Training Children in Responsibility

by Joy Marie Dunlap
Character training is, in some senses, the more important focus of a good home school. Our children need adequate knowledge, but even more, they need good character to prepare them for adult life. Responsibility is one of the most important elements of good character.

Laying the Foundation
       Responsibility begins with a mentality, or set of presuppositions, which you pass on to your child unconsciously.
       If your world view is that children should only play and please themselves throughout their childhood, they are sure to live down to that expectation and complain about their chores.
       If your world view is that children can not help but be selfish and unhelpful, that expectation becomes clear to the child, whether or not you say it right out.
       The surest way to raise selfish, rude, contentious, unhelpful children is to have low expectations.
If, on the other hand, your world view is that everyone should contribute to the well-being of all, no matter their ages and ability levels, your actions, attitudes, and expectations will reflect that, and your young child will begin to learn the value of responsibility.

Start Young
       While it is never too late until your children leave home, it is a good idea to start young while your children are preschoolers. When our oldest was a toddler and we were expecting a new baby, I told him that we would have fun taking care of the baby together. He became excited about the idea of being a partner with me in this special project, and when the baby arrived, he adjusted well.
       Our son helped me care for his younger brother by bringing me clean diapers, putting the baby's dirty clothes in the hamper, and picking up toys that Baby dropped. I taught him by example, inclusion, and positive communication that it is a privilege to work together and serve.

Make Work Seem Fun
       Toddlers and preschoolers believe whatever you say, so this is a good time to teach them that work can be fun. I made a game of putting away toys and groceries. I played with our toddlers and they worked with me. We did everything together. Now, as teens, they are hard-working and extremely helpful around the house and yard.
       Be careful what you say around your children, even at an early age. If they hear, "Mommy would like to have fun with you, but she has to work right now," in a tone that implies that you dislike the work but love the play, you are communicating the message that work is an undesirable activity. Do not communicate that. Instead, tell the child, "You can have fun with me while I sweep the floor. You could hold the dustpan for me. Wouldn't that be fun?"
       Do not let work sound like a negative in front of your children if you can possibly help it. If you have difficulty feeling enthusiasm for work, pray for the enthusiasm and positive feeling you need to pass on to your children.
       Work is a privilege. Just imagine that you are quadriplegic or imprisoned in a cell for your faith or have a hurt back and can't work. Imagine your frustration at not being able to do all that you are now able to do. (As a disabled person, this is not just a matter of imagination for me. I appreciate more what I can do because of what I have learned from what I cannot do.)
       If you imagine these scenarios, both very real for some people in the world today, you will begin to understand what a privilege it is to have a healthy body which is able to do physical work and do it well. With this renewed mentality, you will be better able to pass on to your children an enthusiasm for physical work and responsibility.

Do Work Together
       I use the word "we" in training our children. I tell them things such as, "We always put our dirty clothes in the hamper, like this, instead of on the floor." Young children like to be included more than anything else, and using the word "we" encourages them in right behavior without lecturing. Instead of saying, "Clean up your room!" to a young child, I always said, "Let's clean up your room together."
       Young children learn best to work and develop responsible habits in company with you. They learn best by imitation in an immediate context. They feel loved when you do things with them and come to associate work and responsibility with your love in this way. This gives them a more positive attitude toward work later on when they have to do their chores without your help.
       Let preschoolers make some choices, but do not let them always have a choice. There are times when a child needs to hear, "This is what you are going to do."
       It is good to word things inclusively and lovingly, but do not make the mistake of training your child in willfulness by failing to make him do what he does not feel like doing. An important part of responsibility is learning to do what needs to be done no matter how you feel. Be careful to build a good foundation in the early years, a foundation of both loving nurture and firmness.

Build a Ramp of Responsibility
       One mistake parents often make is to let their young child only play until he reaches a "responsible" age. Then suddenly there is all this work to do and responsibilities to fulfill, and it is a shock to the system. Help your child gradually take on more work and responsibility. A baby begins with no work or responsibility whatever, and a 19- to 24-year-old finds himself working 40 hours a week to support himself. Your job is to build a ramp of gradually increasing responsibility for your child.
       A young adult who is used to increasing levels of responsibility will have an easier time adjusting to full-time work.
Begin in the preschool years with tasks such as putting clothes in the hamper and picking up the toys, and add tasks the child can do all along the way. A 6-year-old can set the table every day, make his bed, help dry dishes, fill a pet's dish, clear his own dishes after a meal, and fold and put away his own laundry with a little help.
       Gradually add new responsibilities every year until, as an older teen, your child does the laundry and dishes (perhaps taking turns with siblings), mows the lawn, trims the bushes, baby-sits younger siblings periodically, and maybe even works a part-time job or does some volunteering.
       It is unfair to pamper a teen's slothful tendencies, leaving him with little more to do than dishes two nights a week and taking out the trash. When he hits a 40-hour work week (or full-time college plus a part-time job) upon graduation, he will be totally unprepared for the discipline of hard work which is necessary for a productive and successful adult life. Work and responsibility should be built up gradually throughout the childhood and teen years.

