Make it a habit
Habits make life much easier, for you and for your children. You might want your child to
form the habit of hanging up his coat when he comes in, putting his shoes away neatly,
picking up his toys or saying thank you after meals. Whatever habits you want your child to form, there are some easy ways to help.
We all hate to nag, in fact sometimes you might get so tired of nagging that you just do the job yourself! The truth is that nagging doesn’t really work anyway. Every time a child does something that action is imprinted on their mind, the more often they repeat the action the more firmly it is imprinted until it becomes a default, unthinking habit. But this only happens if the child thinks about what they are doing. When you ask a child to do something you are reinforcing the action “do what mum says,” which is valuable in itself, but you are not reinforcing the behaviour as strongly. Instead you want the child to think about what they need to do.
When you first start work on a habit it is a good idea to have a friendly chat with your child, letting them know what is expected of them. This is also a good opportunity to make it fun by getting out the glue and making some props. For example, let’s say you want your son to put his shoes neatly by the door when he comes inside. Spend some time
making a “shoe spot” showing two footprints side by side and allow your son to decorate it. Laminate the shoe spot or cover it in sticky backed plastic and put it near the door, with his shoes on the footprints. Next time you come home and ask “where do your shoes go?”, your son will remember the spot and put his shoes there. At first he may need your
help but as he is actively thinking about putting his shoes away it should quickly become a habit. I know one two year old who started putting everyone else’s shoes away too!
There are some things that need to be done in the same order, at the same time, every day. The morning routine is a typical example, especially since the school run is much easier if each child gets themselves ready without constant reminders. Here you can make a timeline. One morning spend some time taking photographs of your child at each stage
of the routine, waking up, getting dressed, brushing teeth, having breakfast and so on. Take care to include any special jobs they need to do like making their bed. Print out two copies of each picture and tape one set together to make a long strip, in the right order. You can either put this on the wall or lay it out somewhere each morning for your child to use. The other set of pictures go in a box near the timeline and as your child completes each task they can match up the pictures. Even a young child is able to work their way along the line and can easily see which task comes next.
There will be times when you need to remind a child to do something, but you still want to avoid nagging. Sometimes a subtle hint is all you need, such as a pointed look at the coat on the floor, but sometimes you need something a bit stronger. Songs can work well if they are only used in context, many children start to tidy up as soon as they hear
the tidy up song! Setting a good example is also a valuable tool. Perhaps you want you daughter to say thank you after a meal. When you have eaten together you might say “my tea was delicious, was your tea nice Daddy?” Daddy then says “Mmm, it was yummy, thank you very much” and you both turn to look expectantly at your daughter, perhaps asking if her food was delicious too. It might seem a bit false to begin with but you are only demonstrating the behaviour you hope to see and as they say, “manners are caught, not taught!” Over time you can be less obvious and saying thank you will soon be that unthinking habit you are hoping for.
It is highly unlikely that your child will learn everything overnight and to begin with it might even be harder to teach the habit than it would be to just do the task yourself. But time invested now is saved many times over in later years, and life is much more pleasant for everyone when you don’t have to nag. For example, if you have decided to use a timeline your little one might be excited by the novelty but need your support in knowing what to do. You have to lead them to the line, ask what they need to do next, help them interpret the picture and it takes a long time. Before long, however, they should be able to run backwards and forwards to check the timeline without help and eventually will complete the morning routine without any prompts at all. The rewards are worth the effort!
Photography: Kelcy Kinjo @Flickr