responsible kidsThere are so many powerful thoughts regarding raising small souls cruising through my mind today that I scarcely know where to begin! We recently returned from a most unique vacation- a wilderness program for ‘at-risk’ teens in the San Francisco Bay area.

After my husband worked in the camp for the latter half of July, the staff flew both of us out West for the last weekend of the program.

The all-boys program consisted of twenty defiant young men and an additional twenty staff members.

Anger management, improving social skills, connection with family, and enhancing feeling of self-worth are some of the crucial topics that are covered during formal sessions as well as informal activities.

The twenty-foot truck that contained all the provisions necessary to support forty people in the wilderness was a lesson onto itself.

Personally, when we travel to New York to visit family members, it takes me hours to pack the luggage necessary for my family of five- and even more time to load the minivan in a semi-organized manner!

Thus, the sight of HUNDREDS of massive Rubbermaid bins, all neatly labeled, being loaded and unloaded onto the truck in assembly-line fashion by rowdy teens was, indeed, a sight to behold.

Each bin was clearly marked: sleeping bags, flashlights, propane, garbage bags, tents, air mattresses, perishables (fresh ice was purchased for these bins each day!), tools, drug tests, snacks, tissues, plates, cutlery, sunscreen… are just some of labels I can recall offhand!

Young men had helped their mothers set the table for dinner, as I watched them lug the heavy food-related bins around the campfire, and how often they made their beds at home as they pitched tents, pumped mattresses, and unrolled sleeping bags in the forest.

What are some of the ideas used in the wilderness that we parents can implement in our daily lives in order to foster greater responsibility in our children?

Here are several thoughts that I gleaned at a campsite outside of San Francisco that can help you wherever you are:

Idea #1: Get involved!

Particularly at the beginning of a new project, or if this is the child’s first time participating in this task, do not ‘delegate and leave’.

It can be tempting to say, “clear the table” or “put away the laundry” and turn towards another task – (I’m very guilty of this one, since I feel that I’m ‘using my time wisely’… however in the long run, it’s truly ‘un-wise’!) Yet, in all likelihood, your child is not yet equipped to remember all the instructions you gave, know where all the items belong, and have the ability to focus for the duration of the task without getting distracted.

Be involved with the project you have assigned to your child. Help him by putting a few pieces of silverware into the dishwasher or placing the socks into the appropriate drawer.

You are being a mentor, actively demonstrating how the task should be accomplished. Additionally, your presence and participation will guide your child to follow through on the task until it is completed. (Have you ever had your son clear only the plates off the table and then disappear from the kitchen? Try to recall what YOU were doing at that time- when you are involved the ‘disappearing act’ seems to disappear!)

Idea #2: Offer an incentive!

“If we unload the truck in 60 minutes we’ll all get Slurpees!” the director of the program announced upon our arrival at a new campsite.

Yesterday, I did the same thing. A recent family trip to New York had left our minivan resembling a battlefield in a war zone. (A battle of chips, water-bottles, CD’s, and Mapquest printouts!) After handing each of my three children a grocery bag, I announced, “Whoever fills their bag garbage from the van within ten minutes will get a piece of birthday cake!”

In short order the Pontiac was sparkling, and the children were enjoying the remnants of the birthday cake from earlier in the week.

There was no cajoling, nagging, or whining. There was a simple announcement, with the anticipation of a desired reward, and the responsible participation in the chore was the virtually effortless result.

Idea #3: Reframe your perspective regarding housekeeping: Your goal is to raise responsible children; having a spotless home is not the main objective.

This can be a tough idea to integrate into our mindset!

Our primary job as adults is to teach our children to be productive, responsible, people.

Your child simply has no interest in hearing his mother yell, “I’m not the maid around here!!!” There is nothing for him to learn from that statement, and quite frankly, he really could not care less whether you or hired help are doing the housekeeping.

Yes, it’s nice when the house is neat as a pin.

Yet, it’s even nicer when your child can contribute to the household in a way that utilizes her talents and strengths.

Some children are good at fine-motor-tasks like polishing silver or folding laundry, others are better at organizing and consolidating, while still others may shine at gross-motor-tasks, such as vacuuming or raking leaves.

If your child enjoys decorating or a sense of control in the household, engage her in your housekeeping decisions, such as; “Honey, where do you think we should keep the garbage?” or, “Where would be a good place to hang up these hooks for your coats?”

Idea #4: Relax!

Nobody ever died of wrinkled laundry or dirty dishes!

