I’ll be honest: when it comes to kids and parenting, I keep most of my opinions to myself. I loathe the Mommy Wars, and especially when I was the mother of a newborn, I felt like I was under some kind of intense scrutiny with how I was parenting. My research into habit-formation and how courage and habits are connected has run a parallel track to my daughter’s growth—and when it clicked that the two were connected, I realized that there’s another domain where courage and habit-formation can be used: creating healthy habits for kids .

Habits have three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. The cue is like a trigger, and the routine is a response to the cue that gets someone to the reward.

This process is embedded in our neuropsychology and the brain starts creating channels to remember behaviors for which it gets the desired “reward” in our basal ganglia. Babies learn pretty quickly that when they feel the cue of hunger and simply root around with their lips, their chances of getting the reward that would satisfy that cue—a bottle or a breast—is 50/50. But if they feel the cue of hunger and start crying? Their chances of getting the reward of that bottle or breast is much, much higher–which is why they pretty quickly start defaulting to that when they want something.

When creating healthy habits for kids , understanding cue-routine-reward is essential. Kids do what they do to get rewards, and by the age of 2 or 3, the “reward” of feeling powerful and in control amid a world that feels entirely dictated by adults is highly desirable. That’s why sometimes, hungry kids simply refuse to eat and tired kids will scream, exhausted, that they are NOT tired. They want something beyond food or rest: power.

Healthy Habits For Kids = Give Them Power

If I’ve ever been successful at creating healthy habits for my own kid, it’s started in a seemingly unlikely place: give her power as a reward.

Feeling powerful in some way has been the ultimate habit reinforcement. For instance, I want my daughter to brush her teeth, but doing that in and of itself isn’t particularly appealing to her. To reinforce that habit, we tie brushing her teeth to a specific cue, which is getting up from breakfast. We never, ever deviate from this cue. The routine is brushing her teeth, but she’ll never go into it without feeling like there’s “something in it” for her, so we try to create those options: Does she want the Micky Mouse toothbrush, or the Frozen toothbrush? Does she want to put the toothpaste on, herself? Does she want to play with XYZ oh-so-alluring toy, afterwards?

We also talk about the reasons to brush your teeth (so that they don’t rot and fall out) and on some psycho-emotional level, I’m sure she is integrating that smiles from her parents are good things. All of this is tied together. These days, when she finishes breakfast, the first place she starts walking to is the bathroom, without our prompting.

Don’t get me wrong, of course. Being a parent is difficult and I still get my fair share of experiences where there is no reasoning with anything. But wherever I can, I integrate some kind of habit formation to create healthy habits that she’ll start to act out without much prompting.

What are the healthy habits you want your kids to adopt? If it’s eating fresh vegetables, then follow a consistent pattern of always serving them first with the payoff of a food your kid really likes coming right afterwards; let your kids choose which vegetables they want to eat; let your kids have a special plate/fork/chair at the table. If it’s going to bed without hassle, then follow a consistent bedtime routine that you only very-very-very-rarely deviate from, and include things that your child can choose: which nightlight is on, what music they might listen to as they fall asleep, which blanket they use.

Healthy Habits for Parents of Kids = Release Expectation

Earlier on as a parent, I would read articles dispensing parenting advice and think, “I’ve got it! I’ll do it!” Then I’d try it, and it would flop spectacularly. So as much as I realize that you might be reading a health habits for kids article and think that you’ll simply walk into life and integrate said habits easily…there’s a healthy habit for parents to consider, too: release expectation.

Let’s say that you, as a parent, desire the “reward” of less stress in your home, which you define as less arguing, whining, or other resistance from your kid.

To that end, you might be looking at “cues” such as bedtime by following “routines” such as…well, the routines you’re reading about here, which are all about consistency and giving children some sense of agency in their lives. But then things go to crap and you feel like you didn’t get your reward—and trust me when I say that I’ve so been in this place.

My suggestion would be to redefine what “less stress” looks like, through releasing expectation that things will “go smoothly.”

In truth, you are the parent and if you say it’s bedtime, it’s bedtime. If you buy vegetables, that’s what everyone’s going to eat. On some level, kids know that and it’s the ultimate seductive power play to mess around with.

So my work as a parent is to stop seeing the reward as “everything goes smoothly” and instead see the reward as enacting my ultimate agenda, regardless of the power play.

The Ultimate Agenda for Creating Healthy Habits for Kids

My ultimate agenda when it comes to healthy habits for kids is pretty basic: stuff like brushed teeth, enough sleep, healthy food. I’ll do what I can to make those options palatable for my daughter, but at the end of the day if she’s really going to fight those things, I try to take my focus off of her whining and crying and put it on the fact that at the end of the day, she’s going to have those teeth brushed (god dammit!).

Whenever I get tied up in wanting things to go smoothly, I start compromising as a parent. I start negotiating my standards in the hopes of avoiding a meltdown—and the meltdown always comes. So? I’ll offer different toothbrushes, but the teeth will be brushed. I’ll offer different bedtime stories, but kiddo, you’re going to bed and that’s that. I’ll offer different food options, but at some point every day, vegetables are going to be swallowed.

As I said to a friend, “What’s the worst that she can do? Cry? I own ear plugs.”

The reward becomes honoring my highest values for my daughter’s care, not doing it seamlessly and without her protest. Sure, if I can do it without her protest, I will—that’s where healthy habits for kids come in, because they start doing things on their own without prompting. And if she does protest, then that’s where healthy habits for parents of kids comes in—releasing my attachment to it being a seamless process without any snags.

With parenting being as hard as it is, any strategy that makes it easier is a life saver. Healthy habits for kids empower kids to be more independent, something they craves. Putting myself in a mental state of releasing attachment makes me a more relaxed parent (something I crave).

Creating healthy habits for kids might seem intimidating or like a complete life overhaul, at first: so pick one place to start. What’s the one area where, if things were just 1% easier, life overall would be easier? Maybe it’s getting out the door in the morning or putting toys away. Identify where your child wants to feel empowered and see that reward for what it is. Work backwards from there, while you release your own attachment to it “going smoothly” (especially at first) and you’ll find that with time, you can engineer the situation so that your kid is participating in the process.