How to teach toddlers good habits
Melissa Turney’s kids wake up early. Really early. Sometimes before 5:00 am. This is not a behavior she encourages, but everything that happens after that is. Hannah (age 6), Paige (age 4), and even Sam (22 months) make their own beds and put their clothes in the hamper each day. After breakfast they’ll clear their own dishes. When playtime is over they put toys away. Stop by Turney’s house unannounced and you’ll be amazed at the order she maintains with her young brood. So what’s her secret?
Turney is a recent graduate of the Tiny Habits for Moms course, but she’s a lifelong pro at habit formation. Like the course instructors, she’s been creating effective routines for her kids since they were born. Parents often ask, “How soon can I teach Tiny Habits to my children?” Turney’s kids are evidence that the earlier you start, the more effective your training will be. Click here to get your free Tiny Habits tips for Moms.
The Early Roots of Habit Formation
Studies show that children develop lifelong habits breathtakingly early. For example:
- Household routines, such as doing chores and being responsible for one’s own belongings, are set by age 9.
- Financial habits are formed even earlier: A child’s basic beliefs and attitudes about money are formed by age 7.
- Dietary habits begin to take root from a child’s first meal, and the dietary patterns that can predict future obesity are established as early as 1 year old.
- Infants begin to make sense of their environment the moment they are born, and can detect patterns as early as 2 months old. By 4 months old the child will be able to recall objects and events that are not present, and by 1 year old he will be able to imitate even novel actions more than a week after he has observed them.
The research shows that your two month old is already learning to pay attention to repeated behaviors, and will soon begin to imitate them. That copy-cat behavior is the foundation for establishing lasting habits.
From Imitation to Intentional Behavior
As anyone who has raised a child will know, kids are not simply automatons who will copy a parent’s every behavior. (Except swearing. Curse words are lamentably sticky!) Toddlers may see their parents cleaning up and proceed to throw everything into the garbage can indiscriminately. A kid may be thrilled the first time they are allowed to use a mop, but the novelty soon wears off. So how has Turney parlayed the instinct for imitation into a series of habits for personal responsibility?
Turney was raised with clear expectations that every member of the household is responsible for their own belongings and space, and that it is the entire family’s responsibility to take care of the house together. She shares the following tips for raising your child with the same expectations.
Lead by example.
Want your kids to make their beds, clear their dishes and keep their stuff picked up? It starts with you. Changing your own behavior can be a challenge, but the Tiny Habits Method can help.
Really young. Sam isn’t two yet, but he already knows to put his diaper in the bin and his dishes in the sink. He’s not great at putting all his toys away, but he’s getting there, and as he gets older he’ll be ready to take on even bigger responsibilities.
“Paige just naturally likes to rebel,” says Turney. “For six months she would put her clothes right next to the hamper or on top of the hamper or under her bed. And every day I would call her up from breakfast and say, ‘Hey, before you have breakfast you have to put your clothes in the hamper.’ One day something clicked, and she realized, ‘I don’t want to keep running up and down the stairs and stopping breakfast to do this thing.”
Take advantage of their enthusiasm.
“I have found with my kids there’s a certain age between like 3 and 4 where they are really anxious to help,” says Turney. “So when they are excited about something I try to keep that momentum going and I teach them how to do it.” And while Turney doesn’t typically pay for chores, she might offer a small reward for a job well done on a newly mastered task.
Teach them to do it right.
You can’t expect your kid to be perfect on their first attempt, but that doesn’t mean they can’t try, and for heavens sake don’t undermine their effort by redoing it for them. Praise their effort, then show them what they missed and teach them how to fix it themselves.
Keep messes manageable.
Turney and her husband work together for about an hour twice a week to compete deep-cleaning tasks such as mopping and cleaning the bathrooms. The rest of the week they clean up as they go along, so the clutter never gets overwhelming. To copy her style, try the following Tiny Habits:
- a. After I take off my clothes, I will put them in the hamper.
- After I brush my teeth, I will wipe down the sink.
- After I finish eating, I will rinse my dish.
Tame the toy bin.
The Turney’s toys are separated by category and kept in labeled bins. The kids can play with two bins at a time, allowing them the freedom to combine the toys in creative ways while keeping the cleanup manageable.
Race the clock.
Tiny Habits Academy Director Linda Fogg-Phillips frequently recommends a timed five-minute cleanup, followed by a celebration. It’s a tactic Turney uses as well. She warns her kids to move fast, as anything left out will be donated to charity, and they know she’s not kidding. After the cleanup, she praises kids for their hard work and points how quick and easy it really was.
Give kids a space of their own.
Give each kid one bin or dresser drawer where they have free reign to collect acorns, rocks, drawings and whatever else they want to keep. If the bin is overflowing, it’s up to them to throw some things out before they add anything new.
Turney’s rules create a framework that keeps her home orderly and lets her kids know what to expect. However, she knows that sometimes it’s ok to bend the rules. When friends come over, the kids can play with as many bins as they want. If the cleanup is especially daunting they’ll get more than five minutes, and plenty of help. Projects in-process can be set aside instead of completely cleaned up. And if a truly treasured item gets left out she’ll give a warning instead of donating it directly.
It’s never too early to instill good habits in your kids, and never too late to cultivate new habits of your own. Click here to get your free Tiny Habits tips for Moms.
Learn to do both, and to find greater health and happiness, in our next session of Tiny Habits for Moms.
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