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We’re Better Together: On liver and the power of habits

Mike Tenbusch
Vice President of Education
United Way for Southeastern Michigan

WWII Poster Advertising Eating LiverWhen I was a kid, we had liver for dinner every other Thursday night.  Almost as bad as that, we would occasionally have to bring liverwurst sandwiches to school as a substitute for our usual staple of PB&J or baloney. Why? Because it was good for us. I can still hear my mom’s voice, “It’s filled with iron.”

As a husband and father, I often wonder, “Didn’t they have iron pills back then? Vitamin supplements?  Something?” I don’t even know if they sell liver any more.  And I’m almost positive you can’t buy liverwurst at reputable grocery stores. So what gives?

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, is helping me make sense of the world.  It turns out that in the 1940’s, when my mom was just a kid, our nation did not have enough meat for families to eat, as we had to feed our troops overseas as well as those of our British and Russian allies in World War II.  In order to keep our nation healthy and our morale up, the government needed to make eating organ meat, like liver and kidney, something palatable here at home.  To do that, they convened a group of leading sociologists including Margaret Mead, who engrained eating liver into the daily habits of ordinary Americans—so much so that my mother was still feeding it to us 40 years after the war ended!

That’s the power of habits, and it turns out that some habits are more powerful than others.  Making your bed every morning, for instance, has a correlative impact with being more productive throughout the day.  Similarly, having family meals every night correlates with children who get much better grades.  These are known as “keystone habits,” and incorporating them into one’s day can have a big impact in families, organizations, and even communities.

In my own life I stumbled upon a keystone habit not mentioned in the book: Date Night.  My wife and I had three kids in the first five years of our marriage--at the same time that we were starting and running Think Detroit with Dan Varner.  Our life was pretty much a blur, and our entertainment consisted of sitting on the couch on Saturday mornings with a cup of coffee, watching the kids play on the living room floor.  But we noticed that every couple who had a marriage we admired held a pretty sacred commitment to date night. And so we did the same.

Date night for us quickly became an anchoring event each week, a time to exhale together, to catch up on the week behind, plan the week ahead, or just escape to a good movie and not think at all. The weekend, and the following week, all flowed smoother because of it.  Our kids have a much better quality of life today because of our commitment to adopting a habit that did not come naturally to us.

Our commitment at United Way to the transformative power of early childhood rests on a similar conviction: that all parents and caregivers have the capacity, indeed the responsibility, to adopt and practice habits that will best prepare their children for success in life—regardless of their circumstances.

The most powerful keystone habit is reading to children every day for the first five years of their life.  On this one the science is clear—the combined impact of quiet, attentive time with children, close physical touch, a soothing voice, and the mystery of the spoken and written word unfolding in front of them, stimulates children’s brain development in profound and permanent ways.

Reading to children every day.  Every home.  Every neighborhood.  It’s a simple habit, and it’s how we get better all the time.

This blog post is a reprint from "We're Better Together," a twice-monthly newsletter, authored by Michael Tenbusch, that discusses the current state of education in metro Detroit and beyond. United Way for Southeastern Michigan distributes "We're Better Together" without charge to people with an interest in education. If you are interested in subscribing to We're Better Together, please visit