As your children grow and leave the nest, you’ll have more time to clean and less people to make a mess… and you may even come to miss their dirty fingerprints on the glass door!

Here’s a lovely poem, author unknown, that is worth it’s weight in gold hanging on every refrigerator!

Excuse This House!

Some houses try to hide the fact that children shelter there.

Ours boasts of it quite openly, the signs are everywhere!

For smears are on the windows and little smudges are on the door.

I should apologize, I guess, for the toys strewn on the floor.

But I sat down with the children and we played and laughed and read;

and if the doorbell doesn’t shine, their eyes will shine instead.

For when at times I’m forced to choose the one job or the other . . .

I want to be a housewife – but first I’ll be a mother!


Do share your tips for teaching responsibility below!


  1. My eldest sister told me when I lamented during my earliest days of motherhood that I had to choose between being a good employee, being a good housekeeper and being a mother. I could do two of the three but NEVER three of three. And if I should choose the first of the two, I would forever miss having my time with my daughter. The other two I could recover, but she would be forever gone from me. I’ve never regretted the dirt and funny thing, I don’t care even now about my house as much as I used to. I’ve relaxed and enjoy my life MUCH more. I hope I’ve made a difference in hers for its remainder.

  2. Hi, Great Article!
    I have one little tip that got my 8yr. old to help with the dishes. This may seem very obvious to many, but it didn’t to me. I have her unload the dishwasher. She only has to put away the spoons as she can’t reach anything else. All the other dishes are stacked on the counter and I put them away when I can. Meanwhile, I put the dirty dishes in the washer and instantly the kitchen looks much better. In addition I give her .50 for this task and that works real well, too.Thanks again for a great article.

  3. As a mother and an El.teacher, I find teaching responsibility is easiest and most effective when approached as a team effort. Not only should we be involved in our children’s activities, but we should allow them opportunities to work closely with other children. Learning a task together allows them to share the duty, share the consequences of a job poorly done, and enjoy the larger benefits of a job well done. Learning any new thing requires encouragement, accountability and much review. Don’t expect it to happen all at once and don’t expect everyone to ‘get it’ at the same rate.

  4. Well, with my first child I Lysoled everything she or her freinds played with. The second child I said this is crazy, I can’t keep up! Two kids and one husband (kid)! Yes…..I walk around constantly saying “I’m not the only one that lives here!” “Honey, if you step over that toy one more time without picking it up, I’m going to scream!” Louder!!A friend said some very kind words to me one day as she walked in the door with me apologizing for the mess……”You’re house is so welcoming and LIVED IN!” I will always remember that in the back of my mind, especially when I go over to other people’s perfect houses. And yes, our girls are growing so fast.

  5. I am a single mother of 8yr girl, 3yr boy, and 2yr girl… This all is such great advice! This just confirms the fact that the stress I get from not having a spotless house needs to go! I will start working on “letting it go” more so I can enjoy my kids 🙂 Thanks to you all!

  6. Start them early! My son is 2, and loves to “help”, so, with either my husband or myself, he sorts and “folds” the laundry, loads and unloads the dishwasher, vaccuums, sweeps, washes walls and the car, picks up his toys (only twice a day), waters the plants, and he takes great pride in putting his trash in the trash can and dirty dishes in the sink.
    My house is far from spotless, in fact, it’s hardly ever tidy, but we’re clean enough, he’s learning that everyone in the house pitches in, and most importantly, it doesn’t feel like a chore anymore!

  7. I have never really agreed with rewarding this kind of thing, or bribing. I tell my kids (and mt students) that we all help because we all live here and it is part of being a family (or class). $.50 for a chore now may not seem like much, but what happens when they are a teen with a job, and say they don’t need your money? And I think rewarding with food can lead to all kinds of obesity problems later….
    I am surprised a bit that a site that is trying to help us raise kids would take a cavalier attitude about external gratification….

    • What ways do you suggest in teaching them about money, a reward for work, where it comes from and how to handle it wisely?

    • Everyone is definitely entitled to their opinion, and years ago I would have agreed with you. However, I heard a speaker once exlplain that the difference in bribing and rewarding is the desired outcome: bribing is paying (not necessarily in money) for bad things or to keep the child from bad behavior, but rewarding is paying (again, not necessarily money) for good outcome or good behavior. He also pointed out that most of us, as adults, are rewarded in one way or another for almost everything we do.How many of us would keep a job if we didn’t get paid, or stay married if all we ever heard was negative comments? After hearing this, I changed my thinking. It’s made a difference in my family and in my thinking. No, I did not pay my children for everything they did and they were expected to do some things because we are part of a family…but even that…being part of a family unit, is a reward. Two of my children are grown and are responsible, productive members of society…so I know this approach works. My other child is only 4, but is also already responsible and very helpful. Her rewards are very rarely anything to do with money.

