Tackling the Small Stuff

Q: My wife and I are discussing smaller issues in our household in which we want to train our children. Examples of these issues are leaving lights on when leaving a room, shutting door during rest time, putting jackets and shoes away when coming home or putting clothes in the hamper. When we talked about what consequence we would give for these minor violations, we discussed giving extra chores. What advice do you have for us in this?

A: This is a great questions, because it’s the little things that can drive us crazy, right? The shoes left yet again in the middle of the living room floor instead of being put away in the shoe basket. The coat draped over the chair every day after school instead of being hung up in the closet. The stack of collectors cards left on the floor each evening in a high traffic area.

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Some of these minor infractions are labeled as such because it bothers us. Some are wasteful (lights left on in rooms with no one present, for example). The reason you want something done isn’t as important as how you present the task and how you motivate their cooperation.

A few years ago, my four kids couldn’t “remember” to turn out a light when leaving an empty room to save their lives. Only when I hit upon the solution of putting the miscreant to bed 10 minutes early did their ability to turn out lights improve drastically. So there is hope, but I wouldn’t have a consequence be extra chores necessarily, unless it’s more of a natural consequence, i.e., the consequence for not putting dirty clothes in the hamper was doing everyone’s laundry that week.

However, since you have quite a list of minor offensives, I would pick one to start with and focus only on that one, such as turning out lights, for a few weeks. Once the kids have mastered that, move on to the next item on your list. (You can order them according to how much they bother you and work on what drives you the craziest first). Don’t try to get all of them at once, or you’ll be policing your kids all the time and they will feel like they can’t do anything right.

As for consequences, think outside the chore box—you’ll want to shake things up a bit to keep the kids on their toes. If you want to have some fun, write down a list of consequences and pick one at random for violations. You could even have a minor violations consequences jar with slips of paper listing punishments. Remember that the punishment does NOT have to equal the crime. Sometimes, you’ll go with natural consequences (doing everyone’s laundry when leaving dirty clothes on the floor), sometimes with outrageous ones (as in you gather all the dirty clothes up and put them in a box for a month, including any favorite pieces of clothing).

Whatever you decide, keep in mind that it’s not so much for the sake of the task (turning off lights) as much as it is to increase a child’s awareness of his surroundings. A child who constantly leaves his bookbag in the middle of the living room floor for everyone to walk around is a child who’s not paying attention to his family. He’s willing to inconvenience everyone else because he can’t be bothered to put his bookbag in its proper place. Think of this as helping a child create more awareness of others (and exhibit less selfish behavior) than as addressing your particular pet peeves.

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