Giving Children a Lifetime Gift: Responsibility

by Nancy Monson

How do we teach children to be responsible: to pick up after themselves, to care for their belongings, to be organized, neat, to do their chores, even to help out when they see something that needs to be done? Let's back up first and ask ourselves why children need to learn responsibility, and what our own relationship to this issue is.

Think back. What were our homes like growing up? How did our parents teach us, or not teach us how to be responsible? Did we have too much responsibility or not enough? What was our house like; messy? cluttered? clean? organized? Did we like to bring friends home? Did we tune things out or feel embarrassed or were we relaxed and at ease in our homes? I grew up in a wealthy Chicago suburb. My mother kept an immaculate house, did all the cooking, cleaning, laundry and child care. I remember having a few chores, but I put up such a fit about doing them that my mother gave up making me. When I left home there were many years of embarrassment over my lack of basic skills. There seemed to be an endless list of living skills which when possessed, made life run much smoother. When I became a teacher I felt determined to try and help children develop those skills at a young age in a way that was simple, fun and part of every day life.

In order to ask why children need to learn responsibility, we have to ask what the process of learning responsibility develops in children. Learning to keep things neat, clean and organized helps children learn to focus on the QUALITY of their environment. The old saying, "Cleanliness is next to Godliness" still has the ring of truth to it. A room that is picked up and has the feel of cleanliness to it helps us relax and think more clearly. We feel more at peace. Even as adults, we lose touch with this. The best way to know this truth for ourselves is to spend time in rooms that are cluttered and rooms that are neat, and feel the difference between the two. Children, when sensitized to this difference early on, are more likely to choose to keep their rooms and eventually their own homes in a manner that feels good to them internally. To be able to deal with the complexities and distractions of life, a clear mind is one of our greatest assets.

Caring for things, plants and animals develops SENSITIVITY. By teaching our children to take care with the chores they have to do, we are asking them to involve their feelings as they work, not just perform their duties mechanically. It is precisely this sensitivity which is needed to care for the planet. Our homes are a microcosm of the planet we live on. The work of helping the planet begins at home with caring for ourselves, those around us and our homes. The development of sensitivity to all that is around us is the key component which motivates us to help solve the problems facing the world today.

One of the things I'm sure we all want for our children is for them to learn SELF-DISCIPLINE. We want them to be able to achieve their goals, feel confident and trust themselves, and to be able to stand on their own two feet. Helping children to acquire basic living skills creates a foundation in them for solidity. They know how to take care of themselves no matter where they are. When it isn't such a tiresome chore just to take care of themselves, they have more to offer others. From getting to know many children as a teacher, I can tell by how a child picks up after themselves in the classroom, is thoughtful with theirs and others possessions, keeps a desk organized and even participates in group projects, how this issue of responsibility is proceeding at home. A child who forgets homework, loses or misplaces things or has a sloppy appearance, generally needs more help and attention in the responsibility department.

  • Responsibility is one of the moral characteristics we help our children to develop. It affects them their whole lives. So what are some of the ways we can give this gift to our children?
  • I want to emphasize that we have to take the time to show children how to do things. They don't know unless they are taught. This takes patience and time, but being very involved in this process up front is the main thing that sets the stage for its unfoldment. We may have to sacrifice our time and not get things done as efficiently as we like for awhile, but we are part of an age old tradition of training our children for an emotionally healthy life.
  • Start young. Start small. Whatever children can do for themselves they actually do feel good about. They can rinse out their own cups, help to set the table, clean up after playing (setting this habit in place at an early age will save years of battles), throw away their Kleenex after you blow their nose.
  • Everything has a home. Children can't put things away if they don't have a home. In the day care center where I work, every toy has a home. The kids know where to find things and where to put them away. I've seen a 3 year old find something left lying on the floor and pick it up and put it away (without being asked). They feel better when they have the security of knowing where things are. Many of us know the daily frustration of not being able to find something.
  • When teaching children how to do house chores such as cleaning, do it with them until they really learn how to do it right. Pick a time each week that is the same, and everybody clean! Put on some music (rock 'n roll works great) and have some fun. This is a great way to get into (sometimes trick ourselves into) the joy of cleaning. Doesn't it feel good when the house sparkles, or a room is all picked up, dusted, vacuumed and organized? One time I spent a whole afternoon cleaning the bedroom of a 7 year old boy (with him). It was quite a task, but we removed 3 garbage bags of things he didn't want anymore, he reorganized his room, cleaned and decorated. At the end he had a beam of satisfaction. If this is where you need to start, throw yourself into it!
  • Daily habits. Making the bed can start very young and become a lifetime habit. It always feels better to come back to a clean room at the end of the day. Habits to work on can include: putting things away after use, putting tops on the toothpaste, hanging up towels, putting away clothes before bed, even putting clothes out to wear the following day next to school work and back packs. These habits carry into adult life. The whole family can work on positive habits together and have star charts and celebrations. If you're dealing with a difficult habit, give rewards all along the way to the child as incentives to keep at it. I don't recommend too much of this, but it can be very helpful. Our real goal is to help children develop an internal sense of well being from being responsible, which is not dependent on external praise or reward. But we all need encouragement and kind words or comments to brighten up our days.
  • What about when things aren't done right? Assess the situation. Much of the time the child needs to go back and do it right. The key here is in setting a standard. When people live in a neat and clean house they probably have a high standard of cleanliness they picked up somewhere along the way. We give that to our children. For many people, this decision to have a clean house can be overwhelming. Ask friends who you are comfortable with and trust to help you, give you ideas, be a "check-in" person. There are even businesses that come in and help people not just clean, but organize their homes. Sometimes however, with children, they might need some help. A little joyful help can turn the trick.
  • Yes, kids can keep their rooms neat (not just once in awhile or when company is coming). They just need a way to be organized and good daily habits. A twice a year clean out can help get rid of excess accumulation, but the real work comes in the daily little pick ups and the once a week cleaning. Don't give up on this one!
  • What about if you have a maid or cleaning service? It is still crucial for children to have their own chores. Sit down and talk to them about it. Let them know what you take responsibility for. It's best for children to take care of their own things first and then do something for the whole house. This ability to give to the whole is a large component of socialization.
  • Teach kids how to do dishes, wipe counters, clean windows, rake leaves, take care of their bikes, the pets, plants. Have family discussions of what every one is responsible to take care of. Most children don't realize how much their parents actually do. Don't complain about it, rather, have a discussion. Let the kids give you feedback on how good of a job you do!
  • Give them chores they can "master." That way they can also start to learn efficiency.
  • One last hint: Find the balance. We want comfortable homes that children can play in. A spotless, perfect home is no fun to be a kid in!

WE ARE THE EXAMPLES. Our relationship to responsibility is probably the biggest influence on children. If we feel burdened by all the mundane tasks of our lives, that's what our children will imitate. On the other hand, if we can learn to enjoy the work we have to do, that's what we will teach those around us. There are many spiritual stories of the cook or the house cleaner who takes over the monastery after the master passes on, because they had purified themselves through the simple. Perhaps through helping our children to develop a positive attitude towards responsibility, those of us who need to readjust our own relationship to it will find the way. It's amazing how much brighter life can look when we feel joyful with the work we have to do. We set the stage for this relationship to work with the early training we give to our children. This then is one of our greatest responsibilities; to pass on to our children the gift of responsibility.


© Nancy Monson, 2005. All rights reserved.

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