As children grow, the twin issues of nurturing good habits and encouraging personal responsibility arise.
Two years ago when I had 3 kids aged 5 and below, it was only a matter of time before necessity demanded that we start addressing these issues. There were more beds to be made. More heads to comb. More mayhem to get out of the door on time.
Here are 10 steps I’ve learned on how to encourage young children to grow in personal responsibility, beginning with learning Practical Life Skills and then practising those skills habitually using a chore chart system. The process of learning Practical Life Skills can begin with a 2 year old toddler.
Learning Practical Life Skills: 4 Preliminary Steps
1. Be an example. There is a lot we might need to change, as parents, before we can expect our children to mature. If we haven’t been particularly consistent with time or healthy personal habits, we can’t expect our children to learn from us.
2. Let them participate in daily chores. Children learn a great deal by active participation. You might like to check out this previous post on encouraging autonomy in toddlers through kitchen play.
3. Be encouraging. When kids help, sincere and kind words, saying “good job” or “that was really helpful of you”, goes a long way.
4. Teach basic practical skills. A toddler can start learning how to comb his hair, put his toys away, take off his own shorts, wash his hands before and after meals, put dirty clothes in the laundry basket, and clear his own dishes to the sink.
Gradually, as he becomes a preschooler, he can move towards dressing up, combing his own hair, hanging up his pajamas, tidying his own bedroom, learning to set a table, helping to put away groceries and fixing basic snacks like buttered bread, or a cheese cracker sandwich. Once a child has learned these skills, it becomes reasonable to expect that he can do those things independently over time.
Move from Readiness Skills to Habit
It’s one thing to be able to tidy a room on a one off basis, it’s another to do it regularly. The purpose of a chore chart is to move kids to the next step – to cultivate an independent habit of doing certain tasks.
5. Create a chore chart. Write a list of essential tasks you’d like your child to accomplish on a daily basis. These should be tasks he is mostly capable of doing independently. Alternatively, you could list tasks you’d like to begin helping your child through initially, with the goal of him becoming more independent later on.
List the tasks in order of when they should be done.
Our Chore Chart (current)
If you have more than one child, it helps to print each Chore Chart on different coloured paper. I encase each chart in plastic so the kids can tick off their lists with a water based marker. Their charts are taped behind their bedroom door at a suitable height. Markers are kept in a stationery holder on their dresser table.
For children who cannot read yet, it helps to draw a representation of the activity directly next to the word (eg. for “brush teeth”, draw a toothbrush).
6. Introduce the chart. Go through the list with your child. Take him on a practical trial run, explaining and also demonstrating what needs to be done. This is important so he can visualise what you expect, before he goes through the motions on his own.
7. Delineate boundaries clearly. Keep expectations clear. We have a separate chart that specifies exactly what Kitchen Helpers and Laundry Helpers do.
I listed Farm Helper on this chart initially thinking the kids would rotate roles but it didn’t work. Everyone wanted to be a Farm Helper on gardening evenings! I then replaced this with “Mama’s Helper” (see Step 5, above). Mama Helpers “do anything Mama needs help with” – my trump card!
8. Follow up, and be patient. Learning to be habitual about something takes time. Check periodically on whether tasks are done, if the room has been tidied satisfactorily and so on. If your child forgets (and he will, possibly many times at first), you can refer him to the chart again but without specifying all the tasks. We say “Lamb, please do your Chart now.” He knows what that means.
9. Allow reasonable consequences to happen. When a child doesn’t “do his chart” or refuses to do it, try to understand your child from his point of view. Is he tired because he had a few late nights in a row? That might call for you to help him again through his morning jobs.
If outright defiance is clearly showing in a capable 4 year old, I usually remind him of consequences. “Since you’re refusing to do your chart, I’m going to have to spend extra time to help you through it. This will mean us being late and you’ll have to miss your morning park outing because it’ll be too hot by then.” This has worked effectively for us.
Never present your child with a consequence that you know you will find impossible to allow. For instance, saying that the whole family will leave him at home alone while you all go out for lunch. Your child will soon learn that you don’t mean what you say.
10. Reward. Affirm your child from time to time when he does a consistently good job. Have special family time. Go out for a nice meal. Have a picnic in your garden.
We don’t like to reward using toys or sweets because that would bankrupt us, spoil their health (think of the number of sweets we’d have to dish out!) and we want our children to appreciate the inherent value of the task.
Part of the goal is training children to understand that the real reward is two-fold. First, children learn independence. Second, everyone can enjoy family time when the whole family pulls together, each doing their respective jobs so that no one is unnecessarily burdened and worn out by nagging. Everyone is more relaxed – and happy.
Download our free Happy Habits printable here.
Do you use a chore chart system? What other ways do you use to instill practical life habits in your kids? I’d love to learn from your experience.