There are many assumptions about why change is hard, however they are usually incorrect. Let me share some common denominators that make change difficult and some practical steps to overcome those challenges.

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard
by Chip Heath & Dan Heath
Publication date: 2010 Date read: 2013
Source: Local library.
Recommended by: a thread on the Well-Trained Mind Forum
My rating (out of 5): ★ ★ ★ 1/2
I recommend it, but borrow it from the library.

Summary of Switch

The authors examine the common denominators in successful change (personal and corporate), telling engaging stories and giving practical, useful advice for making positive individual & group changes.

Switch develops 3 findings about change:

  1. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. So provide crystal-clear direction.
  2. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. It’s critical to engage people’s emotional side to get cooperation.
  3. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. Use the environment to your advantage.

Each of these three elements is broken down into 3 ways to apply the findings:

  1. Give direction
    1. Find the Bright Spots – harness the power of what is already working.
    2. Script the Critical Moves – remove in-the-critical-moment decisions, make rules to cover temptation points; be super specific and not vague or abstract; remove thinking from the situation to change.
    3. Point to the Destination – keep eyes on the end-point goal, the why, the point.
  2. Engage emotions
    1. Find the Feeling – reach the affections; logic doesn’t motivate behavior change.
    2. Shrink the Change – baby steps build momentum and give small wins that build confidence.
    3. Grow Your People – build identity, create growth mindset.
  3. Utilize the environment
    1. Tweak the environment.
    2. Build Habits – set an action trigger, imagine it happening, practice makes it easier.
    3. Rally the Herd – provide accountability & competition; behavior is contagious.

Review of Switch: How to Change When Change Is Hard

Switch was a quick and interesting read about what we can actually do to effect change in our lives and in our groups (businesses, organizations, or even families). While there are many common assumptions about why change is difficult (like laziness, resistance, stupidity, etc.), research and case studies demonstrate that these accusations are usually incorrect. In fact, the assumptions themselves can be a road block.

The authors have a driving metaphor throughout the book, and often use shorthand expressions referring to their metaphor or to a true example story they’ve just told. That keeps it fun and light, but can make it also difficult to quote out of context. Good summary quotes, alone as a single sentence, sound kinda silly. It’s a type of jargon problem, but in the context of the book isn’t a big hurdle and does help keep the stories and the theory connected in your mind as you go.

It was very similar to Power of Habit, where true stories backed up each of his points, with a key difference: Switch is much more practical, making their points clear and easy to apply. I think this book is a good follow up to Power of Habit if you enjoyed it but found yourself unsure what to do with the knowledge after you read it.

I often feel like a conflicted sort of person. I like to boss, I like black and white, and I like to issue orders like “Buck up! Change your attitude! Just get happy!” However, that style isn’t even effective for me. As soon as I put something in black or white terms that really shouldn’t be, just to make it “simpler” or “easier on myself,” I find myself unable to respect or obey my own position. And how much more this plays out with children, once they move beyond the clear-cut toddler years! I need a way to get people on board (my own self included, but also my maturing sons who share many of my traits) willingly and even happily. This book gave me some helpful categories to think about this in and also some strategies that could easily be tweaked for a family and homeschool setting, I think.

Practical Application of Heath’s Switch

Switch examines the common denominators in those who make successful change, through engaging stories and practical advice for making positive individual & group changes. It begins with 3 findings about change:

  1. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. So provide crystal-clear direction.
  2. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. It’s critical to engage people’s emotional side to get cooperation.
  3. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. Use the environment to your advantage. 

So I want to look at these elements and the practical steps given for each in the book, applying it to our home and homeschool settings (because, oddly enough, homemaking and homeschooling was not ever an example in the book).

There are many assumptions about why change is hard, however they are usually incorrect. Let me share some common denominators that make change difficult and some practical steps to overcome those challenges.

