In my short experience as a mother, I have learned that whoever said it takes three weeks to form a habit never tested that theory with young children.
There are days when I feel that I've repeated myself twenty times over about a particular habit we're trying to instill in our children.
For example, here's a typical conversation that's been repeated many times over the years at mealtime in our home:
Child: I want some milk.
Me: Um, what's the polite way to say that?
Child: May I have some milk please?
Me: Thank you for asking the right way. Here's your milk, honey.
Child: A long silence interrupted only by the steady rhythm of milk being swallowed by the receiver of the beverage.
Me: O.K., now what do you say to Mommy?
Child: Thank you.
Me: Silence - except for the deep calming breaths I'm taking at this point in the whole ordeal.
All this to get a simple glass of milk on the table. Is it really worth it?
For awhile I was beginning to wonder if it truly was worth it. Would the day ever come when I would see my countless reminders and requests pay off? Would the pleases, thank yous, and yes ma'ams ever come naturally to my children? Images swirled in my head of myself fifty years down the road, a very grey, elderly lady giving my adult children a sharp prod with my walking stick, as they swept past the grocery store cashier without so much as a thank you.
Then one day after a few years of blood, sweat, and tears, I heard the sweetest thing. It was the sound of my eldest saying, "Mom, may I have some milk please?"
Joy and relief swept over me. I had tasted victory, and I knew that my efforts had been worth it. :)
I do believe that all of the time, thought, and effort we put into teaching our children good habits will eventually pay off. The difficult part about habit training for me is that it takes a lot of time and patience. And I am not by nature a patient person. (Hmmm...another habit that needs cultivating...in me.)
I consider myself to still be a novice in most aspects of parenting, including habit training. After all, my oldest just turned seven. But I would like to share some things that have worked for us, and some new things I'm going to try this year which I hope will help with the training (and maintaining) of good habits.
First off, the habits I want to concentrate on the most this year:
My kids do chores, but this year I want to add a few, work on the attitude with which they are done, and have a specific time of day for doing them. I plan to use chore charts as a motivator and a reminder to help them see what they need to accomplish. Here are some sites with free charts to customize and download. I'll probably choose one with pictures since my kids are younger.
Christian Preschool Printables
DLTK Chore Charts
Up to this point, we have not paid our children for their chores. I know everyone has their own ideas about this, but we feel that every family member does chores because that's how you keep a home running and that's part of being in a family. (And really, when our kids are grown is anyone going to give them a quarter everytime they pick up their dirty clothes off of the floor?)
However, our oldest two have been looking for ways to earn money, and I'm all for them learning how to manage finances. So, each day after they have completed their regular chores, they will have the opportunity to do a special job for pay.
I'm talking about manners that involve treating others with kindness and respect. (Things like saying Please, Thank you, I'm sorry, Do you forgive me?, asking to borrow toys before playing with them, being willing to share, etc.) Don't get me wrong. My kids are wonderful children! It's just that these things do not come naturally to anyone. They have to be learned over time.
I've never tried any creative, groundbreaking techniques for teaching kindness and respect. I think the most important thing that has worked for us is giving gentle reminders and making sure that we're modeling how we want them to treat other people. I truly believe that character qualities "are caught not taught".
Having said that, there is something I want to try this year that I hope will be a fun way to remind everyone in the family about good manners. I think I heard this on Focus on the Family, but I'm not sure. If we're at the table having a meal and someone (even Kurt or myself) forgets to say "Thank you", "Please", "May I...", etc., then that person has to leave the table, go into the next room and say the forgotten phrase ten times (or whatever number is appropriate for your child). To make this even sillier, you could have them hop on one foot while they're saying whatever phrase they forgot to use.
This little game was described in the context of a mealtime, but you could probably adapt it to other situations as well.
We haven't tried this yet, so I'll let you know how it goes. I am concerned that it might cause too much disruption during mealtime, but you never know - it just might work! :)
Charlotte Mason made a good point when she said, "With devotion (a mother) focuses on forming one habit at a time, doing no more than watch over those already formed. She strives to be faithfully consistent."
Having a routine will not be a new thing around here, but over this past summer let's just say I have not been "faithfully consistent". There is a chance I'll pay for that when we start up our new school year next week. So to help get us back into the swing of things I'm going to print out our daily schedule (with pictures since I have some pre-readers), and keep it posted in a high traffic area. For the first couple of weeks while we are getting back into our routine, I'm also going to quickly go over our schedule for the day during morning circle time. Since we have a couple of extracurricular activities on various days throughout our week, our schedule isn't exactly the same each day. My kids like knowing what to expect, so I think talking about it and giving them a visual reminder in the mornings will help things to run more smoothly.
Oh, and by the way, this year I'm going to try to heed Charlotte's advice and try to maintain our habit of schedule - even during breaks.
Finally, a new habit for Mom to cultivate this year...
I have a big confession to make here: I typically get up with my children - not before them. I know, I know - not the best way to start your day, but I'm just being honest when I say that I am a night owl. And I'm not a morning person. However, this year I am changing my ways and will be rising one hour earlier than the kids do in order to get myself ready for the day and spend time in prayer and reflection. This will be a hard habit for me to form, but I know that I need this quiet time in the morning to ask God to give me the patience, kindness, and gentleness required to lovingly guide my children and model for them the traits I want them to have.
I'll let you know how it all goes. :)