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Teaching Accountability

When we were young, household chores were an important part of our upbringing. Kelly could make a bathroom sparkle by age 9, and Alan knew his way around a garden hoe even earlier than that.

We always envisioned teaching our children to develop a good work ethic, but nobody ever told us it would be so hard. We just kind of thought our children would do their chores with no argument. Yeah, not so much.

We tried the job charts (all different varieties), the chore wheels, the lists on the fridge, the nagging, the pleading. Finally, we tried something that seems to work. We learned some new ideas from Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein’s book, Raising a Self-Disciplined Child (McGraw-Hill, 2007), in the chapter on problem solving with children. Since trying the techniques, we’ve noticed an improvement in our children’s willingness to do their chores with little complaint, and in the general attitude at home.

Brooks and Goldstein recommend taking a good look at how we address our children and asking ourselves: “Would I want anyone to speak with me the way I am speaking to my children?” It brings to mind the golden rule.

The authors also suggest watching our timing, wording and tone of voice when we talk about problems. We’ve noticed that if we bring up issues when the tension is already high, we get nowhere. But if we try to enlist our children to resolve issues when there is a positive feeling in our home, they are more likely to respond.

Brooks and Goldstein write that when the discipline process focuses on problem solving instead of punishment, children are less likely to resist. They recommend trying to help children understand that any problem is the entire family’s—not just theirs or their parents’. When children are brought into the problem-solving process, it is surprising what good ideas they can come up with.

For example, our 8-year-old daughter, Camryn, is responsible for taking out the trash each Wednesday morning. Camryn also likes to sleep in, which used to result in frantic morning races around the house to make the trash collection.

Brainstorming with her led to a solution. She proposed that she collect the trash around the house the night before and get it ready to take out the next morning, so that it wouldn’t be such a rush. We tried her idea, and it has worked well ever since.

Now what to do if the issue isn’t so easily resolved? Most parents have experienced the need to try, try again when it comes to housework and discipline. Brooks and Goldstein advise parents to offer choices, be consistent and stick to the consequences.

Offering choices builds in some leeway, so children are better able to swallow an otherwise bitter pill. During the summer, our 12-year-old son loved to stay up late at night but still invariably woke up before 7 a.m. After a week or so of grumpy behavior, which we attributed to lack of sleep, we gave him the choice to stay up until 9:30 or 10 p.m. if he read in bed. He kind of smiled, as if he knew our ploy, but he chose the later time with minimal adolescent attitude.

Also important is to offer consequences when giving choices. We are forever saying to our 5-year-old, “Ethan, pick up your Star Wars figures, please. If you don’t, we will keep them in timeout tomorrow, and you won’t be able to play with them. It’s your choice.” The key is to actually follow through if he doesn’t do what was asked.

Sometimes, we forget the consequences we have set for certain misbehaviors, and frankly, sometimes, it is just easier not to enforce them. Kelly remembers sitting outside our then-3-year-old son’s room for almost a half-hour to enforce a three-minute timeout before he learned that he couldn’t leave the room when sent upstairs to sit on his bed. After all the wailing and gnashing of teeth Kelly endured, she would have gladly forgotten the punishment, if she didn’t know that 10 years down the road she would regret it.

So why do we go to all the trouble to give choices, to follow through with consequences and to go the extra mile to be consistent? Brooks and Goldstein say the purpose of discipline is to teach children to think for themselves, and to reflect on their actions and the consequences that flow from them.

It’s all about accountability and responsibility. If those qualities are the harvest, then we will continue to use the work ethic we learned from our parents in order to reap it.

Alan and Kelly Taylor live in Liverpool with their five children. Kelly holds a master’s degree in family studies; Alan is an assistant professor in Syracuse University’s Department of Child and Family Studies.

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