Getting the whole family back on track
The beauty of good family habits is that they encourage everybody to do the right thing without negotiations and rows. They just become the way things are done in your household. That’s once they are ingrained, of course. It takes 66 days, on average, from the time a new behaviour is introduced to it becoming automatic, according to a scientific study conducted at University College London.
Some of the 96 participants took as few as 18 days to form a new habit but for others it was up to 254 days – debunking a popular myth that doing something for 21 days in a row was all that was required.
So it’s no wonder you are still struggling with your new year resolutions. Trying to make too many drastic changes is also setting yourself up for failure. The secret to long-term success is little changes – and, more importantly, starting as you want to go on when children are still very, very small. You don’t really know the meaning of the word “role model” until you become a parent and see your bad habits re-enacted in front of your eyes.
So, what are some good habits for healthier, happier family life? We enlisted a few experts – paediatric dietitian Ruth Charles, clinical psychotherapist Joanna Fortune of Solamh and forensic psychologist Maureen Griffin of MGMS Training – to help us draw up the following suggestions.
1 Eat together as a family around a table
Between work, commuting, sport and leisure commitments, it is hard to sit down together for dinner every night but, if you don’t aim to do it as often as possible, it will rarely happen. The proven benefits range from healthier eating to improved relationships. Ban all phones, too.
2 Use serving bowls
Allowing children to help themselves to food at the table means they are more likely to try things and regulate their eating according to their appetite.
3 Eat a rainbow
If you have got the daily five fruit and veg under your family’s belt of good eating habits, add a bit of nutritional finesse by making sure they span a range of colours. As Ruth Charles explains: “The colour usually determines the vitamins and antioxidants present, so include red, orange, yellow, green and blue/purple choices every day, eg some tomato, butternut squash, turnip, cabbage, blackcurrant.”
4 Avoid drinking your calories
The best family drinks for hydration, dental health and your pocket are plain water and milk, says Charles. While few are unaware now of health warnings about sugar-laden soft drinks, it is also better to eat, rather than juice, fruit. And for adults, alcohol’s “forgotten” calories can sabotage healthy eating.
5 Consume more “whole” foods
These are foods that look the same in your hand as they did when they were first made, is how Charles puts it, such as milk and eggs. Avoiding processed foods means you will eat more nutrients in their natural state and also cook from scratch.
6 Make a weekly meal plan
As boring as it may sound, this saves time, money and increases your changes of sticking to a well-balanced diet. Resorting to take-aways in last-minute desperation for food and inspiration is the sort of spontaneity most of us could do without.
7 Walk to school
Too far, no time, bad weather, not safe . . . The reasons children don’t walk to school trip off the tongue, but it’s worth reassessing the logistical challenges that apply to your family to see if, even just one day a week, they could perhaps walk at least some of the way?
8 Unplug for family activities
It might be once a day or just once a week but switch off the wifi and do something together as a family during which nobody looks at their devices, advises Maureen Griffin.
If it’s watching a TV programme together – no other screens allowed. Some parents swear by an app called Screen Time that allows them to set time limits on their children’s devices or restrict use of certain apps.
9 Keep screens out of the bedrooms
It is not just children who need screen-free nights, says Griffin. Scientific research suggests we would all get a better night’s sleep with televisions, laptops, tablets and mobile phones out of sight and out of earshot – an improved love life too, perhaps.
10 Let children choose a chore
Does getting them to do jobs around the house require a lot of nagging? Instead of allocating tasks in the effort to give them a sense of responsibility rather than entitlement, why not ask them to pick something?
It has worked for our featured family here, the O’Connors of Cork, where the eldest boy volunteered to get his little brother dressed every morning. It’s not something his mother Caroline would have thought of asking him to do but it helps her and he enjoys it.
11 Adopt the 15-minute rule
Make sure you spend at least 15 minutes every day playing with your child, says Joanna Fortune. This should be a distraction-free, uninterrupted 15 minutes. Play is the language of children, helping them make sense of the world, and don’t worry if you don’t consider yourself “good” at playing – children are the expert, let them show you.
12 Debrief at the end of the day
Every day, ask each member of the family to share their “best bit of the day” along with “the bit they wish they could change”.
This, says Fortune, “shows even the youngest family members that everyone has highs and lows. It allows parents to hear at least two bits of information about their child’s day and encourages solution-focused thinking and processing of difficult experiences daily without them building up.”
Keep weekends calm
Parents who work outside the home often try to overcompensate by packing the weekend with highly stimulating activities for their children.
Fortune, however, urges parents to remember that, sometimes, sitting next to you doing absolutely nothing means absolutely everything to your child. “Keep it simple, go for a walk together, make a snack together and then pull the duvets from the bed and curl up on sofa together watching a movie, make Play-Doh, read a book together, sing, dance, laugh and just be.”
14 Do something kind every week
It is really important to work on children’s declining empathy levels, which Fortune attributes to the impact of screens and social media, by encouraging them to think about others.
You could gradually build up a care package and then let your child give it to someone who is sleeping on the streets; let them see you buy a cup of tea and a sandwich for someone homeless; befriend elderly people in the community; encourage your child to donate toys to good causes.
“Building empathy is the greatest gift any of us can give our children in today’s society,” she adds.
15 Settle for ‘good enough’
Relax – no family is perfect. Remember that as a parent you’re human, not a robot, says Charles. Getting it right most of the time is the best we can aspire to.
The secret to long-term success is little changes – and, more importantly, starting as you want to go on when children are still very, very small
Nutritionist Caroline O’Connor in Passage West, Cork, with her husband, John, and their children Finn (3), Aidan (7), Declan (9) and Alice (1).