Advice to Parents on Teaching Children Social Responsibility

Most advice to parents on teaching children social responsibility makes the mistake of assuming that being socially responsible is an unnatural act. It is a big mistake and easily fixed.

Many of these “how-to’s” have great suggestions like: “Choose age-appropriate tasks,” “Make the job a game,” and “Establish a routine,” but between the lines you can detect that the author thinks wanting to be a contributing member of your family is unnatural. The opening sentence of one particularly good list of tactics for getting kids to be make contributions to family life makes the strategic error of beginning with:

“A three or four year old isn’t developmentally ready to focus on the greater good or to understand his role in the family, let alone his role in society (he does know, however, that he’s the center of the universe!)”

How parents frame questions determines the results because children have highly sensitized reality-testors which pick up and analyze all the social information, most of which is non-verbal. If a child senses that “work” is a bad thing, for instance, they will resent and resist “tasks.”

In “Want Cooperative Children? Treat Them As If They Are” I report on research that shows that children have been researching their social milieu for thousands of hours by the time they are 18 months and, therefore, have a pretty good sense of what another person wants and, furthermore, have a natural desire to give that person what he wants.

Two-year-olds are definitely focused on the greater good (within their limited horizon). They are passionate about the social context in which they live, passionate to learn all they can about “how things work around here,” and to figure out where they belong in their social context (mostly family) and how they impact it. Their natural, default preference would be to make a difference that is appreciated. A great kindergarten teacher I know used to say: “I see every unused ability in my class as an incipient behavior problem.” Maybe, if you are witnessing a behavior problem, you are looking at an unused ability.

Don’t underestimate the work that a 3-year-old can do. They can learn how to make cupcakes, fold laundry, get the mail, set the table, rake leaves. Dozens of things. Marianne Dunlap of Prairie Flower Montessori School in Decatur can give you a list of about 200 examples for all ages.

But if you see your child as needing to find ways to participate as a full fledged member of the body politic, activities will become obvious. People don’t tend to love “chores,” but most people like to be on a mission for the people they love.  A sign that you are doing something wrong is if you give extrinsic rewards for the work.

If the parental attitude is right, you are doing children a favor when you show them how to do something useful.  Here’s an article with the right attitude: How Kids Benefit from Chores. It takes for granted that children want to help. What if parents say “Thank you” for contributions to the family, and children give that same “Thank you” to the parents, How’s that for a vision: everyone getting the same thank you?

“Hey, will you help me do the dishes? I’ll wash and you dry.” If the parent doesn’t get an enthusiastic response they are doing something wrong: perhaps timing, or tone of voice, or attitude.

In response to another article I wrote about children’s natural inclination to be socially responsible Mary Anderson, principal of a public Montessori school in Decatur commented:

“Now you’ve done it. You are giving away all my secrets. 🙂 All humans have the need to feel important and a part of something bigger than themselves. Children especially feel this need deeply. No greater joy is there than when they are put to a useful task. We must allow people of all ages to show us their best selves and to do that we must let them help and serve others.”




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14 thoughts on “Advice to Parents on Teaching Children Social Responsibility

  1. I believe that is helpful to give children (of all ages) meaningful work whether in chores, community participation, or in a “real” job where they experience their own ability making a difference, and getting some kind of positive response and reward, not necessarily money but that works too, especially with older ones. Too much passive or interactive screen time isn’t physical enough in my world. Get the bodies moving with mind and spirit!

  2. Thank you, Gary. Your comment reminds me of the powerful impact of a good service learning project on students’ feelings about themselves, the sense that they matter, their empathy, their problem solving skills, their grades and their test scores.
    When a child experiences that every year, because a school has established a k-12 program, that alone can make schooling an education for each and every student.

  3. More great insight from you, Rick. Thank you! I really appreciate your statement “most people like to be on a mission for people they love.” Spot on! When we adults come from the clear perspective that we, in this family, are a loving team, here together to help each other, the question “Would you like to help me do the dishes?” seems like a query from Mars, as it implies that helping someone you love is a choice to be determined by whim or mood rather than our go-to place of loving kindness.

