By Ann DeWitt
All of us want our children to be responsible adults, but we sometimes—inadvertently—parent young children in a way that teaches just the opposite.
Consider this scenario: A three-year-old comes into the kitchen and says, “I want to help.” Mom, who is in a hurry to get a meal on the table, says, “No, go along and play.” Fast forward a few years. Mom wants the now 10-year-old to help chop the carrots, and he says, “No, I’m busy playing.”
He is doing exactly what he has been taught: to get out of the way so the adults can do it more quickly, more efficiently, and correctly.
We’ve all been there. But if we truly value the quality of responsibility, we may choose another approach. Instead of doing things for our children because it’s easier or because we can do it “right,” we can teach responsibility by involving children in the tasks of daily life at home. Yes, I’m talking about chores.
A Wall Street Journal article about children and chores echoed my feelings on the topic: “Parents today want their kids spending time on things that can bring them success, but ironically, we’ve stopped doing one thing that’s actually been a proven predictor of success—and that’s household chores,” says Richard Rende, a developmental psychologist in Paradise Valley, Ariz., and co-author of the forthcoming book Raising Can-Do Kids.
As the Wall Street Journal article notes, “Giving children chores at an early age helps to build a lasting sense of mastery, responsibility, and self-reliance.” In other words, laundry and table-clearing may be more valuable than scouting, martial arts, or sports.
In my family-counseling practice, I like to encourage parents to take something they currently do for their child that he is capable of doing for himself and give it back to him. This is not about punishment or because you don’t want to do things for your child. It’s about showing trust in your child’s ability, value for your child’s contribution, and desire to build competence and habits that will serve your child for a lifetime.
Think of it this way: If you always do things for your child that she is capable of doing for herself, you are taking away the chance for her to develop the skills and self-esteem that come from competence and contribution.
Want to get started on teaching your child to be responsible? Here’s a list of tried-and-true tips:
- Give them responsibilities. Start small, start now. On my website, I have a list of household tasks children ages 18 months to 18 years can do to at home.
- Ask for their help to contribute to you and the family. It feels good to be of service to someone. It could be preparing flowers for a guest who’s coming to visit, contributing to the menu planning, or straightening the shoes by the door. You want responsibility to be a personal strength, not just, say, knowing the proper way to fold the laundry.
- Create opportunities for them to contribute to the community. It could be formal, like volunteer work, or informal, like helping someone in the store who dropped something.
- Be patient. It takes patience to allow kids the time to try to figure out something that is challenging, and it takes confidence in their ability to persevere and tolerate frustration. You also need to take time for training.
- Make it enjoyable. No one likes a chore list, but there is often satisfaction in a job well done (or even the process). Put on music and do it along with them.
- Let them make mistakes and learn from them. Experience, especially experience that’s reflected on, is a far more effective teacher than a parent could ever be.
- Allow your child to take some risks. Don’t automatically assume that she can’t do something. Using the stove, for example, is something kids eventually need to learn how to do safely, not just be kept away from.
- Resist the urge to jump in and make it right. Teach children to clean up their own messes, from a spill to a missing homework assignment, and trust in their ability to find solutions to the messes they make. Supporting kids from a very young age to take responsibility for the results of their actions is a powerful lesson.