Fostering Responsibility in Children: Chores or Contributions? (page 2)
In many of my workshops and in my clinical practice I have been asked questions about the most effective ways to teach children to be responsible. Frequently, these questions are posed by parents and teachers who are frustrated by children who do not follow through on what is expected. A sample of such questions includes:
"How can I get my son to do his chores? He says I'm always nagging him."
"How can I get my daughter to make her bed?"
"How can I get my daughter to do her homework?"
"How can I get my son to remember to clean his room?"
"How can I motivate my students to complete their assignments?"
In this article I will describe one approach for teaching children to be responsible, an approach that has the added benefit of fostering an attitude of caring and compassion in our children. The ideas in this article began to take shape from research I did a number of years ago when I asked adults to describe one of their fondest memories of school, a memory in which a teacher said or did something that enhanced their self-esteem. I was somewhat surprised at first by the theme that appeared most often since it was not one that I expected. Before reading further, pause for a moment. What do you think was the most common positive memory that I received in my survey? The answer was when a student was asked to contribute in some manner to the school environment. The following are several representative responses:
"As a first grade student I had the responsibility of raising and lowering the coat closet doors because I was one of the taller boys in the class. This made me feel so good because I was so self-conscious about my height."
"In a one-room school, the teacher had me sit and do spelling with the second graders, once I'd shown some ability in this subject."
"My English teacher asked me to tutor a senior who was about to ‘not graduate’ because she was failing English grammar. I was in 10th grade."
"In the third grade I was chosen to help get the milk and straws."
"In the 11th grade my art teacher asked me to paint a mural in the school. I still correspond with her."
As I read these and hundreds of similar responses, I reflected upon why the theme of being asked to help others was so prominent. What I came to realize was that when a child is asked by an adult to help out, it conveys a sense of trust, it serves to nurture responsibility and caring, and it enhances motivation and self-esteem. In my work with youth I also found that engaging them in what I term "contributory activities," that is, activities in which they contribute to the well-being of others or their community, lessens anger and even violence. In this article I will focus on what we can do in the home environment to promote responsibility and caring through these contributory activities.
I believe that there is almost an inborn wish in children to assist others and to make a positive difference in their world. I remember that when my sons were only three or four years old and I would go outside to mow the lawn, they would come running out wanting to help push the lawnmower. During the New England autumn, they were eager to use their rakes to help me gather the leaves and pine needles that fell from the many trees that surrounded our house. I recall as a young child the joy of spending several hours in my father’s small store in Brooklyn assisting in any manner that I could.
Similarly, I have read of a so-called "helper’s high" in adults, a feeling of well-being that is associated with assisting others. Several years ago when I presented a talk at the Million Dollar Round Table, a conference attended by many of the most successful insurance agents in the world, a videotape was shown of a number of agents building a home under the auspices of Habitat for Humanity. The look of joy and satisfaction on the faces of these insurance agents as they worked with the members of the family who would live in this home was very evident. Their joy and contentment was even more apparent at the actual conference when members of the family appeared onstage. As I viewed this scene I could not help but think that for the agents who had volunteered their time to build the house, this accomplishment was equal or greater in satisfaction than the many insurance policies they had sold.
Permission to reprint granted by Dr. Robert Brooks. All rights reserved.
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