Dad H-A-B-I-T-S: 21 Days to a New View of Your Son
Author: Chris Martin
Hey Dad, wish that your eleven-year-old got better grades, or at least tried a little harder? That your impulsive first-grader was not the one to start fights at school every week? That your high school junior pulled his weight with the household chores and stopped treating your living room like a municipal dump? Seeing where we want our sons to be is the easy part; actually getting there can be another matter. So how do we help spur change in our sons’ attitudes and actions?
A hint: it’s not by yelling, threatening, promising, pleading, ignoring, or rewarding. Some of those approaches have their place, whereas others always end in resentment. The answer is a familiar six letters: H-A-B-I-T-S.
Establishing healthy habits is the only way to achieve lasting success in any endeavor. The good news is that you’re already an expert at building habits. A “habit” is something so ingrained in your behavior that it’s more natural to do it than not to do it. Habits are unavoidable, and can be meaningful or insignificant, harmful or helpful. Do you start every day with a cup of coffee? Always drive the same way to work? Complain to the same coworkers about the same boss every day? Patiently wait for your wife to finish her argument, or cut in every time because you know you’re right? Habits cut both ways. By shaping positive habits we enhance our reputation, attitude, and performance. When bad habits run out of control they become addictions.
Our habits, then, rule us for better or worse. Habits strung together through a lifetime define our character.
- With so much at stake by our habits, how do we point our sons in the right direction? Ever hear the saying, “It takes 21 days to start a habit?” That memorable maxim, it turns out, is just a myth. There is no magic marker, measured in certain days, for changing behavior. But the underlying principle is sound: consistent application of a behavior will, over time, form a habit.
Boys by nature start out immature, unpredictable, and ready to test the limits, including yours, in their irrepressible quest to take on the world. As dads, it would be easy to zero in only on our sons’ bad habits, because they tend to be the most obvious. But the irony is that real change comes from encouraging good behavior and good habits, not just trying to stamp out defiance, apathy, or annoyances. Think honey, not vinegar. Hard to believe? Sounds weak? But the truth is, it’s probably worked in your own life too. Think about a time that you received praise and positive encouragement from a boss, co-worker, teammate, or spouse. Now compare that to a time you were severely criticized. Which approach motivated you to do better?
Ready to start your son on the path to positive habits? Resist the urge to address every challenge at once; you’ll overwhelm him, discourage him, and damage your relationship. Pick just one habit for starters, and let it grow from there. One good habit will soon beget another.
Once you have a habit or desired behavior in mind, apply this helpful approach:
Have standards: whatever positive habit you wish to instill in your son, start by modeling it yourself. And then enforce the standard for both of you.
Announce your intentions: let your son know the habit you are going to address with him, and why. Adjust the conversation for age and maturity level.
Bring him alongside you: make it clear that you are partnering with your son in developing this new habit. You are a mentor and a coach in this endeavor, not an auditor looking to catalog every slipup.
Invest with others to secure the habit: if your son is young, surround him with relationships and influences who will build up, not tear down, his new habit. If your son is older, encourage him to make his own wise relationship decisions to reinforce positive habits.
Try, then try again: remind your son that it’s okay to make mistakes. Admit when you make them too. Lasting success will come in getting up again (and again), even in the face of inevitable setbacks.
Start the cycle again once the new habit becomes firmly established. Building good character takes a lifetime of establishing and re-establishing good habits. Successful individuals internalize this fact and incorporate it into their lifestyle.
A word on discipline: building positive habits is not about overlooking intentional wrongdoing or serious faults. Let’s say that your son has a habit of yelling at his mother when he’s angry or annoyed, and you’re trying to turn this into a positive trait of respect for his mother (and for adults in general). If your son steps over the line, you can and should discipline him firmly and consistently, without fanfare. But the messaging can still be positive: “Son, you can do better. I expect better of you, because I know you have it in you.”
Many male behavioral problems stem from insecurity. If you tell your son enough times that he can do better because he is better, he will eventually start to believe it. Combine this new belief with well-timed discipline, and he’ll start to live like he believes it too.
And here’s the amazing part: if you tell your son enough times that he’s capable of doing better, you’ll find yourself believing it too, even if you started out skeptical or frustrated. Good attitudes are contagious. Reframing your relationship with your son in the positive will benefit both of you, and before you know it, the bad behavior you sought to address will become the exception rather than the rule. Your son values your affirmation more than you know: a strong relationship will help keep his actions in check because he won’t want to disappoint you.
Dads, the time is now to lead your sons to positive habits and character. The younger your son, the easier it is to shape his habits. Our ability to influence our sons is inversely proportional to their age and maturity; the older and more self-aware our sons, the more that inner change depends on their own decisions and attitudes. The earlier that you plant the seeds of positive traits in your son, the more they will take root, and the more likely that he will turn to you later in life when troubles arise. So whatever your son’s age, start now: first by modeling yourself the habit that you desire in him, and then by encouraging him to follow. Neither of you have to be perfect; just be honest and begin. Could this actually take 21 days, a mere three weeks? Why not start by trying? It may require less time, or it may require much, much longer. But if you remain persistent and consistent, it will be enough for both of you. New habits, and a strengthened relationship with your son, will soon be the result.
Chris Martin is a father of triplets (a.k.a. two sons and one princess), and the co-founder of Dads in the Gap, a group that challenges men to live as leaders in order to equip their sons to do the same.