“The Cat in the Hat” by Dr. Seuss

This month I have opened a debate on how to raise responsible children. I emphasized the role of well-chosen chores in shaping a child’s character and  promoted verbal accountability. Today I’d like to add two more elements to the mix. Freedom to choose, for one, and secondly, choices or opportunities. I think that both are equally crucial as we try to raise a responsible individual.

Responsible Choices = Choices + Freedom to Make Choices

In other words, only by giving children some level of independence and freedom to make their own decisions, as well as exposing them to various options, we can teach them making responsible decisions and accountability for their actions.

Funny thing about freedom, though. Even if we are all  “born to be free”, dealing with freedom doesn’t come to us naturally. We have to learn how to live without boundaries or else we can easily waste or abuse freedom.  We start the learning process already as a child. Just imagine that  you give your preschooler a hundred dollars. They can spend the money on anything they want. Most likely, they  will be as excited as confused. They might even give you the money back. But give them one dollar and ask them to choose between a candy and a little toy, and they will decide easily. It might be a decision based on the spur of the moment and they might regret it later, but it will surely serve as a lesson for the future. (Unless a soft-hearted parent will decide to give the child both, the toy and candy… because he or she is “just a little child”.)

Children should not be spared from making choices and bearing responsibilities for their decisions. Step by step, though. At first it should be about controlled freedom. Let’s say you have to get your child dressed for school.  You can choose clothes for your child yourself,  ask them what clothes they would like to wear, or give them two options: this or that? In the first case, you are likely to face a rebellion. An open question in the second case,  might lead to them choosing a Halloween costume. And you don’t want that!. In the third case, you might actually eat the cake and still have it. Your child will appreciate that you’ve  asked for their input, and you are  confident that either choice is safe.

Once we see that our children can handle simple choices, we can add more options and bigger dilemmas. Until we can proudly watch how they confidently and responsibly choose their college majors, hobbies, or jobs. 

Out of many books that touch upon making independent choices, I selected “The Cat in the Hat”.  Children love this wise, hilarious  and versatile classic for various reasons. But let’s read it to them again as we try to teach them accountability.    Should the Cat stay or should he go? What can happen if he stays and what if he goes? Sally and her brother were free to listen to their mother, or to give in to the Cat’s temptations. What would your child do?

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“Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” by Mo Willems

Have you met the Pigeon yet? No? Then “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” is a great way to get acquainted with this peculiar master of intrigue and emotional blackmailing.

In the story, the Pigeon wants to drive a bus, but the bus driver has explicitly requested the reader NOT to let the Pigeon drive the bus. No matter what. The tricky bird tries to negotiate with the reader, throws a tantrum and even attempts to bribe them. What should and what will the reader do?

What would your child do in a similar situation? What would they do if you asked them to do/ not to do something? Would they give you their word? And most importantly, would they keep it?

Raising a responsible child, means raising a child who is responsible for their words. A trustworthy child. If your child wouldn’t let the Pigeon drive the bus, you can congratulate yourself. Your  parenting strategy seems to be working. If he or she would give in to the Pigeon’s pressure, it means that there is some work to be done.

How do we raise a child on whose word we can depend? I would start with three simple things:

1. Set an example

It starts very early, with all those empty threats (If you don’t eat your dinner, you won’t get any treats. (…) Oh, well, you can have one cookie.) and un-kept promises (If you get better grades, you will get a higher allowance. (…) So you think you think you should be paid more for being a good student?). When children see that their parents’ words don’t match their actions, they follow the same  pattern. Words have no value for them.

2. Believe your child and in your child 

Imagine yourself in the following situation: You’ve let your child watch a movie after they are done with homework. After a while, they claim the homework is done and they start to watch a movie.  Your first reaction is:

a) What? So quickly? Show me your homework!

b)  Okay, Enjoy the movie! I’d be happy to see your homework later, though.

The first response assumes the child is not telling the truth. The second scenario gives a child the benefit of doubt. Since my mom usually represented case a) and my grandma case b) I could easily compare the effectiveness of both approaches. My grandma’s, really worked. The fact that she believed me  and in me was so motivational that I wanted to do anything I could to be as good as my words and her expectations. I would have hated to disappoint her.

3. Wisely approach the issue of verbal irresponsibility

Children should know the power of words. Verbal agreement has its weight and children should learn to respect it. It’s the first step to become a dependable friend,  a reliable businessperson or a trustworthy  politician.

