Hidden Messages: What Our Words and Actions are Really Telling Our Children
Curt, a bright sixteen-year-old, was bursting with excitement over
his newly earned driver’s license. His mother, seeing an
opportunity for him to exercise his helpful tendencies, as well as
his newfound freedom, asked him to go to the grocery store to get
hamburger for dinner. The look on his face was jubilant! His mom
had never trusted him with such a task.
He grabbed the car keys and made a mad dash for the garage. She
went to the kitchen to begin dinner preparations. By the time
she’d finished and set the table, she began to worry. Time
passed-and still more. Where was Curt?
Just as she was considering a trip of her own to find him, Curt
came trudging through the door-without hamburger. "Where’s the
meat?" she asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. "They don’t sell hamburger at our
grocery store, Mom."
"Of course they do, Curt!" she exclaimed. But he sighed loudly and
persisted, frustrated that his mother didn’t get it.
"I went down every aisle twice, Mom, and they do not sell
Exasperated, she asked Curt to get back in the car, and she
climbed in beside him. On the way to the store, she muttered,
"It’s just like always around here. If I want something done
right, I have to do it myself." Once at the store, she marched
over to the meat cooler, Curt dragging behind. She pointed
dramatically and announced triumphantly, "There!"
She was stunned when her son, looking very puzzled-a beacon in a
sea of cellophane-packed ground meat-said, in the sincerest of
voices, "I don’t see any hamburger."
It took seconds for her to make the connection. Her son-her
driver’s-license-toting, beard-growing, college-bound son-had
never been asked to help with grocery shopping! Nor had he ever
prepared a meal! The truth was that he couldn’t recognize raw
hamburger if she threw it at his head! That head was currently
shaking back and forth in amazement. "Wow," he said, "I’ve never
seen it like that before."
When the fog cleared, other thoughts crept into her head: he’d
never done a load of laundry! He’d never balanced a checkbook!
He’d never changed a flat tire! He’d never sewn on a button, or
mended a tear in his pants! He’d never even packed his own lunch!
Since she’d always done all these things for him, he’d never had
the opportunity to do them for himself-and now her son, who was
rapidly approaching full adulthood, had no idea how to perform any
of these common rituals. She, with all the best intentions mixed
with a bit of all-too-human impatience, had unknowingly failed to
prepare her son for his foray into the real world. She was a good
The Hidden Message
"Don’t you worry about any of these tasks. I’ll do them for you.
I’ll always be there to do them for you."
Think About It
Sometimes, raising responsible kids isn’t so much about what we
do, but about what we don’t. By being "too good" of a parent we
rob our children of opportunities that help them develop tools for
success in adult life - tools that can’t be bought or given, but
must be forged by experience. Every task we complete for our
children is a task not done by our children.
I can imagine you now shaking your head at this page in protest,
asking a valid question: "But my job is to take care of my
children! Aren’t these tasks a part of my job?" Read this answer
slowly and carefully: No.
Your job is to raise responsible, capable young people who
eventually leave your home to build independent lives; your job is
to help them develop the skills necessary to do that. So, you
should feel good about teaching and transferring some household
duties to your children, knowing that this is an essential gift
that you’re giving them.
This is a process that should begin early and continue at a
regular pace. Introducing important life skills to your kids when
they turn eighteen isn’t feasible and might just be impossible.
For one, teenagers are busy; they’re eager to get on with life and
have little patience to learn mundane skills such as loading the
dishwasher. For another, they’ve already developed habits that are
hard to break. So, it behooves us to bring our babies into
childhood with a constant eye toward what we’re doing for them and
weigh it against what they could be doing for themselves.
Having said that, I maintain that it’s perfectly acceptable to
choose to cater to your child at times. If your child is sick, of
course, you shouldn’t tell him to get out of bed and make his own
chicken soup. If your child is unable to complete a task on his
own-due to his age or abilities-it’s an act of mercy to help him
out. Consideration as a character trait is every bit as essential
as independence. The difference in these cases is that you’re
offering-your child isn’t expecting.
Changes You Can Make
Begin by learning one useful word, to be uttered to yourself at
times when you catch yourself doing for children things they
should learn to do for themselves: "Don't."
This is one of the few times in parenting that you can be proud of
the things you DON’T do. Next time you see that crusty cereal
bowl, hum your mantra-"Doooonnnnn’t"-and refrain from taking it to
the sink. Instead, call your child, point to the bowl, and ask him
politely to take care of it. When you see those clothes lying on
the floor just outside the shower door, stop yourself-
"Doooonnnnn’t"- and ask your child to put them in the hamper.
