The power of simple habits and routines for organizing kids

From DVD programs that supposedly expand your brain to speed reading programs, there are a plethora of products on the market that cater to parents looking to give their children a leg up in life. But before you rush out to buy a brain-enhancing product, consider another (free) alternative: instilling a good habit or routine.

There are many reasons why a good habit is a better bet than that fancy flash-card system.

For starters, there are neural connections to consider. The young human brain develops literally trillions of connections, called synapses during the first ten or so years of life. Ones that aren’t used repeatedly get pared away during the later teenage years. So, the earlier you institute a good habit, the more strongly the neural connections are wired, and the more likely the habit is to stick over a lifetime. Secondly, their pre-frontal lobes (responsible for insight, planning, and other big-picture executive functions) do not fully develop until somewhere between the ages of 18 to 25. As a parent then, part of your job is to serve as their external pre-frontal lobe. That means you must look ahead for them and identify which kind of regular behaviors will serve them best in the long run, start them on the path to adopting that behavior, and then bolster their (weak) wills when they falter. Finally, last, but not least, chances are that your own involvement in their adoption of the new habit will strengthen your relationship with them and maybe even build your own good habit muscle a little too.

So if the above has you wanting to adopt some new routines, but you aren’t sure how to get your child to adopt them, here are three ways you can help her develop a positive habit.

1. Plan the Week. Sure, spontaneity is the spice of life, but overall it is better to have a sense of the week ahead. Sit down Sunday night with your children and help them plan the week ahead. Discuss the micro and the macro – so how to plan for the science project that’s due in three weeks as well as how to take into account extracurricular activities and coordinate schedules with everyone else in the family. Resist the urge to give the answer. Instead, engage your children in the planning – ask questions that engage and strengthen their planning muscle. It will help develop critical skills that can be used throughout their lives.

2. Make a Morning Routine. Mornings can be so hard, especially for teenagers. Start your kids on a path to productivity by enforcing a morning routine as soon as possible. The critical components are: getting dressed, making the bed, brushing teeth, and organizing what they need for the day. If mornings are a particularly brutal time, institute an evening routine where everyone in the family (including mom and dad) get their backpacks, keys, wallets, and purses organized and ready by the door before hitting the hay.

If your children are really little, you might benefit from printing out a visual chart or some cards the illustrate the routine you would like them to adopt. These two sites have some neat (free!) printable habit cards.

Bright and cheery options from Childhood101

sophisticated and simple cards from Living Locurto

3. Good Things Do Happen to Those Who Wait. Nothing prepares your kids better than teaching the lesson of delayed gratification. A study showed that a child’s ability to hold off on eating a cookie at age 4 correlated with their overall success later in life. Impulse purchases are part of our culture – and a little treat now and then isn’t a bad thing to do – as long as also reinforce delayed gratification as much or more. Waiting for something you think you really want separates the nice-to-haves from the musts – and almost always makes whatever it is you’re waiting for that much sweeter in the end.

The bottom line is simply this: starting good habits, whether it’s making the bed, cleaning up toys, or organizing themselves for their bags for baseball practice, sets kids up to become more productive, and yes, organized, adults.

Did your parents give you routines to follow as children? If so, did you find it helpful? Do you currently have routines for your kids? If so, how well do they follow them?