“Why Do I Have to Make My Bed?” by Wade Bradford

Another Monday, another “to-do-list” for many of us. As grown-ups, we’ve learned not to question the obvious. Chores need to be done. Everyone has chores to do. But for a child,  every to-do comes with a naive attempt to veto. “Why do I have to always pick up my toys?” My almost-four-year-old asks routinely. I patiently respond that it’s the only fair, that those who make a mess, also clean it up. With more or less fussing,  sooner or later, he proceeds with putting his toys away.

I fully believe in the power of chores. I think that having responsibilities, even at a young age, helps a child to become a responsible adult. And don’t we need more of those! Responsibilities help a child to practice their self-discipline and feel a part of a family. But there are a few things worth remembering, if we want the chores to be effective.

1. Chores should be assigned to-measure.

You can’t expect a preschooler to do laundry and your teenager can surely do more than making their bed. I remember running errands, helping with my younger siblings or doing dishes, among others. My brothers helped a lot with the vegetable garden, which my parents year by year over-planted. Helping our parents seemed natural to us. (We did have our grudges, though, but for different reasons.) Now that I have my own child, I want him to view chores as a natural thing as well. Dad has chores, mom has chores and so does Victor. It’s his responsibility to pick up his toys, but he also helps me with groceries, watering plants and unloading the dishwasher. He is in charge of the silverware. Depending on his mood, he tries to voice his grudges about all the “hard work” he has to do, yet, the positive action follows.

2. Chores should be a part of routine and executed consistently. 

When me and my brothers were growing up, we never knew exactly what our chores were. We were supposed to be readily available to help our parents, in whatever they whimsically decided to do that day. Or that moment. It meant total disrespect for our own plans, and as a result, lots of grudges.  It felt like undeserved punishment. Now that I am a parent myself, I know better. A child needs to know what belongs to his chores and he should learn to perform them routinely.

3. Children need to know why they are asked to do their chores.

I had to do the chores to help my parents. It was almost enough to motivate me. I chose to give my son a more profound explanation-motivator. When we take our preschooler grocery shopping or shopping, we always tell him how we appreciate his input when buying things, for example.  Sorting out the silverware goes without saying, but in the beginning, I was telling my son that him helping me to do the job faster, gives us both more time to play together.

4. Chores should appeal to children’s strengths and interests. 

One of my brothers loves to cook. Since he was young, he’s been helping with preparing meals. His hobby was a valuable contribution. My son, as every child, enjoys playing with water. Why not to make watering plants his chore? It is not hard on him, but it does serve as a tool to practice self-discipline.

5. Children should be rewarded for their contribution.

Everyone needs to feel appreciated for their work. Children are graded at school, grown-ups get bonuses at work. Children need to know that their help is valuable. The rewards can vary, depending on the job, but I am talking just about a simple “thank you”,  “you’ve done a good job” or “I wouldn’t have done it without you” comment. It fires up enthusiasm.

 

Yesterday we made a weekly chore chart with my son. It is supposed to remind him of his chores and be a proud visual of his contribution to our family life. Every completed chore gets a star, of course. Somehow, a star always works.

 

6. Parents should accept errors and embrace imperfections.

In other words, children’s level of perfectionism might, and almost always will, differ from their parents’, but we can’t discourage them by showing our dissatisfaction with their performance. They will learn by mistakes and in the meantime, their good will is all that matters.

 

 

If you need a pretext to introduce a concept of chores to your children, I recommend a great book, “Why Do I Have to Make My Bed?”  This humorous story brings the reader on an exciting journey in time, in order to show how our chores have evolved over the centuries. Children have always had to help their parents, and they have always asked “why?” But if you think that making your bed is a hard job, you might be surprised what a little Viking, a child in the Roman Empire or a cave child had to do. 

A hilarious take on the history of chores and greatly amusing pictures by Johanna van der Sterre. I do have two less positive comments, though. The book is a bit too lengthy and as a result gets quite boring half way through. Secondly, the book offers an amusing, but, in my opinion, highly questionable answer to why children have to do their chores. The response boils down to “Because I said so!” In my world, it is good for laughs, indeed, but doesn’t fit into my parenting strategy.

Childhood is Like Breakfast

Childhood is like breakfast. The very same way a nutritious morning meal can carry us through a busy day, a nurturing childhood can proof us against life challenges. Unfortunately, even though we know a lot about a balanced breakfast, a concept of balanced childhood leads to numerous misinterpretations. Besides, should there be a precise recipe for a perfect childhood, there is no guarantee that every parent would follow it. A tendency for deviations is a human trait. After all, how many of us eat bran cereal everyday, right? Some people prefer to line up in front of a donut store at 7am.

