The Habit of Thought

What we think about when we are free to think about what we will - that is what we are or will soon become. ~ A.W. Tozer

At the start of a new school year we focus on creating a workable schedule, buying the best curriculum, and writing up lesson plans. As the school year progresses, we discover that curriculum choices and schedules are only a small part of our challenge as teachers.

Rather than struggling with curriculum, most parent/teachers struggle with their student. At one point or another we all hear:

  • “But why do I need to know this?” (Be sure to read that in a super whiney voice to get the full effect.)
  • “I just can’t understand math.”
  • “I hate to read.”
  • “Why do we have to write evvverrrry day?”

Dealing with the whining and complaints can be exhausting and leave parents feeling like they are failing at the educational task. It would be a mistake to think that the issues inherent in this sort of grumbling will be solved by switching up the school day, or making learning more ‘fun’.

The underlying issue here is a failure on the part of the child to self-regulate, or to see what needs to be done, and to have the internal fortitude to get on with doing the work with a positive attitude. Developing that ‘internal fortitude’ or positive attitude toward work, is going to be far more important for your child’s long term success than any of the academic skills you are working on.

On some days, just getting our kids to do their chores and finish the basic subjects can be an accomplishment, and exhausting. However, managing our child’s outward behaviors is only the beginning. Behaviors grow out of thoughts, and what we think, we eventually become. If we only teach our children how to rein in their outward behavior, but do not give them any useful tools to govern their thoughts and emotions, we doom them to fighting a constant battle. Our thought life is where the battle begins, and if it can be dealt with there, behavior ceases to be an issue.

Our children have an internal dialog continually going in their heads. (So do you!) Our internal dialog, what we think about and tell ourselves, either helps or hinders us. When you meet that neighbor who is constantly complaining and grumbling, you can bet their internal dialog is even worse. They have developed the habit of looking for the negative, of seeing the downside of every situation, and of living in a place of doubt, fear, and insecurity. Interestingly, for these people, their self-dialog tends to be very ‘me’ centered.

When our children complain, and communicate a negative attitude about getting their chores and schoolwork done, we fight both an external and internal battle. Most of us don’t let our kids get away with winning the external battle, we make them do their chores and finish their lessons…and once that is done, we call it good. The problem is we feel worn down, because we know that tomorrow we are going to have to fight the same battle again.

Our problem is we are only thinking about winning the battle that is going on today, and not the war. The individual battles are important, and your children should know, without a doubt, that you are going to follow through and make them finish their work. However, the war, the adults that they are going to become, is far more important…and to win the war you must deal with your child’s internal dialog and develop their ability to self-regulate.

Recognizing that much of our internal dialog is habit takes some of the mystery out. Often we over complicate things when dealing with children. Dealing with a child’s thought life is largely about developing positive habits and attitudes. Much of what we think is habit, and we need to be very careful when dealing with our thought lives that we establish habits that are positive and that deal with truth.

I’ve dealt with parents who feel their child needs to be free to express all of their feelings, that any negative thought that goes through their mind needs to be expressed so that they do not ‘bottle it up.’ Hogwash. How this translates to your children is, that every thought they have is equally valid and true…which it’s not. A child who is allowed to do this, unchallenged, will begin to internalize as true, statements about himself and the world that are false. Once established, habits in our thought life can be very difficult to change.

Instead, often we just need to tell our children to ‘stop’. We need to interrupt the dialog and insert truth. If a child is on a rant about how no one likes them, how unfair life is etc. often what they need is not a sympathetic ear, but someone to jump in and redirect. Of course, there are times when we need to have a heart to heart with our children about their concerns, but we should not confuse that productive kind of conversation, with just allowing our children to rant…and to develop dangerous mental habits and destructive thought patterns.

Most of us can read our children pretty accurately. We can almost see the wheels turning in their heads and, if we are paying attention, we can anticipate where our child’s thoughts are headed. When we ask, did you finish your chore or your math, we can already hear what is coming. Often kids (and adults) go through the same steps…they blame, they procrastinate, they make up excuses, they act out, and then feel bad, so they internalize their failure then feel stuck resulting in a repetition of the same destructive pattern tomorrow.

To help our children avoid this cycle we must help them learn to push PAUSE. When they are young, it falls on us to hit pause, to stop their thoughts and redirect them in a more productive direction. Often, with a young child this takes the form of a distraction. Using distraction is not a cop out. By distracting the child we keep them from laying down the foundation of a negative habit…and distraction is a great technique to use, no matter what our age. If we find ourselves, or our children heading into grumbling, complaining mode, it would be a great time to hit Pause, and redirect our thoughts, perhaps distracting ourselves from the negative, to list all that we have to be grateful for.

If your child is a bit older, pick a time you are both calm and happy to have an honest discussion. Explain to them why, over time, negative thinking is going to hurt them. Teach them that when they recognize they are falling into negative ways of coping, they have the option to stop and evaluate how they can do something different and change the outcome.

The goal is to have our children learn to:

      1. Recognize negative thought patterns as they are occurring. (The hardest part)
      2. To pause, or stop those thoughts long enough to evaluate.
      3. Evaluate if they need to change their environment or response.
      4. Come up with a plan, often this is as simple as telling themselves “I’m going to finish this task with a positive attitude.” Or “I’m going to pray for my friend instead of thinking bad things about them.”
      5. Ask for help or support, if they need it.

When children learn to do these things for themselves, they will have come a long way in the maturing process. Be prepared, one conversation is not going to solve this. You will need to repeatedly talk through the importance of their thoughts and having a positive attitude toward work. I sometimes wondered if any of these talks were getting through to my kids, but as they started high school I began to hear them repeating the talks we had had with them, to their friends. Be patient. Be persistent. The habit of training their thoughts will serve your children well for their entire lives!

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  • Beth Westenskow Barney

    “Helping them train their thoughts.” I love this article and it resonates with me for many reasons! One being that I struggle with my thought life! Also I have been trying to know how to help a child work through some negative internal dialogue that really I believe now is just habit!! I had never heard the expression thought life before and I like it). Makes you realize there is really this whole other “life” we have to address that we can’t see. So good!! Thank you for this article, could not have come at a better time.

    • kelly

      So glad to hear! I know I’ve had to re-train my thoughts, and it’s so much WORK. If we can save our kids some of it, that would be great.