I remember an instructor in our child development class at Missouri University saying, “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree." She went to great lengths to explain that habits that are formed in childhood last a lifetime. If left unchecked, the inclinations that a child has are reinforced through the years as the child grows. This is true for both good and bad inclinations. It is the task of the parent to “prune” those inclinations as needed. The parent needs to reinforce in positive ways the good, and do their best to eliminate the bad habits.
A common saying about children who are displaying problematic behavior is, “Don’t worry. He will grow out of it.” This may be true as relating to physical changes, but in most behavioral changes, children do not “grow out of it." The problems, in most cases, gain strength as the child grows.
There are many examples of children growing worse when problems are left unchecked. Take, for instance, the child who throws temper tantrums. When parents give in to the child and do not correct this problem, the child grows up believing that he/she can get whatever is wanted by displaying acts of temper. Another example is the demanding child who does not learn good manners. That child becomes the adult who “railroads” through anyone or everyone to achieve wants and desires. Poor eating habits are very difficult to correct in adulthood. Many obese people are those who as children were allowed to eat whatever they wanted. Children who are allowed to act any way they want will not grow up respecting authority. Children who are given everything needed without having to earn anything will not grow up and suddenly say, “Oh, I can do everything for myself." These children will always be expecting handouts.
Young people seem to have a feeling of indestructibility. They tend to think, “I’m different. That will never happen to me.” I recently talked to a man who is now an alcoholic. He said, “I made the same mistake so many other people have made. I thought it would never happen to me.” It is our duty, as parents and grandparents, to point out examples to prove that it can happen to anyone. Ultimately, each person is individually responsible for choices made, but we need to do all we can to influence those choices and help that person grow in the right direction.
My dad used pieces of string to illustrate to my sisters and me how habits get stronger and stronger. He handed us a piece of string and told us to break it. It was easy. Then he gave us two pieces of string and told us to break them. It was harder. Then he gave us three pieces of string and told us to break them all at the same time. Some of us were able to do it. By the time he got to four pieces of string, it was not possible to break them all at the same time. “That is how it is with habits,” he said. He told us that when you first do something wrong, it is much easier to stop than after you have continued to do it for a time. We understood that it is best not to form bad habits.
Raising children is somewhat like gardening. We prune, feed, and water. We guide and do our best to influence the choices our children make. When they are little, we can prevent bad choices. When they grow up, they will choose according to their own individual beliefs. Other influences in the world compete with the influence of parents. We simply try our very best and bathe our efforts with lots of prayer.