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Health > Mental Health > Habits


Habits, both are good and bad, are patterns of behaviour which we actively learn. By influence and example, our parents affect the habits we acquire in childhood.

Whether we like it or not, we are largely creatures of habit. In many ways this is just as well, for habits are like small computer programmers which take us through certain situations in life without our having to think very much about what we are doing.

Unfortunately, although a habit is first acquired ‘because it seemed a good idea at the time’ it sometimes turns out to be less useful or desirable than it originally appeared. For this reason, the teaching of good habits to children, and the elimination of bad ones, is one of the most important skills for parents to learn.


Habits are learned patterns of behaviour which, as the result of constant repetition, come to be carried out with little conscious thought. They are not instincts, which are inborn largely: habits are learned. Nor is a habit the same thing as a reflex, for a reflex is an automatic response and a habit is not. Thumb-sucking is a habit: a baby has an instinctive desire to suckle and will do so as a reflex action if any object resembling a nipple is presented to the mouth or the areas round it, but some children also get the idea-that is, learn -that in spite of the fact that a thumb produces no milk, sucking it can produce a feeling of security. These children continue to suck their thumbs: they have acquired a harmless habit.


Most habits are learned as the result of something pleasant following from what was originally largely random behaviour. For example, a very young baby may one day wake and find his mother bending over him. Startled, he waves his arms vigorously. If his mother immediately smiles, coos at him and picks him up, he may remember her response when next he wants her attention. If his arm waving succeeds in bringing his mother to him, it will become a powerful habit. Moreover, it doesn’t have to succeed every time: the gambler doesn’t need to win always to go on playing!

Habits can also be learned as the result of unpleasant happenings, although, strictly speaking, these are better at suppressing behaviour than at creating a habit directly. For example, if two children trip, fall and hurt themselves while running along a particular stretch of uneven pavement, running along that stretch will be surpressed, but the fall and the hurt will give rise to no specific habit-for example, the habit of not running. Instead, the first child may avoid the cracks between paving stones, the second may simply burst into tears when being led in the direction of the ‘danger area’ of the pavement.

Yet another way in which a habit can be learned is by imitation, as many parents find out if their child gets into bad company. In this instance, the habit is learned because the imitator feels tougher, more grown-up, more popular or whatever advantage the person copied is reckoned to have. Children can unfortunately learn bad habits from their parents by imitation. Many youngsters smoke and drink to excess simply because their parents do so, too. ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ may be the advice of a parent caught in this trap, but example is often more powerful than instruction where habits are concerned.


Some children learn habits, either good or bad, more easily than others, partly because of differences in personality. Shy, reserved and gentle children-form the most ingrained habits, although they learn them only slowly. Unfortunately, because these children are so reserved, it is not always realized that the habits they have learned are not all good ones. Meanwhile, the sociable, happy-go-lucky child may quickly pick up a habit, but may as quickly drop it again when other influences come along.

Habits are learned more easily by the anxious child, too, because, quite often, the carrying out of a habitual pattern of behaviour is a means of reducing anxiety. The child who rocks backwards and forward without pause when left alone, the man who needlessly polishes his glasses when embarrassed, the women who bites her nails when she is under pressure are all examples of people following this process. However, research shows that both reservedness and the tendency to show anxiety are inborn qualities, so while we may try to control which habits our children acquire, there is little point in making a fuss about the ease-or otherwise-with which a child picks up habitual behaviour.


There are three main rules for attempting to establish or change a habit. The first is that it is far more effective (not just more humane) to change a habit by rewarding the person for changing than by punishing him or her. Praise and cuddling as a reward for ‘success’ will help a child to achieve toilet-training much faster than punishment for failure.

The second rule is that the strongest reward wins. If, for example, parents try to break a daughter’s habitual untidiness by praising her when she looks neat, their efforts may fail if the reward of her friends’ praise for the way she dresses means more to her.

The third rule is that some degree of strictness and consistency is necessary for a habit to become established. This fact has spoiled many a parent’s attempts to break a child of a habit that seems undesirable. If parents try to teach a child not to waste food by praising him when he eats all his meal at home, but let him leave food on weekly visits to his grandparents, and later reward him with sweets for being quite there, he will go on leaving food.


Since children acquire habits with ease, it is clear that the best way to prevent bad habits it to teach good ones before the others are acquired. It is far easier to establish a habit than to change one that is already established. Consequently, how parents behave towards their children is of more importance in forming habits than any other influence.

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