Raising a Can-Do Kid
Nurture Responsibility With Practice and Patience

By Sara Tueting

Originally appeared in December 2011

The stories of children tackling adult tasks seem to be increasingly common: a 12-year-old boy climbs Mt. Everest largely unaided, a teenage girl attempts to sail around the world by herself, your fourth grader washes and folds the family laundry.

OK, maybe the last example doesnt exactly make headlines, but for most parents the question of children and responsibilities is more mundane: Is my child old enough to walk to the bus stop alone? Should my children be helping out more around the house? Should my children even have responsibilities? The answer, according to local experts, is generally yes.

As a father of four and a pediatrician of 25 years, I do think you need to give kids responsibilities, said Dr. David Hawkes, M.D. of Pediatric Associates in Charlottesville and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. It helps them to be better citizens.

Learning to handle increasingly difficult responsibilities is an important part of helping children develop and mature into adolescence and eventual adulthood, said Amori Mikami, Ph.D. and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Virginia (UVA).

Having time to practice that in elementary school is a great idea, she said.

But Dr. Mikami warns that learning to be responsible is a skill that requires practice, just like any other skill.

Your child is going to mess up all the time, she said. (Parents) must have patience.

And parents need to make sure the responsibilities they give their children are age-appropriate, Dr. Hawkes said.

Start with little chores around the house, he said. do it step-wise. Every child has their own skills.

For example, toddlers can start learning how to pick up and put away a few toys, he said.

Kindergartners can help put away their toys, but also take their clothes to the laundry basket, and maybe eventually, help take care of a pet and help set the dinner table.

But dont use Grandmas fine china, Dr. Hawkes said.

Rebecca Boland, a Charlottesville mother of four, said she and her husband, Brian, believe having their children help out around the house is important not only in teaching them that families work together, but also in helping their children learn to be more independent.

Brian, the mens tennis coach at UVA, has seen students arrive at college without basic life skills, such as being able to do their own laundry, Rebecca Boland said.

Our children are not going to college without knowing those things, she said.

So the Bolands four-year-old daughter helps pick up her toys and carry condiments to the dinner table. Their ten-year-old daughter sets the dinner table every night, while their six-year-old son is responsible for helping to clear the table. And their eight-year-old son takes the trash out to the garbage can and returns the garbage can to the garage from the curb on trash day.

The children all have to keep their rooms picked up, and the older children are responsible for putting away their clean clothes after their mother washes and folds them. The three oldest children also are allowed to walk a block to the school bus stop by themselves.

We talked about going straight to the bus stop, not talking with strangers, Boland said.

To keep children motivated to do their chores, many parents and experts recommend using a chart that tracks a childs progress weekly and offers a small reward for fulfilling all or most of the childs responsibilities. Other parents use an allowance as an incentive to help encourage children to fulfill their responsibilities.

A chart that children can understand  either through words or pictures  also is a good way to help remind children of their responsibilities, Dr. Mikami said.

Its really hard to get kids that age to remember to do things without reminding them, she said. But thats age-appropriate. Six- and seven-year-olds dont wake up and think, It would be really nice to make my bed.

At the Bolands house, the family uses the childrens allowance as an incentive. Each child receives a $1 per week base allowance, Rebecca Boland said. If a child does something above and beyond what their basic chores are, they will receive some additional money, but if they fail to follow through on their chores, or theres a lot of misbehavior, they can lose money.

And instead of actually paying cash to their children, the Bolands keep a chart on their kitchen bulletin board where their children can track how much money they have earned and what their account balance is, Boland said.

That system seems to be working for them for now, she said. But her older children occasionally need encouragement since they have more responsibilities than their younger siblings.

Youre bigger, you can do more, Boland said she tells her older children. They get it, but their minds arent totally mature enough to comprehend it.

As children get older, they should have more and increasingly difficult responsibilities, Dr. Mikami said. Set a goal of responsibility that a child can meet 75 percent to 80 percent of the time. And, with help and practice, [children] can get to 100 percent, she said.

