      • P says

        Hmmmm… it may take waiting until he “discovers girls”!

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