Regardless of whether I want anyone else to know or not, I definitely have some habits I would let go of. Over the years, I have been amazed at how few days/times it can take for a habit to form—either good or bad. As a parent, it is not easy to know if a child’s new behavior is going to “stick” or not—is it just a passing phase? Or is it going to contribute to a habit that lasts a lifetime? How long does it take for something to become a habit and how can we make that work for us as parents?
I have read various theories and numbers about habits—some say 21 days or three weeks, others say 8 weeks, and I’ve even read that three months is a the time it takes to change or build a habit. This doesn’t explain how a person can work really hard to lose a bad habit only to find it suddenly reappear several years later. As parents, we may not want to think that hard about changing or starting habits in our children—we just want them to stop sucking their thumb or start picking up their dirty laundry!
I try to turn to my own personal experiences with habits when I am trying to figure out what I can do as a mom to help my children wrestle with and shape theirs. For example, I know that as a little girl, I bit my fingernails and then one day, for no apparent urgent reason when I was about 12 or 13, I just decided to stop. All the cajoling, bribes, and threats in the world couldn’t make me stop until I just quietly decided to. There have been other habits in my life that I had to work hard to focus on stopping or building. I didn’t drink coffee until I turned thirty and then it quickly became a habit. A few years later, I just lost interest in it. Identifying WHAT it is about the behavior that is habit-forming helps; as does trying to figure out WHY a child might be doing something (stress, anxiety, boredom, etc.) Reinforcements help for some children and for others, it doesn’t matter if you offer them all the bubblegum in the world, it is not going to be enough for them to give up a habit before they are ready.