How to Build Good Habits in Your Child
Family is a small type of the Kingdom of God. Parents stand in the role of God. When a baby is brought into the world, it is the perfect example of both helplessness and selfishness. God gives parents the gift of a baby to teach many lessons relating not only to this present life, but also to the soon-coming Family of God. They are to train up a child in such a way that he can overcome selfishness and vanity and learn to become a member of the God Family, having love, outgoing concern, and the character of Jesus Christ.
Sadly, some parents can overlook the most important child-rearing principles, while misapplying or overly emphasizing discipline.
These overlooked principles are found in The Plain Truth About Child Rearing by Garner Ted Armstrong—particularly Chapter 3: “How Your Child Learns.” This chapter reveals two vital ways that children learn. These are important to know even if you do not have children, because they are the same two primary ways God uses to teach His own children!
Children Learn by Association
The child-rearing booklet reads, “As a creature of habit, a baby begins to learn at the very instant of its birth. The way in which it first learns is by mere association. But these ‘associations’ begin to form certain habits within the rapidly growing and developing mind of a newly born human baby.”
Notice, associations form habits. Associations are constantly being made whether we realize it or not.
As all parents know, it is much easier for a child to develop a bad habit than to acquire a good one. Why? Everyone is selfish, subject to vanity. Therefore, a child will more quickly learn to do “that which is pleasurable, that which is curious, interesting, and easy to do, rather than that which takes effort, concentration, and persistence.”
Thus, one of a parent’s biggest responsibilities is to make the proper associations with the desired behavior so that good habits are developed. If a parent can teach a good habit to a child before a bad habit is fully formed, that parent can save a lot of trouble and grief over the long run.
Everyone forms habits primarily on a pleasure/pain, reward/punishment basis.
That does not mean the carnal mind will automatically choose to avoid all pain! Truth is, the carnal mind is willing to suffer a great deal of pain when it thinks the “reward” for doing so seems greater than the pain for not doing so. For example, a young child may be willing to suffer various forms of punishment, if he thinks he can get his own way in the end. The pleasure of “winning” in the long run is often more pleasurable than any temporary punishment.
Whenever parents see a bad habit forming in a child’s life, there is always a “reward” somewhere. Ask yourself, “What is my child’s reward?” It may not make sense to a mature person, but there is always some kind of “payoff” that seems to make sense to the carnal-minded child. That is why the bad habit is taking root.
The parent’s job is to intervene before that bad habit can become fully formed! One way this is done is through the proper use of pleasure/pain associations.
Pleasure/pain associations are clearly revealed in the Bible. Notice Deuteronomy 11:26-28: “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse; A blessing, if ye obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day: And a curse, if ye will not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which ye have not known.”
God clearly encouraged various forms of painful associations with the children of Israel.
Proverbs 22:15 says, “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.” God clearly encourages the use of physical punishment that inflicts an appropriate amount of pain to correct a small child. It takes careful thought and proper follow-through to properly “turn” a child away from a bad habit.
One mistake many parents will make is trying to “bribe” their child with various “blessings” in spite of bad behavior, because they are reluctant to administer pain or “curses” on their child. Such “rewards” for wrong behavior will no doubt encourage or strengthen a bad habit.
When parents fail to teach their child proper pleasure/pain associations, they are turning their child’s mind over to the instruction of a permissive society as influenced by “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2). Satan is constantly trying to convince us that his way will bring more pleasure and less pain than God’s way of life.
When parents fail to teach their children to overcome wrong habits, their children will continue forming wrong habits, making it difficult for them to become spiritually mature people.
Children Learn by Imitating
The Plain Truth About Child Rearing mentions two primary ways that children learn: The first was by association. The second way is through “mimicking and imitating others. … This method of learning is so powerful, so intense that it follows us all through our lives—often guiding and ruling our every action, our customs and our habits, even as mature adults.”
This principle is also clearly taught in the Bible: 1 Peter 2:21 says we are to follow Christ’s example. Paul told Church members to follow him as he followed Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Parents, therefore, have a weighty responsibility to set the right example! What they do and say around their children will have a tremendous impact on them and the habits they develop.
Children are also quick to follow the example of other people. Thus, it’s not just important what parents allow their children to do, but also what parents allow themselves to see, hear, say and do. What kind of movies or television shows do you watch? What kind of music do you listen to? What do you talk about? Do you gossip? Do you complain about your husband or wife, your minister, your boss or others? Your children know what you are doing! Your example can be a power for good, or a power for evil that will carry over to your children—and even grandchildren!
How Habits Are Acquired
Now let us examine how to properly apply both of these forms of learning—association and imitation—to develop good habits and hinder bad habits.
“A vitally important principle every parent needs to understand is that good habits must be constantly taught the child from early infancy” (ibid.). Notice the emphasis on constant teaching. This is important for proper associations to take root! This world never stops teaching its way of life; godly parents must never stop teaching God’s way of life.
Even good habits are difficult to change once they are firmly established.
“Obviously, since the child repeats what he enjoys, it is good for parents to make habits which the child needs to acquire interesting and enjoyable.” How much time and effort do you place on making instruction interesting and enjoyable for your child? These are two primary pleasurable associations that help children and adults learn good habits. “However, when all is said and done, the child must learn to do that which is right, enjoyable or not.” Sometimes children will not respond to our effort to make something interesting and enjoyable. That means the parent will need to apply a “painful association” to deter a bad habit from taking root.
“Remember, it’s the pleasurable experience that is most often repeated. A little baby likes the sound of his spoon hitting the floor, and seeing his mother or father pick it up for him. He likes the excitement when he dumps his cereal bowl, or spills his milk, and sees the flurry of motion and sound around him.
