Sunday found my house filled with small children and adults eating and enjoying lively discussion, play and general mischief. As the day wore on, small tasks were doled out for cleanup.
All the big kids had a task to complete, but the youngest child, about four years old, was left watching. “Hey,” one father noticed, “This little guy needs something to do.”
After sweeping the kitchen, my friend handed the very young man the dust pan and gave him directions on how to empty it into the garbage. He later helped vacuum.
Despite the great example I observed on Sunday, empowering children through a sense of industriousness and productivity seems to be a dying art. The duties of growing up have shifted in recent decades from early 20th century expectations that may have included earning a wage, planting a crop, caring for younger children or keeping an entire house.
By today’s ideas of appropriateness, these mandates for youth seem extreme, but far too often we find ourselves swinging to the opposite end of the spectrum — we lavish children with expensive gifts, offer a regular allowance (whether chores are completed or not), contribute to them financially well into adulthood, and provide housing support to our offspring when they return after a few years away.
Sometimes these choices are necessary, but when they are the lifestyle more than the occasional practice, they may not always foster the “go get ‘em” attitude many parents hope to see emerge in their children.
While living in West Africa, I once watched a nine-year old cook an entire meal, which included creating a fire, cleaning and gutting a fish, and steaming rice over a boiling pot of vegetable sauce all while listening carefully to her mother call out directions to her from across the yard. By the time she left home to marry, I imagine she felt rather confident about caring for her own family.
Though most parents would say they believe in empowering their children emotionally, they may not recognize that emotional platforms for success are often built on the practical ways a child can contribute to family culture early on. When a child knows that something has been entrusted to them, they feel a certain sense of pride that they have been successful in their tasks.
Teaching young children that the work they do has value and helps out a parent or sibling builds their self-esteem and self-confidence, making them eager to take on even bigger tasks.
Habits are formed through time and repetition, and teenagers would balk less at the idea of daily chores if they’d been doing them since they were three years old.
Another way to create a spirit of productivity in children is to make volunteering a part of your family life. Take interest in a person in the neighborhood who may need extra help cleaning, taking out trash, or maintaining their yard and have a child look after them from time to time. Encourage your children to help friends with their chores, as this is sometimes more appealing than working at home. For creative consequences for broken rules, offer your child the choice of a lost privilege or an act of service for others.
Ask older children to contribute to pricey items at the store through work around the house or performed outside the home for money, even if it’s very minimal. This builds their sense of autonomy as they transition into adulthood.
Of course, patience, encouragement and praise are also key factors in helping motivate a desire to work, so try to notice all progress, great and small.
Tabi Upton, MA-lpc, is a therapist at Richmont/CBI Counseling Center and founder of www.chattanoogacounselor.com, an online resource site. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.