I watched from my window as a group of neighborhood children tried to retrieve a ball that had fallen into a drain. One boy reached in to get it, and pulled out a handful of leaves and dirt instead. That handful was followed by a second and a third of the same. Soon he and his friends had forgotten all about their ball game and were enthusiastically cleaning out the drain. They worked tirelessly for nearly four hours, as a couple of their parents stood by to guide them.
As I watched that group of five- to twelve-year-olds work happily together, I thought about my oldest son, now in his teens, and how much responsibility I had given him when he was a child. By contrast, my six- and eight-year-old sons weren’t nearly as responsible. That’s when it dawned on me that I wasn’t expecting enough of my younger boys. The difference was in me. Like most kids their age, my younger two were sometimes rascals, but they also had a desire to help out and take responsibility. I needed to learn to channel their energy in the right direction and in a way that would inspire them rather than push them.
I decided to start working with them each weekend. We tackled such needed projects as gardening, sweeping the driveway, raking leaves, cleaning the pantry, and making jam. Most of these jobs required physical exertion that burned up their excess energy—and they loved it!
I needed and appreciated the help and it kept my boys occupied and out of trouble, but best of all we found that working together can be a fun and unifying experience. Before long they would actually ask, “Can we do one of those fun projects, so it’s not a boring weekend?”
Some of the things I learned to keep in mind are:
- Be realistic when choosing jobs and setting goals. Don’t get into such a big project that it will leave a mess or create other problems if you run out of steam or time.
- Spending quality time together is more important than getting the job done. If I go into the job with my primary goals being to give my boys attention and to strengthen the bonds between us rather than getting a lot done, we actually get more done and it doesn’t become a chore.
- Pour on the praise and appreciation. I make a point to be both lavish and specific when I thank my boys for their help and the difference their hard work will make for our whole family.
- Reward jobs well done. Knowing that there will be a little treat at the end helps the job go faster, even if the reward is no more than a special snack that the kids fix themselves.
My long-term goal, of course, was to teach the boys to take initiative and be responsible when I wasn’t there to remind them or work with them. As they gradually became more responsible, things that I had first done for them and then with them—like washing dishes, for example—they were able to do on their own.
I could expect more of them, but they still needed commendation from me. There’s a subtle but important difference between doing things out of a sense of responsibility and doing them out of duty alone. I soon learned that if I failed to keep my boys motivated by praising them for being responsible and working hard, tasks that had once been fun and rewarding challenges became drudgery. I needed to be careful not to take their help for granted.
Another tricky situation was what to do when the boys couldn’t fulfill one of their new responsibilities. I didn’t want to be hardline, but also didn’t want to be so lenient that they stopped taking their responsibilities seriously. It was actually my youngest son who helped me solve this dilemma. He had a good reason for not being able to help with dinner dishes one night, so he offered to do one of my small jobs the next day if I’d do his dishes. His sweet presentation put all of our household chores into the realm of a team effort. It wasn’t a matter of bartering jobs in a self-serving sort of way, but rather a matter of shifting responsibilities. Of course I was happy to say yes, and I heaped on the thanks the next day when he fulfilled his offer without being reminded.
From what I learned by watching those neighborhood children clean out that drain and from working with my own children since, I think I can safely say that most children desire responsibility. They are just waiting to be helpful; they’re waiting on us parents to provide the spark that makes it fun and rewarding for them. If they learn to enjoy and take pride in work when they’re little, they will carry that attitude into the responsibilities that come with adulthood. That’s something that contributes to our overall happiness, I think, and something we all want for our children.
Taken from Activated magazine. Used with permission.