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How Kids Learn From Our Words and Actions

Teaching Our Kids Principles and values through our words and actions

Curt, a bright 16-year-old, was bursting with excitement over his newly earned driver's license. His mother, seeing an opportunity for him to exercise his helpful tendencies, as well as his newfound freedom, asked him to go to the grocery store to get hamburger for dinner. The look on his face was jubilant! His mom had never trusted him with such a task.

He grabbed the car keys and made a mad dash for the garage. She went to the kitchen to begin dinner preparations. By the time she'd finished and set the table, she began to worry. Time passed -- and still more. Where was Curt?

Just as she was considering a trip of her own to find him, Curt came trudging through the door -- without hamburger. "Where's the meat?" she asked.

He shrugged his shoulders. "They don't sell hamburger at our grocery store, Mom."

"Of course they do, Curt!" she exclaimed. But he sighed loudly and persisted, frustrated that his mother didn't get it.

"I went down every aisle twice, Mom, and they do not sell hamburger!"

Exasperated, she asked Curt to get back in the car, and she climbed in beside him. On the way to the store, she muttered, "It's just like always around here. If I want something done right, I have to do it myself." Once at the store, she marched over to the meat cooler, Curt dragging behind. She pointed dramatically and announced triumphantly, "There!"

She was stunned when her son, looking very puzzled -- a beacon in a sea of cellophane-packed ground meat -- said, in the sincerest of voices, "I don't see any hamburgers"

It took seconds for her to make the connection. Her son -- her driver's-license-toting, beard-growing, college-bound son -- had never been asked to help with grocery shopping! Nor had he ever prepared a meal! The truth was that he couldn't recognize raw hamburger if she threw it at his head! That head was currently shaking back and forth in amazement. "Wow," he said, "I've never seen it like that before."

When the fog cleared, other thoughts crept into her head: he'd never done a load of laundry! He'd never balanced a checkbook! He'd never changed a flat tire! He'd never sewn on a button, or mended a tear in his pants! He'd never even packed his own lunch! Since she'd always done all these things for him, he'd never had the opportunity to do them for himself -- and now her son, who was rapidly approaching full adulthood, had no idea how to perform any of these common rituals. She, with all the best intentions mixed with a bit of all-too-human impatience, had unknowingly failed to prepare her son for his foray into the real world. She was a good mother -- too good.

The Hidden Message

"Don't you worry about any of these tasks. I'll do them for you. I'll always be there to do them for you."

Think About It

Sometimes, raising responsible kids isn't so much about what we do, but about what we don't. By being "too good" of a parent we rob our children of opportunities that help them develop tools for success in adult life -- tools that can't be bought or given, but must be forged by experience. Every task we complete for our children is a task not done by our children.

I can imagine you now shaking your head at this page in protest, asking a valid question: "But my job is to take care of my children! Aren't these tasks a part of my job?" Read this answer slowly and carefully: No.

Your job is to raise responsible, capable young people who eventually leave your home to build independent lives; your job is to help them develop the skills necessary to do that. So, you should feel good about teaching and transferring some household duties to your children, knowing that this is an essential gift that you're giving them.

This is a process that should begin early and continue at a regular pace. Introducing important life skills to your kids when they turn eighteen isn't feasible and might just be impossible. For one, teenagers are busy; they're eager to get on with life and have little patience to learn mundane skills such as loading the dishwasher. For another, they've already developed habits that are hard to break. So, it behooves us to bring our babies into childhood with a constant eye toward what we're doing for them and weigh it against what they could be doing for themselves.

Having said that, I maintain that it's perfectly acceptable to choose to cater to your child at times. If your child is sick, of course, you shouldn't tell him to get out of bed and make his own chicken soup. If your child is unable to complete a task on his own -- due to his age or abilities -- it's an act of mercy to help him out. Consideration as a character trait is every bit as essential as independence. The difference in these cases is that you're offering -- your child isn't expecting.

Changes You Can Make

Begin by learning one useful word, to be uttered to yourself at times when you catch yourself doing for children things they should learn to do for themselves: "Don't."

