Parenting is a process of preparation and teaching our children increasing self-management skills that will enable them to function independently as adults. This ability to self-manage requires the capacity to do work—to accomplish tasks that often feel hard to complete or are unappealing.
We can begin to build this capacity when our children are very young by teaching two skillsets vital to successfully completing work: self-discipline and organization. The capability to make ourselves work is self-discipline and the ability to impose order to get work done is organization.
Early childhood is a great time to begin teaching both skills because it ensures that these skills become second nature and enables children to internalize these abilities before their lives become more demanding and complicated. Once they are juggling an ever-increasing load of work, such as personal (self-care), family (chores), social (volunteering), school (assignments), and employment (job) responsibilities, organization and self-discipline become necessary to effective self-management.
Here are tips on how to teach these lifelong skills to kids:
1. Encourage them to do an unappealing chore.
From an early age, parents can begin to have children do work that isn't necessarily exciting. One example is to ask them to take care of belongings and tidy up their personal space. If they become easily distracted, help by alternating work and breaks. This might mean that if they tire of cleaning up, you might offer a play or snack break before resuming the work. Over time, gradually increase the time spent on unappealing tasks (in this case, cleaning a room) as their ability to focus on the work at hand increases.
2. Teach them the steps needed to finish a daunting job.
Kids can easily be discouraged by the work given to them. If the mess that play has created is completely overwhelming, help them focus on one thing at a time by breaking down the work into more manageable tasks. This could be picking up the biggest toys first, then working their way to the smaller ones, teaching them to organize an order of operation.
3. Insist on keeping promises.
If kids abandon the work that was asked of them, it's important to ensure that they see it to the end—and understand why. If the room is still left in disarray, you can say, "In our family, we keep our promises and make sure we finish what we start," and then go over the remaining steps necessary to complete the task at hand. By establishing this family rule, you teach your children that it is important that we do what it takes to get the job done.
4. Ensure work gets done in a timely manner.
Learning how to order work effort within a time frame is an important self-disciplinary and organizational skill. If kids dawdle and aren't motivated to get the task done efficiently, consider offering a few tools to help them get work done in a timely manner. One idea is to use a timer.
You can say, "We need to get our work done so that we have enough time to play. I'm setting the timer so you know how much time you have to get your work done." Let them know how they are progressing, such as, "You have five minutes left to put your trucks in the toy box," or "you have two minutes left to put your Legos in their bin." In this way, you begin to teach kids an understanding of time and how to manage it.
5. Model good self-discipline and organization.
It likely goes without saying, but kids will do as we do. What we model is the most powerful instruction that we give to kids, who are closely observing our powerful example.
What is the state of our homes? Are we always running late? Is our dining room table overflowing with unfinished crafting projects from last December? If we want our kids to be self-disciplined and organized, we need to show them how it's done.
Teaching kids self-discipline and organization not only primes them for a successful future, it also helps them learn important lessons about the value of work and the rewards that come from it. They learn that, while work is not always fun to do, it can feel satisfying to see what results from it. Work can also make them feel stronger and more capable, and most importantly, work enables them to complete the tasks of living so that they can thrive, both in childhood and in adulthood.