Switch Tactic #1: Find the Bright Spots

Sometimes when things aren’t going well in our homes, we’re tempted to think everything is bad and nothing is going well and we need to try something completely different. Or, we get “inspired” (or guilt-ridden, or fear-compelled, or envy-eaten) by someone else’s home or routine and wish we could scrap our own home and swap it for someone else’s. It’s not a good plan. You can’t impose someone else’s system or style or routine onto your own, whole-hog. It won’t work. It won’t last.

Moreover, change that big is intimidating and, usually, unnecessary, so we are likely to resist implementing the change, even when we think we want it. Instead of making a large-scale change, look and see what is working right now. Does breakfast happen at the same time? Do morning chores happen? Find somethinganything, that has stuck that you want to keep.

After identifying one or two things that you want to keep, examine them. When did you start those habits? What helped establish them? What helps them happen? Can you apply your observations to one new habit that you’d like to learn?

Finding bright spots in the home

So, let’s pretend laundry is a sticking point. Even if it’s a stress-point, a hurdle, a disaster, still, probably it ends up getting done in the end. Instead of a brand-new plan of attack, think about how to amend what’s already happening. When does it get done? What is and isn’t good about that time? What steps are there to your laundry routine? Which are helpful? Which are needful? Can you tie an improvement onto an already-working part of your routine?

For example, say (hypothetically) your kitchen towels or kids clothes get into their drawers, but not in a particularly organized or aesthetic manner. Is that really a big deal? Can you work with that at least temporarily? How about instead of fighting that or calling that a laundry failure, you decide that’s how you’re going to manage things right now and at least the clean laundry is getting out of the dryer and baskets and into the room where it belongs.

Sometimes a change in how you think about the situation is actually the most helpful change.

Finding bright spots in the homeschool

So, let’s pretend Circle Time isn’t going well. That happens. Take a deep breath, stop thinking about it in all-or-nothing terms, and examine the situation closely. What part of Circle Time do the kids enjoy? Can you arrange that piece to come at a critical moment to help keep them on board? My kids’ favorite part is singing, so we start with a hymn, end with a hymn, and have a hymn in the middle to break up all the talking. When have the children been on board with Circle Time? What was different? A good breakfast? A pep talk before you began? Perhaps their plans are being interrupted for Circle Time so they start off in a bad mood?

Don’t try to come up with a brand new solution. Tweak what you have. Figure out why it went well that one day and how you might leverage that knowledge into more days.

Switch Tactic #2: Practice Specific Scripts

Switch examines the patterns in successful habit changes, and communicates them through engaging stories and practical advice. Let’s think through the implications of the first observation made by the book about change:

What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. So provide crystal-clear direction.

I often see resistance in my children to my plans and expectations. After all, it is easier to identify and deal with the resistance of others than my own internal, dissonant resistance to my own plans.

Perhaps the most important insight I gleaned from Switch is that what I perceive as resistance could likely be simple uncertainty. Turns out, no one can read my mind.

Script the Critical Moves

After spending time making the plan, thinking it through, envisioning how it will work, setting up the organization to help it flow, I am invested in the plan. And, I’ve been immersed in the plan. My children are neither invested nor immersed. And when their actions don’t match up with my vision, I am tempted to see outright disobedience and rebellion to the stated plan when it’s actually confusion, or misunderstanding, or the fact that they can’t read my mind and infer the grand scheme from the small direction I gave.

When people try to change things, they’re usually tinkering with behaviors that have become automatic, and changing those behaviors requires careful supervision by the [conscious will]. The bigger the change you’re suggesting, the more it will sap people’s self-control.

If there’s a big change you’ll be making to the flow of your day or the flow of your work this year, make a clear script for the change not only for yourself, but also for your children. Make sure the explanation is thorough, repeated, and – if you have readers – written for reference. Be as specific as you can. I know I sometimes use abstract terms that – in my own mind – carry much meaning. When giving direction, however, be concrete and specific and don’t imply anything – rather, state it outright.

Create and Practice The New Pattern

Rather than simply communicate the new expectations, whether to your children or even to yourself, first tell it like a story rather than like a list of rules. It’s easier to see oneself living a story than scrupulously following a foot-long list of rules.

