It took single mother and homeschooler Sandhya Viswan several patient weeks to train her son Omkar, three, to tidy up his toys. The entrepreneur's first move was to buy him a massive tub to simply drop them all into at the end of the day, but he refused to partake.
“Then I started taking a few minutes to do it alongside him. After a week, in the middle of the clean up, I suddenly started and rushed off, telling him I needed to switch off the stove, and he completed the task himself,” says Viswan.
“After two more days, I asked him to clean up while I finished a chore, and only joined him towards the end. A couple of days later, I said I was busy again and did the same for the next few days until he started doing it all by himself.”
While building good habits in children can be a long-drawn process, it becomes easier if parents start early. Exercise, time management, good food habits and other related parameters can play a part in how well-rounded a child is as an adult.
Consistency and conversation
Ashdin Doctor, a habit coach and the author of The Book of Good Habits for Kids, says children shouldn’t be forced, threatened or guilted into a new habit. The worst is when an allusion such as “if you don’t do this, I’ll not love you” is made.
Such behaviour from an adult can damage a child’s attitude to habit formation.
Instead, parents need to sit down with their children and have a healthy conversation about the consequences of not following a particular habit. “Tell them the facts and explain clearly what will happen if they do not perform a particular action, but not something so far in the future that a child can’t understand,” explains Doctor.
For example, children might not be able to imagine their teeth falling off due to a lack of dental hygiene, but may be able to relate if parents say they should brush their teeth to avoid bad breath.
“Children are very intuitive and intelligent beings, and they do what they see rather than what they are told, so be a role model yourself,” says Nidhi Bruce, founder of Treasure Words Coaching, who lives in Dubai with her three children. “If you’re telling your child to do something, but not following it yourself, the child will not pick up the ‘good’ habit.”
Habits, she says, should be developed slowly and simply, with the action being repeated in a consistent environment to make it a natural part of a child’s life.
Dietary habits and fast food
When Raina Assainar’s daughter was six months old, she fed her purees and mashed food. However, to make the process quick and easy, the first-time mother would allow her child to watch cartoon videos on her mobile phone at feeding time.
“My daughter was distracted by the screen and my work got done quickly, but over time I realised she did not understand what she was eating and if she was full,” says Assainar. When her second child was born and she wasn’t able to spend much time with her first, Assainar realised the older one couldn’t eat by herself and always needed to watch videos while eating.
“I was triggered that I had inculcated this habit in her and made sure not to do the same with my second child, while I resolved to break the cycle with my first,” she says.
After weeks of research, Assainar came across baby-led weaning, where at six months old, children are allowed to explore the texture of food with their own hands while eating with the family.
Finger-size foods such as steamed chicken slices, boiled and cut carrot sticks and ripe bananas are a good start, so the child can easily grip the item. Small, round foods such as peas, nuts or grapes shouldn’t be given initially to avoid gagging.
Despite Assainar’s parents and in-laws fearing their granddaughter might choke on the food, she ate just fine. “Because I introduced baby-led weaning to my second child at six months, she is now a non-fussy eater,” she adds. "She enjoys holding food in her hand, feeling the texture and eats without complaining. She likes to experiment with new foods, while my elder one is still a fussy eater."
Assainar ensured her older daughter gradually broke the habit of watching a screen while eating by making her sit with the family for meals. In April, a study by the journal JAMA Network Open found that spending more time eating family meals together leads to a higher intake of fruits and vegetables among children.
As for fast food, children can be kept away from it if they are introduced to healthy meals early on, experts say. Simply don’t order or expose children to junk food; if this is not available to start with, children will not gravitate towards it and instead develop a taste for homemade dishes.
“Older children can also be shown images, videos and books about health issues that could develop due to unhealthy eating habits,” says Assainar.
Exercise and screen time
For children who do not respond to the “go and play a sport” instruction, it might help if the whole family is involved in a group exercise session, experts suggest. Enrolling children in a sports class of their choice is also a viable alternative.
Exercise is crucial in our digital-focused world, as child obesity levels continue to expand. As Bruce says: “I enrolled my children for outdoor exercising activities to ensure they get adequate physical activity and realised this also makes them feel good."
Alongside this, try to break away from excessive screen time by allotting a set quota each day, which can be gradually reduced from two hours to no more than 30 minutes.
“Preventing screen addiction requires a lot of patience, a little force and asking children to choose how they would like to spend their allotted screen time,” says Doctor.
Finally, children thrive on routine and may respond well if they are made aware of their progress in real time. “A habit tracker is a great way of building consistency. Parents should track the smallest action that a child takes towards forming a particular habit,” Doctor says.
Using easy, simple and fun elements, such as sticking a gold star or a sticker of their favourite cartoon character on a chart paper every time they perform the habit, may help motivate them.
Again, it’s crucial to be consistent with a tracker or reward system in order for it to make a long-lasting impression, experts say.