Switching Key Habits in the Home and Homeschool: Build An Identity

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Switch describes the common patterns in successful habit changes through engaging stories, turning them into practical advice. The stories and advice are all based on three observations they made about habit changes, both personal changes and organization-wide changes:

  1. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. So provide crystal-clear direction.
  2. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. It’s critical to engage people’s emotional side to get cooperation.
  3. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. Use the environment to your advantage.

So I want to look at these elements and the practical steps given for each in the book, applying it to our home and homeschool settings. Oddly enough, homemaking and homeschooling was not ever an example in the book, but a household is a small organization, a group of persons working together toward an end.

creating household habits

Switching Key Habits in the Home & Homeschool Series
  1. Review of the book Switch
  2. Remove Lack of Clarity with Crystal-Clear Direction
    1. Leverage the Bright Spots
    2. Practice Specific Scripts
    3. Describe the Destination
  3. Overcome Exhaustion by Engaging the Emotions
    1. Find the Feeling
    2. Shrink the Change
    3. Cultivate a Growth Mindset and Build an Identity
  4. Change the Situation, Not the People

Cultivate an Identity

A common (and often needful) tactic we use in the home is administering consequences for choices that do not line up with our stated values and goals. Consequences can be anything from spankings to losing computer time to taking a nap instead of playing with friends.

However, if we are trying to change a fundamental habit in our home like putting things in the right place instead of putting them down on the nearest surface (which is often the floor), then simply dealing out consequences is not going to be the most effective tool. The infractions are often too numerous and difficult to follow up on. Yelling, “Hey! Who dropped their pencil on the floor and left it there?!” from the dining room is not only unpleasant for everybody, but also not very effective at getting an answer or inspiring change.

Sometimes complicated systems of fines and rewards or points and prizes can be made to work if you are consistent and dedicated enough to make it work. However, particularly if we are trying to change ourselves as well, when we are both worker and supervisor (supervisor of ourselves as well as our children), we have a hard time making artificial consequences motivate. Personally, I’d rather have the chocolate after a bad day than repeat to myself constantly that I only get it if I have a good day.

We need to touch a deeper chord than that of external motivations, and one we can touch on is identity.

In Switch, the authors tell us,

Because identities are central to the way people make decisions, any change effort that violates someone’s identity is likely doomed to failure. (That’s why it’s so clumsy when people instinctively reach for “incentives” to change other people’s behavior.) So the question is this: How can you make your change a matter of identity rather than a matter of consequence?

Cultivating an identity isn’t actually complicated or terribly difficult. What it requires is being careful about your words (for your family) and your thoughts (for yourself). Indeed, every comment a mother makes about her child gives that child an identity, for good or ill. What identities do our comments cultivate? What names, roles, and motives do we attribute to them? How do we ask them to do something? What do we point out as being “so like you”? Also, pay attention to the identities they are giving to themselves and you are giving to yourself.

“I am bad at math,” is an identity statement. Don’t let them own that; replace it with “You’ve been working hard at this concept for a long time, so you’re just tired right now. That’s ok. You’ll get it just like you got borrowing in subtraction. When your younger sibling gets to this book, you’re going to smile and think, ‘Oh, that is so easy!'”

“I am a terrible housekeeper,” is an identity, and if you claim it, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe you are a terrible housekeeper, you won’t change. Try, “I don’t keep the house well right now, but I want to become a better housekeeper.” Then you have an identity of improvement where change is possible.

The “self-fulfilling prophecy” effect works because of a concept called “cognitive dissonance”:

People don’t like to act in one way and think in another. […] Similarly, as people begin to act differently, they’ll start to think of themselves differently, and as their identity evolves, it will reinforce the new way of doing things.

I think I experienced this with the simple and humble habit of making (or not) my bed. I never did make my bed growing up – on principle. make-my-bed I did’t care about beds being made or not made (identity). Making the bed is stupid, and I am not stupid and do not do stupid things – at least, not when I don’t want to do them. So, in my efforts over the years to improve my housekeeping, making my bed seemed like one of the smallest and easiest of the “small wins” I could attempt. Yet – until this year – I never succeeded for more than a few weeks. Here’s the weird thing: In a tidy bedroom, I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt out of place and uncomfortable in a tidy bedroom, even if the tidiness was just a made bed. Significantly, since the beginning of this year, I have made my bed every day with only a handful of exceptions. It seems silly, but this is a breakthrough for me. I think the success comes down to identity: First, I have become a person who wants to have a tidy house (a good place to start). Second, I have become a person who follows through on that desire; I haven’t fulfilled it, but I have grown and I have accepted my identity as “becoming.” Third – and most important – I have gradually (over the course of five years of ups and downs) become more comfortable in a reasonably tidy, uncluttered home than not. The comfort – a sign of identity – began in the kitchen, sloshed into the other living areas, and now is internalized enough that I don’t feel out of place if my private room is orderly. I am allowed. Even if I am not ready to say “I am an orderly person,” I can at least say, “I am becoming orderly.” And a made bed verifies that identity.

In the identity model of decision making, we essentially ask ourselves three questions when we have a decision to make: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation?

As mothers in the home, we are the atmosphere, we are the culture shapers, we are the identity givers. If we leverage this natural role and use it intentionally, we can help ourselves and our children become more full and complete versions of themselves, giving up false and harmful identities and putting on good and true ones.