Did your family make a New Year’s resolution this month? Probably not, since we tend to think of resolutions as individual endeavors. But that may be the reason so many resolutions fail, as Charles Duhigg explains in his bestselling The Power of Habit.
To change a bad family habit or reinforce a good one, we first need to know how habits operate. Duhigg writes “habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort … without habit loops, our brains would shut down, overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life.”
In fact, nearly half the actions we perform each day are not decisions, but habits that have become automatic — e.g., brushing one’s teeth or driving a car. That is why it’s so important to learn those habits in healthy ways before they become rooted.
Significantly, an individual is often more successful at changing a bad habit (or reinforcing a good habit) when he or she is part of a group. Duhigg explains: “If you want to change a habit, you must find an alternative routine, and your odds of success go up dramatically when you commit to changing as part of a group. Belief is essential, and it grows out of a communal experience, even if that community is only as large as two people.”
On a large group scale, examples of successful habit changes include the rise of seat belt users, designated drivers and nonsmokers. On a smaller group scale, habit changers like Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous come to mind. On an even smaller group scale, the family can serve as an effective habit changer or reinforcer.
Change of family habits done easier together
To illustrate, I will apply some of Duhigg’s observations to one of my own family habits, especially since my two children are now teenagers. Hopefully my story can encourage parents of younger children who may be in the throes of trying to establish good family habits.
While our family certainly has some bad habits, one of our good habits is that our daughters sleep in their bedrooms without their cell phones. When my older daughter started college and lived away from home for the first time, she was thankful that it was easy to continue ignoring her phone after bedtime, using an alarm clock for waking, and protecting her sleep every night. But that family habit — and the whole family’s belief in its value — did not come easy.
The first important decision for parents about cell phones involves what age they feel is appropriate for kids to have one. We decided on age 12, though each family has different circumstances. Next, it’s important to establish cell phone rules on day one. Some can be negotiable, but my two main ones were no phones at meals or in the bedrooms during sleeping hours.
In those early days, you might say my wife and I were the only “believers” in such phone habits and the importance of a good night’s sleep. I certainly had to enforce a rule sometimes, but there were also moments when I learned to empathize with my daughters. For example, one morning I picked up one of my daughters’ phones and saw a surprising amount of notifications sent at all hours of the night! That showed me the peer pressure she was enduring, and after that I understood why she spent so much time on her phone in the morning “catching up” on all she had missed.
In addition to fostering a healthy habit from the start, parents need to be ready for future challenges to a habit. As Duhigg states, “what you need is a plan.” One of our biggest challenges came during sleepovers, when my daughters’ friends often had a range of family phone policies. Gradually, we negotiated a compromise in which everyone could keep their phones up to a specific time, but then my wife or I would collect and store the phones until morning.
This policy was not always well-received. But years later one of my daughters’ friends told us she actually looked forward to that habitual phone-confiscation because then everyone focused on hanging out in-person rather than online. Paired with my daughter’s grateful comment about college, her sentiment made all the work on (and gradual belief in) our family cell phone habit worth it.
Duhigg explains that such a habit is sometimes called a “keystone” habit, or one that is so foundational that it often leads to other habits. So in the new year, think about what your family’s “keystone” habits might be — both the good and the bad. Then consider making a family resolution to work as a group to change a bad one, or maybe better yet, reinforce a good one.