Creating Powerful Habits, part 1

As a psych major, I’ve always been interested in how our brains work. As a mom this interest has become focused on, for lack of a better description, best common practices. How can we best help our kids to grow up as secure, compassionate, effective, happy, and successful adults? How will the experiences and thoughts of our young children shape them into the types of adults they will be when they are 20? 30? 60? How much has already been pre-determined by genetics and how much can we realistically influence?

Over the weekend I started reading a fascinating book that appears to offer a relative straightforward answer to the above questions. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg was just published on February 28, 2012 and encompasses the latest research on habit formation. The bestselling book is fascinating and is getting a great deal of positive press.

According to Mr. Duhigg, scientists have been able to show that once a habit is formed, we work on autopilot conserving our energy and brain cells for more involved pursuits. They have also shown that habits never disappear. They can be covered over by new habits but the old habits remain in our brains, ready to spring into action when triggered by just the right cue. While Mr. Duhigg focuses more on the habits of individuals, organizations and societies, I find the potential for parents far more compelling.

The habit formation loop is simple: Cue -> Routine -> Reward. While it can be difficult to change our own poor habits as adults (although if you are interested, Mr. Duhigg’s site has a How to Change a Habit flowchart) creating good habits for our kids might be easier. We manipulate their worlds already. We are in charge of many of their rewards. A little bit of planning, dedication, and finesse on our parts and we can equip our kids with a solid set of ingrained actions and thought processes that will help them live happy and fulfilling lives.

The importance of actively helping our kids create positive habits is brought home by another recently published book that is in the news, The End of Illness by David B. Agus, MD. Dr. Agus, a leading oncologist, is calling for a complete change in the way we approach health. One of the items he lays out as critical to optimal, long-term health is daily routine.

If we accept that part of our parenting duties is to help our kids create habits and daily routines that will serve them well as adults, our jobs just got both more complicated and much, much more interesting. Check back to follow our progress as I go through the book and work with the kids to create powerful new habits.

Getting bumped back

Today the 7-year-old is in tears again, or is it still? Aleks and Khan Academy are bumping him back because he hasn’t fully learned the latest subjects and concepts. His angst is wearing on me. I’m learning that the most important thing I have to teach him is how to struggle. How to work when he is confused and not the confident expert.

He is bright enough that he easily understands many things effortlessly. He is used to feeling smart and in control. Feeling stupid takes a huge emotional toil on him.

I am convinced that being able to feel comfortable and be okay with the gnawing feeling of stupidity is essential for all real progress in the world, both individual progress and institutional progress. If we already know all the answers, we aren’t really moving forward. In order to move forward we must first start by understanding where our knowledge ends and our lack of knowledge (or stupidity) begins. All great mathematicians encounter difficult problems where they may not even know how to begin to solve the problem. Feeling stupid in scientific research fields is common enough that it can carry with it something called impostor syndrome where a person is unable to believe the external evidence of their own competence and accomplishments.

So how do we make it okay to feel stupid?  How do we make the feeling of stupidity something that inspires us to dig deeper for answers and solutions rather than something that makes us quit and walk away? It is our lack of self-confidence and self-esteem makes us want to quit (or cry) when we feel stupid. We don’t think we can work through the difficult problem and we don’t want to bruise our fragile egos by trying and possibly failing.

Much has been written on the importance of self-esteem in kids and how to build it. Much of it has been wrong. When I was growing up, I Am Loveable and Capable was used in both Sunday school and my public school as a way to build community and feelings of self-esteem. Even as a 4th grader I saw its stupidity. It taught that our egos are and should be damaged by the random and not so random acts of others. That our feeling of self worth can only be controlled by what happens to us, not by our own thoughts and actions.

New research is starting to show that self-esteem needs to be tempered by self-control, self-regulation, and yes, the ability to confidently keep struggling and working even when success isn’t immediate. We develop self-confidence not from avoiding failure but from learning that we are capable of surviving failure. We need to bring back scoring of pee wee soccer games and letter grades in elementary schools. We need to eliminate the stupid practice of giving all kids awards and trophies just for being on a team for an entire season. We parents need to back off and let our kids fail. When we act as helicopter parents and work with the coaches and teachers to prevent our kids from feeling the sting of failure, we give our kids the not so subtile message that we lack confidence in them. That we don’t think they can handle failure. Instead we need to let them realize that perhaps they weren’t quite as good as the other kid. That maybe they didn’t know quite as much as was expected for the class or test. And as they are feeling the let down of that failure we need to help them understand that failing isn’t the end of the world. That how they react to the failure will have a longer lasting effect than the failure itself. That they can and should work harder to do better and move through and beyond feeling stupid. Our kids need to learn that in feeling stupid and in failing they have great company.