In my consulting work developing programs for Christian nonprofits, I’ve done some interesting research in habit formation. Many of the more compelling behavior modification programs come at habits by working through the “5 stages of change” approach, a widely accepted model in the field of cognitive behavior. The five stages of change are precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance – and most people who successfully develop new behaviors go through these five steps, whether they’re aware of them or not. Many organizations that facilitate and maintain real change, for example in smoking cessation and weight loss, build their programs around these processes.
Life for a four-year old, though, is a lot more straightforward. You pick up a behavior, it sticks for some reason, and suddenly you’re doing it all the time. A habit is “an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.” Whining is a frequent habit about preschoolers; saying ‘like’ and snapping gum are unconscious habits among some adults (like me).
The “almost involuntar” part is the stickler with habits. Once they’re ingrained they’re hard to change. (Just as my husband about the gum-snapping). The habit drives the behavior to where it’s basically unconscious – you do it because you do it, and you don’t even think about it. A few weeks ago I suddenly realized that several of my son’s negative behaviors were becoming habitual. I was correcting and working with him as if each instance was situational only, but in reality he was passing over from independent sins into the realm of bad habits. The big two I observed, in a moment, were a) obnoxious silliness (frequently silly in a rude and show-offy way), and 2) meanness (intentinonally malicious). More about each of these in subsequent posts. These were happening almost subconsciously for him; when he had a quiet moment or was bored, he’d start up with silliness or do something mean to sister.
Do you know any boys, say 10 or 12 years old, who have kind of a mean streak? I do. Do you know – or remember from your childhood – any middle schoolers who are overly jokey in a continual and obnoxious way? I do. In a flash I saw these kids in my minds’ eye and thought, If these behavior become habits, my kid may well become like them. It was sobering. It made me stop and think: could the mean kid actually have been a courteous and thoughtful boy if his parents had stepped in early on and nipped a meanness habit in the bud? Probably. Could the annoying jokester have been a personable, conversational kid if his mom had trained him to lay off the jokiness and engage appropriately? Very possibly. And the same can probably be said of the sneaky kid who’s always doing things he’s not supposed to when the grown-ups aren’t looking, the pushy kid who’s always bossing everyone around, etc. Kids have different areas of temptations and proclivities toward varying areas of sins (as we all do)… but all kids can develop bad habits rooted in sin which will make things far worse. Can a mean kid get over his meanness (drop the habit, that is) and become kind-hearted? Of course. Anyone can change, and all of Christian life is about learning to take off old sinful behaviors and put on new, Christ-like ones. But it’s going to be harder for him to do than if the habit had never been allowed to take hold in the first place.
I realized that I had serious work to do, and I set about nipping every instance of silliness or meanness in the bud immediately. My son had gotten to where he’d gotten with these bad habits by my lack of awareness of his enjoyment of them and the degree to which he was repeating them because of the satisfaction they were bringing. So I kept him with me (tomato-staking style) and was extremely clear and firm in prohibiting those behaviors. Happily, we were able to curb the behaviors in about a week’s time, but it took hard work and vigilance from both of us to get there.
In reflecting on it, I realized that habits can be good, like brushing your teeth, or bad, like meanness. But most of the bad ones come naturally though, because we’re all born sinners, and virtually all of the good ones come to children as a result of teaching or training. My son can fall easily into an intentional meanness habit without any help from me; he can also develop a habit of opening the door for his sister every time they go outside, but only if I train him in this till it becomes a normative behavior.
The experience added a new mental parenting category in my mothering life – note to self! Watch for possible bad habits developing and curb them immediately! – and also how I pray for my kids corporately and individually.