    • Melissa Scott says:


      I am a mother of three happy, healthy, polite, and bright children (oldest 20 female, oldest male 17, and youngest male 12. I also taught school for fifteen years. I am definitely guilty of what I like to call rewarding or giving incentives to children, or as you refer to as bribing children. I graciously rewarded my children
      and students when they worked hard; and I had them work hard in order to receive something they wanted. You don’t always have left over birthday cake to offer so the next time maybe whoever helps gets to listen to their favorite CD or watch their favorite movie. I think the people just meant to make the tasks a bit more fun for everyone. Everyone likes an occasional piece of cake and a reward for a job well done. There is something to be said for happiness and good times together. My students loved my class and tested extremely well. My children are certainly not perfect, but they remember their childhood fondly, love their home, have no eating disorders,
      And the day one of my kids tells me to keep my money well, I guess I’ll have to see it to believe it. Just have fun with your family, give some incentives, and laugh together while you lick icing off your fingers. Happiness is good for the soul!

    • I hear what you’re saying, Robin, but I also agree with what someone else said below about being paid. We all get paid for our occupations…why not view this as an opportunity for your kids to begin to understand the value of a job well done, and the rewards that can go with it. There are, of course, natural consequences and natural rewards–“If you don’t pitch in, we can’t get to ___________ as soon. If you help Mommy, we can go out and play sooner.” But money can be tied in to show how things can be earned for future use. I think it all depends on how you present it. My allowance growing up was partially just given to me, and part was dependent on chores I did. I had a list to pick from, and the more that I did, the more I earned. I thought it was a great lesson!

  8. Hi, I am a mother of three teenage children. I find that having a clean house is not as important as spending quality time with my childeren however, we all enjoy having a clean organized home. What works for us is “team work”. For example, after dinner, I will say, ok guys, let’s clean up quickly. If we all help it will only take ten to fifteen minutes. Immediately, we are all up and running, one does the dishes, another cleans the counters, another sweeps the floor while another put’s the dishes away! I normally will find a topic to talk about and as we clean we are all engaged in the conversation.

  9. I too am a working mom… I find it difficult to raise a child in a mere 3 hours a night before bedtime and weekends. But, we do what we can and try to do it right, all the while thinking in the back of our minds… “Lord, please don’t let me screw him up!”.

    My son is 2.5 years old. He has his chores. He helps make dinner… even if I give him a bowl with some water and flour and tell him to keep it stirring… I may never use it during “the making of dinner” but he feels like he’s helping. I always give him at least one small task to do. He helps unload the dishwasher. He puts away the plastic bowls and his cups (all in lower cabinets so he can help) and he’s responsible for the silverware too… I think it’s great to start them early… helps them learn. He’s does quite well matching the big forks to the big forks, the small spoons to the small spoons. (we keep the knifes in a separate drawer)… so it works out really well.

  10. Valerie Martin says:

    Good article and comments, too. I did start my two girls early helping with things: straightening their rooms, cleaning up the dog business in the backyard when they got older, emptying the dishwasher, yard work, etc. But it has become more challenging now that they are teenagers. I agree with the comment above about family members being expected to help because they are family members. And I have conflicts about paying them for doing their share. So I do give allowance but it’s more for helping them learn to handle money and delay gratification, to save up for things. When they were little I did use incentives to get them to do “special” tasks: pull weeds, wash the car, etc. Money usually worked!

  11. I am a mother of three ,(8,6,1), and reward my children with a weekly allowance for doing their part in the chores. It is not very much but it teaches them the value of a dollar. They are allowed to buy whatever they want just so long as they can pay for the entire thing. This has taught them how to save, patience and the rewards of hard work. Beds are always wrinkled,toys are never where I want them,the stairs are even a laundry chute!Like a true toddler never wanting to be left out, my one year old loves to use wipes to clean.