  4. Your reaction to the question “Would you like to help me do the dishes?”
    shows that the framework in a person’s head determines its meaning. In my mind, one should always ask nicely even though the assumption is that, of course, you would want to. My father grew up asking: “May I trouble you to pass the salt.” As you say: what’s the trouble?
    Glad we agree, Annie (not surprised).

  5. Rick you’re spot on about parental mindset and attitude. In our culture it is very odd that parents spend so much time seeking the approval of their kids. In most other cultures kids want to find ways to be helpful without even being asked so they can get parental approval. Their sense of obligation comes innately. “Do you want to help me do the dishes?” gives the kids the power to say NO. “Come help me do the dishes. You can choose to wash or dry. Or we can take turns doing both.” This kind of phrasing makes the parent in charge and assumes the task will be done but leaves room for the child to decide how to help.”

    Also “What can we do to help out around the house?” By asking kids open ended questions it empowers them to make the choice that they’re most inspired or interested to do in that moment. A three or four year-old intuitively knows if his body needs to get gross motor skills from mopping the floor or fine motor skills from rinsing the silverware or a bit of both by sorting the recycling.

  6. Brilliant, Matt. Thank you. Yes, how we phrase things is so important: the choice of words, interrogative or imperative. A great example of what I wrote about last week: exercising parental authority so that it builds authority in children.
    How goes the teaching?

  7. Oooh, there is so much good in this post! Many parents of young children are surprised when I say to them, “Your child wants the same things you want. They want their family to work, and they want to help make it work. They’d love for you to be happy and successful – especially with regard to (but not limited to) your success and fulfillment as a parent.”

    Do kids benefit from chores? As others have said, it depends on your attitude about it, how you phrase it, and all that is determined (by default) by your past, by your parents, by your beliefs.

    I started out hating clean up time in my classroom of threes and fours, … that was my default response. When I was a kid, I remember getting as far away from the house as possible when either of my parents gave any clue that some house cleaning was in order! Here is what I tested out in my preschool class: I announced that clean up time was about to begin. I told them they could help out or not, and if they chose not to, then to go read a book and stay out of the way. I started pushing a dump truck around, filling it with out-of-place stuff and trash. Then I’d drive it to the appropriate area and unload it. Soon I had four or five kids joining in with other trucks, being unloaders, being stackers and sorters. I gave away the truck to another drive, and turned myself into a crane that lifted stuff up to higher shelves, and the children invented other imaginative ways to accomplish clean up. We begin to time clean (just for fun) and each day it took less time, so we had more time to do something else. Then, at the end of clean up time, I pretended to be an OSHA inspector (after explaining what that was in reality) and nitpicked about anything I could find. The children loved the challenge of getting an okay from the OSHA inspector. From then on I always had enough volunteers so we got everything put away and enjoyed the process. And then I could “go on vacation” and it would still happen.

    I’m not suggesting that parents do it by crawling around on the floor like I did. The point is to find some way to change our own default attitudes about “chores” (maybe use a different word!), begin doing it, and invite your children to join in. Context is everything, and we have our default contexts for nearly every situation. We cannot erase them or stop our reactions, but we can notice them, put the shoe on the other foot, and ask, what is not working about this? Responsibility cannot be forced or taught. It is best learned through example, but only if the example is true responsibility – an opportunity, not an obligation. Oh, by the way, I’m not saying I think everything has to be fun. I was in a pre-K environment, but even there I’ve seen kids tackle lots of not fun stuff because they could see/feel the difference they could make.

  8. Another great application of “Treat people as if they know what they are doing.” It really does work.

  9. Thanks for your thoughtful advice and the stimulating forum, Rick.

    Setting aside the age appropriate considerations…

    We live in an era where the value of fun is inflated. How do we approach the things in life that aren’t FUN, FUN, FUN? Is it a good strategy to make work “fun” for kids? While sometimes possible, I don’t think this is usually the case. Well done work creates things or conditions of lasting value, while fun is an aspect of process and the moment. Often, fun can only be had BEFORE and/or AFTER work is done. (i.e. setting up and cleaning up) So, a parent’s work is to pass along the techniques as well as the spirit of the execution and value of work in an appropriate and positive way. The objective contribution to the family, the “first community”, is at the heart of the ongoing lessons.

