Many parents often ask me how they can help their child at home. Our more traditional educational backgrounds likely bring forth visions of homework at the kitchen table. When I offer suggestions to read to your child every night, to play with them, to take a nature walk, or to throw a ball in the back yard, the looks vary from disappointed to relieved. Whatever your reaction, you may be interested in this homework assignment, especially as you reflect on your family’s evening or morning routines.
Sometime we can find ourselves doing FOR our children when we could do WITH our children. Maybe the task is one they can do completely on their own. And yet our mornings or evenings might be stressful and challenging. While it is normal to want to do things for our children, doing so can rob our children of valuable practice of important life skills that impact their ability and willingness to contribute. Your homework assignment is this: Take the freedom (and responsibility) to step back and allow your children to become capable, independent people.
Did you know that ALL of our students (yes the 18 month olds and the 11 year olds) wash dishes, put their things away in their cubbies, clear the table, wipe down tables, fold laundry, and help younger children do things? Our students ages 5 and older all have daily responsibilities in the classroom, and most of them are eager to participate. Of course they need a little guidance and a little check here and there, but they get the job done. And as I watch these activities in action, I am encouraged by the sense of pride and accomplishment I see on their faces when they have finished. These minor tasks are laying the foundation for their future work ethic and willingness to contribute to a larger group.
So how do you begin? I recommend starting with morning and evening routines that contribute to more peace and less tension during these key times of day. When I talk about them in our house, I use the word “responsibilities” rather than “chores,” probably because the word “chore” for me feels like drudgery. The key is to talk about these activities in a positive way that indicates the work is valued and important for everyone in your family. You can find a list of age-appropriate activities here.
- Set expectations. For toddlers and three year olds, often an “after dinner, you get to come and help Mommy/Daddy with_____” is all you need. For older children, discussing starting routines and what will be on the list at the dinner table is a good way to start. Offer the positives such as making the morning/evening more peaceful, getting more time together, etc. Let them know when they will start.
- Start with a short list of activities. Younger children can typically do two or three activities. Older children could manage more after they get used to a routine. Morning activities might include getting dressed, brushing teeth, and putting the lunch box and water bottle in the car. Evening activities might be to pick out clothes for school, brush teeth, choose a book to read before bed. For those with pets, children LOVE to feed the animals. Make that one theirs!
- Post a visual cue for what they need to do, and list activities in order. For young ones, use pictures with limited words on a board or piece of paper. Second graders and up can work from a posted list. Maybe post one near the bedroom/bathroom and one in the kitchen or on the door leading to the car.
- Show them how to do each thing on the list (in context – not when you set expectations). The younger the child, the more they may want or need you to be with them. Brush teeth together. Maybe make the bed while your very young child puts on their clothes (without your help for primary students). Have older children check in with you after they have completed some or all of the list. The check in is a way to hold them accountable.
- Let them perform at their own level. Know that they will not do things as an adult would and having it perfect is not the point. Give your child the opportunity to practice and they will not only become more independent, but will also improve how they do over time. They will also start to be aware of where they can improve and ask for your help to show them what they are seeking to get better at.
- Reflect and discuss the benefits as a family. Talking in the car on the way to school about how helpful it is for your children to participate in the morning routine validates your child’s hard work and provides a positive feedback look. Being excited that there is time to read two books together instead of one because everyone is pitching in shows them the benefit of their hard work.
- Grow or change the list a bit. As your children manage their responsibilities with ease, they become daily habits and can do a little more.
While all of this takes a bit of work to get started, including quite a bit of reminding over the first week or two, imagine the time it saves you and the skills it teaches your child once the ball is rolling. If you stay calm and positive through a possibly rough beginning, you will ask yourself why you didn’t do this sooner. Sympathize with your child that getting out the door in the morning can be tough but assure them (and yourself) it will get easier. Children rise to expectations when the bar is reasonable, they have support in meeting them, they can mess up while learning without negative consequences, and they feel validated in their work. Celebrate the successes regularly through love instead of rewards.
All children are capable at a very young age of doing things for themselves and others. What is more, they WANT to help from a very young age (from toddler through four or five years old) without tangible rewards or the threat of consequences. Their reward comes from the sense of accomplishment and your feedback that they are an important part of your family community. As they get older, they may be less eager, but they are more capable and feel rewarded in the same way. Having expectations that our children contribute to the family as a normal part of their day to day activities develops our child’s skills, helps him or her feel valued within a social group, and naturally leads to children who look for ways to help both at home and outside the home. Mayan parents in Mexico and Guatemala (among other cultures) expect children to contribute and doing so has long-term benefits that you can read about here. I have a friend who explains it to her children as “doing their part” – being part of a community means we all share in the work and the benefits such as easier work and free time together that collaboration brings. I can’t wait to check in with our students in a few weeks to see how they have been helping out and, making your world a better place.