Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Good Habits and Education

In lieu of leaving a comment on MaryAlice's post, I thought I'd temporarily come out of my babymoon (because I'm watching the Phillies game and have time to kill during commercials) and redirect the conversation a bit.

First, let me say that it should be obvious to all our readers that MaryAlice generously accentuated the virtues of my children! You are so kind MaryAlice, and I really do appreciate the sentiment behind your statements, but I think your strong emphasis on the "wonderful" habits of my children has caused the conversation to go in a different direction than what you had planned.

I think the comments to her post were very accurate when they said it is dangerous to compare our children to the children of others. My eldest daughter Gianna was given, by the grace of God, a very polite and thoughtful disposition. As a result, she comes off very well in public, and often times her 3.5 year old brother just follows her lead. MaryAlice would not have written the same things if my 3rd child, whom I LOVE dearly, happened to be born first! Likewise, MaryAlice has two older children who are also VERY naturally polite and come off very well in public. But I digress a bit here, because I don't think this really gets at the point of MaryAlice's post.

I believe her point, and the point of my follow-up post, is that the most important "skill" we can instill in our young children are good habits, which are essentially virtues. Good habits are a prerequisite to other types of learning. If the habits of order, obedience, organization, and the like are not in place, it is very difficult for a child to learn. (As an aside, I also think these habits are essential to enjoying life with young children.) Often, early learning focuses on drilling facts and jamming our children's absorbent little brains with all kinds of information. While many children can learn and memorize all kinds of things, it is far more important to teach good learning habits. These habits will allow a child to learn easily and quickly when the time comes to teach them academic subjects.

And this is why I think it is important that we take habit formation seriously, and work to fix our childrens' poor habits with patient persistence. While I don't think there is a catch-all approach here, as each parent has their own unique style of parenting and each child has their own unique personality, there is one essential element to good habit formation--persistence. As many of our readers have already commented, this area is more about our own discipline than that of our children. And this is what makes it so challenging! How often I see my own poor habits practiced by my children.

And speaking of my own poor habits, I'm not the best at immediately putting my things away where they belong. Unfortunately, when you have a toddler in the house, this can have disastrous consequences. My daughter, like many 5 year old children, also has the poor habit of taking her things off, such as her shoes, and leaving them in the middle of the playroom. In the past few months, she has lost one or both of her shoes more times that I care to count. Initially, I was patient, reminding her that she had to put her shoes away where they belong. When a sandal was lost for days, I was forced to go to the store and buy her a new pair--at which point I began to yell and lose my temper when one of her shoes was missing. But week after week, we were regularly looking for her shoes.

Just last week, Mr. Red and I finally sat down and discussed what we were going to do about this problem. We decided to replace Gianna's bad habit with a good habit. We let her know that there were only 2 appropriate places for her shoes--on her feet or in the closet. We then let her know a firm consequence if we saw her shoes anywhere other than those two places. Instead of yelling or punishing after the shoes were lost, we chose to form the good habit of putting her shoes away. Unfortunately this good habit requires a lot more attention from us, and if we do not approach this issue with patient persistence, I guarantee Gianna will go back to losing her shoes!

These sorts of practical approaches to habit forming, are, I think, the sorts of suggestions and comments that MaryAlice was looking for in her original post. I'd love to hear your thoughts here. How do you approach habit forming with your young ones? What habits do you think are essential for a young child (pre-school or early school age) and how did you approach instilling these habits?


Mary Alice said...

I think the shoe thing is the perfect example, and an area in which a lot of families struggle. We have been working hard on keeping shoes in the mud room. Recently, I put a natural consequence in place as two of my children were not allowed to come to an event because they could not find their shoes. Dad was home, so I was able to impose this, and it was really hard for me to watch them miss out, but since then there has been a real turn around in this area.

In contrast, I had put a reward system in place (earning computer time) for some other things, and I have found that started out really strong and then backfired -- first, they were doing things for the wrong reasons and asking, all the time, I did this thing, can I move my star? Then, the novelty wore off and they stopped doing anything, even the things that had been habits before we started the star chart.

With chores, it has worked really well to have few consistent chores. My older kids have each had the same chore for the last 3 years.

This is another area where the middle guys get squeezed, though, they were too young for chores when I started, and now I expect too much of them off the bat and then allow them to fail or sneak off without doing it.

I was really interested in the SCM post about nagging. I have changed my behavior since reading that, I will ask "are you free to be playing right now?" and they usually remember what they are supposed to be doing, this seems to be better training then directly asking them to do what they should be doing on their own.