    Our epoch of sanitized children’s mythology (Bambi’s mom DIES, dammit!) has atrophied the other lasting lessons that feel – on the surface – like shadow. Teaching work, which we don’t love either, is a lot of EXTRA emotional and practical work for parents. The frantic and oppressed parents of the 21st century are faced with having to ADD this time to the mounting (or neglected) list of things for the family “TO DO”. Since we are specialized in our professions, we are not particularly good at the basic and essential things. Sure, you can Google it, but it doesn’t mean you’re good at it. Even if you are good at tasks, it doesn’t mean you are good at TEACHING tasks. Finally, “Homemaker” is now a negative word, so the myriad essential skills therein now fall subliminally into the lower caste system of emotional bias.

    Our generation of itinerant suburban/urban parent is a long way from the agrarian culture of my parent’s generation, where there was not a question of “if” a child would participate and contribute. We are now diffused and distracted from the essential connections to community. One of the most important community skills is work.

    “Quality family time” (shudder, shudder) is rarely the escapist, Kodak moment as advertised. For me, that quality time has been teaching the skills and the spirit that will lift children into a future of functionality by modeling the attitude needed to start, organize and finish life’s tasks together as a family. Holistic thinking comes from connecting the whole spectrum of cause and effect, and the rhythm of daily, weekly, and monthly work that forms the basis of living.

    Thursday’s dinner has to be made… A school paper is due… Saturday dawns… “To work, or not to work?”

    “What has to be done right now and how do we divide up the work to get it all done together?”, that is the question.

    It takes honesty. “I don’t like this either, but this is how I get it done.” The need and benefit outweigh my dislike of a task. The honesty of cleaning the toilet well is not how I make it “fun” but how I do it well and how good I feel about getting it done, even if it is relief. This is a facet of satisfaction, which is as important as fun to me bit it feels “deeper”.

    Teaching our boy to vacuum took a lot of time and repeated lessons. Of course, now I can clean the kitchen WHILE he vacuums so we can go play baseball sooner. Did I teach him to “like” vacuuming? No. But I thank him, comment on the his work, and his cleaning role is equal to mine. We strive together towards a common goal. The house needs to be cleaned. I connect it to our well-being and our ability to go have fun together SOONER. Efficiency. Teamwork. Later, we come home to a clean house, bang off our cleats, and I am again demonstrably and generally thankful as we open the door to a clean house. My gratitude is not overtly towards him, but that OUR work created OUR moment. The fruit of our labor is also the sensation that necessary work has been negated and we created value. WE got through it. WE did it. WE are better for it.

  10. Brilliant, Marshall how you turned I/You into We. This is a much better vision than two equal thank you’s

  11. Great post and nice comments … so true. I remember just hating to be around the house when I was in my early teens when either my mom or dad was in a clean up state of mind. It felt horrible. It took me several years of teaching preschool to get clean up time to work, but I did find a way. And by work I mean nearly everyone participated, had fun and/or felt good about making the difference it made (that’s something my parents never mentioned, by the way).

  12. I love this post. The commentators have some really great ideas about clean up time. Attitude really is everything. It’s funny, my 14 month old’s favorite thing is to push the broom/mop/vacuum around and pretend he’s cleaning. I never thought about the fact the jobs children choose are the things that they need to develop. My six year old is not a fan of “chores” but only wants to do the things she is keen on. Picking up and organizing toys isn’t her thing, but she likes to mop. Large motor skills. I should let her more often, but for me the problem is letting go of perfection. That is something I still need to work on, as I cannot even stand the quality of mopping my husband does. However, I will definitely use some of your suggestions and take advantage of my children’s interests in the area of housework.

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