Like most parents, I have a habit that I really want to break – my relationship with my smartphone. Looking at my smartphone way too often, makes me worry that it impacts my parenting. I don’t know if I’m craving the dopamine hit that a new notification provides or if my brain is bored and needs some stimulation. It really doesn’t matter. I’m noticing that my phone is pulling out of the present and into things that I probably really don’t care about (why did I click on that picture of the cute cats?) and it works against all of the parenting strategies that I’m using.
Now rationally, I know this, but I don’t think that I’ve done much about reducing my phone use habit. Why? Because breaking a habit requires “Future Self” to win out over “Present Self.” “Future Self” is interested in my kids not thinking that I’m always on my phone and envisions a life where I’m not dependent on my phone all the time. “Present Self” is pulled by the allure of the phone to see what that new notification might be. Essentially, “Future Self” is tuned into long-term rewards and “Present Self” likes instant gratification.
Thinking about my own habits and the challenges that I have working on them made me think about the kid habits that we’re trying to build. It’s not enough just to implement a parenting strategy, you need to think about whether you have set the stage well for a habit to emerge.
Blogger and author James Clear often writes about the impact of friction in promoting or eliminating habits. Friction, which you might remember for physics class, is the resistance that one surface has when another moves over it. Friction is what allows your brakes to slow down your car or is why a sled slowly draws to a stop as it goes down a hill. Friction is an incredibly powerful force that impacts with every move we make in the physical world.
In a recent interview, Clear described the challenges in reducing TV watching. The TV is an environment where it is really to grab the remote and suddenly find that you’ve been binge-watching Real Housewives episodes without even realizing it. The environment is set up to make it conducive. However, if you make adjustments to the environment to create more friction then it becomes harder to watch TV.
One example would be to remove the batteries from the remote control. The additional friction is the action of needing to add the batteries to the TV remote which creates more time to think about whether or not you should be watching TV. This simple change can make it easier (or harder) for a habit to develop or be eliminated.
In my own example, I need to think about how to make it harder to keep checking my phone. Plugging it in when I get home might be one option. Or putting it down upstairs. I could even reduce some of the notifications that I get.
Making Friction Work for Parenting
We can apply the principle of friction as we put parenting strategies into place. As we think about building a habit in our child, what needs to be in place to create more or less friction (depending upon whether you are trying to increase or decrease a behavior)? If we are trying to help our kids be better readers, do we need to change the environment to make it easier for them to find reading material? Or if we want them to get started on their homework right away, do we have a homework station set up in advance?
This is not an endorsement of becoming steamroller parents. Steamrolling means eliminating any and all barriers in the child’s way. In the two examples above, the child can be pulled into finding the reading material at another time or help put the homework station together. By pulling them into the process, you teach them not just about how to help build or reduce a specific habit but helping them understand how habits work.
Building parenting strategies into kid habits is about fostering independence and looking for barriers that prevent our kids from growing into strong, resilient, and independent adults. By working with friction, we can actually enhance their resiliency and build their problem-solving skills.