Also, I think that "inspect what you expect" is a good motto. I have recently found out that one of my children has been skipping a large chunk of his math lesson. This was not out of dishonesty, but a mis-understanding, but it went on for a week before I noticed it, and now he is a week behind not just in the work but in the habit of sitting there and doing things in the right order. He will have a tough time in the week to come re-adjusting to longer math lessons. This is my fault for not checking to make sure that he understood and was doing what was asked of him.

A few months ago, I began "room inspection" at the end of quiet time each day. They love to clean their rooms at the end of QT because it gets them out sooner! But, their eyes are still being trained, so if I do not inspect they will "miss" stray toys under chairs, etc. If I go several days without inspecting, the room gets overwhelmingly messy, but if I inspect many days in a row, they get used to the look of a clean room and they do a better job.

Right Said Red said...

I also really liked the SCM post about nagging. I am definitely going to implement some of those suggestions.

Inspect what you expect is brilliant.

One more thing I think is really important--try to build habits one at a time. I often get frustrated with my children and try to change too many things at once. I need to instill habits one at a time, and also give them time to really make the changes a habit--automatic. Karen made a good point, in her comment on your post, about it taking one month to build a new habit. One month is actually a really long time, and so patience is really important.

Sophie said...

good habit formation has been on my brain lately. I thought I had some good systems in place for this but I am seeing many areas of our home life that really need some attention. I've been very overwhelmed at it and considered just stopping school for a week to focus on it.

I appreciate the comment about not trying to change everything at once. That's a very important point. Just as I can't expect myself to change everything at once I can't expect it in my children either. I think we'll focus on one of these habits each week and ease our way into better practices, focusing on only one new thing at a time.

I also am trying to remember that just because it is suddenly clear to me that one behavior has been getting out of control and needs to be re-directed (such as leaving the toothpaste tube on the sink), I shouldn't just nag to get the result I'm looking for. I get much more cooperation from kids if I take the time to explain, "hey, I've been neglectful in expecting this to be done, from now on please be sure to do X. I know it will take time for it to be a good habit, but let's work together at it." And also take the time to show them the correct steps when they are not in the middle of it. With the shoe example, to show the process of putting away the shoes and where they go at a time when no one is going anywhere or coming home.

But oh it is so burdensome sometimes to remember that good habit formation starts with me. I so wish it would come easier for them.

Mary Alice said...

I think you are right to point out that certain good character traits come more naturally to some then others. I, too, have one child who is agreeable in an outstanding way. His first word was YES!

I think there is a danger, however, to use temperament as an excuse to not work on certain areas.

However, let's take teeth brushing. All of us must brush our teeth. Depending on temperament, we may need strategies for remembering to do this, or we may be very good at following steps. We may respond well to the natural consequence of the threat of decay or we may feel shamed by a dentist who makes us feel like cavities are our fault. We may enjoy the fresh feeling of toothpaste or we may have sensory issues and complain that the mint burns our mouths. It is helpful to be sensitive to temperament as well as to special needs in ourselves and our children. However, in only a very extreme situation would it be right to excuse ourselves from making sure that our children are brushing teeth regularly.

The child who is doing this easily may struggle in other areas, for example, "pleasers" may find that they struggle with honesty because they are used to working for praise and do not want to face up to faults.

Now, teeth brushing has two goals --first, to get the teeth clean, and second to learn that good habits can be built by routines.

Charlotte Mason had a motto for her schools,
"I can, I ought, I will."

I can learn to floss every day. I ought to do it. But until I decide that I will learn, it just won't happen.

I will not be too hard on myself if it takes me a while to build this habit, and I will keep my own temperament in mind when choosing strategies, and of course I will set priorities as to what habits I should be working on, but really, in this case, all that is lacking is the "will." It may seem silly to think of flossing as a moral issue, but deciding to build one good habit or to eliminate one bad one can be an important part of training the will.

Sophie said...

can I also say one more thing? I think it's important for us women to hold each other to a high standard, esp. when one is seeking a high standard in herself. There are perhaps time when it is ok to say "don't be so hard on yourself." But sometimes I feel people tell me that too often, when I am confident that my expectations or analysis of a problem are accurate. Sometimes we need other Moms to give ideas to hold us to the standard we set and encourage us away from mediocrity instead of towards it.

JMB said...