  12. Our house is full with 6 kids (11,10,9,7 1/2, 4, and 2), so you can imagine my issues with having a clean house (though I’m not as stressed about it as my hubby!;)…. We started out with giving each a room to clean and quickly found that that didn’t work. So we divided all the rooms, and even some of the chores–> the bathroom has someone different doing each job: toilet, sink, floor, mirror, and trash (the tub is mine); the dishwasher gets different kids for utensils, plates, bowls, cups, and sippee cup covers; the older 4 do their own laundry on different assigned days, which also coincides with getting the mail (that’s a fun thing for them); in the schoolroom (we homeschool), each has to put away their own papers and clean up around their own desks, including the floor. Even the 2 yo helps to put toys away and throw out his own used up diapers. It helps them to see that everyone pitching in will get the job done. I’ve also set up a chart of sorts so that when each one has a job to do on a specific day (vacuuming, meal helper, helper of the day, baby’s helper), there’s no “It’s not my day!” argument. There are also different types of chores: those you have to do and those that you can earn money for (which are things they can do to help me and Daddy out, like doing the 4 & 2 year olds’ laundry). This system may sound like a lot, but I also have to work outside my home at night, so some extra organization is necessary and has worked better for us.
    We’ve started having ‘family movie night’ on Fridays (my night off) as a special treat with popcorn and snacks because we’re all home together and they really look forward to that.

  13. We don’t make chores an obligation we expect of our 8 yr old but we do model pride in our work when we leave things clean(er). I agree with your first recommendation, as we also have found that working as a team enables him to want to help. He enjoys the interaction with us and experiences the reward of family dynamics.

    But for the most part we are too engaged in living and having fun to worry about what someone thinks of our (dis)array of toys, games and models that accumulates with the dust!

  14. First I would like to say that as a new mom and as a teacher, I truly appreciate the learning and insight I have gained through receiving these e-mails. For that I am inspired and I am grateful! To comment on today’s ideas, I appreciate them all. However, I would like to comment on the rewarding system. When I began teaching in my own classroom, I quickly recognized how the students have come to ‘expect’ rewards for everyday activities and for their learning. I have stopped giving sweets as rewards and I rely mostly on verbal praise, which is free and oh so effective! I have slo worked on changing my language instead of using an if…then statement, I use a When…then statement, such as…When we finish our work then we will have free time.

    Thanks again for your thoughts!


    • My sweet treats are given out randomly…not all the time, so my students will try hard most of the time in the hopes of the “extra” but always like the consistent praise and High Fives!

  15. I have read oodles of parenting books and have gleaned some really amazing advice regarding organization, positive discipline, family teamwork for the household, etc. I would love to be able to practice it more during my “daily do”, however, I find myself saying things like, “I’m not a maid!” and “how many times have I told you to pick that up!” and “I can’t think in this mess!” ..on and on. One time I made a joke out of it and pretended I was a scullery maid with an english accent. Other times it is truly NOT funny. Anyway, I’m working on letting go of organization and have settled, somewhat, on having the house be in a state of mild chaos versus disaster zone. I’m highly organized by nature so I sometimes will tell myself that the disarray in our house is partly a choice because we have a lot of things that require cleaning and sorting and moving. I can always choose to live more simply by unloading THINGS. Prior to kids I was a simple liver with a futon and a computer, a few outfits, and LOTS of time to read, etc. So, since I am really NOT a simple living gal anymore, a bit of chaos remains:) One thing that I do that helps is I say to the girls something like, “after 20 minutes of playtime, we’re going to do “Jobs”.” And then I give them jobs to do. I’ll be really specific and tell them exactly what needs to be done, such as: put the markers in the cup, put the pillows on the couch…my girls get really excited to get some direction and help out. Well, I do get grumblings too. Inevitable, I guess. One time my daughter said, “look, Mommy!…I can see the floor.” They had made a wedding feast earlier with their toy food and it covered the floor. It sat for four days and I told them repeatedly to pick it up but they just didn’t. When I gave them jobs, such as “put the strawberries in the red bin”, they scurried around and helped. Sometimes I just think they don’t know where to start or what to do. I’ll tell them encouraging words such as, “No need to get overwhelmed, one bit at a time and we’ll get it done.” and “like with like” and “we’re REALLY getting this done fast together.” “Jobs” work great for us. I hope this helps..I imagine I’m not the only beleaguered,stooped-over-in-a-quasi-moto-cleaning hunch-parent!!!!!!!



  16. Antoinette says:

    My daughter just turned three and she LOVES to help with chores. If we go grocery shopping, she carries in the bread. If we do laundry, I hand her the clothes coming out of the wash and she gives each article a “shake and toss” into the dryer. After dinner, she puts her plate, utensils, and cup in the sink. After she is done playing with a toy, we remind her to put it away before she takes out another toy. She does not get any financial reward, but she delights in hearing me tell other (friends and family) what a BIG HELPER she is. When she hears me tell other people how proud I am of her for always helping, I think it makes her want to do it more.