Then, for the first week at a minimum, treat the working of the new plan as practice, as dress-rehearsal. You are coach, director, helping your actors work through new lines and new movements. You are not the overseer with whip, watching for rebellion.

Communicate the script to your actors before they start acting it out, and then coach them through it until the movements are natural to them.

This approach reduces the stress of feeling under attack by each child’s deviations from your vision, but let’s not get delusional: it’s still exhausting to direct a troupe through a new piece. Expect that, and give yourself (and the children) energy and willpower recovery times.

Switch Tactic #3: Point to the Destination

An important aspect of inspiring motivation and providing clear directions is to know what end you are working toward. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Why practice piano scales? Why wash the dishes? Why do math drills? Why make the bed?

To do this, visualize what it would look and feel like to have the habit in place. Run through the scenario of your day as if the habits were already established. Do your best to keep yourself from envisioning what the day would look like if you and everyone else were perfect.

Good habits still won’t make you or your children perfect. Sorry to burst the bubble. But how would the good habits help? Can you describe that outcome in a compelling but brief way?

This can be as simple as following up the habit-to-be-learned (“Close the gate on the stairs”) with a compelling outcome (“So that the baby doesn’t fall down the stairs”). The baby not falling down the stairs is a destination that can be reached. You state the habit – brush your teeth after breakfast and before bed – but you also provide the reason, the end-point, the destination – “so that you don’t get cavities.”

However, the more descriptive and compelling you can make that destination, the more likely the habit will be to stick. So, reimagine “don’t get cavities” and make it more vivid: “So that the sugar-bugs don’t gnaw your teeth all night and make your teeth holey and rotten.”

Maybe you have a fruit tree with some wormy fruit. Take a rotting and worm-laden fruit as a concrete picture and say, “This is like what happens to your teeth if you don’t brush them.” Google images works, too.

Take your boring reason for the habit, and dress it up with some imagination-catching image. It will help the habit stick.

Painting a postcard of home: Ready for action

Housekeeping is one of those activities that easily grows to fill whatever time or energy you give it, and that at the same time multiplies the less time or energy you give. It’s never “done.” So how can we have a destination in mind for tending the home?

It’s simply not going to be spic-and-span at the end of every day, especially if you have young children and actually live all of life all day everyday in your home. “Have a clean home” is a frustrating goal, because “clean” can be so vague and abstract.

How about this end-of-day destination description: ready for action. That would include the dishes being washed so they are ready to use the next day (even if your sink isn’t shiny), clothes washed and ready to wear (even if they don’t make it neatly folded into a drawer), and the tables used for meals and school are ready for use the next day (even if that means a project left in progress or stacks of books, well, everywhere).

It would mean that the baby toys in the living room that didn’t get picked up are not a big deal. It would mean that the bathroom is addressed often enough to not be embarrassing. It would mean that you can start the day ready to tackle that day’s work rather than starting by finishing up yesterday’s.

Painting a postcard of education: Vital interest

Of course it’s important to have an idea about the ultimate end-goal for the education you are providing for your children, and that vision will shape the choices that you make year by year and day by day. However, what about the small, daily habits? They work toward the overarching goal, but the overarching goal might still seem to abstract, especially as a motivation for the children.

If, say, the new habit you want to work on is that your student use proper capitalization in all his work, then bringing to bear the long-term goal of the love and pursuit of the True, Good, and Beautiful is not going to help motivate said student. Instead, try something like, “This year, we’re going to work on using proper capitalization in all your writing. See this paragraph in this book? See how all the first letters of sentences are capitals? See how not all Ds are capitalized? See how proper names are capitalized? See how it’s not random or based on ease and convenience? Your writing this year is going to look like that. It will take lots of correcting at first, but by the end of the year, your writing will look like a real book’s and you’ll do it the right way the first time.” Now the child isn’t just being beaten down with mistakes to correct, but he’s working toward a goal: Making his writing the same as a real book. Moreover, with that as the stated goal, you as the teacher are reminded that your resolve is to correct capitalization in all the student’s work, all year.