Use Positive and Negative Incentives Together
       We are currently using a system of negative and positive incentives to help our children learn self-discipline. I did not want to just pay the children for what they do, lest they come to avoid work unless they get something from it.
       I want our children to understand work to be a moral imperative, to help earn our keep by taking part in cleaning the messes we had a part in creating, whether dishes or laundry or something else. I don't want them to work only when they feel like earning a little more cash, and I don't want them to neglect other personal responsibilities and do only the chores we pay for.
       With these concerns in mind, I worked out a system whereby the children are paid a small amount for each of a couple dozen basic responsibilities, including personal hygiene, cleaning their own rooms, Scripture memorization, school responsibilities, and chores, indoors and out, These are listed in one column on a photocopied page and a debit list in another column.
       The debit side lists responsibility infractions such as a messy room, neglected chores, unfinished school assignments, tools left out in the rain, and getting behind on the laundry (in the case of our teens). Fines are listed, and are enough to be a healthy deterrent for neglectful behavior.
       The children stand to gain if they are responsible and to lose money if they are neglectful. The debit column is a reminder that their chores are responsibilities they ought to do always, not just options in case they happen to be in the mood for more pocket money.
       Another system that can be used is a box in which things that are left lying around the house are confiscated and must be earned back. Things can be earned back with money or extra chores, and the money amounts involved can be large or small, as long as there is not a large discrepancy between the amount the children have the opportunity to earn (including outside the home for teens) and the amount they stand to lose by their careless neglect.
       Alternatively, you could use a point system to keep track of how regularly each child brushed his teeth, made his bed, and did his schoolwork and chores with the reward of a very special schooling item, such as an art set or special book or game, once they earn a preset number of points. Our children earned their own special picture wall calendars last year in this way.
       You may have to change incentive systems from time to time. In my own experience, new systems of incentives work wonderfully, but get old after a while and lose their appeal. Systems that include both positive and negative incentives emphasize responsibility in all areas of life. I also used a system I call "Earn Me" with good success. I tape a coin to an index card and place it on or beside a problem area of the house. I print on the card a statement like, "Earn me by thoroughly dusting this shelf." The child who takes the initiative to do the job and do it right gets the coin. The amount fits the size of the task from penny to silver dollar. (We have never had an "Earn Me" coin disappear without the task being done.)

Create an Environment That Is Conducive To Responsibility
       We set aside special quiet hours during the early part of the day to encourage diligent study habits in our children. No loud or active play is allowed during this time, and no one is to have free time (other than a reasonable break) until his studies are done.
       In the afternoons, we encourage responsibility by doing chores together, sometimes listening to classical music while the chores are done. Sometimes the children like to sing while they do the dishes. Other times their Papa or I tell a story while we work or we listen to the Bible on tape.
       We try to make chore time fun with cheerful attitudes, some tasteful joking, music, or interesting conversation. An atmosphere of cheerfulness and camaraderie helps a child's attitude toward work and responsibility.
       We try to schedule the whole family's work and play at the same times of day to avoid a feeling of resentment which can result from one child working at chores while the rest of the family has fun. If yard work needs to be done, we all do it together and that makes it fun.
       I also apply "The Ten Rule" to keep up on yard work. Whenever the children go outside, they are required to do ten small tasks before they can play. This could be picking ten weeds, picking off ten dead flowers, putting ten large dead leaves into the trash, or picking ten diseased leaves and disposing of them properly. Or the child may do one larger task like raking or watering instead. This teaches them to help take care of the property they enjoy and play in—an important future skill.

Train Children To Go the Second Mile
       In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us to go the second mile. The attitude of a disciple of Christ is "What else can I do to help?" even when quite a bit has been demanded of us already (like carrying the Roman soldier's loads for no pay in Jesus' illustration).
       In our home we ask the children to fill in for one another when one child is sick. We encourage them to help each other with the work and to bear one another's burdens. The older children help the younger children with their schoolwork when I am busy, and the younger children help the older ones with chores.
       We strongly discourage an attitude of "that's not my job." We have taught the children that life's load should be borne by a family together. James has particularly been an encouragement to the children with his very cheerful attitude toward work and serving one another.
Children who are allowed to bicker over fairness miss the point of being Christ's disciple. If the focus is always on who picked more weeds or whether two children dried the same number of dishes, children develop contentious attitudes that are not conducive to family harmony. A teamwork mentality is much better.
       I tell the children, "When the table is cleared and wiped, we can all watch a video or go to the park," or, "If we get the yard work all done today, we can have ice cream tonight." "After we get the spring cleaning done, let's all have a special trip together to celebrate." Group goals with group rewards encourage harmony, teamwork, and responsibility.

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