  17. i like what u said about taking the time to show kids how to do things the first time and do it with them…they interpret this as “meaningful time spent together” in which i dont think we realize, so see it as an opportunity to bank some quality/quantity time.

    An idea about household chores. I add myself to their chore list ( i think the word “chore” should be replaced by a more positive word??) anyways, once a week we all pick room names from a bowl of crunched uppapers and we clean the house together… afterwards we go out for supper at restaurant of their choice = family bonding. i dont pay the kid for side chores during the week unless it is a job beyond the call of duty.

  18. here is another poem hanging by my door: You reminded me to read it again and remember how true it is. I will have two children leaving home this next year and I need to remember what is REALLY important.
    (homeschool mom of 17,17,7, and working mom)

    Come In!’

    Come in, but don’t expect to find
    All dishes done, all floors ashine.
    Observe the crumpled rug, the toys galore,
    The smudgy fingerprinted door.

    The little ones we shelter here
    Don’t thrive on spotless atmosphere,
    They’re more inclined to disarray
    And carefree, even messy play.

    It’s “Mommy come! Mommy see!”
    Wiggly worms and red-scraped knee,
    Painted pictures, books piled high,
    My floors unshined, the days go by.

    Some future day they’ll flee this nest
    And I at last will have a rest.
    And which will really matter more?
    A happy child or a polished floor?

    • Love the poem! As a mother of 3 (ages 28, 24, and 4) I do truly realize how fast they grow. and a happy child is much more important than a polished floor. When my older two were little, I was so concerned with having a clean house and everything in it’s place, that there were times I put time with them off to get something done. How I regret that now.
      With our 4 year old, I don’t care if there are dishes in the sink or if the floor is sticky as long as there is a smile on her face because mommy and daddy are spending time with her. This doesn’t mean we have complete chaos or that our house is filthy because we do need to teach her responsiblity…it simply means that I have realized that time with your children is WAY more important that a spotless house.

  19. Ladies,

    Remember that the “days go by fast-but- the years go by faster.” Son leaving for college in a few days…….where did the time go?

    As far as allowance?……just a suggestion that worked here. The kids got a ‘a quarter a week for how old they were’ if they were 5 they got 5 quarters as week, 6 year-olds got 6 quarters a week. Since, this was a ‘cost of living expense’ on every birthday you got a raise, yes, a quarter. They were expected to tithe 10%, save 20% for the future and with advice the other could be spent as needed, a small item (magazine) or saved for something they would like in the near future (skateboard). Also, if they were saving for something that we would like them to have but still wanted them to learn the value of a dollar we often would pay for half of the item (they still had the discipline of saving and buying something desired but it took a long time to save $25.00 or $50.00 and our objective was to teach them to spend money wisely. (It was quite amazing to see how their desires were curbed when they had to pay half but it seems to have worked quite well). They all still have bank accounts and the now 19 year old daughter, who opened her account when she was 7, spent her first dollar from the account about a year or so ago, while taking a photography class in college. Yes, $1,000.00 is a lot to pay for a camera, but she paid half of it and takes very! good care of it.


  20. A little response to Robin – we ALL respond to extrinsic rewards as well as intrinsic. I’m not sure the last time I didn’t enjoy receiving a paycheck after a week of hard work or a bonus that came just in time for that summer vacation. Children are no different. Although we want children to have motivation without having an extrinsic reward, but sometimes it helps in the motivation of a reaching a certain goal. I don’t condone rewarding children everytime a chore is done, but sometimes it helps with a few and aids in their decision making the next time about how it felt to meet the goal and be rewarded for a job well done. Knowing which goals need the extra fostering with extrinsic rewards is our job as parents. Just like picking our battles.

  21. I reward my kids with my time. I say things like, “if you help me with the kitchen, it will get done faster, and I’ll have more time to read to you tonight.” Or,”Let’s hurry and get the family room picked up so we can go on a walk.” There is no better reward for a job well done!

  22. Thank you,

    The article has opened my eyes to the fact that being a good mother is more important than being a good housekeeper!

    thanks again

  23. Find friends with houses that are messier than yours. It makes you feel better about yourself!

  24. Melissa Boynton says:

    There were some really great tips in the article, thanks for sharing. Just an FYI, the allowance manager that promises a chore chart wasn’t very exciting, but I did a search and found a great, very interactive one at Thanks for another great newsletter!