That worked for my oldest in his third grade year, and I am now commencing the same course of action for my second-born.

What other small habits are you working on? What images can you bring to bear to give an inspiring goal and reason?

There are many assumptions about why change is hard, however they are usually incorrect. Let me share some common denominators that make change difficult and some practical steps to overcome those challenges.

Switch Tactic #4: Find the Feeling

I have always tended to be an abstract type, one who prefers an idea and logic to talk of emotions and affections. I mean, clearly it is better to make decisions intentionally using reason and rationality over feelings, which so easily lead us astray, right?

However, slowly, I am learning to see that though I am more comfortable in the world of abstract ideas and rational argumentation, yet it is my affections that drive my actual, in-the-moment, gut decisions. So, if I pretend like I am all reasonable and not at all emotional (which isn’t true at all), I am simply being blinded to reality and hindered in my growth.

Because here’s the thing: being driven by our emotions is inevitable, but our emotions are not themselves inevitable.

We can train and channel our feelings, our affections, as well as those of others.

There is so much modern hoopla about pursuing self-discovery, being passion-led, and letting one’s heart be one’s guide, that it is easy to overact toward believing that cold calculation is biblical and wise. I know, because I am still recovering from this belief.

However, touching the heart, the affections, the emotions, has always been an important concept in classical education and political theory, a vital concern in both Old and New Testaments, and an essential component of the medieval development of virtue.

In the Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis discusses exactly this point: we do not act based on what we know in our heads, on our intellectual knowledge, but we act based on what we want and love. This does not leave us victims to our whims and irrational emotions, however, because those wants and loves can be trained. Training the desires, the heart, the tastes, is precisely what education is. He writes:

St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ordinate affections or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful.

So, the traditions of the ages tell us that developing and training the emotions is the essence of education and of virtue. On top of that, Switch is telling us that it is useless to attempt to change our habits or the habits of those under our leadership if we do not touch the emotions.

But how do we communicate a feeling to our children? How do we impart it? Talking about it is good, unless overdone, but never seems super effective or lasting, at least at our house. Talking about it generally relies on logic and reasoning, but we’re trying to reach past that, to the heart.

The answer is that we are to direct and train and display our own affections about work, about learning, about relationships, and that will permeate our home atmosphere and teach more subtly and effectively than we realize.

More caught than taught, right?

However, how to we pass on an emotion about our duties if we ourselves don’t fully possess it?

Once again, it becomes clear that parenting and teaching is a path of sanctification: Of us becoming who we are meant to be, more than of making these other people who they are supposed to be. It is when we see our children’s faults and struggles that we are made aware of our own.

C.S. Lewis to the rescue, again:

Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.

Yes, fake it until you make it. I have a whole collection of quotes from various and sundry people maintaining that action and even emotion effect our affections.

Facial expressions don’t merely reflect emotions, they also influence emotions. In “facial feedback,” studies show, the mere act of smiling makes people happier — even when they smile mechanically, as I’m doing, or when they’re asked not to “smile” but rather to contract specific facial muscles. Random smiling is an example of my resolution to Act the way I want to feel: while people suppose that feelings inspire actions, in fact, actions also inspire feelings. – Gretchen Rubin, Happiness Project

Here are some ideas I’ve brainstormed, ones I need myself to take to heart and apply:

