“In our lives, we embrace lots of big changes—not only babies, but marriages and new homes and new technologies and new job duties.  Meanwhile, other behaviors are maddeningly intractable.  Smokers keep smoking and kids grow fatter and your husband can’t ever seem to get his dirty shirts into a hamper.” –Chip Heath and Dan Heath

I’ve been reading Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.  It’s a business book, but I picked it up because I’m interested in social movements—when entire groups of people change—and the science of habit formation. 

Chip is a professor at Stanford’s business school, and his brother Dan is a senior fellow at Duke University’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship.  Switch is a goldmine of research.  They pick out the best studies, and compile them in a way that lets their readers easily see how they all relate to each other.  Even though I’m familiar with a lot of the research they write about, reading Switch has been nothing short of a parenting epiphany.

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Sometimes the best parenting books are not about raising children.

Although I love my children just as they are, I also want them to change.  For example, I want them to put their clothes away without having to remind them, and I want them to remember to feed their pets before we’ve turned out the lights for bed.  These things will make me a happier parent.

This book has given me dozens upon dozens of research-tested ways to get my kids to make changes small and large.  It is divided into the three broad categories of things we need to address when asking someone to change: our minds, our hearts, and the situation or environment itself.  I’m going to post three articles, each about one of these arenas.

The first part of the book is about our analytical minds, and how we use it to make changes.  This was not the part of the book that was most inspiring to me, as this is where we usually start trying to inspire change: with rationale.  “I’d like you to do your homework before dinner everyday, sweetheart, so that we can play a game after dinner.”  But it was very helpful in thinking about the type of intellectual arguments that I make with my children.  Here are the Heath brothers’ three specific suggestions:

(1) Find the situations where something is working and replicate those. This is a very Greater Good approach, and it works wonders with my kids when I remember to do it.  “Yesterday you remembered to put your homework binder in your backpack without me asking you 10 billion times.  What was different?  How can we make that happen again?”  Not surprisingly, we humans respond differently to positive approaches than to nagging or reprimanding.  Analyze what is working well in your family—find the “bright spots,” as Chip and Dan call them—and clone them.

(2) Script the change for them.  Although no one likes to be told what to do, often an instruction booklet is golden. Ambiguity and choice are exhausting, which is why we stay in our familiar habits. 

If we can limit ambiguity, we can make changes easier.  It isn’t good enough to tell my kids I need them to not be so messy.  Instead, I’ve got to “script the critical moves,” in the Heath’s words: put a hamper in an accessible place, for instance, and show them exactly what I mean—that clothes go in the hamper or the drawer.  (Clearly this isn’t all there is to change, though, as there are grown-ups everywhere who can’t seem to master the hamper.)

(3) Begin with the end in mind, as success guru and best-selling author Stephen Covey puts it. Describe the compelling destination where you all are heading.  What do your kids dream of doing?  How will changes help them get there?

The Heaths give an example of a teacher who motivates a group of under-achieving at-risk 1st-graders by “announcing a goal for her class that she knew would captivate every student: By the end of this school year, you’re going to be third-graders.”  Her teaching goal was to have the kids reading at a 3rd-grade level; to the kids, she pointed to the super-cool older kids as inspiring role models.

It works well to marry these three things together: find a “bright spot” to clone, and use that to paint the picture of where you hope you can get your kids to go.  Then, keeping in mind the situation that’s working, script the critical moves to get there.

The Heaths’ main point in Switch, however, is that you need to do more than just draw on the analytical part of our brain to motivate successful change. So don’t try these three things and expect the world to move.  They are just part one in a series of factors related to change. 

Up next week: Motivate change by plucking at heart-strings.

To help me with this series, I’d love to know:

(1) What would you most like to change about your children? 
(2) Where are the “bright spots” in your household?  What does your family do well already?  What can you apply to your trouble spots?
(3) Who out there has calm mornings where the trains mostly run on time?  If you are willing, I’d like to interview you either via email or on the phone.


© 2010 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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