7 tips for teaching good habits to children

7 tips for teaching good habits to children

Do you want your child to wear a helmet when he rides his bike? Brush his teeth by himself at night? Do you want them to do their homework first before turning on the game console? Or do you want your child to stop using bad words at home?

Many negative adult behaviors are related to bad habits. It works like this: a trigger in the environment sets off a routine in order to obtain a reward. This action can have negative consequences.

For example: we allow ourselves to be tempted by snacking in certain situations, and our health suffers as a result.

Habits also shape children’s behavior – in both positive and negative ways. But how do you instill good habits in children and overcome bad ones? Experts explain what’s important.

1. Focus on clear daily routines

First of all, it is important to know that children, just like adults, need a structure made up of habitual actions on a daily basis.


“Routines are important for children’s mental health because they give them direction and security,” says Professor Julian Schmitz, a child and adolescent psychologist at the University of Leipzig. “If daily life is chaotic and there are no rules, it is a burden for children.”

This also means that “parents should behave consistently and predictably,” according to Schmitz. Specifically, “it’s good that there are clear rules and that certain things are always done in a similar way. Education is all about teaching positive habits, says Schmitz.

Of course, the habits must be adapted to the age of the child: “It is difficult for a two-year-old to brush her teeth by herself every time,” Schmitz gives as an example. “It’s different for a six-year-old.”

According to the expert, the exact moment when regular routines develop varies somewhat from child to child, of course. But by daycare at the latest, there are certain rules that a child must follow.

“These are usually routines and children are motivated to follow them,” Schmitz says. Which is usually easy for them. They have a great need for social connection. The key here is to have child-friendly instructions, attention and patience.

Integrating the children at some point in the processes

Sebastian Arnold, social pedagogue and family therapist, explains, “Rituals give children security. They can be used consciously to structure the day. It reduces conflict.

Tip: When children are about six or seven years old, they can be involved in the planning and organization.

Few clear rules

“Rules should be clear. And there shouldn’t be too many of them either,” confirms Arnold, who is also a member of the board of the professional association of child and adolescent psychotherapists.

Small reminders in everyday life are useful, advises the psychologist. A simple example: “If I want the child to always wash his or her hands, I can hang a small picture in the bathroom. One day, the child will always wash his hands after going to the bathroom, even without this picture.

Clarity and communication are very important: “Some behaviors take hold because of unclear rules – or because they are never talked about,” says Arnold. This brings us to the second important point.

2) You absolutely must set a good example

Children don’t function fundamentally differently from adults. Therefore, they can also learn habits or develop them automatically. From the point of view of thought processes in the brain, there is no big difference, says neuroscientist and best-selling author Henning Beck.

But there is another big difference with adults. “Over the course of our lives, we build a model of the world,” Beck explains. In young children, that model still relies heavily on parents and the environment.

“It’s much easier to teach children than it is to teach older people, because children don’t yet have a finished model of the world in their heads,” Beck says. “Older people end up not liking being told things.” So modeling good habits is essential. “Children copy a lot of things, imitate them.” Parents must therefore be true role models.

A scene from everyday life: at the supermarket checkout, the rule is not to buy anything there. “Parents should of course not buy anything there themselves,” Beck explains. This action should be shown consistently. Another example: no smartphones at dinner.

Other role models also have an important impact

Children don’t think much about whether their habits are good or bad. This is where parents, with their role modeling, are needed. “When they affirm a habit, it gives wings to the child’s learning,” says Sebastian Arnold. “Their behavior has a direct effect.”

However, this also applies to other reference persons. “The younger the child, the more important the parents are,” Arnold explains. Later, other people become increasingly important. “The reference person can also be the grandmother or the favorite kindergarten teacher.”

This orientation toward reference persons can also have negative consequences:

“When a teenager annoys other kids and his classmates think it’s okay, the boy is comforted in continuing to behave that way,” Arnold gives as an example.

“Even if parents make every effort, kids copy other people’s behaviors. That’s normal. If you listen and keep your eyes open, you can take countermeasures if necessary,” says Arnold.

And one thing is clear anyway: parents aren’t always perfect either.

“When parents are under a lot of pressure, they sometimes don’t make sure that routines are followed,” says psychologist Julian Schmitz. Because it takes effort – whether it’s TV hours, media consumption or bedtimes. This means that it is natural that parents cannot constantly be optimal role models.

3. Praise and attention are better than rewards.

What is the best way to reinforce good habits in children?