The idea is that by giving a child a responsibility thats a little bit of a stretch they will be motivated to meet it, and once they do, that sense of accomplishment will feel good to them, Dr. Mikami said. Once a child is consistently meeting their responsibilities, parents can add additional ones, she said. Michelle Amtmann, a Crozet mother of three, said she and her husband have tried various methods  from charts to an allowance  to motivate their children to meet their family responsibilities. We used to tie their chores to money, but then the kids would say they didnt want the money, she said.

Now the Amtmanns hold a family meeting every Saturday morning after breakfast  when everyone is wide awake and has been fed. They discuss what chores need to be accomplished during the weekend and make a list, and then everyone picks some to do. The Amtmanns also brainstorm and vote on a family activity to do as a reward after the chores are done, such as going on a family hike or going out to dinner.

Were a family. We all pitch in. We all help, Amtmann said she tells her children. On a daily basis, the Amtmann children, who are in the second, third and seventh grades, are expected to make their beds, clear their plates from the table and put them in the kitchen sink, and help take care of familys pet lizard and two cats. When they get home from school, they also are expected to put their shoes on a rack near the door and to hang up their coats and backpacks, Amtmann said. On Saturday after the family meeting, she hands each child a bag and they go shopping around the lower level of their house, collecting anything that belongs to them  including their shoes  and returning it to their bedrooms. Then the children might start working on the chores they have picked, such as helping to vacuum the stairs or the family room, or cleaning the mirrors and sinks in the bathrooms, or cleaning the bath tubs.

We try to make it fun, Amtmann said. We put on music.

She and her husband handle the harder chores  such as cleaning toilets  and the whole family does yard work together. The children also help Amtmann, who has a bad back, with other tasks, such as moving wet laundry from the washing machine to the dryer.

Occasionally, the children will balk about doing something, so Amtmann says she asks them to give her a time on the clock when they will do the chore  such as at 11am. Then she leaves them alone to accomplish it as they said they would.

Amtmann said she and her husband have found that by allowing their children to pick their chores, it empowers them and makes them feel like they are a part of something. And the children are good at letting their parents know when a task is too much for them, she said.

In general, having chores teaches her children about responsibility in the family, as well as having a good work ethic, Amtmann said.

Youre just building good habits and a pattern of responsibility, she said. I just think it carries over into other aspects of their life.

Thats the idea, Dr. Mikami said. As children get older, their teachers and even their peers expect kids be increasingly independent.

For her part, Kathleen Garcia, a Red Hill Elementary art and literacy teacher, said she believes its important to give children responsibilities, as long as those responsibilities dont overburden a child. The biggest responsibility for the kids is their homework, she said.

And Dr. Hawkes stressed that parents need to be prepared for their children to fall short on their success.

(Parents) should not be too critical when kids are learning to be responsible, he said.

When the Amtmanns first started trying to get their children to accomplish various tasks, they used a job chart to motivate them. But Michelle Amtmann said she didnt expect her children to be perfect. If they had a good day, they received a star, and if they earned five stars out of seven days, they were allowed to pick a small toy or later a mysterious foil packet  usually containing less than $1  out of a basket.

Parents also need to be realistic about what their children can accomplish and not be discouraged when their children dont succeed, Dr. Mikami said. Some children just wont be able to take on responsibilities the way other children do, she said.

Yelling at their child for being immature is not going to help their child get more mature, Dr. Mikami said of parents.

Instead, parents need to make sure they have explained and demonstrated for their child how to perform a task. And sometimes, a child needs that task broken down into more steps to make it understandable, she said.

No matter what a child promises, he or she is still a child, and their perspective and comprehension is different from an adults, Dr. Mikami said. One Ivy mother said she learned that firsthand when she left her two elementary-aged boys in her car while she ran into a local convenience store. She had locked the car and told her boys not to get out or to open the door, but when she returned two minutes later, she discovered her older son had rolled down the car window and was chatting with a nearby repairman. That was a great eye-opener for me, she said.

Teaching children about responsibility is an investment in their growth and development, Dr. Mikami said. Its a process, she said. In the end it will pay off.

Sara is a local freelance writer who is trying (with mixed success) to raise four responsible children.

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