Last year, author James Clear published the book Atomic Habits. The book instantly became a worldwide hit, making the bestseller lists of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and many more. The term “atomic habits” refers to the tiny, incremental changes one can make to create good habits. The book argues that, instead of taking a broad approach when trying to break bad habits and establish good ones, we should approach our habits on a micro level. Over time, those tiny 1% changes add up to great success.
In the book, Clear shares how the practice of making tiny changes can have positive impacts on everything from sports to business to writing to weight loss. However, the method can also be applied to parenting, and in a bonus chapter released after the book’s 2018 publication, the author explained how.
How to improve your parenting using atomic habits.
To improve your parenting using atomic habits, you must first understand the atomic habits method. In his book, Clear explains it as follows. All human behavior follows a four-step loop: cue, craving, response, and reward. From these four steps, there are four laws that make sustainable habit shifts feasible. First, you must make the new habit obvious. Second, you should make it attractive. Third, you must make it easy. Fourth, you should make it satisfying. Source: Atomic Habits.
These four laws can make behavior change easier while the inversion of each can make a behavior harder. For example, if you’re trying to eat more fresh foods and less processed foods, when applying the first law (make it obvious), placing a bowl of fresh fruit on the counter could help achieve this goal. On the flip side, hiding the potato chips in the pantry out of sight and out of mind would have the desired inverse effect.
You can apply these same laws to parenting.
According to Clear, both children and adults can use the rules. However, shaping your children’s habits provides an additional challenge since they must be joint players in habit formation. However, there are a few tricks that can help kids develop healthier behaviors through atomic habits.
Use the Kindergarten Model of Organization.
With respect to the first law of atomic habits—make it obvious—Clear recommends following what author Julie Morgenstern calls “The Kindergarten Model of Organization.” This method mimics the structure and feel of Kindergarten classrooms, which are often color-coded and divided into distinct activity zones for optimal structure and organization.
According to Morgenstern, there are five primary features of Kindergarten classrooms that parents can model. First, the room is divided into activity areas. Second, attention is devoted to a single activity at a time. Third, items are utilized and stored in the same space. Fourth, clean-up is turned into a game. Finally, items and storage areas have visual labels kids understand. For instance, crates and drawers are often color-coded or bear a photo of the things contained inside.
Following this method can help families develop stronger organizational skills and create a routine using familiar, easy-to-follow rules. Teaching kids to, for instance, separate their homework work space from the place where they play video games can help avoid the pitfalls that come from multitasking and mixed-use space.
Habit-stacking may also be useful.
Clear also recommends teaching kids how to habit-stack, which refers to uniting two habits to ensure their formation. Clear’s formula for a habit stack is:
“After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”
For instance, if you are trying to create better homework habits, then the following habit formula may be helpful: “After I walk in the door from school, I will take my homework out of my backpack.” Source.
You can apply this principle to other habits as well. For example, if you’re trying to help your child develop a daily multivitamin habit, then having your child propose, “After I place my breakfast dish in the dishwasher, I will take my vitamin” may help.
Clear reminds parents that the goal is to start small. So, even if the ultimate objective is to devote two hours to homework each night, creating the habit stack for the optimal environment helps.
Model good habits.
With respect to the second law of behavior, Clear recommends parents model the behavior they want their children to mimic. Of course, this won’t guarantee that kids adopt the desired behaviors, but it certainly makes the path easier to follow. For example, if you want your kids to read for thirty minutes each night, but you spend three hours watching television, your child will have much less incentive to develop a robust reading routine. On the other hand, if you decide to devote two hours per night to reading and screen-less family bonding, fostering the reading habit will be much more likely. Choosing environments where your kids can thrive will benefit them not only when they are young, but also as they get older and start to adopt habits from others in their peer group.
Where to learn more about parenting with atomic habits.
These are a few ways parents can utilize atomic habits in their lives. However, Clear’s bonus chapter for parenting with atomic habits is available for download here. In it, he also covers the third and fourth laws of atomic habits. These include how to make these habits easy and how to make them satisfying for parents and kids.
Undoubtedly, effecting real change and healthy habit formation is difficult. Parenthood is exhausting, and sometimes it feels impossible to “do all the things.” As a result, sometimes good habits slide. Sometimes you end up ordering takeout most nights each week. Occasionally, screen time exceeds recommended limits. Sometimes, you might skip the nightly book. And, to some extent, those things are fine. When you’re in the parenting trenches, you do what you must to survive. However, at some point, once the dust settles—after you’ve adjusted to life with a new sibling or school or job, for example—the desire to instill healthier routines returns. When it does, you can rest assured knowing the small changes you adopt will add up to something meaningful over time. That’s the beauty of creating atomic habits.
Have you utilized any atomic habits in your parenting? What is your experience?