Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, FAAP
Contribution isn’t only about good deeds and noble actions. Children also need to know that they can contribute ideas that will be taken seriously and respected. When adults invite children’s suggestions and opinions, especially about matters that concern them, we increase their sense of control, which in turn enhances their resilience.
For example, when planning a neighborhood playground, who knows better what type of equipment to install than the children who will use it? Who knows better what it would take to keep community children away from drugs than the kids living in that community?
Whenever adults design programs for children, the best ideas usually come from the young consumers themselves. As a qualitative researcher, I have asked adolescents some of these very questions and have found that they consistently arrive at wise answers that adults never would have considered.
In terms of our individual families, we can include children in family meetings and really listen to their ideas about how to resolve conflict and what kinds of specific supports or actions they need from us to help them reach their goals. When their ideas are heard and respected, kids learn skills, gain confidence, and come to understand that they can contribute to the well-being of themselves and their families _ all immeasurable gifts.
Speaking of family contribution, children can also contribute to families by doing their fair share of chores. The word chores may have an unpleasant ring from your own childhood. You may remember your parents nagging you to take out the garbage or mow the lawn. Today’s families don’t delegate many chores to children because we have so many labor-saving devices or because some parents believe kids should spend their limited time at home on homework or computers. Chores do have a place in developing several ingredients of resilience. Chores develop skills and responsibility that translate into new confidence.
Very young children can be given simple chores, such as collecting their toys and putting them in baskets or boxes when they finish playing. Preschoolers can learn to put dirty clothes in a hamper and carry their dishes to the sink counter. As children grow, chores should reflect more responsibility and skill around the house.
To make chores more tolerable, make sure that your child understands the steps required. Rather than saying, “It’s your job to take care of the cat,” give clear, specific instructions that will be understood _ “Pour out the dry food, empty the litter box.” If your child is old enough to read, written descriptions of chores and a schedule to check off when she completes them will help avoid excuses. (“I didn’t know that was my job. I thought it was Kayla’s turn.”) Many children love to check sheets or stick stars on charts because they show visible proof for all they’ve accomplished.
Be flexible and don’t expect perfection. So your child missed some fingerprints when she sponged off the door frames _ don’t grab the sponge from her hands and do the job over again in front of her. This only deflates her confidence and doesn’t enable her to become increasingly competent as she improves her skills.
Don’t delegate chores that are too difficult or daunting. Try to make them fit each child’s age, ability, and time. If it’s examination week, for example, be flexible enough to say, “I know you’re really studying hard this week, so I’ll do that one for you today.” Statements and generous gestures like this will model cooperation for your child. The next time you’re extremely busy, she may offer to help you!
Doing chores along with your child also promotes connection. Even daily duties like walking the dog can be opportunities for togetherness. Rather than handing your daughter the dog’s leash and sending her out the door, go along with her. It’s a chance for both of you to get some exercise as well as talk and listen to each other.
A special note about chores _ don’t take your child’s efforts for granted. When she completes her chores, acknowledge that fact and express your appreciation. Gratitude is a powerful connection and confidence booster.
Resilience in Times of Great Need
The ultimate act of resilience is to turn to another human being in times of extreme need and say, “Brother or sister, I need a hand.” This is never easy, but it may be necessary. We want children to become adults who can seek help without shame. If they have the experience of service, they will have learned a vital life lesson: It feels good to give; it is deeply rewarding to help other human beings. People who contribute to others’ well-being don’t feel burdened or put upon; they feel honored, even blessed, to have been in the right place at the right time, perhaps with the right training. People with this experience can turn to others more freely because they’re equipped with the understanding that the person guiding them through troubled times is there because she wants to be there.
Children deserve to learn this lesson through the opportunity of making a genuine contribution to another person’s life. They will learn there is no shame in reaching out, only a moment of authentic humanity.