Don’t develop healthy habits for kids — do it with them.

Here’s what every parent should know about facilitating a routine that works for the whole family.

Prisma Staff
• 
December 5, 2022

Nutrition, movement, study time, play time and sleep: these building blocks of a child’s day are typically the same things parents worry about. “Is my kid eating too much junk food? Spending enough time outdoors? Reading enough books? Socializing with enough kids? Playing too many video games?”

With all the flexibility of homeschooling, the daily routine is important to keep everyone feeling grounded, not overwhelmed. But what should that routine look like?

Short answer: We believe that every kid and every family needs to find the routine that works best for them. (Our Prisma coaches advise the process, with a little trial and error sprinkled in!)

Across the board, however, we do find that having a regular activity helps set the tone for a productive day: at Prisma, that looks like a morning ‘standup’ meeting, which has daily productivity practices and sometimes incorporates mindfulness.

Whatever your routine looks like, it shouldn’t just be about building the specific habit itself: Use the process as an opportunity to let your child develop executive functioning (the ability to focus, remember and organize tasks). If their routine is too rigid, they’re not only more likely to rebel; they’re less likely to be able to transfer these healthy habits to a real life scenario when they’re on their own.

Here are ways you can work not to build healthy habits for kids but with kids.

How to empower kids to develop healthy habits for themselves

1. Ditch the labels

The concept of “healthy habits” is such a broad umbrella that it needs to start from a conversation with the whole family (and, if there are specific health problems, a conversation with your pediatrician at your yearly check-up is a great place to start).

Once you identify what habits you want to introduce, spend some time thinking about why — and what the true benefit will be. This is where it’s very important to involve the whole family in the conversation (young children included!), so your kids feel like they’re able to take ownership of whatever changes and eventually learn to make healthy choices on their own.

When you focus on why, you make the habit feel more meaningful, rather than creating a list of good habits to adopt versus bad habits to “break.”

If your goal is to have them spend less time on the screen, asking yourself why helps you add more nuance to your planning: is it the screen in general or specific kinds of digital activities? Is the goal to do something else instead — like socialize, read more books, or get more exercise?

If your goal is to promote healthy eating, consider what a balanced diet looks like to you. Is it whole foods only? Is it more veggies than sugar? Or maybe just some veggies to start. Or maybe there’s a longer-term goal, beyond their current diet — like helping them navigate a grocery store and know how to read nutrition labels. If they can recognize that hard-to-pronounce ingredients are a sign of highly processed foods, they’ll be able to make informed food choices, not based on a list of “good” and “bad.”

The deeper you dig, the more likely you are to find a solution that supports your family’s well-being — and makes sense to your kids.

2. Get the whole family involved

As cliche parenting phrases go, “do as I say, not as I do,” is a tough one to swallow. We need to live the kind of healthy lifestyle we want them to adopt: If they see you eating veggies from a young age, that normalizes healthy eating. By the same token, if you constantly check your texts at mealtime, that normalizes screens at the table.

So before you start trying to advocate for a certain habit, make sure you are living out your values: If we say, “go play outside,” but never step foot out of an air conditioned building, it’s a tougher sell than if we get out there with them.

3. Start small and stack

Once you’ve determined your motivation, zero-in on the area you want to focus on, whether it’s healthy eating habits, more outdoor time, or a more structured bedtime routine.

From there, you can pick a specific habit , and tie it to a logical positive consequence: If they brush their teeth without needing more than one reminder, then they’ll have more time for bedtime reading.

Once the new behavior becomes easy for them to do (be patient!), add in a new step: after they brush their teeth, they take their dirty clothes to the hamper.

This technique is what behavioral psychologist James Clear calls habit stacking in his book Atomic Habits: planning to do something new immediately before or after something you already do every day. This serves as a cue for your brain that helps make the new behavior automatic — in other words, a habit. You might add in five minutes of exercise immediately after brushing your teeth, do some stretches right after you eat breakfast, or grab a healthy snack before starting screen time.

Note: We highly recommend Clear’s book for anyone trying to learn the science of habit-building — in fact, our Life Skills course in Prisma high school has a whole 12-week session dedicated to his process.

4. Add, don’t subtract

When you’re trying to build healthy habits, it can be easy to focus on the bad habit you want to eliminate. Often times, however, that backfires, as we fixate more on what we can’t have.

Since habits are deeply ingrained, it can be easier to add something new than eliminate something old, especially when it comes to something like trying to incorporate more healthy foods. For example, instead of banishing fast food, try adding in fresh fruit, or drink water before opening up a sports drink.

The same goes for video games. Instead of eliminating them, try adding in equal amounts of whatever other habit you want to promote: more physical activity, more family activities or more time reading books.

5. Make it fun

Creating a healthy lifestyle shouldn’t be a drag (and if it is, it won’t last). If your child is  having resistance around a certain activity, talk to them and see how you can reframe it in terms of something they like: If it’s around healthy eating, get them involved in meal planning and cooking — which can give them an opportunity for quality time with you and teach them that healthy meals don’t have to be bland. If it’s around physical activity, help them brainstorm and find a kind of movement that feels good to them: traditional sports aren’t for every kid. Dance, martial arts, rock climbing, or free-form playground games are all great ways to get active.

Another way to add in some fun is to involve friends in the process. Humans are social creatures, and a little positive peer pressure can go a long way — and not just for children. If you’re trying to get into the habit of going on a daily run, odds are you’ll be more likely to lace up your sneakers if you know your friend is waiting for you at the top of the hill.

Talk to other parents to see if you can create a group, online or in person, to work on habit-building together: a book club, cooking classes, even a friendly pick-up soccer game. These opportunities allow kids the chance to socialize and support one another to build new habits.


6. Celebrate the wins

A lot of the fun of creating new habits comes when you get to celebrate the wins: We recognize Prisma learners with Experience Badges for participating in positive social activities, building a fitness routine, and doing service projects in their community.

Taking a moment to recognize how far your child has come is a great way to inspire them to keep going: whether they’ve gotten health benefits from improving their diet, learned something new by increasing their reading time, or mastered the art of brushing their teeth without parental supervision — it’s all a part of getting them ready to be independent.

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