  • For each habit you are working on, list the emotional motivator behind it. For example, “If we clear and wash the tables and do the dishes after dinner, we will feel prepared for the next day” or “If our [math] lesson does not come easily to us, we will know that we are being challenged and growing. We want to improve, not stagnate.” Add these statements to your daily morning review sheet so they are near the front of your mind when the situations arise, so that you can respond with the feelings and direction you want to inculcate when the challenges arise during the day.
  • Watch your tone and your story as you help yourself and your children through the rough patches of the day. Does your tone communicate frustration or grace? Anger or love? “I’m tired of you” or “I’m sticking with you until we conquer this”? Is the voice in your head chanting the refrain, “It never ends. This is so hard. Well, I swept the floor but it’s just going to be terrible again after lunch. What a waste of my life.” Know that likely similar lines are going through the children’s heads: “Math is always hard, so I must not be good at it. Mom always gets irritated during Circle Time, so this is all a real drag.” And, of course, all the various manifestations of “life isn’t fair” that play in our minds and our children’s. When you become aware of your own, consciously change it. Say something true and positive. When you’re working through something with the children, ask them what the voice in their head is telling them. Help give them a better story to tell themselves.
  • Just plain smile more. Simply look into your children’s eyes more and see them as little full people and stand in awe and wonder. They aren’t a pet project. They aren’t a hindrance to a clean home. The clean home is for them, not they for the clean home. See them more than you see their effects.
  • Thank God for your family, thank God for the duties He’s given you, thank God for everything He’s given you, which includes the difficulties. Everything comes from His fatherly hand, and that is why you can (and should) thank Him in all things.

Gratitude is the best and most biblical motivating emotion. Cultivate it in yourself and in your children, and watch other things fall into place.

Switch Tactic #5: Shrink the Change = Baby Steps

I must admit, that I stink at this particular aspect of habit change, though I intellectually understand its benefits. When I have been able to make myself slow down and be happy with small steps instead of trying to orchestrate “The All-New-And-Improved Plan That Will Make Us All Amazing,” I have been, not surprisingly, much more successful and less discouraged and burnt out.

So often we get this grand vision of what our life could or even should look like, but getting from where we are to where we want to be requires (so we think) drastic habit and routine overhauls that are paralyzing to even think about.

We all know that one eats an elephant one bite at a time, but we tend to see those tiny bites as so insignificant as to be not really meaningful.

Even so, that feeling is actually inaccurate. We need to make the change less intimidating and trust that it will have impact over time. Because it will.

And sometimes those small baby steps toward habits we want to build reveals bright spots to us. We might not even need the huge overhaul we imagined. We just needed to do the small things in front of us more effectively and purposefully.

How Small Changes Work in Your Favor

  • Momentum: Like Dave Ramsey’s debt-snowball (it was an example in this chapter!), beginning with smaller and easier changes that will support the bigger scheme will help you shift your mindset and gear up your enthusiasm.
  • Small Wins: That growing momentum comes by the building up of small wins. Getting the positive feedback of a success, a win, an achievement, increases your likelihood of sticking with your habits. You are showing yourself that you are serious and that you can do this. We should be thinking, too, of how we can give our children small wins in their chores and schoolwork – not by candy or stickers or larger unrelated prizes tied to goals, but by helping them see their success as success and not as a respite from a sisyphean task. As much as we can, we should help them see that their efforts are getting them somewhere.
  • Confidence: Gathering momentum with small wins builds confidence. You will become encouraged that making positive change is something you can do, instead of being discouraged at always failing at the big overhaul plans.

Ways to Shrink the Change in Home Routines

  • If you have 5 morning chores you want to complete before starting school, try adding in one per week at that time to ease into it.
  • If you want to start making more dinners or lunches or breakfasts from scratch or more healthfully, just change one day of the week at a time. Perhaps add in another day or meal a month. 
  • Declutter for 10-15 minutes at a time rather than wait until you have enough time to “finish” the job.
  • Just spend 5 minutes putting things away or dusting or whatever job you procrastinate. Sometimes starting is the hardest part, and it’s easier to start if you know you can stop after a measly 5 minutes. 

Ways to Shrink the Change in Home Education

  • Begin the school year gradually, instead of jumping in all at once with both feet.
  • Take a week or two to practice the morning and chore time routines before starting the school routines.
  • Start the first few weeks of math or Latin with review work.
  • Do 5 minutes of math fact drill or Latin vocab drill daily or even 2-3 times a week, and watch how much that small bit of time adds to your students’ ability after a few weeks. 
  • To get more read-alouds in, add audio books to car rides or chore time or rest time.

