Ways to build responsibility and important life skills in kids (That aren’t homework)

Scouting offers many benefits for growing hearts and minds, but do we have time?

I’m looking at the side of a box of Girl Scout Cookies. (Samoas, if you’re curious. Yum!) As much as I love the cookies, I love buying them from Girl Scouts even more. The side of the cookie box says that the goals of the cookie program include “Goal setting” and “Decision making” . When I was a kid, that meant going door-to-door in my neighborhood, my Nana’s neighborhood, and usually at least one more. It meant dragging all those cookies door-to-door in a wagon, right around Thanksgiving, making deliveries and collecting cash. Although it’s not a strategy I would advocate for an eight-year-old today, it taught me things that sending the order sheet to my parents’ offices never could.

Do kids today have fewer opportunities to learn responsibility?

This has come up a few times lately. A teacher at my son’s daycare complimented me for waiting and insisting that my son (who is two) put away the toys he was playing with instead of tossing them over his shoulder when he saw me walk in. I see that as an important opportunity to teach him about respect for his classroom and teachers, and an extra lesson in the ongoing course Cleaning Up After Yourself 101, which I will be teaching every semester until he moves out, I am sure.

I was also recently talking to colleague who is an occupational therapist. We both work with students with various types of special needs, and we both see the hazards of letting kids grow up without functional skills. But we both admit that our kids (mine a toddler, hers school-age) don’t have enough opportunities to practice them. We both work full-time, and are too busy to fully engage our kids in learning to take care of themselves. When I have a day off, I try to let my son help in the kitchen (he loves to make rice in the rice cooker!) or with other chores (he knows you say “corner to corner…and fold it” when you fold a washcloth, but the rest eludes him so far). But on  weekday mornings, it is all we can do to get two adults and a child fed, dressed, and into the car. And in the evening, I am completely willing to put on a TV show and hope he sits quietly while I make dinner, load the dishwasher, and do whatever else I can manage before bed.

At my house, my son has (and will have, as long as I work full time) fewer chores and responsibilities than I had at his age, if only because my husband and I don’t have enough time to teach and supervise as much as my mom did when I was young. So while I was doing laundry at 10, cooking my own mac and cheese at 9, and peddling those cookies at 8, I don’t foresee my child having the same opportunities.

Are chores and responsibilities important?

The Girl Scouts believe that their cookie sales program teaches “goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills and business ethics,” among other things. The Center for Parenting Education cites benefits like improved sense of responsibility, more self-esteem, and increased ability to tolerate frustration and wait for what they want.
Parents also worry that their children need to learn to:

  • manage time better
  • communicate or speak up for themselves
  • understand the value of money
  • work independently
  • take care of themselves (this means different things at different ages)

So how do you balance the “must-do’s” of your life with the “should-do’s” of building responsibility?

I keep telling myself that the time I’m investing in teaching my son that dirty clothes go in the hamper and dirty plates go in the dishwasher in the toddler years is going to pay off when I no longer see him finish every meal or change every outfit. *fingers crossed*

But what else can we, as parents, do to promote independence in our kids?

  1. Sports – belonging to a team gives your child a whole bunch of people to be accountable to who are not relatives or teachers. Let’s Play names improved confidence, consistent exercise, respect and relationship-building as benefits of playing on a team. For students who struggle academically, it’s important to have something to be good at. For kids who aren’t athletically inclined, it still is important to find them a physical outlet they will enjoy. Maybe swimming, dance, martial arts, or cross-country running will give your child an athletic routine at their pace, even if they aren’t the best, fastest, or most coordinated.
  2. Chores – Simple, but tried and true.
    Age-appropriate chores are tricky to find, but rewarding!

    Giving your kids a routine of chores to be responsible for can help you out, make them feel like team members in the family, and teach them core skills that they will use all their lives. And hopefully, they’ll be more likely to avoid dripping toothpaste on the counter if they are the ones that wipe it down each evening. It can be tricky to find the right, age-appropriate chores. But if you start with things your child is motivated to do, you’ll have won half the battle.

  3. Personal growth goals – What does your child want to get good at? Do they want to become better artists? Learn how to program computers? Write novels? Look for opportunities in your community or online, and then build time for it into your family’s schedule. My husband is (from my lowly perspective) a computer genius. He learned it all fooling around on the family’s computer after school as a teenager. Who knows what your child can accomplish if you give them the basic tools and teach them to make time for what they love!
  4. Learning music has many benefits for a child’s development

    Musical instruments – This might fall under the category of “things your child loves” or it might just be another thing on the schedule. But either way, musical practice teaches your child time management (I quickly learned that practicing 45 minutes the day before my trumpet lesson was not the same as practicing 15 minutes a day all week long). Laura Lewis Brown, writing for PBS.org, cites several long term benefits of music lessons, including improved IQ, increased language skills, and  improved skills in visualizing information (like those needed to solve math problems).

So why didn’t homework make my list?

The wrong homework can be a waste of time!

Eh, I’m not a huge fan of homework. As a teacher, I know that’s borderline sacrilegious. And as a tutor, it seems like a total business-killer, right?

But hear me out.

The average teacher assigns the average homework assignment to the average student, right? Because otherwise, assigning homework would be a planning and management nightmare!

The research shows that homework is not effective for elementary students. In fact, for students with good home support, good homework can be beneficial. For kids with less support around homework, or for students who didn’t understand the lesson to begin with, it’s not so useful. I would still argue that for students struggling to master basic skills (those with reading disabilities) or those with attention difficulties (who have been expending huge amounts of energy to get through the day), homework is a much lower priority than spending an afternoon and evening playing, resting, and doing activities where kids are happy and successful.

Here’s my wish

I wish teachers didn’t have to assign homework. I wish families used that time for a few activities that are meaningful for the family. That’s going to vary a ton between households. For some families, it would be cooking dinner together, for others playing in the yard or attending sports practice, and for others it would be working in the family business. All of these options give kids valuable perspectives and life skills. And I hope everyone would have a routine of reading before bed, or maybe in the morning before school!

For most elementary kids, that type of quality family time, combined with how well-rested and prepared they felt at school the next day, would be what they need to succeed in school. I think kids would do better because family stress levels would be lower and relationships in the house wouldn’t have to revolve around math facts 5 nights a week.

Other kids may need some extra help somewhere along the line. Tutoring, provided in short, frequent, focused lessons, helps kids strengthen weak skills and catch up to their peers so they can make the most of each school day. Although it takes a chunk out of a child’s available time in the afternoon or evening, carefully planned tutoring can make a huge difference in your child’s school success, long-term!

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