How to help children build good habits

What's Covered

Habits define who we really are and can be good or bad, depending on how they impact our physical and mental wellbeing. Good habits are building blocks of one’s character and take time for form. Children are more receptive to suggestions and ideas in their formative years than in their later years. It is the responsibility of the parents to help the children build good habits right from a young age. The earlier certain habits are put in place, the easier it becomes for the children to not only develop but also retain them for life.

What are good habits?

Any behaviour that has a positive impact on your physical and mental health is a good habit. It is often associated with a degree of self-control and a high level of self-discipline.

Going to bed on time and waking up early every morning is a good habit that will increase a child’s concentration.

Spending quality time with family reinforces emotional security and creates a happy atmosphere at home that positively impacts a child’s emotional and mental health.

What are good habits to develop at a young age?

Habits that positively impact your physical wellbeing and mental health are good to get into at a young age. Some common good habits to develop during childhood are eating healthy, nutrition-rich meals, taking up a sport, drinking water regularly, enjoying family meals together, cleaning up after yourself, keeping your room tidy, being respectful and courteous, being honest and grateful, brushing twice a day, showering every day, helping others, spending time with friends, reading books, taking up a hobby, and sleeping on time.

How do you get kids at a young age to develop the good habits?

Children are like clay; you can mould them with ease. Habits they develop during the early years stick on longer than the ones they pick up later in life. So, how can you ensure they get to develop good habits early on?

Good eating habits

  • Set a healthy eating routine.
  • Train your children’s taste buds to enjoy different flavours and cuisines.[1]
  • Make their food visually appealing and colourful.
  • Experiment and be adventurous with the preparation of their meals.
  • Involve them in the cooking of their favourite meals.
  • Explain the merits of chewing their food and eating slowly and how it aids their digestion.
  • Prevent uncontrolled snacking between meals
  • Make it a practice to have at least one meal a day together as a family.
  • Be seated at a table to have your meals.
  • Encourage your children to drink water regularly. Get them cool water bottles to carry with them.

Creativity as a good habit

Creativity, when nurtured and cultivated from a young age, becomes a habit like any other. Kids are born curious – they love to explore and learn new things. Even before they turn a year old, they begin their journey towards exploration by touching and feeling the everyday objects around them. From the ‘what’ to the ‘whys’ and ‘why nots’, their minds are constantly on the lookout for the answers to their questions. Here are a few ways to ensure your children get into the habit of being creative.

  • Redefine a problem and turn it on its head.[2] Show them how to get out of a box and look at a problem from different perspectives. It gives them the confidence to be creative with their solutions.
  • Give them choices and the freedom to choose on their own. That is the only way for them to learn how to choose. They develop two important elements of creativity in the process – taste and good judgement.
  • Allow them to make mistakes. How else will they learn to not only recognize but also rectify them, both of which are an important part of the creative process.
  • Encourage them to generate ideas, however unconventional they may be and praise them for coming up with new ideas. But it is also equally important to let them know that not all ideas are worth pursuing. Help them focus on the creative parts of the ideas.

Good Study Habits

A set routine is a powerful tool for kids while growing up especially when it comes to instilling in them a good study habit. An hour a day of study at a set time beyond their school and homework is a good way to activate their sense of responsibility as a student. The ways of instilling good study or work habits in children differ based on their age.[3]

  • Early Childhood – Between ages 3 and 6, children are in the process of learning self-control and self-regulation. They are bound to throw tantrums and make unreasonable demands on your time and effort. Begin by giving them small tasks and show them how to do it. Use humour to make it fun. Allow mistakes and show them the importance of trying again. Reward them when they succeed at a task. When you realize that a task is beyond their capabilities, do not hesitate to reset your expectations. Patience is key at this stage.
  • Middle Childhood – In the middle childhood between ages 7 and 12, the kids encounter distractions like video games that slow down their learning process. This is when they learn that it takes a significant amount of time and effort to learn a skill or master a game. Emphasize that trying again till they succeed pays off. Set boundaries and expectations and be consistent with your yes and no. Persistence is key in dealing with children at this stage.
  • Adolescence – During adolescence, the kids go through a lot of changes – hormonal, physiological, and emotional. They are at a stage of finding their identity. It is crucial that you as parents respect their choices and treat them with dignity. Focus on instilling a strong work ethic in the teenagers. Teach them how to make up their own minds, be decisive, be responsible for oneself, be successful and that there is prudence in being themselves.

Good habits related to health

Importance of instilling habits that promote good health in children cannot be stressed enough. The habits we help build in the first few years of a child’s life determines their health for the rest of their lives. It is the parents’ responsibility to lay a strong foundation for the child’s growth. While talking about children’s habits, it is important to focus both on their physical and mental health.

