By Kate Rice
— How can parents raise
responsible children — children who can keep themselves out of danger
and say "no" to alcohol, drugs and sex?
The best solution is an old-fashioned one that may, at first, seem
improbable: household chores. Chores top the list of most of the experts
interviewed for this story.
They had other recommendations as well, of course. Parents should be
responsible and set a good example. They must also make clear their
expectations for responsible behavior. And, though it can be difficult,
they have to let their children suffer the consequences of their own
mistakes and learn from those mistakes rather than bail them out (unless
it's dangerous not to). They shouldn't, for example, rush to school with
children's homework if they forget it.
Parents also need to monitor their children's use of the media. (See
our earlier story on media.) And it helps if parents can build a
community of like-minded friends for themselves and their families.
Finally, since teens are hard-wired to take risks, parents should try to
give them positive risk-taking options. (See our "tips" for more,
Why Chores Work
Still, say the experts, chores are key in raising responsible
children. But how can making beds and clearing the table help breed a
child who will say "no" to drugs, sex and alcohol?
Marty Rossman, associate professor of family education at the
University of Minnesota, finds that the best predictor of a child's
success — defined as not using drugs, quality relationships, finishing
education and getting started in a career — is that they began helping
with chores at age three or four. The study found that it was important
to start young.
Rossman is just completing an analysis of data from a study that
followed 84 people from childhood into their 20s.
While there are no guarantees, chores are the core of a strategy that
makes children active members of a family that builds bonds by working
together, helping children develop a sense of pride in their
accomplishments and improving communication. The chores have to be part
of a family endeavor with everyone involved. In other words, if you
think you can lie on the couch, television remote in hand, while the
kids rake the leaves, forget it. Children also have to be involved in
the decision-making process, determining what work needs to be done and
when it needs to be done.
The Earlier the Better
The younger they start, the better, say the experts. And that means
2- and 3-year olds can be expected, for example, to put away toys,
albeit with some help. If a toddler wants to help sweep with a baby
broom, by all means let him or her help. If you're starting with older
children, you've got to add tasks incrementally. Otherwise kids will do
chores only as long as you're willing to browbeat them into doing them.
The strategy of giving children family responsibilities works because
it gives them a sense of belonging to a team and being a contributing
member of that team, according to Janis Keyser co-author of Becoming
the Parent You Want to Be (www.becomingtheparent.com).
Children, especially older ones, desperately want to belong to a
group and chores make them an active part of an important one: their
family. Chores also build a sense of confidence and competence, traits
that help them resist peer group pressure.
Chores are also a way of giving children some leeway within a broader
framework that lets them practice making decisions and planning a
schedule. Ideally, they learn that making decisions requires a bit of
"When there's a choice to be made, pause, check your gut feeling and
follow your gut," is the lesson kids need to learn, says Mimi Doe,
founder of SpiritualParenting.com and author of 10 Principles For
Spiritual Parenting and Busy But Balanced.
All this makes for a child who functions better in the world,
according to Rossman, the University of Minnesota professor.
Of course, anyone who has ever asked any child to do anything knows
about the inevitable complaints and battles that can follow. Children's
complaints are valid. You've got to listen to them. That gives a child a
sense that they can disagree — recognition of their complaints validates
their opinions and can help equip them for disagreeing with their peers.
They still have to do the work that's expected of them but may negotiate
for different tasks next week or doing them according to a schedule they
It requires planning on parents' parts. Telling kids to do one thing
and then following that task with another and then another just makes
them feel put upon. You've got to be organized and reasonable in
Having children do chores also does not mean they get done faster.
But parents have to remember that it's not just about getting the job
done fast, it's about doing things as a family and teaching kids lessons
that will serve them well in the future.
"Parents want to get home and just get through the jobs themselves
and don't include them in making dinner or sorting laundry," says
Keyser. "We miss out. Parents should stop and think, this is my time
with my child, what do I want to pass on? It's not only how to make rice
or sort laundry but also it's a relationship to work on."
The question of allowances accompanies chores and, while children can
be paid for some chores, chores should not be tied to pay. The reason?
Everyone in the family pitches in to help. Mom and dad don't get paid
for making dinner or doing laundry; kids don't get paid for doing what's
their fare share.
When Keyser talks to children who do chores, she doesn't hear
complaints. She hears children who are proud about what they can do.