Not to sound too much like "Real Simple", I had an "AHA" moment when my oldest was a toddler and I was visiting preschools for the following year. I saw then and there that open shelving worked, and every toy had its place. I know this sounds really dumb, but I came home and rehauled the entire playroom. I found a carpenter who built shelving for me, and I bought clear plastic bins to store each toy by catagory. After it was completed, I started to teach my children that each toy as its own home, and everything has a place. This reality spilled over to the rest of the house. Shoes? One pair for each child goes in the basket by the door. Boots, sandals, flip flops, church shoes get stored in basement or in closets. Just simplify. I also got rid of a lot of toys. Anything that was not played with or broken was tossed. I let go of any sentimental attachment to stuff. Once you realize that you don't need to save a bunch of tee shirts from Old Navy that cost 2.99 on sale, you become liberated. Liberated from junk. Then, as you have less stuff to clean up, it's easier to get the kids to help because it's not so overwelming. Just simplify.

The other thing that I do, and it's somewhat counterintuitive, is that I let the children do jobs that they are naturally interested in and volunteer to do. One child loves to walk the dog and do yard work, another is really good at vacuuming and dusting, another loves to organize closets and polish silver and another loves to help with cooking and baking. Do they all know how to do everything around the house? No, that's my job. But I'd rather have them do something well than have to argue and nag them to do something that they have no aptitude or interest in.
When I was growing up, my dad taught me how to clean our inground pool. Every summer, that would be my job. I loved it. Fast forward 30 years, we have an inground pool and I take care of it. I am so grateful to my dad that he taught me how to do this and for my mom who allowed me to do what I wanted.

To sum it up, my advise would be to start small and keep it simple. Little kids don't need lectures. Just simple instructions and less complicated and cluttered lives. Get rid of the junk in your house. You will feel better and your family will be happier.

Mary Alice said...

JMB, I think your example of the schools is dead on -- when I visited a preschool and saw how CAPABLE the children were of choosing an activity, doing it, and then cleaning it up, I was amazed, and I wanted that at home! They do need the right tools, and the time to do it -- at preschools, work stops well before it is time to move to the next activity and a bell rings for clean up time. One mistake I make is sometimes to hurry my child on to the next thing -- yes, I can clean it all up after they get to bed, but I don't want to be doing that for the rest of their lives!

Mary Alice said...

I think it is interesting, though, that it is acceptable to compare and learn from a preschool but not from another family. As a homeschoolers, I see other families as education environments and I have no problem with trying to glean what I can from their successes, be it in curriculum, home management or discipline. If I told you that I visited a family with great shelving would you all be on me not to compare and be too hard on myself? Does the fact that I can't afford to hire a carpenter excuse my just letting the kids throw everything into a jumble on the floor? Sure, all circumstances are different, but we can all learn and do better.

Right now, I am not pregnant, no nursing babies, it is a great time to look around and see what has slipped through the cracks in the last two years and decide what to do about it.

Sophie said...

so true, Mary Alice. I realized this morning that things were sliding quick around here because of 2 weeks of cousin visits, sick kids and many rainy days. We slid into maintenance mode and now we need to JUMP out. Not being pregnant, nursing, etc. is a great time to re-evaluate and get out of maintenance mode.

MargaretJDMom said...

I think forming virtues, both human (like the charlotte mason list) and spiritual is vital for a parent. My only point would be that it is a lifelong struggle to live all these good habits and virtues and we are going to be better at some or others depending on our temperment. Sometimes this talk makes it sound like one you get a child to do x,y, or z they will do it always. I don't think that's the case....just looking at the way I live my live and struggle daily. Does that mean I give up on those virtues or habits that are hard for me or my kids? No, it is a constant struggle and we need to keep it up no matter how many times we fail.

Different kids will struggle in different areas at different times. I notice a huge difference in my children based on how much they have seen their dad.

MA, you are totally right to take stock of where you are and what needs the most urgent attention in your family. I think that different virtues and habits are learned by kids at different ages. I would recommend the book: Character Building, A guide for teachers and Parents by David Issacs. It is helpful because it breaks down vitures and habits by age and which ones to work on at which ages etc.

Our kids aren't always going to do the right thing, just like we don't, but we need to treat them just like God treats us- letting them start over and over again. Good luck. I was interested in the CM site, but I couldn't seem to find all the posts, I will look again.

One last note of humor- Maria Montessori never really raised her child and Charlotte Mason never had keep doing your best!!! Does that mean give in? No....but sometimes it helps to put it all in perspective at 'the howling hour'.

B-Mama said...