  • Eating nutrition-rich meals every day is of utmost importance.
  • Having a hearty breakfast is a must to keep the energy levels high through the day.
  • Drinking enough water to keep them well-hydrated. 
  • Regular exercise – children can take up sports they enjoy as a good physical activity.
  • Encourage the kids to get off the couch and step outdoors to play.
  • Allow them to spend quality time with their friends either talking or playing with each other. Spending time with their peers has a positive impact on their mental health.
  • Encourage them to read every day. It expands their minds and makes them look at things from different perspectives.
  • Spend quality time together as a family. This encourages bonding and improves their emotional quotient significantly.

How can one change the bad habits of children?

Bad habits of children are negative behaviour patterns that have formed over a period. Their bad behaviours do not make them bad or ‘problem children’. We have all messed up as kids and it is a part of the process of growing up. Typically, bad behaviours of children are signals sent out to adults, demanding attention. It is up to the parents to give them the attention and the care they need in a way that encourages the child to break out of the bad habits and embrace good habits in their place. Here are some ways to ensure your children break their bad habits.

Pay attention to the child’s actions 

Children communicate their needs to adults in different ways. Their misbehaviour can be their desperate plea for help or be a simple need to be noticed or acknowledged. Usually, a parent’s first reaction is to stop the child from misbehaving immediately. Bad habits too convey a message and if you do not pay careful attention, you are bound to miss the all-important message.

In her book, ‘The good news about bad behaviour: why kids are less disciplined than ever – and what to do about it’ available on Amazon, Author Katherine Reynolds Lewis urges the adults not to give in to their instinct to ‘squash the unwanted behaviour’. Instead, she advises the parents to pay attention and treat their bad habits as clues to a piece of puzzle they need to solve.

The Good News about Bad Behaviour
This book is perfect for parents and teachers who are short on time but are serious about inculcating positive behaviour in children

Be empathetic and establish connection 

Most kids do not react well to authority, but almost all of them respond to kindness and empathy. They listen better when the message comes from a place of connection. Strengthen your bond with your children before you expect any change in their behaviour. Be empathetic when you address them and their problems. Try to put yourself in their situation and come up with a solution that will work for both of you.

Understand the purpose behind the behaviour

Most often, children act out under stress or out of perceived threat when faced with situations beyond their control. These ‘bad habits’ could actually be a source of comfort to them and often be their coping strategy. Understanding the reason behind their bad habits is the first step towards changing their unwanted behaviour.

While most of these bad habits could be just a phase and they outgrow them soon, some of them could turn into serious medical issues. Simple and harmless ‘bad habits’ that are mere phases can be ignored. Yelling and calling attention to it could do more harm. The difference in how you address their bad habits depends on why the children misbehave.

Relate to them rather than teach

It is said that when you teach you invite them into your world, but when you relate to them, you enter their world. By relating to their problems, you get to see and understand their behaviours from their viewpoint. Children want to be seen, heard, and understood more than anything else. When these basic emotional needs are met, their behaviour will change for the best.

Some of the common examples of bad habits are poor eating habits like skipping breakfasts, eating in front of the TV screens, drinking sweetened beverages, eating out often, stress eating, binge-eating, and unhealthy habits like picking your nose, nail-biting, bad hygiene, being offensive and rude, addicted to playing video games.

How to replace bad habits in children with good habits?

An unhealthy lifestyle as a family is a leading cause of children picking up bad habits. Kids are prone to replicate the behaviour patterns of the elders around them. Over time, these behaviours become habits that are hard to shake off without the family setting in to consciously change their lifestyle.

For example, irregular meals and inconsistent bedtimes negatively impact a child’s overall wellbeing. Here are a few things you can do as a family to break these bad habits and nurture good habits in their place.

Start a new habit

Psychologically, it is easier to start something new than focus on breaking an old habit. Rather than focus on ‘fighting’ to stay away, it is better to put your energy behind ‘forming’ a new habit. For example, start a family game night instead of banning your children from spending too much time on their mobile phones.

Make it fun

Children tend to grasp lessons quicker when the process of learning is fun. An exciting physical activity is more appealing than a jog in the park. Playing fetch and rolling on the ground with their pet dog can be the exercise they need instead.

Persuade rather than push

Gently nudging the children in the right direction is better than pushing them to form a new habit. How you enforce a good habit is as important as what it is about. Explain your reasons for wanting them to follow a certain rule. They are bound to do it voluntary when they are convinced it is good for them.

Nurture a healthy environment

It is tough to form a new habit in the presence of old temptations. Imagine having to eat a bowl of fruit with slabs of chocolate lying around the house or having to go to bed early with a party going on in the living room.

Create a healthy habit loop

Habits have a clear cycle – a cue, a routine, and a reward, thereby forming a loop.[4] This becomes a muscle memory in children as they grow up laying a solid foundation. Understanding this loop is key to changing a bad habit and replacing it with a good one. A cue is the trigger that sets you on auto-pilot mode, a routine is the action, and the reward is what you get out of the habit.

