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4 Tips for Teaching Healthy Habits to Kids

Some habits (like nose picking) come naturally to kids. Others take hard work and a little encouragement (ahem, nagging) from loving grownups. What’s the best way to go about teaching healthy habits to kids?

Here are four suggestions to get you started.

Discuss Goals, When Appropriate

Habit formation is a cyclical process that includes a cue, a routine, and a reward.

At the center of this habit loop is a catalyst for change, called a craving.

A circle chart depicting a habit loop with a cue leading to a routine leading to a reward, surrounding a craving.

Adults are pretty attuned to why they want to make positive changes (i.e., “I want to eat healthier to have more energy.”). Kids, on the other hand, may struggle to make these connections.

When teaching healthy habits to kids, it may help to discuss why the behavior needs to change.  Which is to say, they need to know what’s in it for them. Here are a couple of examples:

“Eating your vegetables will help you to grow big and strong.”

“Practicing your tumbling each day will get you closer to your goal of making the competitive gymnastics team.”

“Putting your dirty dishes in the dishwasher will help keep the ants away.”

See what we’re doing here? We’re creating a craving. For kids who hate bugs, the craving would be to keep them out of the house. The routine then becomes putting the dishes in the dishwasher.

In my experience as a mom, it’s best to focus on motivators other than, “because I’m your mom and I said so and that thing you’re doing is making me insane.” Think about what your kid may get out of a new habit before initiating a conversation about it.

Help Them Track Progress

Did you or your kids ever participate in BOOK IT!?

The annual BOOK IT! kickoff was always one of the most exciting days of the school year for me. Sure, it offered the promise of a delicious Pizza Hut personal pan pizza. But even better (#nerdalert), I got a fresh new reading tracker with STICKERS!!!!

Kids love stickers. Heck, I love stickers. 

Kids also love trackers. It’s fun and rewarding to color in a square on a tracker, or to add a sticker to a progress chart. What’s more, tracking can increase confidence and competence in kiddos working toward behavior change. This strategy is especially helpful in the first stages of building a big, important habit (such as potty training!).

This one is easy to put into action. Just print out a habit tracker, or help your kiddo design her own! Hang it in a prominent place–ideally in the same room that the behavior would normally occur. Want to work with your child on remembering to brush her teeth? Tape it to the bathroom door! This will serve as a visual cue and help your child stay more consistent with the routine. 

Celebrate Thoughtfully

So, a healthy habit is taking hold with your kiddo. Time to celebrate?! Heck, yeah!

Just don’t go completely bananas, particularly with the extrinsic rewards.

There’s some evidence that too much emphasis on extrinsic rewards can actually decrease intrinsic motivation in kids, although not all researchers agree on this point.

Hypothetically, though, what do you think would happen if I’d always rewarded my kids with candy for eating their veggies and then suddenly withheld the candy? Since we are talking about my kids, here, I can say with 100% certainty that there would be mutiny. Not a single veggie would cross those precious little lips. They’d expect and demand candy (this is called operant conditioning in psych world).

Every kid is different, but it’s best to limit the use of tangible rewards for no biggie habits that you expect your kids to do every day (like eating veggies or throwing trash away).

But what about praise? Use it, but thoughtfully. Keep in mind that compliments are extrinsic motivators. Excessive praise, while sweet, sometimes does more harm than good if praise become the primary motivation for change.

Fortunately, there may be a workaround. Try to frame your praise in a way that instills pride and autonomy. Here are some examples (1):

Instead of: “I’m proud of you.”
Try: “I hope you feel proud of your hard work!”

Instead of: “It makes mama/daddy so happy that you got an A on your test.”
Try: “I can see that you took your time and worked hard on this project.”

These subtle shifts in language can make a big difference when it comes to behavior change.

Modeling Healthy Habits=Teaching Healthy Habits

You may have heard the saying, “monkey see, monkey do”? When it comes to habits, one of the best teaching methods involves no words at all.

One of the best ways to help your kids to adopt healthy habits is to model healthy behavior yourself! This is true for diet, exercise, or just about any healthy behavior you wish to promote (2, 3).

In other words, if you want your kiddo to eat her veggies, then eat yours! If you want her to be more active, then invite her on a hike! Easy peasy. 

Be careful, also, not to sabotage your teaching efforts. Kids are very perceptive, and even little actions may interfere with your efforts to instill healthy habits. Don’t expect your kid to try new foods if you are picky, and don’t assume your kid will read more at night if you’re always on your phone. They will notice, and they will behave accordingly.

Parents, what do you think? What big habits have you helped your child to adopt? What strategies have worked for you while teaching healthy habits? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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