Experts recommend some important guidelines here to steer a child’s behavior in the right direction:

  • Sebastian Arnold advises not to praise the performance, but the path to it. In concrete terms, this might look like this: “I’m proud that you made an effort”.
  • It is also important, according to Arnold, to leave the success to the child, for example with regard to school results. And not to say for example: “We did well in learning”. Similarly, one should not attribute success to the child to the educator.
  • Praise is a good reward and is better than punishment, Julian Schmitz cites as a principle. “I can praise the child for not doing certain things. Parents can say, “I’m glad you reacted differently this time” – for example not in anger.
  • The most valuable reward is time spent with the parents, as Schmitz explains. So a game together, going for ice cream together. “It should not be an amusement park or a big gift,” says the expert. “The small, sincere encouragement is usually best.”
  • If parents reject a behavior, they should communicate it clearly, Schmitz advises – and also explain why it is so. It might look something like this: ‘Bad words are hurtful. If you use them, it makes me sad. Or we can ask the child, “How would you feel if other kids called you names?”

Can we go overboard with rewards?

“Yes,” Schmitz answers. “If children get a special reward every time they do a little thing, they will ask for it more and more often. So rewards should be used thoughtfully.”

4. Consequences are important, but they must make sense

What to do when parents fail to get positive encouragement – and the child still continues to use bad words?

Arnold advises here: “Parents should say once very clearly: I don’t want such a word said.” Or: “It hurts me when you say that and it makes me sad.

A common mistake here would be to waste more words than necessary. Again, “focus on the positive behavior and emphasize the desired behavior.

If that doesn’t help anymore, follow up with what experts call “logical consequences” or “natural consequences,” as Arnold explains.

How does this translate? Consequences should be related to the problem behavior. Examples:

  • “Four weeks of no TV doesn’t help if the child is still running around,” Arnold says. Better here: “If you don’t look left or right, you have to walk while holding your hand.”
  • If the child doesn’t brush his or her teeth, there are no treats.
  • The child doesn’t wear a helmet, so he or she can’t ride a bike. “The choice here remains with the child,” Arnold emphasizes.
  • Julian Schmitz cites the kindergarten fight as an example: “If the son hit another child, he has to go, apologize and maybe make amends.”

Important here: The time interval between the problematic behavior and the consequence should not be too great. “The smaller the children, the more difficult it is to delay,” Arnold explains.

This works perfectly, however: “If the child didn’t brush his teeth yesterday, there will be no candy today.”

It’s also important to stay consistent about consequences. “If the consequences only threaten one out of three times, the child learns that I can get away with it twice,” says psychologist Schmitz.

On the other hand, parents also shouldn’t be unnecessarily harsh when the child shows understanding: “There’s no need to lock up the bike for two weeks,” Arnold advises. “I would quietly return it if the child decided to put the helmet on anyway. It’s then an incentive.” The child is reinforced in his or her ability to change his or her mind – and to accept the rule.

5. Children also have unpleasant experiences

Family therapist Arnold emphasizes one more fact: “Certain negative experiences must be experienced by children.

For example, a child can be told a hundred times that he or she should not run on the wet tiles in the swimming pool – eventually he or she will slip and realize that it hurts, that it is not nice. The learning effect is there.

Of course, children should not do just any experiment to learn from it. That would be dangerous. There are limits in this area, like road traffic.

Arnold also cites brushing teeth as a case in point: “You can’t wait until the dentist needs to pull all the teeth.”

6. Children need to understand that other rules apply to adults

While parents should be good role models – this obviously does not mean that the same rules that apply to children should always apply to them.

“Children need to learn that adults are allowed to do other things,” Schmitz explains. And how do they learn that? “I have to explain it to them.” Two examples:

Big brother can stay out longer. “Here, I can explain that he can already tell time better and find the house on his own.”
Bedtime topic: “I can explain that adults need less sleep.

It would also be useful to give a positive perspective: “When you are this age, you can do it”.

An explanation that leaves children rather confused: It is what it is.

7. Be patient and generous

Despite their best efforts to be well-behaved, parents should remember: Children are still children. Experts say the following things are important:

  • Don’t try to do too much: “We adults can’t change five habits at once,” Arnold says. Often, other things change as well when you turn a set screw.
  • Expect setbacks: they don’t mean you’ve done something wrong. “Sometimes children may refuse rules or abandon routines,” says Julian Schmitz. The challenge phase usually begins in the second year of life and can continue into the fourth.
  • Be patient: “New habits take time, just like adults. After a week, I still don’t know if it’s going to work or not,” Arnold says. “That doesn’t mean you have to change your strategy.” Blame is to be avoided. “Otherwise, you can ruin early successes that you may not see yet.”
  • Don’t demonize yourself for mistakes: what am I allowing? Where am I being harsh? “This balancing act is incredibly difficult. Here, parents are also allowed to make mistakes,” Arnold says. “And also apologize to the child if they were too harsh. This is not a sign of weakness, but shows children that mistakes are possible – and that you can still change your behavior.
  • Don’t try to control everything: Even so, it’s important to give children some space, to leave things alone from time to time, Schmitz says. “You shouldn’t always stick to rigid routines. It may be that a habit simply doesn’t fit, for example, after a certain age. “Then you have to gather ideas for doing things differently,” advises Sebastian Arnold.