Switch Tactic #6: Assume a Growth Mindset

A growth mindset is one that sees challenge and difficulty as an avenue for development and, well, growth. Its opposite, a fixed mindset, is one that perceives the fact of difficulty as a sign of weakness, of inability, and, ultimately, of failure. To one with a growth mindset, a challenge is an opportunity; whereas, to one with a fixed mindset, a challenge is a failure. When stated like this, it seems silly to be stuck in a fixed mindset, but I think it besets us even if we intellectually know better.

The premise underlying the fixed mindset is that life should be easy. Thus, when life isn’t easy, something is clearly deficient – us, most likely.

Children assume the fixed mindset when they slump over their math page and proclaim, “I am no good at math!” They think this because the math is hard; because they are tired of trying, they want a reason to quit.

 math and a fixed mindset

They don’t ever say that when the math is easy. Instead of arguing with them, show them they are wrong and give them a good label to replace the bad label they are trying to stick on themselves.

This is not touchy-feely self-esteemism, where there is no failure and much unfounded praise; this is good teaching and good parenting. Hand them a math page from their previous book or write down five equations that will be easy for them.

Make them do them; don’t let them wallow in bad attitude: they will resist doing the easy equations, because they want to be right and they want to prove you wrong. If they protest (and they will), you have the opportunity to encourage them and show them how far they’ve come.

There was a time those equations were not easy. Now they are because of hard work and perseverance. And, next year, this math page will seem easy. Right now, it takes work and perseverance. They’ve done it before and they will do it again.

Mothers assume a fixed mindset when they tell themselves that because their current stage is difficult, their capacity is maxed out

This sounds like, “Because I’ve been super cranky since baby #3, I clearly should not have a #4.” or “Because I am so tired at the end of a day of Kindergarten, there is no way I can homeschool first grade – especially not with another toddler!” or “I have to put my oldest into middle school, because I’m just so exhausted as it is.” or “Because my house is so messy now, clearly I am just a messy person who has to get used to just living in chaos forever.”

Of course there are times where making the decision to not have more children, to put kids into school, or to let the house go are legitimate and wise choices. However, sometimes we are just like the child who says he is no good at math. It is exhaustion and discouragement speaking, not wisdom.

It is possible that the tiredness and feeling like you’re not getting anywhere is because you’re in the last leg of a sprint, in the sleepy and cantankerous phase of a growth spurt.

The fixed mindset looks at the next level (of math, of family life, of schooling, of whatever area of life is currently challenging) and says, “No way. This right now is already beyond me. I’m stopping here.” The growth mindset says, “I made it this far; if I stick with it, I’ll get there [or die trying, you might secretly add some days].”

Although we would all intellectually assent to the truth of the growth perspective, the fixed mindset can still perniciously discourage us with its false assumptions.

After all, we know that God has put us where we are – that nothing comes to us by chance, but from His fatherly hand – and that He will give us the grace and strength we need to grow in Christlikeness through His providential care.

Balking along the way is natural, but it is also unbelief rather than faith and trust. Yet we can cry, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” And He promises grace to help in time of need.

Switch Tactic #7: Cultivate an Identity

A common (and often needful) tactic we use in the home is administering consequences for choices that do not line up with our stated values and goals. Consequences can be anything from spankings to losing computer time to taking a nap instead of playing with friends.

However, if we are trying to change a fundamental habit in our home like putting things in the right place instead of putting them down on the nearest surface (which is often the floor), then simply dealing out consequences is not going to be the most effective tool. The infractions are often too numerous and difficult to follow up on.

Yelling, “Hey! Who dropped their pencil on the floor and left it there?!” from the dining room is not only unpleasant for everybody, but also not very effective at getting an answer or inspiring change.

Sometimes complicated systems of fines and rewards or points and prizes can be made to work if you are consistent and dedicated enough to make it work. However, particularly if we are trying to change ourselves as well, when we are both worker and supervisor (supervisor of ourselves as well as our children), we have a hard time making artificial consequences motivate. Personally, I’d rather have the chocolate after a bad day than repeat to myself constantly that I only get it if I have a good day.