As I was going deeper in my breakfast vs. childhood comparison, I decided to support my reflections with more specific data. I used my family as a curious case study. To my surprise, I noticed a clear correlation between what we eat, what we feed our children with and our views on childhood. Who cares and why is it important? I noticed that the more negative our own childhood experiences, the more unbalanced our breakfast AND our parenting strategy. In other words, I think that it wouldn’t hurt to take a few minutes to analyze our breakfast menu and to reflect upon our parenting choices.

Argument:          1. Our breakfast reflects our childhood experiences.  

                              2. What we feed our children with, reflects our idea of what childhood should be like.

Case study:         My family

My parents: Both of my parents are quite bitter about their childhood. They grew up in the post-war Poland and were raised by struggling to rebuild their country and lives war-survivors.  My dad’s parents divorced when he was a little boy. Unlike his brothers,  my father felt responsible for his dad and chose to live with him. His childhood was mainly focused on growing up fast and taking his life into his hands. His father taught him the skills to build a house, but my dad learned nothing about making a home. His breakfast? A hearty meal to get him through a day of hard work. No fuss, though. Cold sandwiches with cold-cuts, hot black tea on most of the days, but any leftovers would do just as well. Breakfast is no celebration for him, just a way to fill his stomach. 

My mom’s childhood was less dramatic, but her grudges even bigger. One could define it as a middle child complex. She felt less favored than her older brother and had to help more with her younger sisters. She became very disgruntled about helping her parents, but at the same time, she used her diligence as a way of getting her parents’ love. Her breakfast? Very similar to my dad’s as far as simplicity, but lighter. It is just something to give her energy till lunch. Mindless chewing in silence, while the children are still asleep. 

Since my mom was preparing our food, we ate what she did. The meal was quick, simple and boring most of the time. But on ‘better’ days, she would spoil us with fruit fritters and freshly baked sweet rolls. Comfort food was her way of bonding with us and showing her love.

My parents’ tough childhood experiences and memories are just like their breakfast: no fuss, no celebration. A necessity. Since it was all they knew, our childhood was quite similar: a necessary phase before we grow up and gain independence.  Perhaps they wished they could sweeten our childhood a bit, but they didn’t know how. The sugary treats every now and then were a vague reminder of their attempts. 

My parents-in-law:

My father-in-law’s childhood reality wasn’t exactly a bed of roses, with his drinking father,  far from a role-model. As a result, he gave up feelings for rationale and created his own reality in the world of books and science. “Better things through chemistry”, he used to say. And if you look at his breakfast, it might not water your mouth, but it surely looks as if designed by a dietician. Full grains, yoghurt, fruit… he never shows much excitement eating it, but he knows it is good for him. 

My mother-in-law, on the other hand, could have a childhood of milk-and-honey. She was an only child, and her parents loved and spoiled her. However, her perfectionism, conscientious personality and an early start at school forced her to give the childhood up too early. She was in college before she got her driver’s license and she wasn’t ready for it.  Her breakfast? Very little, corresponding to her short childhood. But preferably, something indulging, like a buttery croissant. Can’t be too big, though. She needs to eat lunch early, about 11am. It will not be anything special or exciting.  Sensible chicken salad, even daily. 

But for her children, there would be cinnamon buns and syrupy pancakes. Such breakfast would fully reflect her idea of a perfect childhood.  To paraphrase what she says, children have the whole life to be responsible, so let children be children. 

Well, how did it work out for me and my husband? We both struggled for a while to find a balance between being a child and being a responsible individual. I took life too seriously, he lived to have fun. Over the years though, I learned to relax and he learned to make sensible decisions.  I changed my strict morning routine into a pleasurable event and my husband gave up his indulging morning smoothies for  grainy toast. Almost gave up.

And we just hope that our children will always view breakfast as a celebration with nutritious value. And that our knowledge about balanced breakfast will also help us to create a balanced childhood for our boys.

1bookperday in September

As September ushers in, the school gates open up for old and new students alike. Back to school time it is, ergo, back to routine and responsibilities. For many children, the only responsibilities. What I’d like to discuss and analyze this month is the connection between the responsibilities of our children and raising a responsible individual. Responsible, meaning reliable, accountable, and trustworthy. I believe that such individuals don’t just happen. They need to be raised. Responsibly. And the way, we, the parents, were raised has a big influence on our approach to responsibilities of our children.

So how to find the balance between spoiling and burdening. Let’s start with breakfast…