Breaking Bad Habits

The scripts we follow, the parts we act out, aren’t always set in stone.  They can be changed.  Yet, as parents, we sometimes act out behaviours we are not proud of; sometimes we say and do things that aren’t good for anyone’s self-esteem.  So how and why does this happen?

I’ve often wondered how much I think compared to how much I react.  Am I a creature of habit?  Unfortunately I am, according to Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit.  I had thought of habit as something simple, like my need for tea in the morning, but it can be really powerful.  Habit is able to change the way we act towards each other.


But first we need to get our heads around the idea of a habit loop.  A habit loop has three parts to it: the Cue, which leads to the Routine, which leads to the Reward.




The Cue is when something happens, the trigger, or the cause.  We then act in a certain way, the Routine; we do this automatically without thinking after the Cue triggers us into action.  The Reward then comes about from the Routine.

Sometimes Reward is obvious.  Our family dog is called Pavlov, and my daughter has taught him a few tricks.  One is she says, ‘Paw.’  He then lifts up his paw to shake her hand, and then she gives him a treat.  So, the Cue is her saying paw.  The Routine is him lifting his paw.  And the Reward is the treat

But with humans things aren’t alway that simple.  From an adult’s perspective, after a hard day at work, the habit loop at bath time might read like this.  The Cue might be their child deliberately splashing bath water across the floor and making a mess that needs cleaning up.  The usual Routine might be for the parent to then shout.  The Reward for that parent is the feeling that because their life is busy they are justified in reacting this way.  Speaking for myself I always feel bad whenever I raise my voice at my children but also I often justify my reaction by thinking well it wasn’t my fault.

Heavy stuff, yeah?  No, not really.  Once we know the parts of a habit loop, we can change our habit loops.  What we need to do is start backwards: identify the Reward so we can change the Routine after the Cue.

In the example above, the parent might decide the Reward they want is to improve their self-esteem and be a good guide to life for their child.  The Routine after the splashing of the water might be to ask the child why they did that.  The Routine might be to gently and kindly instruct and educate.  The Routine might be to use every Cue like this as an opportunity to become a better mentor to their child.  This in effect means changing the habit loop.  After a surprisingly few times of performing this new Routine, it will become our new habit loop.

No one said parenting would be easy.  Yet that doesn’t mean it should be a downwards spiral.  Parenting is a chance to learn about ourselves, and make ourselves into better people. genuinely found The Power of Habit a revelation, and it is now at the core of my thinking about myself and how we help our daughter to reach goals.

One practical example of how we use the habit loop is in our daughter’s chores.  Putting out the rubbish bins is one of her chores.  Her Cue is Friday; her Routine is to wheel out the bin for the dustmen; her Reward is the feeling that she is playing a useful part in the family, working hard by doing her job.

Maybe one day, when she is a little older, we will be able to explain habit loops in more depth to her.  Maybe she will come to understand that if we say something she doesn’t like, it is not a Cue for her to then go into the Routine of over-reacting.  For instance, when tablet time is over for the evening she won’t take this as a Cue to get frustrated.  She will simply think it is the Routine and put away her tablet.  Then the Reward for her is that she has dealt with the situation in a grown up and appropriate way.

I have always been an optimist!

I was so excited when I picked up this book.  You know when you’re 10 pages in that you’re in for a real treat.  It will be something I will read again and again.  It has real insights, and perhaps I haven’t done justice to the depth and breadth of  Duhigg’s knowledge.  He shows how habit can change society.  My ambition is a little smaller.  I simply want to use it to change my relationship with my daughter.

Just as a gut-feeling, what do you think about habit as a controlling factor in our lives?  I would love to know your thoughts because, for me, this is a journey and I’m a long way from knowing all the answers.



The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change



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