One set of habits we're working on happen when we arrive home from preschool. I expect the boys to remove their shoes and coats and put them in the closet and then use the bathroom and wash their hands before lunch. It has been going well so far, but not without mom there, reminding, guiding, helping along the way. My 4.5yo is much better at it all, while the 3yo is more limited and therefore whiny. I am running into the question--how long should mom be involved in the shaping of the habit before letting the kids go about it on their own? And MargaretJDMom makes the great point that these newly formed habits, once developed, are not destined to remain forever. I have a feeling I will be overseeing the habit formation for some time! But how long, really?

Also, this sequence of habits has been evolving for some time, starting with basic shoes and coats away, basic handwashing, etc. One of the best tools for instructing the habit formation was a handwashing sheet our oldest brought home from school. He cut out the pictures and glued them in order. We hung it on the wall next to our bathroom sink. Now, all they have to do is look to the left to be reminded of how best to wash their hands and voila, they WANT to do it well and thoroughly. Oh the power of visual reminders!!

MA, regarding your question of Biblical formation of habits, I haven't been using anything formal. I am merely picking out an area to work on like "Talking nicely to others" or "Not retaliating during a fight" and finding verses or Bible stories to reference in the moment. We are taking these one at a time and I am hanging the verse nearby for referencing. It is amazing how effective Christ is as a teacher to young children.

Karen said...

What are some examples of firm consequences? I find it a fine balance between consequences and upkeep of the consequences.

Here is a tip I learned from the woman who wrote the curriculum we use, she would inspect each child's room before lunch (chores were done before homeschooling). There was no lunch for the child until the chores were done properly. She raised 6 children, and I have learn some great ideas from her. It is a perfect example of a detailed, simple tip from another mom that can really make a difference in the smooth running of your home. I love when the Builders have posts like these because I may learn a new tip to improve our lives! What a difference a simple change can make.

Sometimes the "good" child acts good for sinful reasons (ie perfectionism or caring too much about what others think of them).

Jennifer Frey said...

Hi Red,

I think you've hit the nail on the head here; I couldn't agree more with everything you are saying. I think firm, natural consequences are pretty easy for kids to grasp (even if this is often upsetting to them). The key to habit formation is consistency. There is no way to instill habits without consistency in training. Because consistency is so important, it is necessary that parents not take on too much at once. Focus on two or three virtues you think are most key for your child (these will be different, I suppose, for different kids). Once you have a solid core, you can build outwards.

Also, and this is the hard part, parents have to be models. Of course, this is hard because we will fail, and then we will beat ourselves up for it. But I always explain to my kids that I make mistakes too, and I apologize to them when I lose my temper, or an unkind, etc. This is something my parents never did with me; I suppose they worried it would usurp their authority. But it doesn't. Kids should know that we are all fallible, and they will be able to relate to the fact that you can acknowledge your own mistakes. Sometimes, your kids will correct you (my four year old is constantly correcting me), and this is a learning opportunity for both parent and child.

And finally, of course, there is a strong religious element here too. As Catholics we do believe that these habits of will (i.e., virtues) are infused in us by God's grace, and we can call on that in prayer and in instruction. I think this is very fundamental. And we can include a request for virtue in our prayer life, and this includes our prayer life with our children. Our kids can understand at an early age to ask God for a right will--for the right desires and to do the right things, to please their Father in Heaven.

We don't have too many "smooth and easy days" in our house, I must admit, and we only have two kids (so far!). But we do have much joy, love, perseverance, and humility, and I think that counts for more.

Jennifer Frey said...


Some firm and natural consequences in our house:

(1) If you are obstinately disobedient, even after several warning, you will not get what you wanted (whether that was a video, trip to park, reading a favorite book, etc.)

(2) If you refuse to share your toys, after several warning, it will be taken away and you will not see it again for at least a day.

Etc., etc., I don't think this works until your child is old enough to grasp cause and effect.

Mary Alice said...

Quarelling is a pet peeve of mine, so I think we are pretty good at improving this and being consistent about consequences, more so than with issues of order.

In our house the consequence of anti-social behavior (yelling, hitting, etc) is being sent to your room to cool off. Usually in our house the child who is acting this way needs a few moments to get it together, sometimes they go to their room and have a good cry. Often they are over tired or upset about something unrelated, so if they are not quick to return happy I will go to them after some time and just sit quietly on the edge of the bed, and sometimes they choose to tell me what is "really" bothering them. I listen, give a hug, and then I invite them to rejoin us when they are ready.

