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How not to spoil kids: teach responsibility


A single mother who works full time says that when she gets home from work and asks her 16- and 14-year-old daughters for help with dinner, they respond, "That’s your job."

FamilyCookingFamilyCookingaPhoto by Jimmy Dean on Unsplash.

A 15-year-old boy, asked to mow the lawn, said, "Why should I mow the lawn? It's not my lawn."

Attitudes like these caused two-thirds of American parents to tell a Time/CNN poll they felt they had spoiled their children.

What are American parents doing wrong?

Cultural differences

Clues come from a Harvard study decades before. In Children of Six Cultures (1975), anthropologists Beatrice and John Whiting reported their investigation of the origins of altruism (helping others without expecting a reward).

They found a clear pattern: the more children had responsibilities that contributed to the maintenance of the families—such as taking care of younger children, caring for animals, helping to grow and harvest food, assisting with meals, and the like—the more likely they were to act in altruistic ways, not just with family members, but with people outside the family as well.

In comparing the six cultures, the Harvard study found that children in the United States:

• had the least responsibility for contributing to family life.
• were the least altruistic in their behaviour toward family members and people outside the family.

A subsequent study in the journal Developmental Psychology found that children who had chores—jobs they were expected to do as contributing family members—developed a greater concern for other people.

The takeaways for us as parents? If parents are doing all the giving and kids all the taking in family life, should we be surprised when they become self-centred and unhelpful? If we want our children to become responsible rather than spoiled, they should have meaningful responsibilities in family life. Let's look at eight ways to make that happen.

1. Start responsibility training early—and explain why you expect kids to help.

A young mother tells how she has done that:

"Ever since my children have been able to walk, I've made them pick up their toys. When we found we were expecting another baby, I explained that I would be very busy with the baby and would need their help.

"My 3-year-old brings the wash down every day and gets diapers, etc. when I need them. He feels good about helping and being part of the family. He also understands that by helping me do things around the house, he gives me more time to do things with him."

2. Consider adding chores as kids get older.

A Chicago mother says, "When I was a kid, my mother and I did all the housework. My father and my three brothers never lifted a finger—they said that was 'women's work.' I resolved it would be different if I ever had sons."

She had three. Her approach to sharing household duties shows that children can do family jobs at an early age and more as they get older:

"Our boys are now 2, 4, and 6. At this point, the system in our house is that you do one chore for each year of your age. Our 2-year-old pushes the button to start the dishwasher and puts the pillows in place when we make the beds. When he's 3, he'll help to set the table.

"Our 4-year-old sets the table, dust-busts the front hall, and cleans the downstairs sink and tub. Our 6-year-old vacuums the stairs, makes his bed, washes the upstairs sink and tub, scrapes the dishes, loads the dishwasher, and pours the milk at dinner."

"I tell them how much I appreciate their help," this mother says. "They're very proud of what they do."

3. Don't pay kids for doing chores.

From a character development perspective, paying kids for helping in the home is counterproductive because it robs them of the opportunity to feel good about being responsible, contributing members of their family. Chores should be a chance to grow in character—becoming a helpful person because helping others is a responsible and kind thing to do.

Starting in the elementary grades, a small allowance can be given independently—not as payment for chores but as one of the benefits, like food and shelter, of being part of a family. A modest allowance is also an opportunity to begin to teach kids lessons about handling money and the virtue of generosity. Consider encouraging them to save a third of their allowance, use another third for spending money, and donate a third to a charity of their choice.

4. Give kids voice in the chores plan.

Kids are more likely to get on board with your family chores plan if they have a say in it. Irene Freundorfer, a Canadian family educator, illustrates how this works in their family:

"In our house, the kitchen chore list rotates daily because the kids say they like that system the best. However, they voted that the house chores list should rotate monthly."

(For age-appropriate chores, see "Home Care" on her website.)

5. Enforce the expectation that in a family, everybody shares the work.

Be clear with your kids that doing their share of family work is not an option; it's an expectation. Just as everyone benefits from being a member of a family, everyone has responsibilities.

A mother explains how they hold kids accountable to this expectation:

"Saturdays is our main day for house chores. We all know that 1-2 hours are needed to accomplish everything. Chores must be done before any fun stuff. The kids know we will be consistent in enforcing this rule."

6. Besides assigned chores, encourage small, everyday acts of helping.

With our patient prompting, kids can get lots of practice doing small, everyday acts of helping whenever an opportunity presents itself. This will give us many chances to thank them for being helpful and for them to think of themselves as being helpful people.

When helping is an everyday expectation, kids are more likely to experience assigned chores as just another instance of "the way we do things as a family." To establish being helpful as the family way, we can ask kids to do things such as:

• turn lights on or off
• hold a door
• play with or read to a younger brother or sister
• bring in and/or help put away groceries
• water plants
• help with gardening or weeding
• get something from another room that someone needs
• help search for something a family member can't find
• help clear the table even if you've already cleared your things
• help load or empty the dishwasher
• help pick up a room, even if it's mostly not your stuff
• help someone make a bed
• pick up and dispose of litter
• bring things to a family member who's not feeling well
* comfort a family member who's sad or hurt.

7. Teach that everyone shares responsibility for creating a happy home.

In too many families, constant bickering and fighting make for a stress-filled, unhappy home. Being a responsible family member means trying to keep the peace by trying to get along.

That means everyone treating all family members the way they'd like to be treated—with respect, fairness, and kindness—and apologising when you don't treat them that way.

It also means trying to find a fair solution when conflicts occur, as they do in all families.

8. Extend responsibility beyond the family.

To help kids become contributing community members, we can provide formative experiences of helping others outside the home. One mother describes her early training in this kind of responsibility:

"I can remember coming home from school when I was just a little girl and my mother saying, 'Susan, Mrs Flannigan'—an old lady who lived down the street—'has been alone all day, and I'm sure she would enjoy visiting with you for a while.'

"I remember asking sometimes why I had to do this and other kids didn't. She told me that what other kids did didn't matter—that I should do all that I was capable of doing."

Ask your child's school what community service opportunities they are providing. Consider doing community service with your child. It will set a good example and likely be something they'll long remember.

If you haven't yet integrated chores and other ways of helping into your family life, don't let that be an obstacle. It's never too late to start. Explain to your kids that loving parents keep thinking about how to make things better in family life. Having everybody pitch in and help with the family work is a very good way to do that.

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ThomasLickonaThomas Lickona. "How not to spoil kids: teach responsibility." Mercatornet (March 15, 2024).

Reprinted with permission from the author.

The Author

lickona1lickonakk1Thomas Lickona, Ph.D., is a psychologist and educator who has been called "the father of modern character education." A professor of education emeritus at State University of New York, Cortland, he is the founding director of the Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility) and is the author of How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain,  Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues and Educating for Character. He has also written Raising Good Children and co-authored Sex, Love and You. Tom Lickona is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Visit his web site here

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