Helping Kids with Responsibility

One of the things we do as parents is try to instill in our children a sense of responsibility for themselves and their lives.  We want them to do chores, keep up with their homework, and help around the house in hopes that they will grow to be functional adults who can take care of themselves, hold a job, and care for their families.  We’re not asking a lot – after all, kids throughout the history of time have been far more responsible than children in our own culture – and I don’t think we’re asking the wrong thing.  I do, however, think we’re going about it all wrong.

You see, in our North American culture, when you try to get your kids to be responsible, it almost always comes with the reward chart.  You know, they mark down when they’ve done something and once they’ve done it enough, they get a reward.  Most people swear by these charts when they’re using them because when you have it, it totally works!  After all, what kid doesn’t want movie nights, dessert, toys, or game time?  And if they have to do a few chores for it, okay.  We work for our paycheck, right?

Imagine, if you will, that after you started doing your job well enough, your boss came by and told you that you had figured it all out and that they were going to slowly cut your pay down to zero.  How would you react?  Would you keep working there?  I would imagine not.  The same applies to our children.  If they don’t intrinsically value the work that they are doing, once you stop the reward, you stop the effort (and yes, this has been found over and over and over again in the research).  But now imagine you started off in a volunteer program.  Some elements weren't fun, but you saw the overall goal of what you were doing, how it was helping, and could make it through the "bad" spots so that you could see the intrinsic reward for your work?  Would you be okay with no pay?  So why do we keep using reward charts?  It’s a good question and I think it has more to do with our society’s desire to have quick fixes; waiting for results and putting in a lot of work is hard and we need our reward at the end of it. (See how badly this cycle goes?)

What can you do instead?

1)  Start young.  It’s hard watching your 3-year-old take forever to fold a blanket you could do in a matter of seconds or get soap all over the kitchen as they try to wash a dish or put their toys away in the “wrong” spot when cleaning up.  I know because I’m a little bit of a control freak and I struggle each time my daughter helps me out, but I know that she’s at an age where she wants to help and I have to let her so she learns from me and eventually sees the merit in helping on her own.

2)  Let them pick their chore(s).  If your kids feel like they have some control over what they do instead of being forced to do something, they are more likely to do it.  Some people are okay doing laundry or dishes, others cleaning bathrooms, others taking garbage and recycling out.  I don’t imagine many kids will love the actual task itself, but they will pick something they don’t hate doing.

3)  Point out how it helps the family.  Believe it or not, people like to feel useful.  Thanking a child for doing the chore is the type of courtesy we expect for doing what we do so we should offer it to them as well.  Also take the time to point out what things would look like if people in the family didn’t help out and do what was necessary.  Sometimes just feeling appreciated is enough to make the tasks we don’t like doable (a fact I’m pretty sure 99% of parents can relate to).

4)  If your child struggles with remembering to do their chores, use a tracking chart or agenda for them to write things down in.  Just like the reward chart it makes what needs to be done visual which is beneficial for so many kids, but it also avoids the pitfall of the carrot at the end of the stick.  I know there are people with amazing memories who can remember all they are supposed to do.  I am not one of them, and as such I have empathy for the child who also struggles to remember all that needs to be done.  Just having a checklist somewhere (the fridge, up on the wall) is enough for many kids to make sure they get done all they need to get done.

5)  For older kids, make sure they have “their” time when done with their responsibilities.  For younger kids, most of the time is “their” time (hopefully – they need to play lots – if not, this holds for them as well), but with older kids we tend to have so much for them to do that they can miss out.  However, if you have the list of their responsibilities, then once they are finished, it has to be “their” time.  This does not mean they get free reign of tv or video games or other things you may have a limit on, but within those limits, what they choose to do is up to them.  Just like a workday, once we finish, it’s “our” time.  And just like at home, once we’ve done what needs doing, we can sit back and have some “our” time too.  Our kids deserve the same.

Just remember: You’re in this for the long haul, not the quick rewards.  If you want children that are truly capable, you need to take the time to make sure they both learn to be responsible and learn the inherent or intrinsic value in what they are doing.  You won’t always be there to look over their shoulder and tell them what to do, so take the time you have to make it a lesson they don’t have to learn later.

By Tracy Cassels

April 28, 2014