Counters to the 7 Habits

Stephen Covey says his 7 Habits are “natural laws in the human dimension that are just as real, just as unchanging and unarguably ‘there’ as laws such as gravity are in the physical dimension.” (7 Habits, p. 32).   The kid version of the 7 habits (described here) are full of words like “right”, “wrong”, “should” and “should not”.  Everything about the 7 Habits is very prescriptive.

I assert that living a life in opposition to the 7 Habits is just as “true” a way to live.  The 7 Habits may be right for some.  But what about teaching our children how to figure out right and wrong themselves, rather than tell them there is only one “right” way?  At a minimum, let’s wait until they are adults before teaching them what a business self-help guru’s opinions are about how to live a “true” life, so that our kids have enough experience to make their own evaluation.

Here are each of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits for kids, followed by my Counter which shows what the Counter Habit would look like.

1. Covey’s Habit 1 is Be Proactive.  This habit is about doing “the right thing” and “not blaming others for my wrong actions”.

Counter #1: Be Flexible

I am flexible and adaptive.  I am able to cope well with and support change initiated by others.  I understand that we live in a diverse world and that in every situation there are many valid responses.  I am open-minded and do not negatively judge someone whose opinions are different from mine.

What’s important is to help our kids learn how to find their own moral compass in order to distinguish right from wrong, and learn the nuances of how this can be different for everyone.  Giving kids a habit that implies there is one right way to do things represents a simplistic world that none of us live in.

2. Covey’s Habit 2 is Begin with the End in Mind.  The adult version is of this habit is about figuring out what you want out of life, and making sure that the things you’re doing are really moving you closer to that goal.  The kid version is sort of about planning ahead.  It’s also about “the end”, which, based on the wording of this habit, is focusing on the greater good – how an individual student can contribute to their classroom, their school, and their community by being a “good” citizen.  I’m not sure why the kid version is muddled.  Maybe The Covey Institute was smart enough to realize that no elementary school child is ready to truly understand what their end goal is, and instead they suggested we teach children about working towards “the greater good” until they figure out what they want out of life.

As further information about this habit, the story from “The 7 Habits of Happy Kids” that illustrates the habit is about two characters who earn some money.  The first knows ahead of time that he wants to go see a movie.  He carefully saves his money, and makes a “good” purchase of a movie ticket and snacks at the movie.

The second character doesn’t have a plan.  He immediately spends every penny he earns on “junk” – silly toys and candy – and he doesn’t have enough money left to see the movie.

My child is the second character. He needs to make the mistake himself in order to learn the lesson.  And I’d argue that the first character could benefit from making a mistake or two of his own.  Being “perfect” according to someone else’s idea of perfect might sound good on paper, but thinking for yourself is a much more important skill.  Kids need to learn how to make their own good choices rather than blindly doing what someone else thinks is right. And one of the best ways for them to think for themselves is to let the make their own decisions, and their own mistakes.

Counter #2: Learn From Your Mistakes

I always try do my best.  I don’t shy away from trying things for fear I will do them wrong. When I make mistakes, I think about what went wrong, and what I will do differently so that I won’t make that same mistake again.

3. Covey’s Habit 3 is Put First Things First.  This habit is about setting priorities, making a schedule, doing what you’re supposed to be doing, even if you don’t want to, and being disciplined and organized.

Counter #3: Live Each Day to the Fullest

I am excited every day when I wake up to find out what the day will hold.  I look forward to what I will learn at school, and to discover what opportunities will open up to me today. I take chances because they help me learn and grow.

In support of this approach, here are the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying as recorded by palliative nurse Bonnie Ware.

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Of course it’s important to plan, and to do meaningful things. But as with everything, there is no black and white, right and wrong.  I don’t want to live the life Stephen Covey expects of me, nor do I want my kids to live the life that Stephen Covey imagines for them.   I want them to live the life they imagine.

4. Covey’s Habit 4 is Think Win-Win.

Counter #4: Think Win-Win

This one I will concede to Covey.  I think that helping kids think outside the box and work towards mutually beneficial solutions is a great conflict resolution strategy.  For kids.  Interestingly, even Covey recognizes that this is not a skill that kids will be able to carry successfully into the business world, because it only works if all parties are participating equally.  Otherwise the win-win person will concede too much to the side that is just looking out for themselves.  Covey imagines a perfect world where everyone thinks the same way.  I don’t share his vision.

5. Covey’s Habit 5 is Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood.

I don’t have a Counter to this one.  I just picture Covey’s perfect world again where everyone thinks the same way and behaves exactly as Covey wants them to::

Imagine two kids on the playground who have had an altercation and are trying to work it out, following Covey’s Habits:

Kid 1: I want to understand your point of view, tell me how you’re feeling.

Kid 2: I want to understand your point of view, first you tell me how you’re feeling.

Kid 1: You first.

Kid 2: No, you first.

My answer is clearly facetious, though like win-win, it points to what I consider Covey’s overly simplistic and black and white view of the world and the people in it.


6. Covey’s Habit 6 is Synergize.  This habit is about working well with others, seeking out other people’s ideas because better solutions come from working together, and being humble.

Counter # 6: Trust Your Instincts

My ideas are valid and good.  It’s ok to be different, and to follow my own path.  I stand up for what I believe is right, even if I have to do it alone.

Sure, it can be important to be a good team player.  But not everyone is a team player, at least not all the time.  What about people who prefer to be alone, and to work alone?  Are they wrong?  Artists, writers, sculptors, engineers, composers, and inventors, to name a few, often do much of their work alone.  It takes all types of people to make a good society, and there’s no reason for us to teach children that kids who prefer to do some things alone are doing it wrong.