“Naturally, unless he is firmly taught not to do these things, he will repeat them until they become habit. …
“How, then, can you teach your children the correct habits of obedience, cleanliness, proper eating, good posture, orderliness, truthfulness, and respect?
“The first time your baby reaches out a chubby little hand to grasp a spoon, he may drop it several times, get it between his fingers, and in both hands, and try desperately to put it in his mouth. He will trade hands with it, bang it on his highchair tray, and throw it on the floor. It is only after weeks and months of patient teaching that a child will gradually learn to hold the spoon correctly, eliminating all the unnecessary movements and actions, and finally solving the complicated process of all the muscular movements involved in simply holding a spoon. This is learned through trial and error. Obviously, the parent should place the spoon in the baby’s hand, and show the child how to hold it correctly, helping him along until he is able to do it for himself.”
Notice, it often takes weeks and months of patient teaching, showing and helping before a child is able to do something correctly. There was no mention of the words loud commands, angry words, swatting or spanking during that entire time.
Now notice what happens next: “The first time a child drops a spoon (after he has attained the muscular coordination necessary to properly hold it), the parent should merely say, ‘no’ and pick it up, placing it back in his hand.”
Perhaps a quick review, setting the example and even encouraging the child might be in order, but still no reprimands, swatting or spanking! Then what happens?
“The second time [that he drops the spoon], repeat the command [NO!], and swat the back of the hand sharply—it won’t bruise or injure. In a very short time, you will have a very small child who will not ever, unless by pure accident in a very rare instance, drop his silverware on the floor.”
Let’s review those steps: First, we have weeks or months of training through imitating and encouraging. Then, only when the parent is sure the child has the skills and understanding necessary to perform the task properly, does the parent begin to give the command and swat the back of the hand sharply when the child fails to perform the good habit.
The idea is to associate pain with the wrong behavior quickly, but only after the child knows what the right behavior is. Spanking ought not be used until the parent is certain that the child is willfully disobeying.
“Some habits are learned almost instantaneously, because they give a pleasant reward to the child. Other habits, and usually the most necessary ones, take a little longer.
“For example, the child of 3 to 4 years of age may have great difficulty lacing his own shoes—tying them in horrifying knots, or hardly tying them at all. However, at the age of 5 or 6 he may be tying them smoothly and with seemingly no effort. This is as a result of literally hundreds of experiences with tying and untying his own shoes. It is the constant practice which has made him finally efficient in tying his shoes.”
You have no doubt heard the expression, “Practice makes perfect!” That is not necessarily true. Why? We often practice doing things incorrectly. It is the parent’s job to see that the right practice is repeated and perfected, not the wrong. Notice: “It is practice, in the right habits, which will bring about perfection. Thus, teaching a child to open or close a door softly and correctly several times in a few minutes will begin to instill in him the right habit of always opening and closing the door correctly. Teaching him to go to the bathroom to wash his hands and face prior to eating as a very young child will instill in him such a habit of doing this that it will carry over into all his adult life.”
Many parents try to rush the process. First, they fail to show the child the right example themselves. They often leave out a vitally important ingredient—loving instruction. Or they fail to make their instruction interesting and enjoyable. And finally, they do not allow the child the time to correctly practice what he is supposed to learn.
Parents can tend to jump straight to the firm talk, the commands, the loud voice, the put downs, the slap on the wrists, and then the spankings. Then they wonder why their child is such a problem and a frustration to them.
Spanking and all other forms of negative associations cannot and will not replace proper and effective instruction. Spanking and all other forms of punishment are designed to associate pain with a wrong action, but when the teaching is done properly and effectively, the number of spankings required will be greatly diminished.
In the entire child-rearing booklet, words like teaching, teach, taught or instilled are used at least 223 times, while spank, spanking, swat, or swatting are used a total of 85 times. The point is, teaching is far more important than spanking, and teaching must always come first—before any form of physical punishment is administered. Again, physical punishment should only be used to enforce proper instruction—never as a substitute for proper teaching.
Spanking is just one tool designed to associate pain with wrong behavior. Spanking must not be the only tool. The child-rearing booklet also mentions isolation and deprivation of a reward or privilege as proper punishments to associate pain with wrong behavior. It may take weeks, months, even years to teach certain skills.
Habits From Satisfaction
Parents must never forget the importance of blessings. Associating good behavior with interesting, loving, enjoyable instruction goes a long way to instilling right habits. So do pleasurable and enjoyable rewards for dedicated effort and progress. Unfortunately, parents often overlook the good attitudes or dedicated effort a child puts forth in trying to please them and do the right thing. As a result, parents can frustrate their children, even provoke them to anger, by only commenting on mistakes or the frustrations they may express.
“Only when some success is attained does the child have a feeling of satisfaction. A few words of praise given now and then for his somewhat bungling attempts will often do more toward helping a child acquire a desirable habit than any amount of unfavorable comments” (Marion Ellison Faegre and S.E. Anderson, Childcare and Training).
That’s right; feelings of satisfaction, praise and accomplishment are vital aspects of learning.
“To point out a child’s mistakes rather than his successes, in other words, is to set up in his mind an unpleasant association with the desired act. The wise parent who wishes his child to learn to lace his shoes will compliment him, even though he occasionally misses a hole or falls short of the adult standard” (ibid.).
“Parents who show only disgust at the mistakes of their children, are presenting a very difficult barrier to the formation of right habits” (ibid.).
As we have seen, proper child rearing involves far more than strong discipline. The rule of thumb the Philadelphia Church of God has often taught is 85 percent loving example, 10 percent instruction, and 5 percent discipline.
“If the principles outlined … are applied in individual cases, there are many hundreds of right habits which may be acquired without too much difficulty. And, whatever the difficulty—the results are well worth it” (ibid.).
When parents do their job well, the result is more than just good habits: The result is eventually godly character. How priceless is that?