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Unhappiness is a Bad Habit

April 16, 2009 | The Main Dish | 8 comments

The other day when I wasn't giving Molly exactly what she wanted exactly when she wanted it, she yelled at me "If I can't have a playdate with Claire right now, then I am never going to hug you again!"

Made me realize I am really in a bad habit of bribing and threatening the kids to get them to do what I want. "If you brush your teeth right now, then we'll have time for an extra story!" or "If you don't get in the car right now, then we aren't going to listen to High School Musical." Clearly these "If, Then" statements were coming so fast and furiously from me that now my 6-year-old was using them, too.

Coincidentally, I've also been reviewing the research on rewarding kids, and it is really making me rethink the series of postings I had on forming happiness habits; my method most definitely involved using rewards to goad kids into getting into good habits. Rewards work in the short-term, but research shows that they back-fire in the long run. So I'm revising and reposting the happiness habits articles.

The core premise of this blog is that happiness is a skill set that parents can teach to their kids. If we want to be happy, and if we want our children to be happy, we have to learn how to turn the skills presented in this blog, and the positive skills we already have, into automatic habits. But like most parents, I've also been teaching my kids habits that foster negative emotions rather than positive ones. For example, both of my kids have been in the annoying habit of waiting until the 10th time I'd asked them to do something before they did it. This was a frustration-fostering habit on my end, and because I often threw in a few random threats for added motivation, a fear-fostering habit on their end.

Most of us have some routines with our children that just aren't working but that we continue to replay day in and day out anyway. My friend R.'s nightly homework battle with her 8th grader leaves her depleted and frustrated and her son distant and grouchy. These bad habits make us unhappy. How do we break such frustration-fostering habits? How do we instill happiness habits in their place?

One big key to happiness is making the everyday unfun things in life into automatic routines, so that we don't have to fight the urge not to do them day in and day out.

For that, parents and teachers often use rewards. Good, juicy, rewarding rewards.

When we engage in certain activities (such as eating and, for adults, having sex and taking certain drugs), dopamine is released, creating feelings of enjoyment and an accompanied desire to repeat the activity. Researchers believe that when we reward kids, we stimulate the release of this feel-good brain chemical, and when a reward is consistently associated with a behavior, this dopamine-release helps make the behavior an into a habit. Animals, insects, kids, grown-ups: we all learn to repeat
behaviors that lead to really good rewards.

The great thing about dopamine is that it is all about the motivation and not so much about the activity. So my kids don't actually have to enjoy emptying the dishwasher, they just need to feel rewarded for doing it.

But all this neuroscience aside, rewarding children is controversial in the scientific community. Most researchers agree that it isn't a great way to motivate behavior over the long run. The same goes for my habit of punishing kids and threatening them with "consequences". (As in: "Do that again and there will be no computer games for a week.")

But you have no idea how many parents wrote to me thanking me for giving them permission to use rewards; in theory no-rewards no-punishment parenting sounds good (if you've read anything by Alphie Kohn), but it doesn't come naturally to most of us.

I think I've found a better way: one that works in the short-term and doesn't backfire in the long run. The next several postings will be about how to help kids successfully break bad habits and replace them with good ones without using material rewards. Stay tuned!

© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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Private: Happiness Habits Part IV: Ready, Set, Change!

March 24, 2009 | The Main Dish | 0 comments

What we plant in the soil of contemplation, we shall reap in the harvest of action.
—Meister Eckhart

This post continues the last three postings about what it takes to help kids successfully break bad habits and replace them with good ones. Go here for:

Part I: Happiness on Auto-Pilot
Part II: The Rewards Controversy
Part III: Motivating the Elephant

Stages of Change

Research shows that people who successfully create a new, healthy habit as a part of their New Year's resolution—or who kick a difficult habit like smoking—change happens in stages. James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente have been observing and describing the various stages of change for decades, and what they've learned is that if you start trying to impose change when you or your kids are in the wrong stage, the new habit won't stick.

