Teaching Children Responsibility
September 21, 2009 12:04 PM   Subscribe

Please help me nip another parental failing in the bud. I want help my children be more responsible.

I have a couple lazy parenting practices that I'm not proud of. They aren't doing my kids any favors and I wish to correct them.

My first-grader and third-grader have never been expected to clean their bedroom. I want to begin making this a requirement. Should I first show them how it is done and then allow them to clean it on a certain schedule? I'm not sure I want to give a monetary reward for completing the room cleaning. I think taking away a privilege would be more effective. Is this a good idea? How do you go about it with your children? Or, if you are not a parent, what were your parents' expectations?

They do pick up their toys in other rooms and outdoors when told, but they must be told. We have no chore chart or expectations for daily or weekly chores. When the mood strikes, or if we are having guests, we will ask them to do something and they will do it. I usually clean their bedroom because it is allowed to become a huge disaster and at this point I prefer doing it on my own because I am frustrated by the mess. I will give them tasks such as putting the Legos in the bin but I'm not sure they know how to make a bed, or pick a room from start to finish. Or, maybe I just think they can't. What should I expect at this age?

Also, I wake them up every morning for school. Should they have an alarm clock? What kind of morning routine is best to instill responsibility? I set out their clothes and prompt them what to do next. They don't even have to think for themselves in the morning because mom and dad are giving orders every step of the way. This doesn't sound very good but they are not babied. They have other responsibilities and we don't tolerate whining or excuses, we just haven't made them clean up after themselves with any kind of regularity.

I never had regular "chores" as a kid. My mother cleaned my bedroom and woke me up for school. She probably dressed me until I was in the fifth-grade. I don't want to repeat this pattern and time is slipping by. I wish for them to be more responsible and self-directed.

I feel like I should know how to do this but I want advice on how to best go about it.

posted by Fairchild to Human Relations (34 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
My room had to be clean on Sunday night, every week. I can't really remember any punishments or rewards (I am very very very against rewards for obvious self-care chores), but on Sunday nights we were in our rooms until they were clean... Though my parent's discipline strategy was always about respect & disappointment more than anything else...
posted by brainmouse at 12:06 PM on September 21, 2009

Oh, and as for what to expect, why don't you let them try and then see what they miss? Teach as necessary from there.
posted by brainmouse at 12:07 PM on September 21, 2009

Just an observation, my daughter (9) has always been super responsible, cleaned up after herself, morning routine down, just one of those kids who (despite me) did things like that. As she gets closer to puberty, she is getting more "spacey", for lack of a better term. Still means well, tries hard but just seems to forget about her previous 8+ years of being responsible. I'm not making a big deal of it, I don't mind extra reminders and prodding. I just wanted to bring it up so that you keep that in mind with your older child. Changing habits takes some time to accomplish and hormones may get in your way.
posted by pearlybob at 12:13 PM on September 21, 2009

My parents had a sliding scale - the less you do, the more you get assigned. The more you do, the less you get assigned. Do stuff above and beyond what is not assigned = monetary awards. So if you do all your assigned work plus additional work, you make money. Don't do your assigned work, you get more work and don't make any money. The more work you do, the less you get assigned and you have more available income producing work available. Best work ethic promotion, evah.
posted by torquemaniac at 12:17 PM on September 21, 2009 [18 favorites]

From about your kid's ages on, we required them to clean up everything they did in the public area of the house. As for their rooms, we feel as if it is one of their own areas and they can keep it as they wish as long as they follow the above concepts and there is no food in there. If they want it washed (Clothes), they bring it down. We do not collect the laundry, we just wash it.

I think it comes from Dear Abby or the like but we use these basic rules.

If you open it, close it
If you turn it on, turn it off
If you unlock it, lock it back up
If you break it, admit it
If you cannot fix it, call someone who can
If you borrow it, return it
If you make a mess, clean it up
If you value it, take care of it
If it is not yours, ask permission
If you don't know how to operate it, leave it alone or ask.

Essentially, return everything to its original state.

