Making Changes, One Behavior at a Time

From strengthening relationships to achieving a healthier lifestyle, we all have behaviors we’d like to change to create a more satisfying life. But when we have families, establishing more positive habits can prove tricky. To get your family motivated, begin by focusing on one behavior at a time and make changes in a fun, collaborative way.

“One of the biggest opportunities we have that we often don’t take enough advantage of is role modeling, and that can be done by parents or by kids,” says Shelly Summar, dietitian. “Instead of telling people what not to do, we want to show people what to do and help set up environments to make it easier to do that.”

Curb sibling battles. Nothing makes a parent want to pull their hair out more than listening to their kids battle it out day and night. Refocus how your kids treat each other by rewarding cooperation. First, define what it means to treat each other with respect and kindness. Then, using a token point system, reward behaviors that fulfill your expectations.

“It’s important that the behaviors are very specifically identified and reinforcement is very immediate,” says Dr. Jane Sosland, child psychologist. “For example, you might say, ‘I really like the way you answered your sister there’ or, ‘I really like the way you guys are cooperating.’”

Keep track of points earned by using a sticker chart; a jar with marbles, cotton balls or poker chips; or beads on a string.

To encourage teamwork, your kids must have an equal number of points to redeem for a special reward. When each child has earned 20 points, they earn an outing to a prized destination.

Get more active. Aiming for a healthier lifestyle? That’s easier if your family is involved. Invite them to help you make a list of activities you can all enjoy together at least once a week.

Ideas could include visiting a nature centre, strolling through a museum, going for a bike ride, spending the day at the zoo or swimming at a local community centre. During extra busy weeks, plan simple activities like shooting hoops, playing hopscotch or tossing a ball in the back yard during the warmer months.

Connect more by disconnecting. These days, family time competes with an array of extracurricular activities and screen distractions. Become intentional about making space for unplugged time together, whether through a regular evening meal or by creating traditions like a weekly family game night.

Summar, who has two teenage girls, says that her family has enjoyed a ‘Sunday Fun Day’ tradition for years in which the family plays games together, laughs and talks. 

“In a fun situation, you can find out a whole lot more rather than sitting down one-on-one and drilling them,” she says.

Grow more intentional about screen time. Rather than disappearing down individual digital rabbit holes, use technology together to strengthen communication skills and creativity.

For example:

Invite your child to Facetime or Skype with grandparents. 

Show your child how to start a private blog about one of their favorite subjects. 

Take digital photos together and collaborate on a photo book or a calendar. 

Make a vacation video using the app, One Second Every Day.

Seek video games that entertain, educate and encourage critical thinking. 

Connect with your kids by playing their favorite video games with them.

Not only do kids like teaching their parents how to play games, researchers at Arizona State University (ASU) found that gaming together generates conversation opportunities.

“Our research is finding that sharing this experience cultivates family bonding, learning and well-being,” says Sinem Siyahhan, assistant research professor at ASU’s Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics. 

Eat a more wholesome diet. Plan well-rounded meals, beginning with meals you know your family will embrace. Half the plate should be covered with a fruit or vegetable and the other half with grain and protein. Encourage family buy-in by including your kids in the planning and preparation of meals.

Replace common snack foods like chips, cookies and snack cakes with colorful fruits and vegetables, beginning with the ones your kids like such as carrots, celery, natural applesauce, watermelon, blueberries or canned peaches in a light syrup or juice.

As you set out to make healthy dietary changes, avoid setting up barriers for yourself that will make success more difficult like limiting yourself to fresh organic fruits and vegetables.

“That’s a really difficult goal to achieve,” says Summar. “Make sure the goals you set are realistic, like: ‘I’m going to go to a farmers’ market once this summer.’”

And, Summar adds, don’t feel bad about purchasing canned fruits and vegetables. They are good alternatives when fresh produce isn’t handy.

Above all, remember that changes come easier when they’re rewarding - and that goes for kids and adults.

Freelance journalist Christa and her husband are the parents of two boys. Christa’s latest book is Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digitial World.

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