Switching Key Habits in the Home & Homeschool: Utilize Your Environment

posted in: happiness 6

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:

  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.

These insights give us a framework for examining why habit changes have and haven’t worked, even within our own home.

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

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).

homeschool pencil management

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.

6 Responses

  1. Meredith_in_Aus
    | Reply

    Interesting experiment! Well done.

    I keep a couple in my bumbag and just resign myself to handing one over when necessary. Much better than a rant. (Only) This year, I decided that this was not a hill I was gonna die on. :o)

    My 7yo was continually losing his coloured pencils all over the place. I recently set a boundary for him (to help him): you may only get one pencil at a time out of your pencil case. Lo and behold, three weeks later, he still has pencils! Yesterday he was telling me how he was looking forward to getting new textas (markers) in January (new school year begins then) and how he would try not to lose them by only taking one out of his pencil case at a time. (He had lost all this year’s by about the beginning of March!) Wow!

    In Him


    • Mystie Winckler
      | Reply

      That’s a good habit to instill! We have the same problem here. This year the school sets of pencils & markers only come out under supervision, and the free time crayons are already dispersed who-knows-where.

      I decided this year to not die on the hill, too. Lo and behold, it’s resolving peaceably. I’m glad it is for you, too! :)

  2. Sarah
    | Reply

    Oh the implications this post has for our home life. I’m bookmarking and pondering. And even though I’ve read and enjoyed all of your Switch posts, this is the one that may convince me to read the book myself. No more continual dripping! More modeling, less ranting. Thanks for the encouragement.

    • Mystie Winckler
      | Reply

      Well, it was a good book, but the modeling and attitude application was my own addition and not actually from the book. :) I was writing about the pencil container and as I was writing realized it was probably more the change in me than the container that made the difference. So half the post got deleted and I refocused. I’m sure you relate to that process. :)

  3. Sharon
    | Reply

    I normally LOVE your blog, but this one steps all over my toes AND my heart – ouch!
    I definitely needed to read this before school today. Thank you.

  4. Julie
    | Reply

    Thanks for linking to this. It really spoke to me today. I often go on pencil rants. And toy rants, come to think of it. “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. ” This part especially hit home hard. I am encouraged, too, by how your children started picking up pencils on their own. Here’s to peaceful parenting for the rest of the week and weekend.

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