I added a few such as

If Dad said it, believe it and do it
If your sibling asks for help, give it
Do you need it or want it?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:18 PM on September 21, 2009 [10 favorites]

My mom used to make a Big Fuss about my room being tidy. I used to rebel, not really seeing the point in having a room that clean. I was never offered any rewards. She took toys away from me, but I'd just play with other stuff, because I never really made the leap to why.

I'd suggest explaining to them why you want them to tidy their rooms, rather than simply demanding that they do, like my mother did. Maybe you could offer a reward for a super-dooper cleaning/tidying session? That could backfire though, if they realise that if they make a mess, they get rewarded for tidying.
posted by Solomon at 12:19 PM on September 21, 2009

I got my own alarm clock around fourth grade and I was really excited--it seemed very grown up to me at the time. I don't recall being awakened by my parents after that point, although it may have happened.

I think by that age I was also responsible for keeping my room clean including making the bed and picking stuff up, but I am a naturally tidy person--I remember hanging up my school uniform with no prodding in first grade and always doing it in the exact same order.

Just two years later--sixth grade--I became responsible for handling my own laundry and was expected to do much more than set the table at dinner time. My parents tried various versions of chore charts and responsibilities but we didn't stick to any for long. For the most part, we knew that the house had to be cleaned on Friday afternoon, we knew what had to be done, and the parents assigned it to one of the four kids. We knew how to do it and we did it. I don't remember what the punishments were, but there would have been some.

As we got older still, chores became divided along gender lines, which I didn't much like, since mowing the lawn seemed like so much fun! We split food duties pretty evenly though--two kids helped prepare and two kids helped clean up. I went to boarding school at sixteen, and by that time I was fully self-sufficient.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 12:20 PM on September 21, 2009

If it matters I am 29 and was raised by my extended family. Growing up we had to clean up every Saturday. Dusting, sweeping, mopping. We also had to do dishes every night. This is what was expected so we did it. If we didn't do it right we would get reamed. We also did not get allowances or rewards for doing any of this stuff.

Anecdotally, my aunt pretty much does everything for her kids and they have no sense of responsibility. Not only that but they don't seem to have any idea how to do anything for themselves.

I don't have any kids so I am not sure if either of these makes a difference in the long run. On the one hand I am very independent. On the other hand I am a slob.
posted by mokeydraws at 12:23 PM on September 21, 2009

Behavioral learning theory is your friend here. You're trying to shape behavior, and to do that, you need to reinforce behavior that is in the right direction and not reinforce behavior that is in the wrong direction. For this, you need to know what your kids value, what will be a reinforcer for them. For some kids, it's gold stars (which maybe can be traded in for something valuable when they have enough), for other kids it's TV time, or being treated like a grown-up, or having special time with a parent or friend, or whatever.

You need to figure out what they value, and set up a program where, if they behave in the right direction, they get closer to getting what they want. This "right direction" thing is important - don't hold out rewards only for cleaning up their room perfectly. You've got to give props for getting the room less messy, holding out the idea that they will get more good stuff if the room is even cleaner.

Lots of times people object to thinking this way, because they want kids to do things "for the right reasons," like because "it's the right thing to do," rather than because of a reinforcement. Funny thing is, after a time, you can remove the reinforcers, because positive behaviors can become self-reinforcing.
posted by jasper411 at 12:27 PM on September 21, 2009 [6 favorites]

As for the alarm clock thing -- my parents had two tactics. If we weren't up on time, we had two punishments. The "nice" punishment, usually reserved for weekends -- our parents opened our door and sent the dog in. It's hard to ignore a slobbery, hyper 90lb german shepard who's just been told to "go wake up so-and-so". The other wake up tactic, used on schooldays, was to go in 15 minutes after we were supposed to wake up with a cup of cold water. No warnings, just water. Not only was it a rude awakening, but we had to clean up the mess. It only took a couple cold cups of water to ensure we were always up and getting ready for school on time.