Research suggests that breaking an old habit (like quitting whining) and successfully beginning a new one in its place (using your normal voice to ask for what you want) usually takes longer than we thought—about three to six months rather than the 21 days that seems to be in popular parlance. Although it felt like it would take forever, it was worth the effort.

In my case, I really had my work cut out for me: I was trying to break our impressively consistent pattern of begging (me), not-listening (the kids), threatening (me), finally doing it, but possibly in tears (kids). In the end, we established a great happiness habit: for routine household tasks (getting dressed, setting the table, brushing teeth, getting in the car), I pretend to be a talking clock (as in: "we need to be in the car in 5 minutes"). And the kids actually listen and (usually) comply. It would be the understatement of the century to say that this was not what went on in my house before we began this work.

  1. Stage One: Pre-Contemplation
    This is the stage where no one is thinking about changing, and for my kids, it ended one bright morning in January. At breakfast I said, "Mommy is tired of having to beg you people to do anything before you actually do it." I then proceeded with the autonomy-supporting encouragement: voicing empathy for their sloth-like positioning, rationale for my requests (exhaustion), and the choices we all had before us.
  2. Stage Two: Contemplation
    Then, we talked about why I want us all to change and asked them to contemplate why they might want to change, too. The discussion of how we would celebrate loomed large; a party at the local pool with all their friends was reason enough. Molly added that she was a "really good listener" now that she was five, and seemed eager to prove it to me.
  3. Stage Three: Preparation
    This stage is actually a transition from thinking about changing to actually beginning the new habit.

    I had to really plan—reorganize my whole morning routine, in fact—just to think about how to support their behavior change. It doesn't seem like offering empathy, rationale, and choice is that hard—and it isn't—but it was so different than what I was doing that I had to really think about what was triggering my use of very, uh, controlling, language. I knew that if I didn't leave enough time, I would start saying things like, "Molly, put on your shoes now," rather than: "I know you'd rather read that book—I would too! But I propose that you finish getting ready for school now. What else do you need to do? If you finish getting ready now, we won't be late, Mommy won't get upset, and you'll get to choose which shoes to wear!" I also knew that Molly would be very resistant to doing something without me close by if I hadn't spent any time with her yet. So I had to plan to be ready for work myself earlier so that I could hang out and eat breakfast with the kids before I expected them to get a move on.

    Each little positive change would win the kids a dose of growth-mindset praise. Chapter 2 goes into what exactly growth-mindset praise is, and why it is so motivating for kids. But generally speaking, growth-mindset praise is specific and oriented towards their effort—the factor that was in their control: "Nice work getting ready for school without me even having to ask!! I can tell you were really focused this morning. I appreciate your effort." Positive behaviors also win them independence; if they get dressed the first time I ask, for example, they get to pick out their own clothes (rather than having to go with the adorable but scratchy jumpers I would pick).

    Another key part of preparation is what I think of as a sort of placebo effect: if you think it will work, it will. To any optimistic reader of The Secret, this is a no-brainer. Just believing that you are capable of changing your bad habits into good ones predicts success, according to research on people who successfully maintain their New Year's resolutions. So do whatever you can do to help your kids believe they are capable of making the change. And you can also use an old sales trick: asking "intent questions."

    Corporate researchers know that just answering a question about what you intend to do (or buy) makes you automatically more likely to do whatever you said in your answer. If you've been seeing a lot of green Toyota Priuses around, which you like, and someone asks you what car you are going to buy next, you're likely to say a green Toyota Prius. And then you'll be more likely to actually go out and buy a green Toyota Prius than you would be if no one had asked you in the first place.

    How this translates for us: we need to ask our kids intent questions. What are you going to do tomorrow after I ask you to get dressed? What are you going to get after you do it?

  4. Stage Four: Action
    Going cold-turkey on bad habits like whining and begging is unrealistic, so divide your grand end-goal into lots of smaller ones. The important thing is that at each step you and your kids succeed. This means breaking your big goal into an action-plan made up of tiny turtle steps that eventually get you there. In life, I am more of a hare than a turtle, so this one was really hard for me. However, I frequently find success by taking direction and encouragement from another sociology Ph.D. and science translator, Martha Beck.