This is one of the few times in parenting that you can be proud of the things you DON'T do. Next time you see that crusty cereal bowl, hum your mantra -- "Doooonnnnn't" -- and refrain from taking it to the sink. Instead, call your child, point to the bowl, and ask him politely to take care of it. When you see those clothes lying on the floor just outside the shower door, stop yourself -- "Doooonnnnn't" -- and ask your child to put them in the hamper. Don't pick up those crumpled-up snack wrappers left on the kitchen counter -- "Doooonnnnn't." Request that your child give them a proper burial. Resist the temptation to move the morning along by packing your kid's lunch. "Doooonnnnn't." Instead, call her over to the counter, and guide her through the lunch-making process.

These lessons needn't be dreary. For example, next time you're about to put in a load of laundry, don't simply trudge off to the laundry room -- "Doooonnnnn't." As you pass your child, who is reclined on the sofa watching TV, ask him to turn off the tube and join you for a quick laundry lesson. You both might take pleasure from the time you spend together, talking among the whites and the darks, enjoying a few moments of conversation as you teach another valuable life skill.

Yes, I know. You'll have to go though this drill again and againĊ  But eventually, one bright day, you'll realize that some learning has taken place. (And just maybe your child will have caught on, too.) As if by magic, your child will have taken care of that cereal bowl without a word from you -- and you can celebrate the fact that he's moved one step closer to being responsible for himself. And as a bonus, you'll have moved one step further from frustration.

Of course, this approach calls for common sense. You can't expect a 3-year-old to cook his own dinner or a 5-year-old to mow the lawn. Start with simple age-appropriate responsibilities and add to these as your child becomes more mature and capable. The beauty of gifting your child with the skills of responsibility and independence is that each skill is a building block upon which many others are balanced. First your child learns to count the spoons and fetch the napkins, then he learns to set the table, next he learns to fill his own plate with food, after that he learns how to make the salad, and before you know it, he has the skills to prepare an entire meal.

My three older children, at the ripe old ages of 8, 10 and 12 -- have the skills necessary to do exactly that. On several occasions, they have been given the privilege of planning and preparing a meal. The three of them discuss a menu plan and create a shopping list. Then Mom, Dad or Grandma takes them to the grocery store and the three kids do their shopping (as the adult-in-charge sips a coffee at the front deli counter.) They bring their groceries home and prepare the meal. It is absolutely delightful to listen as the three of them converse and discuss the details of the preparation, "Do you think these pieces are too big?" "How long do you cook beans?" "Do you think this is enough cheese?" The meals are very creative, usually colorful and even tasty. In addition to knowing that they have learned important life skills, the glow on their faces as they bask in the success of their endeavor makes it all worthwhile.

So how do you get to this point? If your little one is younger than 6, consider yourself in the "training stage." This is a time when learning occurs and habits form. I know: it's so much easier to pick up your child's toys than to go through the labor-intensive process that "letting your child do it himself" really is. It does take more time and energy to "let" your child pick up his toys, tie his shoes, and pour his juice; as the "help" you need to give is often more complicated than if you would have done it yourself. In the long run, however, you'll save yourself a virtual lifetime of catering to a child who has never had the opportunity to assume these responsibilities at a young age. Such a child will see you as his personal valet and will resist giving up such a luxury. Wouldn't you?

Plus, taking the time and expending the patience to help a willing and enthusiastic 3- or 4-year-old learn to unload the dishwasher is a lot easier than trying to teach a busy, uninterested teenager, and then deal with the frustration when he doesn't keep up with it.

If your child is over 6, every missed opportunity to teach a useful household task prolongs your child's dependence. Every single time you pick up a dirty sock, a used tissue, a crusty cereal bowl or a misplaced toy -- every time you do this -- you teach your child to believe in the "cleanup fairy." This is not only frustrating for you, but also difficult for your children when they move out of the house and discover that the "cleanup fairy" neglected to pack up and move with them.

This is one of those parenting tasks that are difficult for most of us. But the benefits are great. Perhaps the most wonderful payoff in allowing your child to master life through age-appropriate tasks and skills comes from the boost to his self-esteem. The more capable a child is, the more confident the child will become. With confidence, and a full repertoire of important life skills, comes a stronger, more positive self-image that will enable your child to take on whatever life imposes.

(Excerpted with permission by NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group Inc. from Hidden Messages: What Our Words and Actions are Really Telling Our Children by Elizabeth Pantley, copyright 2001)

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