My husband and I are both the firstborn of four children in our families, which basically means that we value the art of getting things done. This quality can be both a great strength and a great source of contention when either of us gets too focused to see the other’s efforts, and raising kids together has forced us both to become more intentional about how we teach this to our kids.
As much as I like things to be in order, I have learned that it is far more important to recognize that relationships come before the task list. Otherwise, I have a well-maintained to-do list but I’ve trampled people along the way. My kids especially, deserve to be guided in love. I want them to walk away from a task feeling accomplished, but also capable of communicating in a respectful way.
Here are some key elements to teaching self-sufficiency that I’ve discovered:
People cannot perform to your standard until you provide a clear picture of what you expect that outcome to be. This is accomplished through direct communication. I don’t mean simply telling them what to do, because you can’t always assume they will interpret the direction the way you see it in your head.
For example, I could tell my daughter to sweep the kitchen, and she would think she did well by brushing the broom back and forth across the floor. What I expected was that she move the brush under the cabinet and refrigerator corners, gather a pile of dirt into a dust pan, and dump it into the garbage.
They keys to teaching a new subject can be simply outlined this way:
I do, you watch
We do together
You do, I watch
NO: Sideways Comments – otherwise known as being passive aggressive. Comments like “well it would have been done right if you tried harder,” or “alright, I guess I’ll have to do it myself.” This just leaves the child feeling defeated and worthless. As the John Mayer song goes, say what you need to say, and your guidance will be understood in a way they can learn and feel good about what they can do.
People at any age are more likely to give their time and energy to a project that they are actively invested in. My dad use to call this having “skin in the game“. I began with a chore chart that my kids could follow, but also contribute to. It’s nothing more than a 9×12 little white board that I list their daily activities on. Sometimes I will list what I need them to do for the day, and sometimes I will have them look around and decide, then actually write on the board themselves. They get to check it off once they’re done. This simple privilege has proven to capture their interest and translate to an active investment in taking care of our home – together.
Bottom line, consistency builds trust. All you need is a couple of things they know you will always go back to reference when they want to push that line. The purpose of my chore list is to have a visual, little do they realize, a standard of expectation to reference when their minds get off track. The more we implement this list and practice using it as a port of our daily lives, the more opportunities they get to practice accomplishing things – and that is such a cool thing to watch! My son who typically whines and droops his whole body when it’s time to do stuff again, will actually get into it and the list ends up being a motivating tool for him (and I start jumping for joy on the inside).
A Note on Flexibility – I understand that consistency is difficult, especially when you have young kids. Things are not always going to go as you planned. I get it. But instead of using this as an excuse not to start anything, set the standard in place so that when the unexpected does happen, you can always refer back to The List which is the standard of expectation. Once my kids did realize that what they helped to create was their own list of expectations, by that time they had skin in the game, and a developed sense of accomplishment. But it was my job to keep that routine happening at least 5 days a week so these things became a habit, for them and for me.
Kids can do a lot more than we give them credit for. They notice everything, right?! If you have young ones, I’m sure you’ve already lived through a moderate amount of whining, especially between ages of two and four. Eeeeeeesh.
Remember, our kids need clear expectations, consistency, and most of all, BOUNDARIES. When it comes to self-sufficiency, boundaries take the shape of everything from the beginning to the end of a task. When we allow for excuses as to why they can’t finish because “it’s to harrrrrrrd” or “it’s taking a long tiiiiiiiiiime,” or “I’m tiiiiiiiiired,” we do them a disservice and this is what gets communicated: You’re allowed to quit when it’s uncomfortable.
No. Just, no.
All they need to remember is one simple principle:
Finish what you start
In other words, don’t quit when you’re tired, quit when you’re FINISHED.
In 2015, the Wall Street Journal published an article on Why Children Need Chores, showing the academic, emotional, and professional benefits of having house responsibilities at an early age.
In 2002, Dr. Rossmann (professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota) analyzed data from a longitudinal study that followed 84 children across four periods in their lives—in preschool, around ages 10 and 15, and in their mid-20s. She found that young adults who began chores at ages 3 and 4 were more likely to have good relationships with family and friends, to achieve academic and early career success and to be self-sufficient, as compared with those who didn’t have chores or who started them as teens.
In the same article, Dr. Weissbourd of the Harvard Graduate School of Education also found that chores also teach children to be empathetic and responsive to others needs. He found that the readjustment of a child’s priorities to be kind and helpful at home was directly connected to strong relationships that fostered high achievement (more specifically, completing tasks).
I see this in my own home. When my kids know what is expected of them and they practice completing those tasks, the natural direction of their actions allow them to see problems (a dirty sock on the floor, a messy table, grocery bags in the car), and step in to help solve it. Why? Because they’ve done it before and trust in their own instincts to do it again and receive a positive outcome – i.e., positive affirmation from me.
Here is one of my favorite charts from ThirtyHandmadeDays.com for a good start to age-appropriate life skills and values:
Allow for Failure
Kids have to experience failure in order to grow. Realizing that failure is a natural and necessary step toward success should push them to test their own limits. Parents, we have to let them fail if they are going to succeed, and in order for that to happen, they need lots of opportunity to practice. They need the chance to accomplish a set of tasks on their own, and they may even build on it themselves or find other ways to produce the same result.
Don’t be afraid to share with your kids areas where you have failed and what you learned from it. Chances are they will respect your transparency and believe that if you came out alright, they can, too. After all, they look up to you! Teach them that failure builds tenacity; perseverance, determination, persistence, grit, courage, and steadfastness, and maybe even resourceful inventiveness!
What about when they choose to misuse their time? This is why the timer is so important. Wasting time = loss of privilege (i.e., free time before dinner). The longer you take on one task, the less time you have later. It’s not so much a punishment as it is allowing for natural consequences. It also builds and strengthens their concept of time management. If I allow for makeups and stretch the limit, they won’t know where the lines are, and time becomes less of a driving force.
The task list does not have to rule your home, because there is a balance. I am setting a stage here for developing a healthy sense of self-sufficiency by establishing a system. Of course there will be free time, of course the family can take a break to go see a movie, be with friends, or respond to emergencies. The goal here is to preserve the mindset of productivity. In our home, we allow more time for freebies on the weekends, but not on school nights. Often there is less time to waste especially if both parents are working, then there tends to be even less wiggle room before it’s time for dinner and bed.
I want my children to be self-sufficient, but not at the expense of my loving relationship with them. I am here to tell you that one does not have to be sacrificed for the other. The rule of thumb I have to remember is to give twice as much love as correction. This applies as I am teaching them to do new things, reminding them to stay on task (although your timer should lift some of that burden as they gauge their productivity within the boundaries of an alarm and not your voice).
My job is to be their cheerleader. Saying things like, “Wow! I knew you could do it!” or “You cleaned all that in just ten minutes? You’re awesome!” Whatever you can think of that communicates I believe in you will go such a long way in building their self-confidence. Another thing I try to remember is to praise them after the fact, like when we’re in the car I’ll mention how great it feels to have a clean bathroom or that when we come home we won’t have to do laundry because it’s already done! Or I’ll tell my husband in front of the kids how well they did with the mopping. Their little ears and eyebrows perk up, my sons chest sticks out a little bit, and a satisfied smirk comes over their faces. That moment is enough for me.