Heart Pondering

The ponderings of one Christ-following mom on raising preschoolers

Honing in on habits January 3, 2010

Filed under: Behaviors,Correction — Susan @ Christian Mothering @ 4:21 am

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.

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3 Responses to “Honing in on habits”

  1. Molly Says:

    Susan, would you mind sharing in more detail about your tomato-staking process in breaking these habits. I’m familiar with the process and have read most all there is to read on her website (and am practicing it a bit at home) but I’d love to hear more about how your correcting conversations go with J. I’m getting better at watching/studying Cy’s behavior and running through a mental list of pre-correction questions for myself but the actual delivery is a challenge for me. Specifically, how much information to give him and how to draw out his heart. When it is a habit, and you might correct it 50 times a day (!) do you spend a lot of time at this level of conversation? Thanks again for sharing. May God bless your time with the kiddos this week!

  2. heartpondering Says:

    Molly,
    Thanks for the comment and I’d be happy to give a bit more input as may help. With Jed, I realized that conversation wasn’t helping much because he understands that being mean isn’t good and isn’t allowed. But the meanness was happening almost on impulse. I kept catching it after the fact and disciplining and then discussing. But nothing changed. So frst I told him that I noticed he was having a problem with meanness and I was going to work with him over the next few days to remember how to be kind. I started keeping him with me all the time (when his sister was there; when she wasn’t he was fine) and watching keenly for any signs of meanness. Each time I caught it I would immediately address it with both correction but also discussion. “Did you just knock over your sister’s sand castle? Did I just see you smile when you were doing it? Is it mean or kind to do something like that? How does God feel about it when we take pleasure in someone else being hurt?” He would immediately know that what he had done was wrong.

    By catching him in the act – ‘ambushing’ is what Krueger calls it – and correcting as well as providing the RIGHT (godly) thoughts in the very momentthat he was being mean, I was able to penetrate over time.

    I also started coupling this with kindness-instilling habits. “J, can you go and get your sister’s stool for her first? Great work! I’m so proud of you that you’re being so kind to your sister!” So working it hard on the opposite end…

    Next post is on meanness so a bit more info there on my thought process, if that would help…

  3. Molly Says:

    Thanks again, Susan. This is very helpful. A great idea to tell him that you’ve noticed it and were going to work on it with him beforehand! That is very respectful of him and a great way to “come alongside”…these are the very things I think I need the most reminding of in this whole process.


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