“Honey,” I called yesterday morning, “I need your help moving that mattress before your cousin comes so he can have a place to sleep.”
“Ok,” my 5-year-old said eagerly and hopped downstairs two-at-a-time to help.
This was a far cry from the reaction I had gotten the night before when I repeatedly reminded her it was time to set the dinner table, or last week when she’d lain across the floor resisting cleanup time.
So what was the difference?
Well, for one thing, she knew that I couldn’t move the mattress on my own. Also, she was excited to have her cousin come for a visit and was probably pretty proud that a grown-up needed her help so much. I don’t think I could say the same for the mundane request to set the table…again.
It reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend after a recent trip I took with both my girls, aged 2 and 5. I’d marveled at how capable and helpful my eldest had been: getting the bags off the luggage carousel, handling the stroller for huge stretches of airport terminal while I pushed the cart with the bags. “She really stepped it up to a new level,” I told her.
My wise friend, a gifted mother and teacher, had nodded knowingly. “Kids can definitely tell when their work is a necessary and valuable contribution to the family,” she said.
It’s true. My daughter knew that if she didn’t help at the airport, we might not get our belongings, might never make it to our rental car and final destination. But she’s a very smart cookie. She can certainly tell the difference between “I’m asking you to do this because it’s for your own good—I’m trying to teach you how to behave properly,” and, “I need you to do this because we have a real need here and your work really matters!”
Keeping family work both regular and routine can certainly help encourage co-operation. But even so, it can be hard to get kids to pitch in sometimes, especially if they’re of a certain hard-headed variety, determined to prove their ability to forge their own path (gee, I don’t know anyone like that in my family!)
But I’m thinking that there are ways I could do a better job of how I frame it all. If I can show with tone, content, and action that the work required of them truly needs to be done, and isn’t a frivolous request meant as a lesson, I believe that my eldest—or any child for that matter—would really respond better.
There’s no blueprint for this kind of approach. It isn’t really a matter of a script, but more a mindset, a starting place from which I’d like to come. So, for example, if she needs to set the table, I may say, “Dinner will be ready in five minutes, all we need is for you to set the table now so we can eat.” Or if it’s cleanup time in the playroom, I might remind her that, “I can’t sweep up the floor if the toys aren’t picked up, and it’s getting pretty dusty in here! Have you tried walking around with bare feet?” Then, when something is done particularly well I can comment on the desired effect it will produce. As in, “Wow it’s so organized in here we’ll have no trouble at all finding what we need right away next time we play here.”
To some, perhaps this approach seems like coddling, like catering to a child who should just do what they’re told or face punishment. I understand. There can be a place for swift obedience or else. But helping kids see the intrinsically motivated reason to follow your rules makes it far easier for them to internalize doing the right thing for the right reasons. In this way, I hope, they can learn to be the person I’d want them to be, even when no one’s looking.
Besides, in my experience, power struggles beget more power struggles until that becomes the only way a family knows how to do things. I’d rather pick my battles, so to speak, so that conflict is more of the exception than the norm. I hope that remembering that the work I ask my kids to do is both needed and valued will help keep the peace, that this peace will bring more peace, and so forth. Because the rest of the world is filled with enough strife, shouldn’t home be a safe harbor, a place where peace is the norm, and battles the surprise? Well, at least we can try.