Ask parents what their main objective is in raising their children, many would answer, "to raise independent, responsible, productive adults." It sounds simple, but in a society filled with overindulgence, instant gratification, and self-fulfillment, bad habits often arise.

The questions are: What's the difference between a temporary habit that is likely to be outgrown, such as sleeping with the lights on versus a habit that could lead to long-term destructive patterns, such as over-eating? How can parents guide their children toward healthy habits that will serve them well as adults?

The Dictionary of Psychology , written by Arthur S. Reber, defines a habit as "a pattern of activity that has through repetition, become automatized, fixed, and easily and effortlessly carried out."

Penelope Leach, in her book, Your Growing Child, From Babyhood through Adolescence , describes habits as "repetitive activities, which start because they are useful or rewarding to the individual but which become semi-automatic."

Everyone has habits. Some are helpful and are a necessary part of our daily functions, while others are harmful and can significantly interfere with our lives. It is the repetitiveness and automation of these habits that can cause conflict in relationships, social stress, and/or lead to addictive behaviors.

Deciding What to Change, and What to Live With

"My four year old daughter is constantly sucking her thumb. It drives me crazy. We have tried everything to get her to stop and nothing seems to work." Many parents worry over the habits their children develop. If you find that you are one of those parents, it may be helpful to stop and think about your role in addressing this issue. Instead of just focusing on how to eliminate the habit, evaluate the situation by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Does the habit cause your child physical harm such as long-term thumb-sucking?
  • Is the habit socially inappropriate, like throwing temper tantrums?
  • Will the habit create problems for your child later in life, such as incomplete homework?
  • Is the habit associated with long term addictions, like over-eating?
  • Does the habit indicate compulsive behavior like refusing to walk on cracks on the sidewalk or street?
  • Does the habitual activity interfere with other childhood activities like not putting their "blankie" down to play a game?
  • Is the habit linked to anxiety or insecurity, such as nervous tics or spasms?

Sometimes answering these questions can help you gain a better perspective on how to address the habit. You may determine that there is little reason for concern, or you may decide that the habit's interference with your child's well-being warrants your attention. A calm and patient approach is usually most effective. Responding to children's habits with punishments, threats, and emotion often compounds the problem.

Stopping "Bad" Habits

Determine the reason for the habit

Many habits are a result of stress or nervousness. Simply helping your child find alternative ways to relax can help change the habitual behavior. Lynsey, who is eight years old, would twist her hair continually when she was in stressful situations. When her parents witnessed her doing this they would discreetly pull her arms down to her side and rub her shoulders for a few minutes. They later taught her to fold her hands and take deep breaths whenever she felt the urge twist her hair.

Alter the situation

Identify when and where the habit usually occurs. Many habits occur only at certain times and in certain places. Trevor, an active six-year-old boy would rock back and forth only when he sat on the floor to watch TV. His parents bought him a bean bag chair, calling it his "TV" chair and it immediately eliminated the problem.

Discuss the habit with your child

Find a time when you and your child can have a calm and uninterrupted discussion. In a light-hearted manner, explain to them why you would like to see their habitual behavior change. For example, "Mommy and Daddy want you to be ready for kindergarten next month, so we need you to start leaving your blanket at home" or "I'm concerned that if you continue to bite your nails, your fingers will be sore and could get infected."

A discussion can help make them aware of a habit that they don't even recognize. Kathy, a mom of seven-year-old twins, was frustrated because the girls were frequently picking their nose. One day she sat them down, had them hold a mirror in front of them, told them to pick their nose, then ask them what they thought? After the laughter, the girls admitted that it was "gross" and "it didn't look good". Aside from an occasional reminder, the girls discontinued the habit of picking their nose.

Sometimes explaining to them how you personally have overcome a habit is also helpful. Let them know that you are on their side and are interested in helping them change their behavior.

Offer incentives

Sometimes children simply need motivation to change their habits. Praise them every time you see them not engaging in their habitual behavior. Make simple charts indicating their successes. When the chart is filled, offer them a reward. This not only encourages them to overcome their habit, but also promotes self-discipline and delayed gratification.

How to Establish "Good" Habits

Be a good role model

The best way to teach children to be self-disciplined is to show them by example. Parents who demonstrate positive habits such as eating healthy, exercising, treating others with respect, keeping commitments, etc. are instilling these habits in their children simply by the way they live their life.

It is difficult to expect children to give up bad habits when we are not willing to give them up ourselves. Working through a personal habit along with your child can also be effective. It is important that you are serious about the commitment to change, so your child can see the positive effects of willpower.

Begin early

It is never too early to begin teaching good habits. Guiding a newborn toward a schedule of eating and sleeping is the beginning of establishing healthy habits. Children can grow into good habits just as they grow out of bad habits.

Eileen Davis, a third grade teacher from Indianapolis, says, "I can tell the children who have been taught good manners at home. They are in a habit of saying 'please' and 'thank- you' at the appropriate times. It is much more difficult to teach the children manners in my class, even at this early age, who are having them enforced for the first time."

Teach them natural consequences

Good habits bring many healthy consequences. Children will experience this as they develop good habits. For example, children who are in the habit of brushing their teeth on a regular basis will benefit from having healthy teeth. In addition, children who are taught to save their money will have more money to buy things they really desire. You can tell children the benefits of good habits, but when they experience the consequences first hand, they will be more motivated to continue them on their own throughout their life.

Children will be faced with many temptations throughout their life, requiring wise judgement, self-discipline, and balance. Directing them toward healthy habits and helping them overcome bad habits will assist them in becoming the independent, responsible, productive, individuals most parents desire for them to be.