I require my children to apologize with the words "please forgive me for..." and the other to say "I forgive you and I love you" followed by a hug. Sometimes this is really hard to get out, and if they are not ready to give or receive the apology they get more room time, sometimes together, until they can work it out.

We have one "rule" in our house, and it is "be nice and work together." If a fight is beginning, the first warning might be "what is our rule?" and they have to repeat it back. This often turns things around before it goes further.

Bethany said...

Okay so, I didn't read the original post nor the comments made. However I wanted to add to the "preschool setting" at home. This, in all actuality, is not hard (or expensive) to imitate. Plastic containers can cost as little as $1 in some places, and the fancy shelves you see at preschools are designed that way to meet state licensing regulations. In reality, any old book shelf and clear plastic bins- marked both in word and picture (and you can print those out off the internet, or if you're fancy with pictures you take of your own toys). My only recommendation is to cover the pictures and words with clear contact paper (Wal-Mart for @$4 a roll). It doesn't take long before the children catch on; in fact I just introduced this practice to classroom of true toddlers (age 15mths-23mths) last week and they all have grasped the concept- though there is still great fun in learning the idea of empty and full by dumping all the contents of a bin out at once.

As far as overall development of habits, I have found the hardest things to overcome when teaching my children good habits are my own bad habits. And while my children say please and thank you, ask everyone they meet (and some they don't actually meet) how they are doing, and they know to ask for permission before doing something they have never attempted before- none of my children make their beds, because my husband and I don't. They don't put their clothes away, because we don't seem to get to that in timely fashion, either. They indeed have the inability to find their shoes most mornings, but at the same time I'm usually searching for my keys and my cell phone.
My point is that while our many of our children have bad habits we would like to alter, they have not appeared because we have failed to introduce or inform them of good habits. But our actions do speak louder than words. Maybe some day my children will figure out how to put their clothes away and clean their room- putting everything in it's place. But I guarantee it isn't going to happen until my husband and I figure out how to make our bedroom transform from the messiest room in the house to the cleanest. (no seriously I'd take pictures, but even I don't want to see it.)

Good luck!

Mary Alice said...

Bethany, I totally agree.

With six kids plus myself making fourteen shoes, we just cannot get out the door if we do not have a system for our shoes. I spent most of the weekend of my brother's wedding searching for shoes in the hotel room, and it was too stressful.

And, as Margaret said, these habits slip out easily even after they are established. Right now, we have two toddlers who will hide anything, usually in the trash can! So, we just have to make order a high priority. I do find that when we do so, we get closer to those "smooth and easy days". I think that I have (mostly) conquered the issues of clutter in my home -- the beds get made most days, the rooms get cleaned before the kids can leave quiet time each day, so I am working on some of the other issues, truthfulness is one, personal cleanliness is another. The coming home and washing hands routine is something that I am trying hard to establish, I think it is really important right now.

Kathy said...

I haven't read through all of the comments so I may be repeating here. Just to share from my own experience, having gotten my 4 children to the ages of 19,13,11 and 9.

I have to admit I was very disappointed to find out "habit formation" doesn't end with early childhood. I think this is the #2 parenting task that continues until the child leaves home. It lessens and is more difficult once they hit their teens (mostly due to the fact of teens' seeming inability to listen and care about what their parents think), but it still goes on.

The habit formation "techniques" also vary according to the age of the child. As MaryAlice mentioned, natural consequences are most effective. My 13yo son was careless in doing the dishes and ground up blender gasket in the garbage disposal. Easy consequence--he paid $13 to get a new one.

The older the child gets, the more important it is that they see, and feel, the consequences of their actions. You make a mess, you clean it up.

If there's not an immediate natural consequence, I make up my own connected to something important to the child.

My kids have the bad habit of leaving books in the van. Now if I find one left behind after a trip, that child is not allowed to take a book in the van for a week.

Regarding chores in general, I think it is most important that the child knows what's expected. We have daily chore charts (with chores for each child before and after every meal), and weekly chore charts for cleaning the house on Saturday. (I developed these 4 years ago following the advice in A Mother's Rule of Life). If a child needs a reminder for a posted job or does not do it as expected, I deduct minutes from their computer time allotments for the week (each child is allowed 30 minutes on the computer each Saturday after the house is cleaned).

Also, part of them knowing what's expected is my teaching them how to do the job correctly. I can't fault them for not knowing how to do a job if I didn't teach them well.

I said habit formation is the #2 most important job for early childhood. I believe #1 is "grounding in the school of love", a favorite expression from Greg Popcak. The security of a child in the love of the family has to be established at this early age.