    The key, according to Beck, is at each step of the way to "play halvsies until your goal is ridiculously easy to attain." I started with one aspect of our morning routine, getting dressed, so the goal was to make one request for the kids to get dressed in the morning before they did it. This was not yet ridiculously easy, so to make it easier, the first goal was that the kids get dressed within 10 minutes of me asking them. I wanted them to do this without reminding on my part, but again, that didn't seem quite so simple either. So, playing halvsies again, my plan was to make the one request, and their first behavior change was for them to look up at me and say, "okay mom," and then head towards their room to get dressed.

    I then helped them get dressed, doing whatever necessary to make it happen. I pledged NOT to go put my mascara on right after making the request, or to make the request and then maybe mention something about Santa Claus watching them before I got in the shower. My plan was to say "time to get dressed!" and then tail them until it was done. This required considerable effort on my part.

The Plan, 3 or 4 days at a time

As important as picking small, achievable goals is clearly keeping track of successes. I created a handy worksheet for this that you can print out and hang on your fridge.

At first this all seemed a bit labor intensive for me, but I got through it by reminding myself that ultimately it would take a lot less energy than asking Molly four-thousand times to put her shoes on and then consoling her when she started to cry because I yelled at her.

The science points to a few other things that lead to successful habit formation; I suggest you leave nothing to chance and try them all.

  • Stimulus Removal
    Another way to up the odds of success is to remove distractions and temptations. People trying to quit smoking cannot leave cigarettes lying around to taunt them. If I want Molly to get dressed without having to beg, at first I needed to make sure our cat wasn't in the room, or she'd pet the cat instead of getting dressed. The same thing went for me: when I decided that a first "turtle step" for me was to support my kids while they established a new habit, I couldn't also be texting dating advice to my brother, even though that was more fun and interesting than fetching socks for Molly.
  • Making it Public
    People who have social support for their new habits make more lasting changes—friends who help each other keep exercising, for example. Just making a goal public can increase social support—and pressure—to succeed, which is one reason why New Year's resolutions can be effective. Other people are important for making changes across settings, so be sure to involve your children's other caregivers if they have them.

  • Pick Only One Goal—And Make it Specific
    When I first got my kids on this plan, I was eager to eliminate every annoying thing that they do—the possibilities really seemed limitless. But we really can't change more than one bad habit at a time, and neither can our kids. Research shows that the more New Year's Resolutions we make, the less likely we are to keep them. So have them come up with one big goal, and make it really specific. Kids are more likely to reach a goal like forming a new habit when they know specifically what counts as really good performance. Vague goals like "do your best" don't tell them exactly what they need to do to succeed.

© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.


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Raising Cheaters

March 24, 2009 | The Main Dish | 4 comments

Last week I visited a high school that has a really spectacular Honor Code. There are no locks on the doors, and all the exams are unproctored. For more than 100 years, kids at this school haven't cheated.

But recently, they did. Under pressure to get their grades up for the next round of college admissions (Early Decision 2), a group of students stole an exam.

These cheaters aren't alone, of course. Kids see cheating everywhere: at school, but also in business and politics. One study shows that more than 60% of 9th and 11th graders say they cheat. In the 1940s, 20% of college students reported cheating, but 75-98% of college students today now report cheating.


We are raising a generation of cheaters. In the past, kids struggling in school were more likely to cheat than high-achievers, but today we've created such a fixed-mindset environment in our schools that it is the college-bound students who are the most likely to cheat as they struggle to reach the seemingly super-heroic levels of achievement required for college admissions. It isn't enough to be a star Ballerina, fluent in Mandarin, student body president, and chief volunteer coordinator: kids today also have all A's. As my best friend, a professor at Northwestern, just posted on Facebook, "when did an 'A minus' become a grade that one can challenge with a straight face and even indignation toward the prof?" It shouldn't be a surprise that kids are willing to cheat when an A- is a disaster (don't even talk to these kids about the nightmare that is a B+).