Don’t pick up those crumpled-up snack wrappers left on the kitchen
counter-"Doooonnnnn’t." Request that your child give them a proper
burial. Resist the temptation to move the morning along by packing
your kid’s lunch. "Doooonnnnn’t." Instead, call her over to the
counter, and guide her through the lunch-making process.
These lessons needn’t be dreary. For example, next time you’re
about to put in a load of laundry, don’t simply trudge off to the
laundry room- "Doooonnnnn’t." As you pass your child, who is
reclined on the sofa watching TV, ask him to turn off the tube and
join you for a quick laundry lesson. You both might take pleasure
from the time you spend together, talking among the whites and the
darks, enjoying a few moments of conversation as you teach another
valuable life skill.
Yes, I know. You’ll have to go though this drill again and again…
But eventually, one bright day, you’ll realize that some learning
has taken place. (And just maybe your child will have caught on,
too.) As if by magic, your child will have taken care of that
cereal bowl without a word from you-and you can celebrate the fact
that he’s moved one step closer to being responsible for himself.
And as a bonus, you’ll have moved one step further from
Of course, this approach calls for common sense. You can’t expect
a three-year-old to cook his own dinner or a five-year-old to mow
the lawn. Start with simple age-appropriate responsibilities and
add to these as your child becomes more mature and capable. The
beauty of gifting your child with the skills of responsibility and
independence is that each skill is a building block upon which
many others are balanced. First your child learns to count the
spoons and fetch the napkins, then he learns to set the table,
next he learns to fill his own plate with food, after that he
learns how to make the salad, and before you know it, he has the
skills to prepare an entire meal.
My three older children, at the ripe old ages of eight, ten and
twelve - have the skills necessary to do exactly that. On several
occasions, they have been given the privilege of planning and
preparing a meal. The three of them discuss a menu plan and create
a shopping list. Then Mom, Dad or Grandma takes them to the
grocery store and the three kids do their shopping (as the
adult-in-charge sips a coffee at the front deli counter.) They
bring their groceries home and prepare the meal. It is absolutely
delightful to listen as the three of them converse and discuss the
details of the preparation, "Do you think these pieces are too
big?" "How long do you cook beans?" "Do you think this is enough
cheese?" The meals are very creative, usually colorful and even
tasty. In addition to knowing that they have learned important
life skills, the glow on their faces as they bask in the success
of their endeavor makes it all worthwhile.
So how do you get to this point? If your little one is younger
than six, consider yourself in the "training stage." This is a
time when learning occurs and habits form. I know: it’s so much
easier to pick up your child’s toys than to go through the
labor-intensive process that "letting your child do it himself"
really is. It does take more time and energy to "let" your child
pick up his toys, tie his shoes, and pour his juice; as the "help"
you need to give is often more complicated than if you would have
done it yourself. In the long run, however, you’ll save yourself a
virtual lifetime of catering to a child who has never had the
opportunity to assume these responsibilities at a young age. Such
a child will see you as his personal valet and will resist giving
up such a luxury. Wouldn’t you?
Plus, taking the time and expending the patience to help a willing
and enthusiastic three- or four-year-old learn to unload the
dishwasher is a lot easier than trying to teach a busy,
uninterested teenager, and then deal with the frustration when he
doesn’t keep up with it.
If your child is over six, every missed opportunity to teach a
useful household task prolongs your child’s dependence. Every
single time you pick up a dirty sock, a used tissue, a crusty
cereal bowl or a misplaced toy-every time you do this- you teach
your child to believe in the "cleanup fairy." This is not only
frustrating for you, but also difficult for your children when
they move out of the house and discover that the "cleanup fairy"
neglected to pack up and move with them.
This is one of those parenting tasks that are difficult for most
of us. But the benefits are great. Perhaps the most wonderful
payoff in allowing your child to master life through
age-appropriate tasks and skills comes from the boost to his
self-esteem. The more capable a child is, the more confident the
child will become. With confidence, and a full repertoire of
important life skills, comes a stronger, more positive self-image
that will enable your child to take on whatever life imposes.
Buy Hidden Messages - What Our Words and Actions are Really Telling Our Children!
Copyright © 2001 Elizabeth Pantley. Excerpted from Hidden Messages - What Our Words and Actions are Really Telling Our Children, with permission by NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group Inc.