How to Teach Your Kids Good Habits

By Leo Babauta

Every parent will commiserate with me, especially parents with a good number of kids (I have six): for awhile now I’ve been trying to teach my kids the habit of putting things back where they belong when they’re done with them. As you can imagine, it hasn’t exactly been a rousing success.

So I’ve been giving it some thought, and have hit on some new ideas. The main idea: turn it into a game.

I love creating charts, so I plan on making one that give points to each kid for putting stuff away. They get additional points for helping remind each other (I told them to help their siblings remember as an act of consideration). There will be treats for making a minimum number of points, so they can all win. This will be set up as a friendly challenge, not a cut-throat competition, where they can all help each other win. I don’t like to set up competitions for my kids where there are winners and losers, because the only lesson the losers learn is that they are losers. That’s not a lesson I’m teaching my kids.

Some tips on creating good habits with your kids:

  1. Use the carrot, not the stick. I’ve tried punishment as a way of teaching them to remember things, and it not only doesn’t work, it’s no fun for anyone. Kids learn more about their faults than about the habits you’re trying to create. Use fun games or rewards instead, and plenty of praise. This is something I need to work more on.
  2. Be their focus. I’ve written before about how maintaining focus on a goal is one of the main keys to sticking with it and actually accomplishing the goal. Well, kids have a hard time maintaining focus — you have to do it for them. Or better yet, teach them ways to keep that focus. You’ll have to remind them, post up visual reminders, and remind them some more.
  3. Provide multiple means of motivation. I’ve written about my Top 20 Motivation Hacks, which work well for adults. They also work for kids. Provide not only one kind of motivation, but as many as you can. Rewards, praise, positive public pressure (tell not only the whole household about their goals but their grandparents and others), friendly competition, journals, charts and more can all be effective ways of creating motivation for your kids.
  4. Try to be consistent for at least a month. After that it should get easier, but you’ll still need to provide motivation to keep it going. Consistency, in the beginning, is important in creating habits. There will be failures, sure, but learn from it and don’t drop the goal and then pick it up the next week. You need to maintain that focus consistently, so that they are constantly working on improving it (and having fun while doing so!).
  5. Remember that kids aren’t perfect. They will make mistakes. They will fail. Do not put a tremendous amount of pressure on them to succeed. Gently help them along. Encourage them, but don’t criticize them. And remember that it could actually take months or even years before they learn some habits. Remember that you didn’t learn good habits overnight (and may still be trying to do so yourself). Don’t expect them to be better than you.
  6. Join them. It would be even more fun if you all did the game together, if you had a joint goal of learning good habits. If the parents are part of the game, the learning process, the fun, the kids can learn from the parent’s example of how to set a goal, how to maintain focus, how to motivate yourself, how to reward yourself for doing well, and how to feel great about any accomplishment, no matter how small.
  7. Celebrate often! Kids need positive feedback. If they do something good, no matter how small, celebrate like they just landed on the moon! Have fun, and show them that achieving goals can be a great feeling. Go out for a fun dinner, go to the park or beach, really reward them, especially in the beginning.