If we don’t teach our kids to do things for themselves, then they won’t have a clue how to manage their life when they’re on their own.

I’m not sure who said it first or why (not that it matters), but whoever it was that came up with the line “there are no free rides” is my hero. Because it’s true in every aspect of our lives, especially where kids are concerned. We all need to learn how to pull our own weight, both in our personal and our professional worlds, as much for ourselves and our own sense of independence as for the people we interact with along the way. And the earlier we learn that, the better off we are in the long run. This is exactly why one of the best things we can give to our kids is a sense of ownership and responsibility. In fact, the sooner we do this the better.

Otherwise, we’re raising a generation of freeloaders. And we can’t be doing that, now can we?

I know, I know, we don’t want to impose on our cute little munchkins to do too much too soon. I mean, they’re so little and so inexperienced and so fragile, right? Uh, wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Our kids are way more capable than we realize, way earlier than we think they are. We’re just so used to caring for them and coddling them and wiping their chins (and butts) for those first handful of years that we often don’t recognize when they’re ready to start taking on some age-appropriate responsibilities. We see them as helpless little babies who need hand-holding, who have to keep their hands away from the stovetop, and who shouldn’t help put the china away. And while that’s true to a point, with the right guidance our kids can also be real contributors if we give them a chance. Without things like chores and regular tasks, our kids become entitled, and an entitled kid is B-A-D. Because an entitled kid becomes an entitled adult. And that’s even worse.

With my kids, we threw chores at them almost from the time they could walk and talk. We wanted them to feel like valuable little members of our family, so we involved them in as much of the day-to-day chores and routines as we could so they’d have a feeling of ownership in the home they were growing up in. You know, as a way of developing a sense of pride in themselves and where they came from.

We handed out the reasonable stuff in the beginning (when they were around four or five), like putting their dishes in the dishwasher and clothes in the hamper and trying to get themselves dressed (I stress trying, because watching a four-year-old try to manhandle a pair of tights on her own is dicey). Then, when they got a little older (like six or seven) we turned up the heat and doled out the more advanced, highly complex stuff like feeding and walking the dog and bed-making and running loads of laundry. Expanding their repertoire, you know?  

Expanding their repertoire, you know?

Now relax, we weren’t exploiting any child labor laws. We were just involving our girls in our day-to-day family routines, so they’d get a sense, early on, of how to manage the life skills that everyone needs to master by the time they go out on their own. We started when they were young because, let’s face it, there’s a lot to learn and the learning curve is wide. Kids don’t come out of the womb knowing how to bake the perfect chocolate chip cookie with just the right amount of chew factor, properly clean the dryer filter, or correctly fold a fitted sheet. Those things all have to be practiced over and over again. For years. Starting them early eases them into the routine of doing these things regularly.

It’s also to our advantage to let our kids get a feel for what we have to do every day as parents. Because I don’t know about you, but for the longest time my kids thought a pile of neatly folded laundry just spontaneously appeared on the corner of their bureau every week; or that a team of sneaky little ninja elves snuck into their rooms every Sunday morning and changed their sheets, leaving them crisp and smelling lemony fresh; or that food cooks itself and finds its way to the kitchen table every day; or that groceries instinctively know how to travel from the supermarket into our fridge—all by themselves. We need to prove to them that all of this stuff happens manually, not magically. And the best way for them to understand that is by rolling their sleeves up and getting their noses in there.

The best way for kids to understand how all those household chores happen is by rolling their sleeves up and getting their noses in there. By the time I was ten years old, my dad had taught me how to use a lawnmower, how to pump gas, how to change a flat, and how to pump up my own bike tires. The list is long. And my mom did the same, teaching me how to Con-Tact paper my dollhouse walls (indispensable life skill), how to bake a level birthday cake, how to water the flowers without drowning them. That list was just as long. And learning all those things just made me want to learn more things. Because I found knowledge to be power.

I can remember being seven or eight, eating at my mom and dad’s favorite restaurant, begging them and our regular waitress to give me a job. All I wanted was my own little spiral order notebook and white half-apron. I wanted to clear tables and take orders and wash dishes. I mean, I would’ve cleaned out toilet bowls just to say I had a job. And it wasn’t even about earning money; I just wanted a purpose. (Again, don’t ask me why. I was a bit stupid back in the day.)

So what did my parents do? After hearing me beg for a job week after week, they secretly arranged with the waitress and the owner to let me “work” in the kitchen. And the night the waitress called me into the kitchen to “tell me something” was a defining moment for me. Because when I walked into the kitchen and she and the cooks handed me a little white apron and a notebook from the Five & Dime Store, I was finally being taken seriously. Which is really all most little kids want anyway.

They let me take people’s orders (those people being my parents). They let me stack dishes and fold napkins and put ice in the glasses. In my head, though, it felt like they were trusting me with nuclear launch codes. That’s how grown up I felt. And because of that, I wanted to do the best job humanly possible. Their faith in my ability to do the job (any job) inspired me. It gave me the confidence to believe I could do it and that got me inspired. For a kid, that’s big.

“How To Raise Perfectly Imperfect Kids And Be Ok With It” contributor Debra Gansenberg, MSW, LICSW (L) with author Lisa Sugarman (R). Photo courtesy of McCaul Lombardi 2019