Why do kids cheat? They report lots of reasons (see below), but cheating is more about fixed-mindsets and perfectionism than anything. Research shows that growth-mindset individuals don't cheat—and they perform better in high school even without cheating.

What parents and teachers can do to discourage cheating:

  • Foster the growth-mindset. I think this is the most important thing we can do to stop raising cheaters. To learn more, go here:
  • Tell your kids—or your students—where you stand on cheating. Studies show that although children are born with the capacity to be moral, parents and schools need to further nurture and encourage these values. Discuss different kinds of cheating behaviors and talk about why they are self-defeating.
  • Make sure your own behavior models the importance of trustworthiness and honesty. Kids who overhear adults bragging about undeclared income on their tax returns or how they talked their way out of speeding tickets may on some level learn that it is similarly okay to cut corners to get good grades.
  • Foster a love of the learning process. Research shows that students who believe that their schools and parents value extrinsic variables (performance, GPA) over intrinsic variables (learning, improvement) are more likely to cheat.
  • If a student does cheat, ask if it is an isolated incident or part of a larger pattern of dishonesty. Cheating once isn't necessarily reflective of dishonesty overall, and just talking about cheating can often address isolated incidents. But if it seems to be only part of a larger problem, address it as such.
  • Teachers need to be supportive, respectful, and fair when dealing with students. Research shows that students will reciprocate with respect in turn, and refrain from cheating. Consistent and fair grading policies also help.
  • Emphasize effort over performance. Instead of making your approval contingent upon achievement and grades, stress the importance of effort and growth. Studies show that the more involved and interested students feel in the learning process itself, the less likely they are to cheat.

Kids rob themselves of many things, of course, when they cheat. Their real academic performance, as well as how much they enjoy learning, suffers profoundly. Our society and institutions suffer, too, when people cheat. Kids who cheat in school become more likely to lie on their resumes and cheat at work.

Do you think the kids in your life cheat? If so, why do they do it? What can we do collectively to create a growth-mindset culture devoid of liars, cheaters, and thieves? If you are a high school student, we'd love your comments, too. Have you cheated? Why? What can parents and teachers do to help you be more growth-mindset?

9 Reasons Students Cheat

  1. Students today are under considerable pressure to achieve; studies show that these pressures can lead to cheating.
  2. Peers have a tremendous influence. Peer groups can both teach academic dishonesty and provide support for it: studies show that one of the top reasons they cheat is because other kids do it.
  3. Knowing that others are cheating can create another form of pressure on already stressed-out kids: the non-cheater feels disadvantaged. In this way, dishonesty can become perceived as an acceptable or necessary way of getting ahead (or just keeping up).
  4. The academic environment can also influence how pervasive cheating is. Research shows that when kids believe that their school or classroom stresses performance goals—their primary academic task is to get a good grade or demonstrate one's ability to others—kids start to believe that cheating is acceptable, and they report higher incidences of cheating.
  5. Students who tend to self-handicap (those who do things to make it look like external factors are responsible for their poor performance, like blaming others and making excuses when they are intentionally not trying hard) are also more likely to cheat. Both self-handicapping and cheating are used by students who are concerned about looking incompetent.
  6. Teens who worry about school are also more likely to say they cheat.
  7. Whether or not a school has a clearly articulated Honor Code makes a significant difference. Not surprisingly, schools that lack clear policies about what constitutes cheating have more problems with more academic dishonesty.
  8. Similarly, students are more likely to cheat when they feel that there is little chance of getting caught, that the penalties for cheating are inconsequential, or that faculty don't whole-heartedly support academic integrity. Students who observe that cheating is overlooked or treated lightly by teachers are more likely to cheat just to "keep up" with other students (who are also presumably cheating).
  9. Finally, students with poor study habits and time management skills more often feel the need to cheat just to keep up.

© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

Join the Campaign for 100,000 Happier Parents by signing this simple pledge.

Become a fan of Raising Happiness on Facebook.

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