When I was young, I had a friend who had a habit of tasting anything anyone was eating, even if the dining person didn’t want their food touched. She was such a funny sweetheart about snatching just one tiny pinch here and one spoonful there that we all thought it was hilarious. My friend ate the same kind of food as I did, and, from what I saw, the same amount. I was with her often and I never saw her overeat. Yet, my friend always struggled with her weight. And as it is with many overweight folks, it took its toll on her health. It wasn’t the lack of willpower that evaded her; it was a bad habit. I heard a famous chef once say, “You will never see a skinny chef, and you will never see one of us sit and enjoy a meal. We taste ourselves to death with one tiny bite at a time.” Bad habits can really mess up life, your health, and even your happiness, plunging you into depression.
Many people rely on willpower to get them through life rather than establishing good habits. It is a recipe for frustration and failure. Even people who exercise strong willpower will fail occasionally, and research helps us see why. Studies have shown that trying to force yourself to use willpower uses up calories and emotional energy, making it harder to maintain that level of willpower on a continual basis. When willpower is running low, you can be sure most of us will be falling back to bad habits of being lazy, eating junk food, spending money foolishly, or yelling to get our way. This is where having well-established good habits can save us.
My husband Mike knows that if we have junk food in the house—ice cream, cookies, candy, chips, etc., eventually he will get around to eating all of it. So he has always insisted we go grocery shopping when we are not hungry and we stock our pantry for the next week with only things healthy for the family. Mike says it is easier to make one decision a week than to have to make it every hour of every day. So we have developed a habit of making one wise decision a week.
Long-term habits become your preferences. They dictate what you desire and how you think. Habits form pathways in the brain so that without thought or effort, you think, enjoy, and do certain things.
When parents work to establish good habits in their children, they are parenting as is their responsibility. It is the kind thing to do. Parents, even good parents, can derail their children’s lives by allowing bad habits, and parents do it all the time.
Making your child finish everything on their plate sounds like good discipline, but it establishes a habit of eating even when you are full. It is a fat life in the making. A better rule is to train a child to only take one small portion, and when they are finished and they still want more, teach them the second serving will be smaller.
This would apply as well to wanting things, going places, and entertainment. Just saying “no” all the time is not training. Talking about why and involving them in the decision-making process will allow them to develop connections in their brain. Having the child come to an understanding of the issue helps them appreciate that you have their good in mind.
Habits That Last a Lifetime
Yesterday I was at the Red Cross blood drive, waiting while Mike gave blood. The long-time host mentioned that this was her last time to host the drive. She said at 86 years old, her brain was just not able to keep up with all the computer stuff. I responded, but she didn’t hear me. She laughingly yelled, “I didn’t wear my hearing aids.” As one oldie to another, I loudly jested back, “Did you forget where you put them?” Her sudden serious response surprised me.
“Oh no, not that. I have established habits that have really helped me in this time of mental decline. I have always set designated places for everything, therefore it doesn’t require me to remember where I left something. I have a cup for pens, scissors, and whatnots, a hangup board for keys, and a charging spot for my phone and hearing aids. I use the same idea with my refrigerator. The mayo is in the door on the lower shelf at the closest spot, next is the ketchup, and so on. It has saved me a lot of time hunting for things, and now that I am older it allows me to automatically know where things are.
“My closet and cupboard are also kept this way. I am not a slave to my habits, rather they are there to serve me. A habit is hard to break, and a good habit is worth establishing. I still create new habits as my life has taken this new turn. And as you know, one aspect of mental decline is anxiety and depression from losing the ability to know where things are, so I think this has kept me from being upset all the time.”
I pulled my chair up as close as possible and spoke loudly. “Doesn’t it take too much of your time putting things exactly in the same place when you are in a rush or have other things in your hands?” She laughed at me like I was a silly child. “No, nothing of the kind.
Well-established habits will always save you time and a great deal of frustration. My late husband thought I was magic because I always knew exactly where everything was. If he forgot and laid something down, I just picked it up and put it in the correct spot. I enjoyed the fact that he thought I was so smart.” The old lady is smart in more ways than one. Our brain makes up only one-fiftieth of our body mass, but it consumes about one-fifth of the calories we burn for energy. Most of our conscious activity happens in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is right behind your forehead. It handles your moral decision-making processes such as problem solving and controlling impulses. It also houses your short-term memory.
If you read my book, Create a Better Brain through Neuroplasticity, then you know this is where your executive center is located, which is the part of your brain that controls your willpower. This area is what sets you apart from all other mammals. It is one of the last areas of the brain to complete development (not being finished until a person is in their twenties) and it is the first area of the brain to begin mental decline. The old lady might not know anything about her prefrontal cortex, but she understood that the area of the brain that requires constant understanding and decision making was fading.
Habits don’t necessarily require the short-term, executive area of the brain, which is why my old friend was depending on her good habits to see her through her old age. Habits are automatic responses, like walking and chewing food, which use different areas of the brain.
You can break a habit, but ask anyone who ever tried to stop smoking if it was easy. Smoking is a nasty habit that requires only a little effort to start; so why is it so hard to stop doing something that is making you sick, smells bad, costs money that is needed for other things, and irritates those around you? You guessed it: HABIT. Breaking a habit, no matter how nasty it is, takes a lot of effort.
The brain develops certain connections and pathways, which cause a person to automatically do, feel, and think a certain way; going down a different path requires a lot of willpower as well as brain power. You have to consciously THINK to avoid doing it, AND you must continue to WANT to avoid doing it. Clearly, establishing habits, good or bad, will shape who and what you are. You can see why I say that when a parent is helping their child establish good habits, they are being really kind to their child.
Habits follow you through life. A child who is allowed to sit around will be a sit-around adult, resulting in poor health, physically and mentally. A child encouraged to go out and create a farm in the dirt will develop habits of productivity that will help them shine throughout life.
You might be thinking how sad you are because you are the food snatcher; or maybe you are the person who drops stuff wherever and can’t find it; or it could be that you are that person who routinely spends money on things you could live without. You think your lack of well-established good habits has really messed you up. I agree. But remember my old friend at the Red Cross—she is still creating habits that she knows will help her as she becomes more mentally deficient. Let this be your guide: better late than never. Let this be your motto: I will do better for my kids.
Sit down with your children and read this article and let them work with you on deciding where you will keep certain items and who can oversee that area to pick up and put the things where they belong. Let one of the children “own” the fridge. Have another handle the outside tools, etc. Then plan to discuss weekly how you can improve on developing more good habits. This is a great way to learn how to care for pets. You could charge anyone who seems to repeatedly forget to put things back in place.
Keep this learning time cheerful so the children’s brains will absorb more. Tension, stress, fear, and irritation all shut down the learning brain. Keep this in mind when you are homeschooling. Never have a face of disapproval when a child is trying to remember, or they are sure to NOT remember. Learning can become a lifelong good habit if it is done with joy and wonder.
Now, that is a subject for next time; or you could just read Create a Better Brain through Neuroplasticity. It is available on audio, so you could have your children listen to it in the evenings. They would love to hear all the stories, and they would learn so much. Now that is a good idea. Make it a habit.