We need to touch a deeper chord than that of external motivations, and one we can touch on is identity.

In Switch, the authors tell us,

Because identities are central to the way people make decisions, any change effort that violates someone’s identity is likely doomed to failure. (That’s why it’s so clumsy when people instinctively reach for “incentives” to change other people’s behavior.) So the question is this: How can you make your change a matter of identity rather than a matter of consequence?

Cultivating an identity isn’t actually complicated or terribly difficult. What it requires is being careful about your words (for your family) and your thoughts (for yourself). Indeed, every comment a mother makes about her child gives that child an identity, for good or ill. What identities do our comments cultivate?

What names, roles, and motives do we attribute to them? How do we ask them to do something? What do we point out as being “so like you”? Also, pay attention to the identities they are giving to themselves and you are giving to yourself.

“I am bad at math,” is an identity statement. Don’t let them own that; replace it with “You’ve been working hard at this concept for a long time, so you’re just tired right now. That’s ok. You’ll get it just like you got borrowing in subtraction. When your younger sibling gets to this book, you’re going to smile and think, ‘Oh, that is so easy!’”

“I am a terrible housekeeper,” is an identity, and if you claim it, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe you are a terrible housekeeper, you won’t change. Try, “I don’t keep the house well right now, but I want to become a better housekeeper.” Then you have an identity of improvement where change is possible.

The “self-fulfilling prophecy” effect works because of a concept called “cognitive dissonance”:

People don’t like to act in one way and think in another. […] Similarly, as people begin to act differently, they’ll start to think of themselves differently, and as their identity evolves, it will reinforce the new way of doing things.

I think I experienced this with the simple and humble habit of making (or not) my bed. I never did make my bed growing up – on principle. I did’t care about beds being made or not made (identity). Making the bed is stupid, and I am not stupid and do not do stupid things – at least, not when I don’t want to do them.

So, in my efforts over the years to improve my housekeeping, making my bed seemed like one of the smallest and easiest of the “small wins” I could attempt. Yet – until this year – I never succeeded for more than a few weeks. Here’s the weird thing: In a tidy bedroom, I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt out of place and uncomfortable in a tidy bedroom, even if the tidiness was just a made bed.

Significantly, since the beginning of this year, I have made my bed every day with only a handful of exceptions. It seems silly, but this is a breakthrough for me. I think the success comes down to identity: First, I have become a person who wants to have a tidy house (a good place to start).

Second, I have become a person who follows through on that desire; I haven’t fulfilled it, but I have grown and I have accepted my identity as “becoming.” Third – and most important – I have gradually (over the course of five years of ups and downs) become more comfortable in a reasonably tidy, uncluttered home than not.

The comfort – a sign of identity – began in the kitchen, sloshed into the other living areas, and now is internalized enough that I don’t feel out of place if my private room is orderly. I am allowed. Even if I am not ready to say “I am an orderly person,” I can at least say, “I am becoming orderly.” And a made bed verifies that identity.

In the identity model of decision making, we essentially ask ourselves three questions when we have a decision to make: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation?

As mothers in the home, we are the atmosphere, we are the culture shapers, we are the identity givers. If we leverage this natural role and use it intentionally, we can help ourselves and our children become more full and complete versions of themselves, giving up false and harmful identities and putting on good and true ones.

Your environment gives you cues.

I’ve now read three books that cite the experiment where they give movie-goers variously-sized buckets of popcorn, weighing them as they leave. Without a doubt, people eat more when the serving container is bigger. So, the moral goes, use a smaller dinner plate, don’t take more that you should eat, supersize your water glass and downsize your wine glass. You’ll eat less and not even realize it.

We take cues we are not even aware of from our environment. If we can consciously choose even a handful to swing us onto the path we want, we will be much more likely to make the change and stick to the change. Moreover, when we’re trying to get others to change, smoothing the bumps and friction in the path might well solve difficulties that appear to be stubbornness and willfulness. The authors of Switch write:

They were mentally stuck: “Well, I already asked them to do it. I taught them how to do it. I told them they had to do it. I don’t know what else to do!” At that point, the executives felt they’d tried every tool in their toolbox, so they jumped to punishments.

know I have fallen into that mindset time and time again in parenting over the years.

