We’ve all been there—getting sucked into parenting patterns that just don’t seem to work. (Cue yelling at your daughter to clean up her toys her OR ELSE, then stepping over said toys a mere 15 minutes later.)
The problem is that these (nonworking) patterns are habits, and “we perform habits based on past rewards, not the rewards we are getting right now,” says Wendy Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at the University of Southern California and author of Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick. Take “time out,” for instance. It may have worked for your oldest child, but not for your youngest, yet you keep doing it, even though she doesn’t see it as a punishment.
“This is the challenge of habits,” adds Wood. “Once we learn them, they pop into mind automatically, and we just keep acting on them, whether they are working for us right now, in the present, or not.”
The annoying part is that these parenting snafus could actually spill over to your kids’ naughty behaviors. Here, five all too common bad behaviors you’re actually encouraging in your kids…and how to break the cycle for good.
1. You Make Mornings Stressful
Mornings routines are anything but Zen: It takes forever for your kids to get dressed (and you can forget about putting pj’s away), breakfast is a haphazard affair and you’re constantly late to school. No wonder you’re yelling at your kids every two seconds. They, in turn, snap back with “Leave me alone!”
According to Wood, you probably once used a snippy tone (“If you don’t pick out some clothes now, we’ll never get to school on time”) and got a reward in the form of released tension. Over time, your brain learned that “morning routine = snippy tone” and you revert to this habit memory, hovering over your kids even as they sit with a bowl of Cheerios, well on their way to getting out the door.
Break the habit: Prep the night before
By reducing friction (the decisions of what to wear/eat/etc.) you can make the morning more fluid. Professional chefs often use this tactic when cooking by putting everything in place in advance (mise en place). Create your own mise en place by laying out their clothes (and yours) the night before and placing all backpacks by the front door, for instance. “Expect protests [at first] because your kids aren’t used to this new setup,” adds Wood. “But as it becomes more familiar, it will ultimately become your regular routine.” Bonus: Your kids just might internalize the whole thing and start wanting to help with the place-setting right along with you.
2. You rely on bribery
Bribing your kids with gummy bears so that they empty the dishwasher works—sort of. That is, until those smart alecks realize there’s actually room to negotiate everything, and before you know it, your son quips, “I’ll fold the laundry if you take me to the trampoline park after.”
To be fair, we don’t blame him: Reward is the ultimate factor in cementing a habit, and that “something extra” teaches your brain to do a certain task over and over again. The downside, of course, is that it also teaches kids that the only reason to do something is to get a reward (money, food, screen time) and then they learn to tie tasks to similar rewards later in life. (“I had a hard day…I deserve this pint of ice cream.”)
Break the habit: Implement the “Fun Theory”
When you reward good behavior with things (e.g., gummies), you’re offering an extrinsic reward. Without the reward, good behavior stops. What you want to do is implement intrinsic rewards (i.e., a reward that’s part of the action). Meaning: Make your requests into something that your kids might actually enjoy doing. For instance, instead of bribing your kids to unload the dishwasher, ask them to stack up plates into a tower or see who can sort the utensils the fastest.
3. You’re Obsessed with Your Phone
You get annoyed when your kids ask for their tablets, but the truth is that you check your own phone nonstop. In fact, you may very well be part of the latest Deloitte statistic that shows Americans look at their phones 52 times a day on average.
If it makes you feel better, it’s not entirely your fault. See, when you jump to check an Instagram like or email notification, you’re actually seeking a mini reward that can definitely make you feel good in the moment. The problem, of course, is that the feeling is not long-lasting. And more to the point, it teaches your children to engage in this same cycle of tech validation.
Break the habit: Change cues and triggers
According to Wood, consistency is the backbone of a habit and adding variety is a sure way to dismantle one. So if you have a nagging feeling to check your phone upon waking (because your phone is on your bedside table), leave it charging by the coffeemaker and only look at it when coffee is brewing. During the day, avoid temptation by keeping phones and other electronics out of sight, say in your purse or a drawer instead of the kitchen countertop.
Alternatively, tackle moments of boredom by sprinkling other types of “rewards” throughout the house. Keep puzzles, Play-Doh and your crocheting project on hand in order to keep yourself distracted from Minecraft and #Megxit. If your kids see that you have other forms of amusement, they’ll follow suit.
4. You Don’t Have a Clean-Up Policy
The last time you saw a clear dining-room table was when you first bought it. Maybe you clean it frantically in the five minutes before guests come over, but for the most part, it’s a clutter zone.
Your kids, in turn, learn from this behavior: Messes are fine to leave out, and we clean on-the-go when we need a quick fix.
Break the habit: Opt for persistence over perfection
Don’t let the perfectly curated living rooms you see on Instagram shame you. No one expects you to live up to those standards, but you can bring order with the following mantra: “Persistence over perfection.” After all, habits form when you do them over and over again. So assign a small cleaning or organizing task to every member of your family and, most important, stick to it.
Here are some ideas: Make a point to toss catalogs and junk mail straight into your recycling bin instead of piling them on the counter. Teach your 6-year-old to dump his laundry bin into the washing machine every Friday after school. Encourage your 3-year-old to line up shoes in the mud room. Ask your partner to make the bed. One of the biggest benefits of habits is essentially eliminating the decision-making process. Once you have these cleaning behaviors on autopilot, your house will start to look pretty good.
5. You Rely on Negative Reinforcement
One. Two. Three. If your daughter isn’t listening, you put her in time out or take away her favorite toy. And for what? Ten minutes later she’s back doing the thing that got her into trouble in the first place. Punishment should work, in theory, but it rarely keeps people from doing what they want to do. Even mice are more influenced by reward than punishment.
Sure, you may see some tears and remorse, but the bottom line is that your kids are already conniving new ways to avoid getting caught.
Break the habit: Reward, reward, reward
You’ve probably heard this already: Rewarding works better than punishing. “Yeah, yeah,” you say as your kids throw lollipop wrappers all over your car.
Hear us out. When you are rewarded for good behavior, dopamine (the feel-good chemical) floods your brain. The bigger the reward, the bigger the dopamine rush. The bigger the dopamine rush, the higher the likelihood of repeat behavior. And when good behavior is applauded in a meaningful way, your kids will be more motivated to stay on track. So, next time Junior is mucking up his brother’s Lego tower, tell him to stop, then compliment his own brick skyscraper. Before you know it, he’ll be too busy constructing Lego City to worry about what his baby bro is up to.