Children begin life totally dependent upon someone else. Parents are gifted with a hormonal instinct to protect and nurture their young—a most compelling and satisfying drive. Nothing is required of the infant. We patiently tolerate crying, waking us in the night, throwing up all over us, and still we rush to meet their every need and desire.
But, in about eighteen years, we will expect them to be totally autonomous souls fully responsible for themselves. That’s one crazy eighteen years, and who is sufficient for these things? Many kids are not ready to take responsibility when the time comes. Most are still not ready at thirty. Over half of the population never becomes productive members of society. They expect someone else to assume responsibility for their happiness—parents, government, labor union, spouse, or others. When life falls apart it is someone else’s fault. They make the perfect socialists in a welfare state that is presiding over its decline.
How does this happen and what can we as parents do to guarantee that our sons and daughters grow up to be men and women with the dignity of responsibility and self-sufficiency? Homeschooling is a good start, pretty much indispensable, but much more is required.
There are many reasons why most kids grow up to be underachievers and over-demanders, but we are going to address the most destructive and universal. Parents fail to transition their dependent infants into self-sufficiency. That transition should begin at about six months, when a child learns to feed himself, and it is a bell curve thereafter. Every day opens up new opportunities for the child to take responsibility for his life. By one year of age we expect him to wait and be patient. By the time he is two or three years old, he should begin taking responsibility for others in the household, performing family chores that serve the group, like picking up, washing dishes, cleaning, carrying in firewood, etc. His contribution won’t be much and will be harder on us than doing it ourselves, but it is indispensable to his training.
A three-year-old should learn not to interrupt and to be respectful of the property of others, assisting adults in their chores. The six-year-old should be completely responsible to dress himself and clean his room, including changing sheets and vacuuming. By the time he is ten years old he should be doing the work of a man, and the ten-year-old girl should be able to replace her mother entirely, caring for her or others when they are sick.
We are not talking slave labor; our experience is that of a happy, well-adjusted child with a high sense of self-worth as she plays her part as a contributing member of the social order. The Amish say, “Through about their third year children are dependent and require extra labor to maintain—a drain on the family. The four to seven-year-old pays his way, is not a drain but neither is he profitable. After seven the child is a profit to the family, yielding more than it costs to maintain him.” The more children there are in a family over seven years of age the more productive the family and the easier it is on the parents to make a living and maintain the home. That would be the experience of any farm family; it was the experience of our great grandparents.
Family is a corporate endeavor, a place where children learn to accept responsibility and do their part for the group. The healthy family prepares children for the adult world into which they will eventually emerge, teaching them to become makers instead of takers, independent instead of dependent. They cannot become confident and powerful if they remain dependent on family, government, employers, or spouses for their happiness.
Herein is the problem. It is twofold. First, the modern structure of the home does not lend itself to raising children to assume responsibility. Kids are not needed. How many families need their children to cut and split firewood? Who gathers eggs and feeds the horses and cows? How many are carrying and heating hot water for washing clothes or taking baths? How many must grind wheat and knead bread?
There was a time when children learned responsibility from even the most ignorant and inept parent because the lifestyle placed demands upon them, a situation that no longer exists in 99.9 percent of our homes. Today, in our modern, automated, digital, industrialized world, children are treated like potted plants, watered and nourished, loved and displayed, but of no practical use.
Second, and this is the subject at hand, parents are reluctant to make demands of their children that might cause discomfort. Today’s kid is overindulged and under-engaged. Overindulged children are the product of pacification parenting. It is easier to appease and make happy than to instruct and constrain to responsible action.
Today’s parents must make an effort to find areas of responsibility for the child, and then it has an artificial feel to it, leaving the child questioning, “Why should I have to do this?” When the child balks and is unhappy with doing his assigned duty, parents feel guilty or just find it easier to do it themselves. After all, the automated world in which we live does not provide a full day’s work for even one person in the family.
