A Parenting Tip I Just Learned: Find a Substitute

  by Andrew Wolgemuth

During the past few months, I’ve learned that one of my daughters cannot resist scratching mosquito bites…until they’re bleeding. Ugh.

No amount of Helpful Dad reminding her not to itch made any difference…until I found a parenting tip in a rather unlikely place: a book about cell phones.

I recently read Adam Alter’s Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, and found it to be a timely, helpful read. That book and dadcraft interviewee Andy Crouch’s wonderful The Tech-Wise Family challenged me (significantly) in how I think about tech and our family (most specifically, I’m thinking more about how I use my smartphone).

These books provide wisdom that applies well beyond technology, and I was particularly struck by an idea that has significant application in how I parent. Namely:

The importance of finding a substitute.

When we have a bad habit that we want to correct, we’ll likely have limited success if we focus only on not doing the bad habit. Willpower is important of course (dadcraft encourages grit), but we’re also wise to identify what we can replace the bad habit with. (This is an idea that Charles Duhigg’s excellent The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business also highlights and explores).

To illustrate this in a really mundane way, think about this: when you’re asked not to think about something like chocolate ice cream for the next five minutes, well…you tend to think about chocolate ice cream. But if you’re asked not to think about chocolate ice cream and instead to think about where you were and what it was like when you’re favorite team won the big game, you’ll likely think of the chocolate ice cream less. When you do this, you’re substituting a new line of thinking (about your favorite team and the big game) in place of the forbidden line of thinking (chocolate ice cream).

As Alter puts it, “Suppression alone doesn’t work—but suppression paired with distraction works pretty well.”

Suppression paired with distraction. That is, correct bad habits and behavior and find a substitute behavior. Simple…but I think that’s a big idea for smartphone habits and parenting.

My parenting default tends to focus just on behavior suppression.

Stop picking that bug bite.

No, you can’t have a piece of candy…and don’t whine about it.

Don’t play in the street.

Can you relate? I tell my kids what they shouldn’t do, and I expect these directives to do the trick and result in good behavior.

In reality, however, the results of my behavior suppression-focused approach are…mixed. Not so great really.

But when I find a substitute behavior or activity (that is, combine behavior suppression with a little distraction)…

Stop picking that bug bite…instead, pick on your teddy bear’s tail. (real-life example from this afternoon)

No, you can’t have a piece of candy…want to read a book?

Don’t play in the street…come over here and check out this weird bug.

My focused experiment is still in its early stages, and parentally pairing a substitute with correction isn’t my habit yet…but the early returns look good. Here’s hoping it’s something helpful for you to apply as well.

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Looking for dad/kid activities to substitute for the same old same old? Consider these.

Picture by Mark Seton; Used via Creative Commons license.