Curt, a bright sixteen-year-old, was bursting with excitement over
his newly earned drivers 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 shed
finished and set the table, she began to worry. Time passedand
still more. Where was Curt?
Just as she was considering a trip of her own to find him, Curt came
trudging through the doorwithout hamburger. Wheres
the meat? she asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. They dont sell hamburger at
our grocery store, Mom.
Of course they do, Curt! she exclaimed. But he
sighed loudly and persisted, frustrated that his mother didnt
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, Its
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 puzzleda beacon in a
sea of cellophane-packed ground meatsaid, in the sincerest of
voices, I dont see any hamburger...
It took seconds for her to make the connection. Her sonher
drivers-license-toting, beard-growing, college-bound
sonhad never been asked to help with grocery shopping! Nor had
he ever prepared a meal! The truth was that he couldnt
recognize raw hamburger if she threw it at his head! That head was
currently shaking back and forth in amazement. Wow, he
said, Ive never seen it like that before.
When the fog cleared, other thoughts crept into her head: hed
never done a load of laundry! Hed never balanced a checkbook!
Hed never changed a flat tire! Hed never sewn on a
button, or mended a tear in his pants! Hed never even packed
his own lunch! Since shed always done all these things for him,
hed never had the opportunity to do them for himselfand
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 mothertoo good.
The Hidden Message
Dont you worry about any of these tasks. Ill
do them for you. Ill always be there to do them for you.
Think About It
Sometimes, raising responsible kids isnt so much about what we
do, but about what we dont. By being too good of a
parent we rob our children of opportunities that help them develop
tools for success in adult lifetools that cant 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! Arent 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 youre
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 isnt feasible and might just be impossible. For one,
teenagers are busy; theyre eager to get on with life and have
little patience to learn mundane skills such as loading the
dishwasher. For another, theyve already developed habits that
are hard to break. So, it behooves us to bring our babies into
childhood with a constant eye toward what were doing for them
and weigh it against what they could be doing for themselves.
Having said that, I maintain that its perfectly acceptable to
choose to cater to your child at times. If your child is sick, of
course, you shouldnt tell him to get out of bed and make his
own chicken soup. If your child is unable to complete a task on his
owndue to his age or abilitiesits 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
youre offeringyour child isnt 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: Dont.
This is one of the few times in parenting that you can be proud of
the things you DONT do. Next time you see that crusty cereal
bowl, hum your mantraDoooonnnnntand
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
yourselfDoooonnnnnt and ask your child
to put them in the hamper. Dont pick up those crumpled-up snack
wrappers left on the kitchen
counterDoooonnnnnt. Request that your child
give them a proper burial. Resist the temptation to move the morning
along by packing your kids lunch. Doooonnnnnt.
Instead, call her over to the counter, and guide her through the
These lessons neednt be dreary. For example, next time
youre about to put in a load of laundry, dont simply
trudge off to the laundry room Doooonnnnnt.
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. Youll have to go though this drill again and
again&ldots; But eventually, one bright day, youll 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 youand you can celebrate
the fact that hes moved one step closer to being responsible
for himself. And as a bonus, youll have moved one step further
Of course, this approach calls for common sense. You cant
expect a three-year-old to cook his own dinner or a five-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 eight, ten and
twelve 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 six, consider yourself in the training stage. This
is a time when learning occurs and habits form. I know: its so
much easier to pick up your childs 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, youll 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. Wouldnt you?
Plus, taking the time and expending the patience to help a willing
and enthusiastic three- or four-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 doesnt
keep up with it.
If your child is over six, every missed opportunity to teach a useful
household task prolongs your childs dependence. Every single
time you pick up a dirty sock, a used tissue, a crusty cereal bowl or
a misplaced toyevery 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.