Published on 25 Sep 2022

Why I get my kids to tell me when they go out

Keeping the family informed about changes to a routine builds accountability and decision-making skills, says Adj Assoc Prof and NBS Advisory Board member Abel Ang

Our two boys are now 20 and 17, but they still notify us when they go out.

As parents, we are not control freaks who monitor every movement of our kids. But we have developed a simple habit where they give us a heads-up when they deviate from their normal routines.

Since the boys were infants, they have always had a routine. All the way through pre-school and primary school, they were in bed by 9pm latest.

There was a sleep routine of bath, tooth brushing, followed by a short chat and cuddle with mummy before sleep. I was often missing from the sleep routine in view of my frequent travel, but tried to be involved whenever I was home.

Even though the boys are physically huge now - both taller than me - they are often put to bed each night. It is a time to reconnect and chat about their busy days, just before they fall asleep. That is the enduring nature of well-established routines.

Another routine is our family dinners. We try to gather as a family every evening to have a meal together and catch up on how the day went for everyone.

As the boys are getting older, their schedules have become more complex and varied. Between sports training, school activities and their friends, it is now more difficult to plan and cater for family meals without having to nag them on whether they will be home for dinner, or not.

That is how the habit of 5 "W's" and 1 "H" (5W1H) was born.

As long as the boys stay on their routine schedules, they do not have to inform or explain what they are doing or where they are. But if they deviate from their schedule, they will put a short update in the family text chat to inform about their whereabouts, including whether they will be home for dinner.

The 5W1H is a simple set of questions our boys use to provide information. They have been taught to wait for either my wife or me to respond to their request before they make a commitment to an appointment outside the home.

The questions:

  • Why are you going out?
  • Whom are you going out with?
  • What are you going to be doing while you are out?
  • Where are you going?
  • When are you coming back home? When will you leave the location of the activity?
  • How will you get to the location of the activity and back?
As an example, our elder boy, R, has regular sports training on Wednesday and Sunday nights. On those nights, we do not expect him for our family dinner at the usual time, but will keep a portion of food for him to eat after he returns from training. But if he goes out on other nights, he will inform us via the 5W1H, and give notice that he will not be home for dinner.

Our younger boy, S, was staying in his school's hostel for a term. During that period, he was understandably absent from family dinners during the week without having to complete the 5W1H.

5W1H is not micromanagement. It is a family habit. The kids are responsible for alerting us if their schedules change, and the habit makes life easier for whomever is preparing the family meal that evening.

Good routines form good habits because of the repetitive nature of the routine. It is said that people are creatures of habit.

According to the best-selling book, Atomic Habits by author James Clear, everyone has habits and routines that he or she takes for granted each day. Clear believes that by stacking new habits like 5W1H onto existing ones, like regular family dinner times, it makes it easier for the habit to be adopted.

According to his book: "When it comes to building new habits, you can use the connectedness of behaviour to your advantage. One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behaviour on top. This is called habit stacking."

Habit stacking has helped 5W1H to be grafted into our family's routine. This simple habit has saved us many hours of nagging and family squabbles around something as trivial as a family meal.

What we have found is that for 5W1H to work, the habit needs to be dynamic and fluid so that it is not cumbersome. We could naturally ask our kids to give notice at least 24 hours in advance of the family meal, but that does not work well for teenagers who have dynamic schedules and commitments in tertiary education.

Leveraging technology has made it easier for us to implement 5W1H as a habit. The kids always have their phones on them. All they have to do is to fill in the information in the 5W1H template on the family texting chat. Given the ubiquity of technology and the fact that it takes less than a minute to fill in the blanks, the kids have no excuse not to do it.

Leveraging the power of existing technology has helped reduce friction and increase information flow within the family.

The boys never have to wait long for a decision. We have rarely said no to an activity they propose. We usually ask relevant questions to help them to understand the consequences of the commitment they are proposing to participate in.

For example, does the activity take time away from studies during a period when they are having mid-term tests? Or does the activity they are proposing to undertake present risks to their personal safety?

The first benefit of 5W1H is that it teaches our kids personal accountability to the family. Asking before going out and giving notice about whether they are going to be present at the family dinner is a common courtesy to the rest of the family.

Secondly, as parents, it is a means for us to show care and concern for the boys, at an age where they are fully mobile to travel all over the country without telling us.

We are able to keep tabs on whom they are with and what they are up to, not to control them, but to perhaps have a discussion with them about the type of activity, or the friends that they might want to hang out with.

Thirdly, by working to consciously fill in the 5W1H template, the boys are systematically thinking through the activity and whether it makes sense for them. Sometimes, as they are typing the answers to 5W1H, they will write that they have decided not to do the activity.

Teenagers sometimes do not think things through fully. 5W1H helps them in that respect.

Author Clear writes of habits that "all big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow".

Good habits start as a seed when kids are small. As they grow up, the seed grows, and the branches become strong enough to graft on habits like 5W1H.

The 5W1H template has saved our family much grief and angst over the years, especially during the teenage years.

Hopefully, you will find it useful too.

Abel Ang is the chief executive of a medical technology company and an adjunct professor at Nanyang Business School.

Source: The Straits Times