We never really had to keep our rooms clean, as long as there was no food. Both my brother and I are now adult slobs with our rooms, and will only very rarely make our beds. If/when I have kids, this is not how they will live their lives.
posted by cgg at 12:37 PM on September 21, 2009

I should clarify that we knew the water was coming -- it wasn't like one day my dad just decided to open up the door and throw cold water on us to wake us up. It had always been a threat, until one day they acted on the threat. Never slept in again :)
posted by cgg at 12:40 PM on September 21, 2009

Check out FlyLady's system and her tips for getting kids involved in cleaning up after themselves and doing chores:

posted by Jacqueline at 12:41 PM on September 21, 2009

If you do decide to start expecting them to clean their rooms, definitely make sure they understand exactly what it is you want them to do. When I was a kid, having to clean my room was a nightmare because I didn't magically understand what my mother wanted done, and she assumed I was deliberately not doing it out of willfullness or something. Which just made the whole process miserable for both of us!
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 12:51 PM on September 21, 2009 [8 favorites]

My mother set a chain of command in place. Big sis was in charge of little brother, who was then in charge of littler brother, who was in charge of me. And me? I was in charge of the cat. Each person in command would make sure that their charge did what they were told. If the in-charge child did not do their job, they lost their command post and had to do BOTH person's chores. (For me that meant I had to clean the cat box if she wasn't fed and watered)

It instilled responsibility and cause/effect. For a wake up, mom did that on her own. First was a knock on the door and a "wake up!" second she came in singing the "Uppy-up" song. Third was a wet washcloth. Very rarely did any of us let it progress past Stage 2. Usually not past Stage 1, because that damn song was incredibly annoying.
posted by caveat at 1:02 PM on September 21, 2009

2nding the FlyLady. She sends out emails which include "Riley Challenges" specifically for the kids. Also has a system to build a control journal so everyone knows what to do & when.
posted by torquemaniac at 1:03 PM on September 21, 2009

I think some of it will be dependent on your kids' personalities, too. When you say you want them to be responsible, what is it precisely that you want for them? It sounds like what you want is for them to be able to live on their own someday, and probably to take a load off you in the here-and-now.

So on those notes, what my mother did that worked for me (a definitely not 'naturally tidy' kid OR adult, who's still managed to pick up the necessary skills and some good habits):

1. When you're cleaning, have the kids help. When you mop the floor, have the kids come dry it off - they can skate around on paper towels to make it more fun. When you're doing the laundry, have them bring over their dirty clothes, collect empty hangers, get the laundry soap, do the settings on the washing machine and help you fold clothes. When they're tall enough they can start doing their own laundry (although you may want to set 'family laundry day' if your kids are the sort to just go three weeks without clean clothes). When you have specific things the kids have to do, tie it to work the whole family is doing - for example, you cook, the kids set table and clear table, your spouse does the dishes; or you weed the garden, your spouse vacuums the living room, and the kids sweep in the kitchen. Set aside time for your kids to clean up after themselves - when they're done playing ask, "are you just going to leave your toys there?". After dinner make sure they at least take their own plate or cup and bring it over to the dishwasher. This ties the chores to a natural routine, and keeps them from being some artificial list; it teaches the kids how to do things, and when to do things, as a part of the family. They're not doing the chores as a favor to you; they're doing chores because the whole family does chores, because it's part of life.

2. Minimize the extra work you do for the kids. If one comes home from school and wants a grilled cheese sandwich, you can teach him or her how to make it, and then in the future they can make their own. Let them pick out their own clothes - yeah, they might wear the pink flowered shirt with the orange striped pants (*whistle*), but so what? If it makes problems for them at school they'll usually pick up on it. And if not, you can always lay out some basic rules about how to pick a good outfit. Don't clean their rooms - you can lay down ground rules about "needing a path" or keeping clean clothes on a chair instead of on the floor, and if it gets bad you can tell them to clean it (and what to focus on - I could spend three hours going through all the papers piled on my desk when what my mom wanted was for me to pick up the ten pieces of clothes on the floor, or spend an hour making sure every book in my bookcase was facing the same way when she wanted me to take the books from the pile on the floor and make them into a stack.)
posted by Lady Li at 1:05 PM on September 21, 2009 [4 favorites]

Whatever you implement, be consistent. If they sense you waffling or cheating, they won't take any of the new rules seriously.
posted by hermitosis at 1:11 PM on September 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Since you've never expected them to pick up their stuff before now, they're not going to know what to do the first time. Have them "help" you clean up the big disaster. Tell them, "The Lego go here, the dolls go here, the bed is made like this," as a running commentary. Then have them tidy up, EVERY SINGLE DAY before bed. I'm serious. It should only take about 10-15 minutes on the weekdays, maybe longer on the weekends, but if you do it every day, you'll never get back to the big disasters again (except on the occasions when your kids have friends over). If you just can't bring yourself to do it every day, do it at least every third day. It'll take a little longer, but still less time than if you leave it for weeks.

