Getting kids (and spouses!) to appreciate what you do

By Joyce Fetteroll, on Family RUNning (the radical unschoolers network ning site), June 23, 2010. (site no longer available)

This was sparked by the "Dishes dilemma" thread and I thought there might be some not following the thread who might find it useful. So it's some thoughts about kids appreciating what we do for them and being willing to give back.

1) Have reasonable expectations for their age. If they aren't appreciating or helping in return, it could be they aren't old enough—aren't developmentally ready—to grasp that what you're doing isn't just part of what you're programmed to do for them ;-) They are hard-wired to trust that you will provide a home that meets their basic needs for safety, food and love.

2) Trust they're doing the best they can. Even (especially) when you think they aren't. What people give back in return is in proportion to how respected they feel. If the kids are "old enough" and their best is half-assed, it's because they're in defensive mode. They feel like a spring that's always offered their own trickle of water freely but that wasn't good enough and adults have sunk in a pump to pull out what they wanted instead. To get the spring to flow freely, you need to stop pumping. Trust that what they're giving is the best they can do (right now).

3) Be with them. Doing chores alone feels tedious. Doing them together can make the task seem much smaller.

4) Be someone they want to do things for. We can't make people appreciate us. But we can become people they feel appreciate them and they will want to return that appreciation.

Be someone people will want to show appreciation for—and much of this applies to how we treat our spouses (and friends) too!

1) See the tasks as yours. The conventional view is kids are part of the family and they need to contribute. But it will be much much easier to get help if mom retains responsibility for the task and asks others to help her out. It's much much harder to get people to help when someone dumps a task on them (or makes them pick a task from a list) and expects it to be done by the task master's standards. It's much much easier to ask (rather than demand) and honestly appreciate the help when you hold the mindset of "This all belongs to me and is fully my responsibility." It's harder to ask and appreciate when you see the task as everyone's responsibility (and everyone's being a slacker ;-) A lot comes down to attitude.

2) Treat some tasks as a given in your family culture. Don't make kids comply but project an attitude of the expected. If you want the aftermath of a project cleaned up before the next project is brought out, say "Let's get this cleaned up." And then do it, encouraging their help (with the ideas below) but not requiring it. Make it part of the atmosphere just like it's accepted and expected that dinner will happen not long after Dad gets home.

3) Be joyful. Who wants to help someone who's grumpy and obviously hates doing what she's doing? Don't stuff down your distaste and pretend. (Kids will know.) Shift your thinking. Focus on the end result, the plentitude in your life, the fact that your family is whole and healthy. *Whatever* will help you see the blessings that need some help rather than the onerous task of up keep. (As yucky as it might be to clean toilets, how many would choose to trade one for an outhouse (and the bugs and the smell and the cold and the splinters) and daily emptying of slop buckets;-)

(I recently had this insight that one big resistance to seeing the fullness of a cup is that it feels like your winning if you let the task know you don't like it in your life ;-) If you give in and accept the task, it feels like the task has won. Let that idea that you're in competition go. The task is just there, not competing. It's your own projection that's pitting you against each other! ;-)

4) Make it fun for others. In addition to the previous item, be playful. Turn tasks into games. Roleplay. (For some kids it can be a lot more fun to clean a sink when they're pretending to be castle servants preparing for the king's arrival :-) Put on music. Sing and dance.

5) Make the task easier. Rethink what and why and how you're doing everything. Do what you love to do and what makes you happy to give to your family. Deeply examine all the "have tos" and "musts" in your life. Bring them here if you can't find another way of seeing them. :-) Break large tasks into smaller specific tasks, eg, "Could you put the scissors back in the drawer?" or "Could you pick up all the blue things?" Make things easy to put away. Rethink how tasks are done and what really is necessary to accomplish a goal.

6) Ask kids to help. This is confusing because conventional parents ask kids to help. But conventional parents aren't really asking! They're phrasing a demand "politely" when really it's just confusing to the child *and* the mom. If the kid says no—as a question suggests is one possible answer—Mom gets mad. ("I asked nicely but the lazy brat refused!") So ask with the understanding that one acceptable answer is no. Be mindful of when you're asking. If the kids are involved, don't expect them to drop what they're doing and jump to do something less interesting. People *do* want to be part of the world around them feel they matter to someone and to the success of a task so don't hesitate to ask!

7) Thank them! Even if they haven't done it the way you would. Even if they've done less than you think they're capable of. Thank them. They've set aside time from something they find valuable to do something for you. Appreciate that they're willing to do that for you. The more they feel appreciated for what they choose to give, the more they will give when they're able. People want to feel they're appreciated.

8) Make your world part of theirs. If they're too young to be much help, or there isn't much for them to help with, invite them along to keep you company, do things near them. Put on a movie. Listen to an audiobook. Let them do the periodic fun (to them) parts (flipping the pancakes, spritzing the clothes with water as you iron).
(I intended to write a short redirect from the "Dishes Dilemma" thread but kept going and there might be some useful ideas in it.)

