We all have habits we want to change, to learn, to improve. There are ways that we can help ourselves along the habit-change path or be unknowingly hindering our progress – or worse, our children’s. Switch by Chip Heath & Dan Heath turns the recent research into habit into practical advice, based on three observations:
- What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. So provide crystal-clear direction.
- What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. It’s critical to engage people’s emotional side to get cooperation.
- What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. Use the environment to your advantage.
These insights give us a framework for examining why habit changes have and haven’t worked, even within our own home.
Switching Key Habits in the Home & Homeschool Series
- Review of the book Switch
- Remove Lack of Clarity with Crystal-Clear Direction
Overcome Exhaustion by Engaging the Emotions
Change the Situation, Not the People
Your environment gives you cues.
I’ve now read three books that cite the experiment where they give movie-goers variously-sized buckets of popcorn, weighing them as they leave. Without a doubt, people eat more when the serving container is bigger. So, the moral goes, use a smaller dinner plate, don’t take more that you should eat, supersize your water glass and downsize your wine glass. You’ll eat less and not even realize it.
We take cues we are not even aware of from our environment. If we can consciously choose even a handful to swing us onto the path we want, we will be much more likely to make the change and stick to the change. Moreover, when we’re trying to get others to change, smoothing the bumps and friction in the path might well solve difficulties that appear to be stubbornness and willfulness. The authors of Switch write:
They were mentally stuck: “Well, I already asked them to do it. I taught them how to do it. I told them they had to do it. I don’t know what else to do!” At that point, the executives felt they’d tried every tool in their toolbox, so they jumped to punishments.
I know I have fallen into that mindset time and time again in parenting over the years.
“Even our parents [focus on incentives]: ‘Do this or you won’t get your allowance!'” But executives – and parents – often have more tools than they think they have. If you change the path, you’ll change the behavior.
Ways to smooth the path for our children.
Ok, so I tried to think of examples where I’ve been tempted to assume a resistance problem was stubbornness, when it might just have been a habit or mental block. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, too.
Pencils, pencils, everywhere except where they belong, and no where at math time.
I recently did fix this problem we’ve had for years with a simple environment tweak. I’ve tried other environment tweaks before that haven’t worked, but I think they were more like making rules, “This is your pencil box. You keep it. You put YOUR pencil back in it. If you don’t, you don’t have a pencil.” And if you don’t have a pencil, you can’t do your math or handwriting, so how is that even an incentive? Yeah, the only thing it accomplished was even worse frustration on my part. For awhile I doled out the pencils. They went up high, I gave everyone one, and I put them back up high – when they came back to me or when I found them on the floor. So, within a few days, there were no more pencils in my jar, I was sick of pencil requests, and no one knew where any of the previous twelve pencils were. We must have pencil-eating mice (We do, actually: it’s a mechanical mouse. Sharpening a pencil into oblivion is a much better pass-time than math).
This year, I put a small wooden box (originally from a Melissa and Doug magnet set, I think) on our school cart (where the pencil sharpener is mounted). It has no lid, and even short pencils can be easily grabbed – unlike a typical pencil holder. I filled it with 24 pencils, and a few extra eraser caps. I resigned myself to restocking pencils at least every term. I renounced nagging (it’s not an incentive, it’s not a motivator, and it doesn’t make the change easier) and just pick up pencils and pop them in the box whenever I walk by. When a pencil ends up in a bedroom, I just stick it in my pocket and return it to the box when I go back downstairs instead of launching a tirade about how pencils do not belong in bedrooms. Every few days I sharpen at least some, maybe all, the pencils there in the box. The kids can sharpen them when they need to, but I buy the cheap pencils and they can be difficult to sharpen well. So, no more harping and complaining from me about the percentage of pencil shavings v. pencil usage, either. That’s really my responsibility, and not blame I should shift to the children.
Get this: Not only have we not had a pencil famine (an unprecedented miracle), but I even saw a child, walking by a pencil on the floor, stoop, pick it up, and toss it into the box. After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I thanked him. It was now easy to get pencils back to their right place, and there was no longer pencil tension creating further friction.
Not only that, but having simple pencil access also cleared the path for other activities. While I was a pencil miser, free-time drawing sank considerably. “Can I have a pencil to draw?” one would ask; I’d reply, “I already gave you a pencil today. Where is it?” “I don’t know.” “Well, if you want to draw, you can find your pencil.” What happened? Well, they just didn’t draw. Now, anytime they have 10 bored minutes, they just grab paper and a pencil and have at it.
The most important path smoother.
The pencil incident demonstrated to me that while having easy-to-use containers is important, it is our own attitude and actions as the mother in the home that is crucial.
I tell myself that I’m setting up logical consequences, when I’m actually tearing down my house with my rant. I tell myself I’m just reminding them of our plan, when I’m actually a continual dripping.
The largest contributor to the child’s environment is his mother’s attitude. It’s alarming and scary, but true.
The most effective tactic for shaping the path (or laying down the rails, as Charlotte Mason would say), is to take the responsibility upon ourselves and not make it a burden we place on the children’s shoulders. Cheerful, positive, cooperative must be our watch-words. That is so much easier to write than to do. But it is not only the right thing to do – you know: kindness, gentleness, self-control – but it’s actually incredibly effective. Who would have thought? It’s almost as if God made the world or something, and knew what He was talking about.