“Even our parents [focus on incentives]: ‘Do this or you won’t get your allowance!’” But executives – and parents – often have more tools than they think they have. If you change the path, you’ll change the behavior.

Ways to smooth the path for our children.

Ok, so I tried to think of examples where I’ve been tempted to assume a resistance problem was stubbornness, when it might just have been a habit or mental block. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, too.

Pencils, pencils, everywhere except where they belong, and no where at math time.

I recently did fix this problem we’ve had for years with a simple environment tweak. I’ve tried other environment tweaks before that haven’t worked, but I think they were more like making rules, “This is your pencil box. You keep it. You put YOUR pencil back in it. If you don’t, you don’t have a pencil.” And if you don’t have a pencil, you can’t do your math or handwriting, so how is that even an incentive?

homeschool pencil management

Yeah, the only thing it accomplished was even worse frustration on my part. For awhile I doled out the pencils. They went up high, I gave everyone one, and I put them back up high – when they came back to me or when I found them on the floor.

So, within a few days, there were no more pencils in my jar, I was sick of pencil requests, and no one knew where any of the previous twelve pencils were. We must have pencil-eating mice (We do, actually: it’s a mechanical mouse. Sharpening a pencil into oblivion is a much better pass-time than math).

This year, I put a small wooden box (originally from a Melissa and Doug magnet set, I think) on our school cart (where the pencil sharpener is mounted). It has no lid, and even short pencils can be easily grabbed – unlike a typical pencil holder. I filled it with 24 pencils, and a few extra eraser caps. I resigned myself to restocking pencils at least every term. I renounced nagging (it’s not an incentive, it’s not a motivator, and it doesn’t make the change easier) and just pick up pencils and pop them in the box whenever I walk by. When a pencil ends up in a bedroom, I just stick it in my pocket and return it to the box when I go back downstairs instead of launching a tirade about how pencils do not belong in bedrooms. Every few days I sharpen at least some, maybe all, the pencils there in the box. The kids can sharpen them when they need to, but I buy the cheap pencils and they can be difficult to sharpen well. So, no more harping and complaining from me about the percentage of pencil shavings v. pencil usage, either. That’s really my responsibility, and not blame I should shift to the children.

Get this: Not only have we not had a pencil famine (an unprecedented miracle), but I even saw a child, walking by a pencil on the floor, stoop, pick it up, and toss it into the box. After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I thanked him. It was now easy to get pencils back to their right place, and there was no longer pencil tension creating further friction.

Not only that, but having simple pencil access also cleared the path for other activities. While I was a pencil miser, free-time drawing sank considerably. “Can I have a pencil to draw?” one would ask; I’d reply, “I already gave you a pencil today. Where is it?” “I don’t know.” “Well, if you want to draw, you can find your pencil.” What happened? Well, they just didn’t draw. Now, anytime they have 10 bored minutes, they just grab paper and a pencil and have at it.

The most important path smoother.

The pencil incident demonstrated to me that while having easy-to-use containers is important, it is our own attitude and actions as the mother in the home that is crucial.

I tell myself that I’m setting up logical consequences, when I’m actually tearing down my house with my rant. I tell myself I’m just reminding them of our plan, when I’m actually a continual dripping.

The largest contributor to the child’s environment is his mother’s attitude. It’s alarming and scary, but true.

The most effective tactic for shaping the path (or laying down the rails, as Charlotte Mason would say), is to take the responsibility upon ourselves and not make it a burden we place on the children’s shoulders.

Cheerful, positive, cooperative must be our watch-words. That is so much easier to write than to do. But it is not only the right thing to do – you know: kindness, gentleness, self-control – but it’s actually incredibly effective. Who would have thought? It’s almost as if God made the world or something, and knew what He was talking about.

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