We talk a lot about what we can do for our families that in turn helps grow better relationships, but in this (the "Dishes Dilemma") thread it feels off. It sounds like Slinky is doing a lot and her kids are being ungrateful.

But if kids feel loved and respected, there isn't a good reason—unless they're too young—for them to be miserly with their time and energy. People hold tight to what they have when they feel others pulling it away from them. When people feel there's an abundance, they're generous.

Conventional parenting is rife with disrespect for kids and their time. Lots of conventional parenting ideas are about getting what we need to do for our families done and how to get kids to do their share. Very little is about seeing the world through the kids' eyes and providing what the kids perceive as love.

If we see time and energy as a coin, and appreciation as a particular size slot, parents spend a lot of time creating coins that don't fit in their kids slots. The parents are focused on all the "necessary to make the family operation run" coins they're giving and not on the fact that the coins don't fit into their kids slots of good feelings. And kids are producing coins with their willingness to help and be part of things, but the parents don't value the coins the kids produce. The parents want the kids to produce adult valued coins.

We can't fill kids up if we're expending all our energy making coins that don't fit their slots. We need to create coins they can use, for example, watching their favorite cartoon with them, taking them to the better skatepark even if it's in a different town, a spontaneous ice cream soda :-)

And kids will stop producing coins if we turn our noses up at their coins because they aren't up to adult coin standards.

Joyce added a few hours after the original writing:

The above list needs another item, but it's something I don't have problems with so it's hard to remember to mention it—and hard to write about it in a way that doesn't say to those with strong boundaries that they needn't stretch them.

I think it was Meredith who pointed out that most of the outspoken unschoolers she knows have a good sense of boundaries so it's not something we address. (And those with a poor sense of boundaries probably feel like the universal answer is: "Do more" so when they continually push themselves to exhaustion they don't see it as a problem so don't bring it up!) So:

9) Have reasonable expectations of what you can do. This is tricky because we do need to push our comfort zone for our kids. The only way kids can meet most of their needs is through us. They have limited money, mobility, and skills to deal with the world out there. If the parent's goal is to be the child's facilitator—and that *is* what this forum is for— the parent needs to push herself beyond her own wants in order to meet the kids' desires because kids are quite literally handicapped.

To help find the point between not enough and too much, it helps to focus on the idea you do want to meet their needs. The goal is the kids' confidence that their needs are important to you. And then tackle the task of accomplishing what they want. See above but then be realistic and honest. If a solution requires something that doesn't exist see that as another problem to be solved rather than as an insurmountable obstacle. So, rather than saying, "No, we can't go to the craft store today because we don't have a car," say, "The problem is we don't have a car today though we will on Friday." If they suggest walking and you say it's an hour each way and they say "Cool!" it's okay to say you don't want to do that! But if it's a possibility for an adventure—and to stretch your comfort-zone boundaries—you can say you'd feel more comfortable if they had some longer walks under their belt because someone, including you!, might be too exhausted to walk back and then what would you do?

See the world in terms of what's necessary to overcome the obstacles between them and their wants rather than in terms of the obstacles. That involves the kids in the solution rather than being powerless to a world beyond their control. (Though not every kid wants to get into the problem solving process, and, rather than a "No," a "We don't have a car today" is good enough. *BUT* not every kid wants to hear why something can't happen. Some just want a yes or no! Be sensitive to their needs.)

This subject is hard to address well since there are people reading who are not protective enough of their limitations and also people who are too protective of their comfort. So realistic boundaries to one person is "Walk half a mile? Are you crazy?" and the other is "I would walk 10 miles for you even though I'd be in arthritic pain for most of them." The two need opposite advice! And perhaps a bit of therapy ;-)

Put it this way: If your default answer is no—by the *kids'* standards even if *you* feel you say yes a lot—then they're likely to 1) see the world in terms of impossibilities rather than possibilities or 2) ask someone else who may be less trustworthy.

If your default answer is yes *and* you aren't building into your life some way of refilling your cup -- in other words you don't seemingly care about your needs, always putting others ahead of self -- it's likely that they won't care either. It's hard to respect someone who doesn't respect herself.

An issue that's related is there's much talk about "being authentic". The idea of respecting ourselves is a good one. If we're exhausted, we're exhausted. But being "authentic" about everything will veer away from being a child's partner. If your goal is to support your child—and, again, the forum is here to help people who want to do that—your feelings about Barney, for example, are immaterial ;-) You need to find a way to see Barney through your child's delight. Do *not* offer your "authentic" feelings about Barney! (If they ask, do be honest but gentle, like, "Not really my favorite but I think it's cool you like him.") If you don't like a child's interest in rap, be "authentic" and you will miss out on sharing a piece of their lives. Find out what they like about it. Ask them to share some songs they think you might like.

If your default is to push your comfort zone for your kids, to delight in your children's delights, *then* you get some free passes to say "Uh, not really my thing." But do find ways to support their interest. Just because you have a huge dislike towards horror movies, eating meat, opera, beaches, the movement in video games, doesn't mean you can't find ways to support them. You will build stronger relationships by being interested in their interests rather than in sharing your feelings about their interests.
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