Practical Life: What, Why, How
Practical Life activities (household chores, construction, handwork) prepare children to be successful in life. But we’re not just talking about sending them to college knowing how to wash and cook…
Practical Life helps your child learn planning, organization, concentration, problem-solving, follow-through, frustration tolerance, and delayed gratification. In fact, research has shown that children who contribute to the running of the home are more successful in adulthood than those who don’t.
I know you’re wondering: How do I get my child to want to help without nagging or bribing? Well, first you need to help them understand why it behooves them to help. And this starts with your own behaviors. (I know, doesn’t everything?)
My children began wanting to help when I changed my attitude towards chores and got my husband to carry his share of the load. I stopped being a martyr and started noticing why I took on more than I wanted to handle. You need to be having lots of family conversations around sharing the workload of running the household. I’ve made lists, expressed my needs, and learned how to hold boundaries without getting angry. I’ve also changed my perspective regarding chores, and that’s changed theirs.
Children are more apt to engage in Practical Life activities if they see the adults in their lives going about their own tasks with pleasure. There’s no need to fake enjoyment, but you can shift your perspective – and therefore, your child’s, by changing “have” into “choose”.
“I have to do the dishes” focuses on the chore. “I choose to do the dishes because I want a clean and sanitary kitchen” focuses on the outcome and affirms family values. Speak to your child’s developing sense of morality by walking them through this cause-and-effect model to help them find their own motivations for contributing.
Don’t be surprised if it takes time to shift your family’s focus. It’s taken us almost 18 months to go from frustration to a functioning home. However, my children now take ownership of most of their messes (sometimes with a reminder), contribute without complaining (most of the time), and ask a question that’s music to a parent’s ears: “How can I help?”
Now that you have the “what” and “why” in place, it’s time for the “how”. Presenting Practical Life activities will give you lots of practice for introducing academic lessons. Here’s how:
- Plan your lesson before you give it.
- How can you model the steps clearly?
- Define what ‘done’ looks like.
- Make sure the tools for the job are at child height.
- Introduce Practical Life as an opportunity, not a chore. “I’ve noticed you’re becoming really capable” is a lot more inspiring than “You need to help more around the house.” Get silly with job titles if you think that will engage your child.
- Offer choices. Pick two or three tasks you’d like to show your child, and ask them to choose one. If possible, also let them select the best day or time to complete the job.
- Show them one way of doing the task. Do all the steps while they watch, answer any questions, express confidence in them, and then let them take ownership of the job. Help if they ask, but don’t micromanage.
- Show appreciation when the job gets done. Do this even if it they deviated from your instructions.
- If you notice they skipped or messed up an essential step, don’t fix it for them, but wait until the next day to address it (don’t deflate their sense of accomplishment). In other words, teach by teaching, not by correcting, and let consequences be the guide.
- If the task is left half-done, ask questions: “I noticed only half the room is vacuumed. What support do you need to finish the job?”
- Hold boundaries firmly and respectfully. Listen to their complaints, empathize with their feelings, express confidence in their abilities, brainstorm solutions, and use the When/Then tool (“When the table is set, then I’ll serve dinner.”). Offering visual cues – like pulling out the trash can when it needs to be emptied or leaving a “Please wash me” sign near the dishes – is more effective and respectful than nagging.
- Children want to help, but they need to feel capable. If your child refuses to take on a responsibility, talk with them to find out what’s getting in the way.
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