You may have to help them for the first week or so (especially the younger one), but after that they should know what your expectations are. Personally, I find that punishments just don't work as well as rewards. We have our kids on a "time clock" sort of system, where they time their jobs and write them down. Once a month we go through and add it all up and they get paid something like $2.40 an hour. For what it's worth, we don't count tidying up on the time clock; just major cleanings, lawn work, etc.

As for getting ready in the morning...my nine-year-old sets her alarm clock, gets herself dressed, sometimes gets her own breakfast, and brushes her hair/teeth, all by herself. Every day. My twelve-year-old son? Not so much. They're just different people. You may find that one or both has no interest in being independent. I have found the threat of "no matter what stage of getting ready you're at, you'll be out the door in X number of minutes" to be really helpful with my son. He knows I'll back it up, though. Maybe you'll find that helping them set clothes out the night before is the way to go, at least at first. Have them get their backpacks ready to go the night before and set them next to the door. Make a chart of what exactly has to be done to be "ready" in the morning. Eventually they'll be able to do it themselves, perhaps with some prompting.

I never had to do anything for myself when I lived with my parents. Nothing. My mother picked up after me, fed me, never told me to clean my room, did my laundry; you name it. College was a shock, and living with roommates was a disaster at first. It took me years to get the internal motivation to keep my space clean, pay my bills on time, get myself up for school; basically, live life like an adult. It was painful, and I think it was the biggest mistake of my mother's life to cater to me like she did. So I've done the opposite with my kids. You have to teach it, though. It just doesn't come naturally to everyone.
posted by cooker girl at 1:12 PM on September 21, 2009

My first grader needs to clean the playroom before he can do screen time (a daily event). He understands the concept, and is getting pretty good at it. He has an amazing case of ADHD and needs direction, but he can do it. If he doesn't do it, no TV. If he's taking a long time to do it because he's distracted, I set a timer and say it needs to be clean before it rings or no TV.

His younger sister is just starting to get involved. She gets given a smaller, clearly defined job to do, such a cleaning up one puzzle she was playing with, with the same system.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:27 PM on September 21, 2009

I'm not sure I want to give a monetary reward for completing the room cleaning. I think taking away a privilege would be more effective. Is this a good idea?

Try using small rewards for good behavior first. Depending on how much your kids like stickers, gold stars might be enough (I would have done any chore for Lisa Frank stickers), or maybe once they get enough gold stars they get a small treat. Positive reinforcement isn't the same as bribery.
posted by lemuria at 1:29 PM on September 21, 2009

They should wake themselves up. Even little kids can hear an alarm, know it is time to get up, and do so. Give them a couple days warning you won't be doing it anymore, and go with them to pick out a clock/radio. Or alarm clock or whatever people use these days- the kind that sits on the nightstand and its only function is to WAKE YOU UP not serve to play music/make phone calls/organize your life.

Let them suffer consequences. They don't get up, they get consequences at school. They don't clean up their rooms, everything gets packed up and Goodwill is called. Whatever you do, follow through or you lose credibility.
posted by variella at 1:32 PM on September 21, 2009

I remember when my parents decided that it was time for me to start being more responsible for my routine - i.e. getting dressed, making my breakfast, packing my bag, brushing teeth etc in the mornings. Mum sat me down and got me to write down a list of all the things that needed to happen in the mornings and then we made it pretty, gold stars, illustrations, glitter, etc and we stuck it on the fridge. Then, each morning I would race back and forth to the list checking off what I had done. I loved it!. I think I was around 6 or 7.

