Like a car that has been sitting in the driveway all summer, many of us begin the school year with the human equivalent of cold engines and under-inflated tires. We are not quite ready for the homework and the sports practices, the influx of papers and the outflow of checks. We dread the expected conflicts over chores, homework, staying organized, and getting places on time. As predictable as backpacks, calculators, and binders are upcoming arguments about responsibility.
The start of a school year is a good time to rethink how our children handle their responsibilities. Here are a few tips to help parents kick off the new year with a sense of purpose and enthusiasm.
EMPHASIZE SELF-RESPONSIBILITY: When children manage responsibilities independently, they grow in self-discipline as well as in respect for themselves and for others. Most school-aged children can learn to monitor what time the school bus leaves; deliver papers between school and home; and keep school supplies, library books, and personal belongings in designated places. They can clear and wipe the table, load and empty the dishwasher, and help sort and fold laundry. They can participate in planning when to start homework and when to get ready for bed. We often assign tasks to children based on what we ourselves can or cannot do rather than on what would be appropriate for them to do. Instead, encourage independent self-care, initiative, and self-monitoring. A new school year provides an excellent time to review and revise responsibilities.
ENCOURAGE CHOICES: When more than one outcome of a decision is acceptable to parents, children can be involved in decision making. Children are often involved, for example, in choosing extracurricular activities. Choices can be expanded to include such decisions as: whether chores or homework are completed first; whether a long-term project should be tackled on week nights or on the weekend; whether practicing an instrument happens before or after supper. Children should not be allowed choices that parents find unacceptable, but they benefit from exerting some decision-making about activities that affect them.
PROVIDE GUIDING PRINCIPLES: While all families have implicit or explicit rules, these alone will not create a family culture of respect and responsibility. Nor will they guarantee the development of character and integrity. Values that most families share include: honesty, accountability, positive attitudes, courtesy, courage, humility about mistakes, risk-taking, facing obstacles, learning from experience, and developing one’s individual talents. Fall is a useful time to review important family principles for the upcoming year and to
establish a plan for monitoring success. Fostering these principles explicitly helps children develop character skills that will benefit them for a lifetime.
DEFINE TASKS AND CONSEQUENCES CLEARLY: Children handle chores, clubs, sports, and schoolwork best when they know exactly what is expected of them. Posted lists of jobs and time limits can help. If pleasurable activities such as television and video games are only allowed after homework and chores are completed, most children will learn to complete their jobs with reasonable efficiency. Choose consequences that truly motivate and that can be enforced. Consider adding work or chores as an alternative to removing privileges.
INVOLVE OTHER ADULTS: When parents supervise work that was assigned by other adults (e.g., homework from school or religious instruction, Scout badges, and the like), those adults should be consulted when problems arise. An adult-to-adult conference can clarify what role, if any, parents are expected to play. A conference that includes parents, the other adult, and the child will usually provide a powerful message about how a child’s responsibilities should be handled and how adults are working together to foster independent responsibility.
ALLOW EXTRA TIME: Children are typically much less efficient than adults in their use of time. They get distracted and off track. They become absorbed in the present and forget time limits easily. They don’t watch the clock. Rushed children and frantic parents can be a volatile combination at any time of day. Building extra time into the schedule can reduce conflicts and tensions enormously. Consider ways to reorganize the order in which tasks are done until you find a schedule that works best. Consider whether some activities (choosing clothes, packing backpacks, making lunches) can be done in the evening. Consider having parents get up and dressed before children. Minor changes in the schedule (dressing before breakfast, shoes and socks placed at night near the front door) can sometimes reduce problems significantly.
It is wise to use natural transition times (birthdays, start of a school year) to review and revise what we expect of our children. As parents, we can foster character development through how we help them to handle their new responsibilities.