And to complicate the situation ever further, many parents like the good feeling they get when serving their children. Overindulged children in their consumption are momentarily made happy and reward their benefactors with delightful smiles. Parents become addicted to pleasing because it feels so good. And to interrupt the little guy’s pleasure with demands is not going to feel good. Serving them beyond the time when they are capable of doing it themselves is a parent’s way of saying, “I love you; I wash your clothes; I pick up after you; I fix your meals and clean up while you play games because I love you. It makes you so happy when I do something for you, so I will be your servant and you will love me for it.” But there comes a time when the big kid is obnoxiously unthankful and expects love to come in the form of unconditional service. An undisciplined, overindulged child will grow up to expect society and family to make them happy with no painful contribution on their part. Their sense of entitlement grows with every unearned reward. Motel maids get more gratitude. The overindulged child is the undeveloped child and becomes the incompetent adult with poor social skills and a lousy self-image.
Parents are the only hope children have. A daddy’s duty is to prepare his children to be overcomers in a world that is hostile to hope and holiness. It should be our goal to work ourselves out of a job as quickly as possible, to bring them to the place where they possess the wisdom and will to act autonomously.
Happiness is found in producing for the benefit of others. Eating out of a common pot when you haven’t put in more than you take out lends itself to moral weakness and a poor self-image.
No child wants to learn self-discipline. Their human propensity is to avoid work and responsibility, so they must be organized and managed and, where necessary, constrained.
Our children learn by observation and participation. It is daily habits that train up children and communicate worldviews. A child develops work habits by working regularly. It is the parents’ responsibility to organize and manage in ways that instill good habits.
Accepting the sacrifices of duty and self-control is a slow process done in increments, like learning to walk barefooted on sharp rocks. One’s feet must be toughed one step at a time. Many little pains of service and duty, tolerated in increments, produce tough individuals with moral earnestness and a willingness to suffer the pain of responsible action. You cannot overindulge a kid until he is eighteen and then suddenly endow him with duty. It will be shockingly painful on his tender, pampered soul. The overindulged, grown kid possesses a worldview that does not include painful self-denial.
So don’t expect a child to choose the painful path of participation. List their duties on a spreadsheet if necessary and put it on the wall to be checked off when completed. Take your child by the hand and do the chores of life together. Make duty fun and full of fellowship.
Children develop a sense of duty by being managed into consistently performing meaningful acts of service to the family unit—by being needed in tangible ways. Most parents think love is a magic bullet. It is the one indispensable foundation, but feelings or gestures of love will not provoke children to accept the pain of self-denial. Being needed emotionally does not grow character; it breeds unhealthy dependence. But we all need to be needed in ways that make us know we are valued for what we do. We are not comforted by being loved unless we know we are making a contribution to those who love us. The loved child who doesn’t give back becomes narcissistic and either arrogantly self-promoting or self-loathing, possibly both.
The work of love is found not in making the other person comfortable in their shortcomings, but rather in allowing them to become uncomfortable while addressing harmful habits. When you fail to constrain your child to right action, such as picking up after himself or cleaning his bathroom, but do it for him, you are not loving him; you are serving your own feelings by avoiding conflict that would make you uncomfortable.
Few parents train their children to control impulses and gracefully accept delayed gratification; much less are children cultivated to discern good and evil and exercise self-denial. Humanity is awesome and heavenly in its ability to act wisely, contrary to impulses and passions, choosing truth and righteousness over indulgence and intemperance. In contrast, humanity is vulgar and depraved in its propensity to follow the path of pleasure and indiscriminately indulge like an inbred dog with no master beyond appetite.
The world is a battleground of good and evil, and let’s be honest, evil usually wins the day as good retreats to a lonely spot in hopes of survival.
In conclusion, remember the words organize and manage. That is what you should do right now. Sit down and write out an organized plan to involve your children in meaningful responsible chores. Determine right now that you will not give in to your feelings of needing to serve, and that you will be tough when they whine and act like they are in pain when called upon to do their part. When you have created a general plan for the day, then determine to be the hawkish manager of your new enterprise. Above all, keep it light and fun. Never give in to whining, accusing, complaining, threatening, or anger. When you organize and manage there is never any need to be angry, for you are in control and no longer depend on intimidation to force them to choose rightly. You have organized and managed them into doing what they should. Remember, their feet will toughen one step at a time. Each step will be a little bit painful, but bearable. In time they will be toughened to the pain of duty and responsible actions, growing strong in self-sufficiency and service to others.