Around the same time I started being responsible for making my bed, cleaning room, putting dirty laundry in the basket, feeding cat, washing dishes, etc. It was all about routine. I watched Mum and Dad go about these routines and they made it natural for us to be involved in them. So if a task wasn't perfect they didn't have a melt down, they would either ask us to do it again or show us how to do it again. Also, having an older sibling who was doing these things helped as well - I wanted to be able to do exactly the same things as her.

I would suggest that as a family you start to clean and perform chores together with a running commentary - what you are doing, how you are doing it, what is the next step? That kind of thing.
posted by latch24 at 1:39 PM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

First of all, since they have never cleaned before, be very clear what you want and show them how to do everything every step of the way. If the cleaning isn't up to par at first be patient in teaching. For rewards, a system of gold stars might work. Set a fun end goal, like a trip to an amusement park, and have them earn enough stars to achieve it. Alternatively, torquemaniac's idea sounds awesome.
posted by fermezporte at 1:51 PM on September 21, 2009

My mom, dad, and I are pretty messy and disorganized. My brother attended the local Montessori school for preschool and kindergarten and is the only one of the four of us who ever has a clean room/office or knows where anything is. I don't necessarily recommend you yank them out of their current school and send them to Montessori, but their classroom guidelines/habits/routines might be a way to implement changes at home. It's really remarkable how they (totally painlessly) taught my brother how to put everything in its right place.
posted by Meg_Murry at 2:02 PM on September 21, 2009

I think that they are behaving perfectly age-appropriately.

They need to be taught a routine that they can eventually do by themselves, but at this age it is not realistic to expect them to know exactly what to do to clean an entire messy room by themselves. They still need a lot of supervision because they are still learning.

Using conditioning, punishments, rewards, etc. is not necessary and will make things more stressful than necessary, for everyone. They want to please you and do what you say, that is motivation enough.

1. Come up with a routine--what do you do when you clean their rooms? What do they need to do in the morning? It needs to be the same every time. Same order of tasks. Write it down and make a checklist that you can refer to.

2. Go through the routine as needed with them and ask them to help and participate in every step so they are paying attention. Have them pick out their clothes, have them help you make the bed, let them pick out what sheets to use, etc. Let them check each task off of the checklist and be in charge of making sure everything is done! They will probably LOVE to do this.

3. Increase their participation as they gain skills. Ask them what step comes next. Let them take responsibility for a few tasks they are competent at. Supervise and prompt them if they forget something. If they start to look lost, they probably aren't ready to do that task by themselves.

I, personally would still wake them up in the morning if you enjoy doing that for your children. It seems like an easy way to connect with your children in the beginning of a busy day.
posted by kathrineg at 2:05 PM on September 21, 2009

Chore charts are good.

If you google, you may find some good resources-homeschooling families in particular are big consumers of this sort of thing.

I do suggest you keep it simple, and make a list they can check off, such as:
1: make bed
2: pick up clothes
3: empty trash

and so on and so forth.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:07 PM on September 21, 2009

Whatever you do, you need to teach them to handle themselves now, so they don't turn out like me and a handful of other folks in this thread-- completely incapable of figuring out what to do when left to their own devices, and thus hurting themselves socially and emotionally and possibly physically.

My mother had no expectations other than "do your homework and don't cause trouble" and would periodically just come in and throw out a bunch of stuff and clean up the rest. She never taught the kids to handle money, never taught us to cook, nothing. I wasn't even allowed to do my own laundry when I had to move back in as an adult at one point (gee, think that might've been a side effect of not being able to take care of myself)? My father was completely hands-off about childrearing to boot, which made it that much worse.

My parents didn't tolerate whining or excuses either-- or at least they didn't think they did, but my mother constantly stepping in and complaining about having to Do Everything For Us made it clear that she really did think we couldn't do a damn thing for ourselves, so the intolerance of whining and excuses because we were all smarter and more capable than that just ended up sending mixed messages.

