Growing up I remember being told that it takes a month to form a habit and a day to break it. My assumption is that we are talking about difficult habits, like getting up an hour early every morning to exercise. The easy to manage habits are probably learned quicker and take longer to forget. More recently I came across this study from University College London where they discovered a much broader range, 18 to 254 days to create a habit.
Given free rein, our kids will develop all sorts of habits. Some may end up being beneficial but a whole bunch will be bad. Michigan Medicine has a great list. Try reading these imaging your kids continuing these into adulthood!
- Thumb sucking
- Head banging (?!?)
- Teeth grinding
- Nail biting
- Nose picking
- Hair twirling
- Breath holding
There are some good points in the Michigan post about how to deal with bad habits but I want to know about good habits. Specifically, are we doing the right thing as parents by strictly enforcing the traits we deem to be positive? I know from personal experience that compelled repetition can work. The HeadhunterDad's Mom would not move our car until she confirmed that every single person had a seatbelt on. Today, I don't even think about it; sit, buckle, go. It feels strange to be in a car now without the seatbelt fastened.
There are many habits that will make a difference to our kid's careers if we can instill them early on. At the very least, these will help our kids to stay competitive with their peers in school and in their jobs.
- Politeness (say please and thank you)
- Be responsible about money
- Play to win
- Don't put things off
- Eat healthy, get plenty of sleep
- Take criticism well
- Be a problem solver, not a criticizer
- Ask questions
- Be organized
To answer the question posed in the title of this article, yes, forcing our kids to do something will help them to develop that action as a habit. That is a good thing. The negative is not in the habit but rather in how we enforce the repetition. I found several articles and reports on how the military-style of parenting can be detrimental but this one, in particular, seemed to bring it all together in one place. Issues such as bullying, anger, depression, rebellion, and lying are all potential side effects of taking too harsh an approach to the kids. While anger and lying are bad, one additional consequence stood out to me, the lack of development of self-discipline. If our kids only ever have to do something when we tell them then they never learn to manage themselves.
Never fear, there are alternatives. I am only going to focus on two, most of the other methods seem to be a derivative of these. Bribery is one I have a love/hate relationship with. It works, paying for the desired action is a tried and true resource for parents. Think about why you are sitting at your desk today and honestly tell me if you would still be there if you were not getting paid. But there is a darker side that may have you dealing with a ruthless toddler who insists he gets paid for every little thing. Use sparingly.
Better and more adaptable is role modeling. If you want your kids to be comfortable asking questions then ask questions yourself and make an effort to be patient and responsive when they are brave enough to ask something of you (no matter how ridiculous the question). Role modeling combined with making your kids perform the desired activity helps to take away the sting of being ordered around (which nobody likes). "If Mommy is doing it too then I guess I can do it." The seatbelt example I mentioned falls under this category, my Mom always had her seatbelt on before she turned around to check on the rest of us. Focusing a bit more on practicing what your preach will have a more positive impact than the much more popular "Do what I say, not what I do." We may all develop better habits ourselves in the process.
The HeadhunterDad, AKA Lawrence Kieffer, is a professor of career studies at Temple University, Japan campus, the COO for Fidel Consulting an APAC Recruiting and Staffing firm focused on IT professionals, a devoted husband, and father of two amazing kids. Follow on Twitter, Linkedin or Facebook.