7. Covey’s Habit 7 is Sharpen the Saw.  This habit is about finding balance.

Counter #7: Find Your Passion

When I find something I truly love, I pursue it.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he asserts that anyone who is going to become truly great at something must spend 10,000 hours doing it.  He holds up Bill Gates as an example.  By the time Bill was in his 20s, he had spent 10,000 hours learning to program computers, and much of that was done in the middle of the night when he was able to get access to the mainframe computers.  He certainly wasn’t focusing on balance and getting a good night’s sleep during that time.

I’m not saying that Bill Gates’s way of doing it was the right way.  I’m simply saying that Stephen Covey’s way is not the only way.  And I really wish he wouldn’t try to tell our kids that it is.


The Habit of Critical Thinking

In “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen Covey talks about the 7 Habits as “natural laws in the human dimension that are just as real, just as unchanging and unarguably ‘there’ as laws such as gravity are in the physical dimension” (7 Habits, p. 32).  The Leader in Me program for kids turns these 7 Habits into very prescriptive rules for how a child ought to behave, focusing on being proactive, doing the “right” thing, working before playing, planning ahead, following a schedule, looking people in the eye.

Just as Covey uses strong language in his belief that these 7 Habits are “natural laws in the human dimension”, the Leader in Me uses strong language that teaches children these Habits are “right”.  They teach the kids the “right” way to be.  The actual words “right” and “wrong” appear often in the description of the 7 Habits.

Consider this statement from Alfie Kohn’s article How Not To Teach Values.

Anyone who brushes away the question “Which values should be taught?” might speculate on the concrete differences between a school dedicated to turning out students who are empathic and skeptical and a school dedicated to turning out students who are loyal, patriotic, obedient, and so on.

If you begin with the premise that “good conduct is not our natural first choice,” then the best you can hope for is “the development of good habits”[42] — that is, a system that gets people to act unthinkingly in the manner that someone else has deemed appropriate.

If we want children to resist [peer pressure] and not be victims of others’ ideas, we have to educate children to think for themselves about all ideas, including those of adults.

I contend that the most important habit we should teach our children is the habit of critical thinking.  Rather than tell our kids to behave the way Stephen Covey believes is the “right” way, we should be teaching them how to figure out right and wrong for themselves. And we have to be human enough to recognize that “right” and “wrong” are not black and white – they truly can be different for everyone.

The slippery slope with the 7 Habits is that they seem so obvious.  “Put first things first” – who can argue with that? This program explicitly tells the children they should do their homework before they play. What parent wouldn’t love to have a kid who settles right down after school and gets that schoolwork out of the way?  Ten years of raising my oldest child tells me that this is a horrible idea for him. Making him sit down to do homework right after he spent a whole day sitting in school is a recipe for disaster. Trust me, I know this from hard earned experience. The “right” thing for him is a good, solid break after school to run around, eat a snack, be crazy, veg out, hang with friends, anything but more sitting still at a desk. And then he can buckle down and get his work done.

My kid is an individual, with individual needs, his own personality, his own ideas about the world. What works for some kids won’t work for him, and vice versa. This should surprise no one. We are a world of 7 billion people. Since when did anyone really think that you could write down 7 Habits that would be right for 7 billion people?

Parents and teachers want a silver bullet to “fix” our schools, “fix” our kids, to make them behave. But is our job truly to make them behave? Or is it to help them grown into adults who can understand the complexity of the world, and navigate through it in their own, unique, individual, and wonderful way?

Leadership or Compliance?

Despite the word “Leader” in the title which catches every parent’s eye, the speaker from the Covey Institute who came to our school said they recognize not every child will grow up to be a leader.  He said that this program is about making each child “a leader of their own life”.  The program is really more focused on teaching personal responsibility than it is about teaching leadership skills.

Originally the 7 habits were marketed as a way to make adults “highly effective”.  The children’s book is called “7 Habits for Happy Kids”.

Somehow FranklinCovey went from Effective -> Happy -> Leader.  

Whether the 7 habits are really about being effective, or being happy, I believe the term “Leader” was chosen purely as a marketing technique.

What this program really teaches is Compliance.

Think for a minute about the characteristics you think a great leader should have.  Words like Vision, Tenacity, Decisiveness, Passion, Good Communication come to mind.  Now read each habit (click here to see the full descriptions). None of those leadership words are there.  The 7 Habits are about doing what’s right, making a schedule and sticking to it, being a good citizen, etc.  I can see why parents and teachers are attracted to this – who doesn’t dream of a child who always does the right thing without even being asked?  But that doesn’t make this curriculum about leadership.  It makes it a curriculum about compliance.

Reading reviews of The Leader in Me online tells me that compliance is what teachers and parents are seeking.  Kids these days are out of control! they have no respect for authority! classroom sizes are too big! no one is teaching their kids values any more! parents aren’t doing their job at home, so the school has to do it! we need religion in schools to teach morals! the problem is we no longer have corporal punishment!

As it turns out, teachers and parents will pay a lot of money for a program like The Leader in Me that promises to make kids more compliant. There is no doubt that the perception is our schools are failing our kids, and FranklinCovey, in a great show of marketing genius, has stepped in to solve the problem.

But compliant children is not the cure for our school system woes, and it’s not what we should be trying to accomplish.

Here’s a great quote from an article about raising compliant children:

“Telling someone their child is obedient is (usually) meant as a compliment. But an obedient adult? Not quite so attractive is it? We have other words for that, doormat being one of them.”

And here’s a link to the article: Since when did obedience become the epitome of good parenting