(Later on? Summer jobs, seriously, as early as junior high lawn-mowing/ babysitting/ whatever. Trust me. I was severely discouraged from having one until I was nineteen-- "you're so smart, you need to concentrate on your studies"-- and it was ugly.)
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 2:29 PM on September 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

So, I (kind of) dressed myself growing up, and as a result I never really learned how to dress *nice* until the end of college. If you consider yourself to have good taste in clothes, continue to dress the kids until they ask you to quit, or until they hit around middle school age. At least then when they change styles they'll probably have a good understanding of how to match colors. This is a good skill to have.

Teach them to do things. Don't just give them a chore and expect them to get it right. Nothing you're doing sounds terribly bad, but keep ratcheting up the responsibilities. And be consistent. Don't give them identical responsibilities, but rather ones suited to their age. If your eldest child got a certain set of responsibilities when they turned some age, write it down somewhere and be sure to give the youngest those same responsibilities at that age. This creates a feeling a fairness between the children and precludes arguments of "well I had to do that when I was such-and-such age!"
posted by scrutiny at 2:53 PM on September 21, 2009

It's very important that you notice incremental improvement. Like, crucially so. Very few kids will manage to get things consistently right from the first, and there is nothing more demoralising than having your parents see only the part you haven't gotten right yet. Even if this isn't something you do in other domains, be sure you don't do it in chores, either. And don't let them off the hook because they do it wrong somehow -- faking helplessness is easy.
posted by jeather at 3:46 PM on September 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you are raising children with a spouse, make sure the two of you are on the same page. What you and your spouse do will affect how your children behave. Doesn't matter if you're super-neat. If your spouse is a slob...game over.
posted by teg4rvn at 4:14 PM on September 21, 2009

Thanks to everybody that commented. These are all excellent answers. I enjoyed reading them and am motivated to teach my kids to help care for themselves and contribute to the family unit.
posted by Fairchild at 5:49 PM on September 21, 2009

Make sure they have sensible places to put all their stuff, and show them where those places are. When they get new stuff, go through the routine of deciding where it should go with them.
posted by gjc at 6:55 PM on September 21, 2009

Model the behavior you want them to emulate. If they learn that cleanliness is valued, they'll eventually be intrinsically motivated to be tidy. Extrinsic motivators help, but you eventually need to ease up on carrots and sticks. Dole out over-the-top praise every time you see them pick anything up. "Thank you SO MUCH for picking up that toy! I love that I didn't even have to ask you to do it. I'm so glad I have such a terrific son/daughter! You're behaving like a 10 year old! You're so grown up!" I teach 7-year olds and they eat that shit up. If one child picks up a toy, praise that child in front of the other child. Put up a sticker chart and when they get a certain number of stickers (one sticker for time they clean their room or something) give them ice cream, buy them a book, or let them watch a movie or do something enjoyable. And read this article from Slate. And keep your room clean.
posted by HotPatatta at 6:56 PM on September 21, 2009

Lady Li, cooker girl, latch24, and kathrineg have it.

Understand that this is a learning curve for them. It won't come naturally right away. You'll need to help and prompt for a little while.

I'm sure you've heard it: the key here is routine and consistency. Expect the same thing, at the same time, every time. This makes it easy and comfortable for everybody involved, and you'll get much, much better compliance in the long run.

Get them involved in the planning and decision-making process. Latch24's is a perfect example:

Mum sat me down and got me to write down a list of all the things that needed to happen in the mornings and then we made it pretty, gold stars, illustrations, glitter, etc and we stuck it on the fridge. Then, each morning I would race back and forth to the list checking off what I had done. I loved it!

Rather than telling them what needs to be done, when they look lost, prompt them by asking questions: "Where does X go?" or "What's next on your list?"

Punishment, which includes withdrawal of privileges, has been shown to be ineffective and counter-productive. Here's a page on punishment vs. discipline. There's real research behind this, but I'm too lazy/distracted to dig it up and cite.

Your kids' best motivators will be making them a part of the process, making the process fun, and praising them for specific actions. If something isn't done, or isn't done correctly, rather than scolding, point it out and ask them what they can do about it, or prompt them on how to do it correctly. Help them to problem-solve. Just like adults, kids are motivated by having a sense of personal power and competence.
posted by moira at 6:59 PM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

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