How to get the children to stick to the good habits for life?

Raising well-mannered children is no child’s play. As parents, it requires your dedication, time, effort, energy, involvement and commitment. Good habits take time to form and it takes a good mix of the following to ensure they last for the rest of your child’s life.

Be their role model

Children trust their parents completely. Their innocence leads them to believe everything their parents tell and do. They become your shadow. Best way to positively influence your child is to be the example they can emulate.

Be patient

Patience is key to teaching children good habits. Children need to be told what to do repeatedly. It requires a lot of patience to repeat the same thing every day until it becomes a habit.

Be persistent

You cannot give up because you do not have the patience to repeat the same set of instructions every day. Being persistent makes the children realize that you are sincere and serious about a habit.

Be consistent

If you have said ‘no’ to a late-night snack, stick to it even in the face of tantrums. Being consistent with your response makes them take you seriously and you will be less open to emotional manipulation.

Be realistic

Setting realistic expectations of your children is important. Know your child, understand what they are capable of and adjust your expectations accordingly.

Set solid ground rules

Children have a knack for finding loopholes in the rules you set. Set ground rules and make them watertight. For example, no technology after 10 at night should be a hard rule to break or argue over.

Set expectations

Make it clear that you expect them to follow the rules you set, that you expect them to be on their good behaviour. Knowing that they are answerable for their actions makes them self-aware and responsible.

Stay involved

Children need to know that you are there for them, that you are interested in their life. Be enthusiastic about what happens with your children. Ask questions, answer their questions, do activities with them, and let them know you love them.

Spend family time

Family bonding is an important factor in cultivating good habits that lasts a lifetime. You will always remember a habit you picked up together as a family – dining together every day, treating elders with respect, eating healthy meals.

The power of inculcating good habits in children

Our habits define who we are. The good habits we develop as children has a lasting impact on our wellbeing throughout our life. There is immense prudence in inculcating good habits in children at a young age. These are powerful tools one needs to lead a happy, successful, and healthy life.

Establishes Keystone Habits

According to Charles Duhigg, the author of ‘The Power of Habit’, keystone habits are those that when practised cause a positive ripple effect on the other areas of your life. Children learning to eat nutritious meals on time with their families is a keystone habit. It impacts their physical wellness and mental health positively. Those who grow up making their own bed every morning, learn to be productive during the day. Families that foster an environment of sharing their thoughts and feelings raise children who grow up to be confident adults and are better at expressing themselves.

The Power of Habit
Full of interesting anecdotes, this is perfect book to know the power and impact of good habits in one’s life

Strengthens willpower

Willpower is a state of mind – a habit that gets stronger with practice. When children are conditioned from a young age to develop their willpower, they grow up with a resolute mind. Eating healthy, getting enough sleep and exercise, being self-aware are some of the good habits that strengthen willpower in children.

Key Formula for Success

If you look at the lives and habits of successful people, you will invariably find them practicing good habits early in life. Inculcating good habits in children is a sure-shot way of ensuring their success in life. The formula is fool-proof and rooted in logic and common sense. When you wake up early after a good night’s rest, your energy levels are high throughout the day and your mind is sharp and alert; you will have a productive day.

Fosters emotional intelligence

When you allow your children to express their feelings and you listen to them, you are providing a safe and healthy environment to grow up in. When you empathize with them, you teach them how to relate to not only their emotions but of those around them as well. Emotional intelligence is an important component for a healthy mind and happy life.

Final thoughts

In a world shaken up by catastrophes and life-changing pandemic, our physical and mental well-being has become more important. If we are to give today’s children a fighting chance at what the world has in store for them in the later years, we better get them ready starting now. Help them build good habits that will stick with them for life. There cannot be a better gift from a parent to a child.

[1] Black, Maureen M., and Kristen M. Hurley. “Helping children develop healthy eating habits.” Encyclopedia on early childhood development. Montreal: Centre of Excellence for Early Child Development (2007): 1-10.

[2] Sternberg, Robert. “Creativity as a habit.” Creativity: A handbook for teachers. 2007. 3-25.

[3] Esteban, Esther Joos. Good, Better, Best!: Fostering Good Work Habits in Children. Scepter Publishers, 2017.

[4] Hollingworth, Crawford, and Liz Barker. “How to use behavioural science to build new habits.” (2017): 1-18.

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Diana Lucas

Diana Lucas

Hi, Diana here. Welcome to my blog and hope you like my sharing. I am a mother of 2 boys, 3 years old and a 1 year old. I dedicate my career in child development research and I focus on parenting tips, positive parenting, educational toys for my babies. Your time here means a lot to me! Diana A. Lucas