Fables and tall stories that teach morality are a long-standing tradition in martial arts. One of my favorites is not actually from martial arts, but from the life of Mahatma Gandhi. The following is from “Gandhi, the man: the story of his transformation” by Eknath Easwaran:
“During the thirties a woman came to Sevaram asking Gandhi to get her little boy to stop eating sugar; it was doing him harm. Gandhi gave a cryptic reply: ‘Please come back next week.’
“The woman left puzzled but returned a week later, dutifully following the Mahatma’s instructions. ‘Please don’t eat sugar,’ Gandhi told the young fellow when he saw him. ‘It is not good for you.’ Then he joked with the boy for a while, gave him a hug, and sent him on his way. But the mother, unable to contain her curiosity, lingered behind to ask, ‘Bapu, why didn’t you say this last week when we came? Why did you make us come back again?’
“Gandhi smiled. ‘Last week,’ he said to her, ‘I too was eating sugar.’”
My daughter Imma is three. One of her favorite playmates is a boy in our neighborhood. He is a sweet kid and is very patient while playing with a little girl who is so much younger than him. Listening to him discuss events in his life and his observations of the world around him, my wife and I are struck by how much of what he is saying is clearly not coming from him but from his parents. The words he uses, and some of the opinions he expresses, are clearly being parroted from adult conversations.
This is pretty typical. Children mimic the behaviors, language and ideas presented by the adults in their lives, and parents are normally the most influential of those adults. Part of developing a sense of identity for a child is to adopt and internalize aspects of their parents’ identity (of course, a common part of developing identity as a teenager is to reject those same elements—but that would be for a different article).
Children pay attention to their parents, even when it seems they don’t. I can remember the first time my daughter played with her toy cars and trucks on the floor, and I heard her mimicking the things my wife and I say to other drivers when we get frustrated in traffic (“Dude! Stay in you lane!”). I was much more careful about what I said after that!
So you want your child to learn good habits that help him or her to grow up to be a happy, healthy adult? Begin with self-reflection. First, are you a happy, healthy adult yourself? If so, what habits got you there? Make sure your child sees those habits and, whenever possible, participates in those habits.
If you are not a happy, healthy adult—or you would simply like to be more so—you need to step back and look at what habits got you there. This is important, because you are already teaching your child dysfunctional habits, whether you know it or not.
Do you get frustrated that your child spends too much time watching TV or playing video games? How about school performance or mental focus? Does your child not get enough physical activity or only eat junk food?
What do you model for your child?
I once had a mom approach me before class to let me know that her son was, for some reason, a bit off that day. His school teacher had told her that he had been spacey and inattentive all day.
“Really?” I asked, “Do you know why?”
Up to this point, she had been holding her phone in her hand throughout our interaction. The screen was on and held facing her. Before she could answer, she glanced at her phone, stared at it for a moment, then looked at me. She smiled, seemed about to say something, looked kind of confused, and then she walked away looking at her phone. It can be difficult for a child to learn the skills of concentration and focus if his parents don’t practice those skills themselves.
Do you expect more of your child than you expect of yourself? As adults, we run around all day long, putting out fires and having little down time to sit still and recharge our mental batteries. When we do stop, it is usually to do something that is distracting rather than nourishing.
Of course we care about our children. I know the mother described above loves her son and is genuinely concerned about his well-being. But the crazy helter-skelter pace of our lives forces us to compartmentalize. When are kids aren’t around, we focus on ourselves and what we need to do. There is little time to contemplate how our behavior and personal choices impact our kids.
So it is one thing to identify that you need better, healthier habits. It is a completely different story trying to figure out how to do it. Just ask anyone who has tried dieting!
The rest of this article will examine some simple, straightforward principles and strategies for changing habits. Notice, I said simple and straightforward. I did not say easy. Changing habits is possible and the rewards of success can be unlimited. But it does take a lot of effort and commitment.
But if you look at your child, you can find the inspiration you need! Not only will you be showing them better habits through your own actions, but you also can teach them through example how to change bad habits to healthier ones.
The first part of improving your habits is to make incremental change. If you try to change everything at once, you will get overwhelmed and you will undermine your chance for success. Pick something small to work on, something that you feel confident you can change. Use the momentum and experience from that success to take on the next habit and ultimately, you can create a snowball of change!
One thing to remember is that all will-power draws from the same well. Keeping up with the demands of parenting, a career and all of the other millions of things that can fill a day is hard work and demands will-power that would otherwise go towards good habits. Be patient with yourself and start small.
It is important also to remember that will-power is also a muscle that grows stronger as you exercise it. Like a muscle, though, if exhausted it needs time to recover or it will break down and grow weak. Be realistic in how much you can take on. As you find smaller successes, your will-power muscles will get stronger and you will be able to take on bigger challenges. If you stumble, don’t take it as failure or a character flaw. Falling down as you develop new habits and stronger will-power will teach you better strategies so that when you do succeed, each success has a bigger and longer lasting impact on your life!
One specific strategy that I’ve used with success is to tie new habits to old ones. For instance, I wanted to increase my meditation practice, so I introduced dedicated time to my morning waking-up process. Specifically, I would keep my meditation cushion next to my bed so that the first thing I did upon waking was to do my meditation. This attached the new habit to a process that was well established. When I varied the timing of the meditation (waiting until after breakfast or a conversation with my wife), I was less consistent.
You can also do this with a stimulus. For instance, it is very common to mistake thirst for hunger. If you are trying to reduce impulsive eating, take advantage of the stimulus to bring in a new habit. When you feel hungry, particularly at times when impulsive eating is a challenge for you, drink a glass of water and wait 15 minutes. Chances are, you were thirsty and the craving for food will diminish. Even if it doesn’t, you’ve created a healthy habit towards hydration. Overall, you are likely to reduce grazing impulsively.
Taking on your habits can be fairly straight-forward, but you need to plan to be successful. You also need to embrace the fact that it will be difficult. But the rewards are many. You get to have a happier, healthier life. Plus, you get to teach your child how to manage her habits and prepare her to have a happier, healthier life as well!