Choosing Not to Drink
Fifteen-year-old Jake Alexander and his younger brother and sister
live with their dad in the East Bay area near San Francisco. They have
plenty of chores to do around the house — folding laundry, cleaning,
vacuuming, setting and clearing the dinner table, doing dishes, taking
care of the dog and similar tasks.
Jake has far more responsibilities than his friends — who often find
themselves drafted to help out when they're at his house.
"They kind of complain because my dad has them do a little work, too.
There's always work to do around here," says Jake. "It's good for me
because I'm learning how to take responsibility and do all this and it's
kind of bad for them because they're used to having their parents do
everything for them."
Jake is at an age when he sees some of his peers using alcohol and
"I've made the choice not to drink at all," he says. He's had the
occasional invitation — and turns it down. "If I did it right now, I'd
regret it later," he says.
Chores have strengthened the family's bonds, says Jake. The family
dishwasher broke, forcing the family to temporarily do the dishes by
"At first it was, 'Oh, man, it's just more work because there's a
whole bunch of dishes to wash.' And after a while it got to be fun,"
Jake says. "It just got to a point where we could laugh and tell jokes
and talk about stuff that we needed to talk about that we didn't have
time to talk about."
Tips for Raising Responsible Children
Here are some experts' tips for raising responsible children:
--As children get older, parents need to realize that teens are hard-wired
to take risks, says Stephen Wallace, chairman of SADD (Students Against
Destructive Decisions/Students Against Drunk Driving). But these risks
don't need to involve alcohol, drugs or unsafe sex — although Wallace
says many parents consider that inevitable. He calls that the "myth of
inevitability." He sees opportunities for positive risk taking. He's
still researching this, but sees anecdotal evidence that activities
beyond the normal menu are most effective. Some of his examples: helping
to build a library for children in Zimbabwe, mountain climbing, starting
a community program for the homeless or getting involved in a project
working with the elderly.
--You don't have to do it alone, says James Morris, past president of the
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (www.aamft.org) and
assistant professor of marriage and the family at Texas Tech University.
He considers the idea of two parents (or often even one) raising
children alone is actually new and relatively unnatural.
Anthropologically speaking, clans or extended families raised children,
he says. So parents need to create their own little village for their
That could be church or synagogue or an informal group of like-minded
families. At the very least, it means knowing your kids' friends and
meeting their parents.
--Be clear with children about what you expect from them. "So often we
assume that our kids will absorb or somehow know the right choices,"
says Doe, when in reality, parents haven't been specific enough. A
family should have a philosophy of how it does things as a team to give
children a framework for their lives. Then, within that overarching
framework, parents have to make it clear that they're responsible for
their chores, remembering their lunch or their homework. And if a child
forgets, let them feel the consequences, she says.
--Having kids help with chores makes great sense on paper but is often
accompanied by such time-consuming resistance that parents end up doing
it themselves. Tackle it in increments. Give kids a chore list to check
off (try www.listorganizer.com for sample lists). Start small with
younger kids; add responsibilities as they get older. Or, if you're just
introducing them to older kids, add them incrementally. Most parents
underestimate children's capability to do chores says Elizabeth Pantley,
author of Perfect Parenting and Kid Cooperation(read her
helpful chore strategies at http://library.adoption.com/Teaching-and-Training-Children/Should-My-Kids-Do-Chores/article/1862/1.html).
--Give them tools. Set a time for cleaning rooms. Making beds is easier if
the child simply pulls up a duvet. Deconstruct tasks. Children get just
as overwhelmed by tasks as adults. A pile of toys can look overwhelming
so help by giving them one toy and reminding them where it goes, start
with the next, and so on.
Trade off. Tell a child you'll put away their toys if he or she will
bring you the baby's diaper bag so you can go out.
--You've got to walk the walk yourself. "My philosophy has always been to
teach by example," says Peter Alexander, Jake's dad. He believes in
accepting your responsibilities, being honest and working hard, tries to
do that himself and believes his kids share his values. Doe suggests
parents look in the mirror. If you've committed to work on a committee,
do you go to meetings or cancel at the last minute because you're tired?
If your child wants to take class that requires attendance five
Saturdays in a row, do you allow her to stay home when her interest
flags or require her to stick it out? (Doe notes that sometimes, a child
will have conflicts — say, attending a club meeting or finishing
studying for a major test — and cancellations have to be made, but those
are exceptions that parents and children can make after careful