How can parents raise responsible children — children who can keep themselves out of danger and say "no" to alcohol, drugs and sex?
The best solution is an old-fashioned one that may, at first, seem improbable: household chores. Chores top the list of most of the experts interviewed for this story.
They had other recommendations as well, of course. Parents should be responsible and set a good example. They must also make clear their expectations for responsible behavior. And, though it can be difficult, they have to let their children suffer the consequences of their own mistakes and learn from those mistakes rather than bail them out (unless it's dangerous not to). They shouldn't, for example, rush to school with children's homework if they forget it.
Parents also need to monitor their children's use of the media. (See our earlier story on media.) And it helps if parents can build a community of like-minded friends for themselves and their families. Finally, since teens are hard-wired to take risks, parents should try to give them positive risk-taking options. (See our "tips" for more, below.)
Why Chores Work
Still, say the experts, chores are key in raising responsible children. But how can making beds and clearing the table help breed a child who will say "no" to drugs, sex and alcohol?
Marty Rossman, associate professor of family education at the University of Minnesota, finds that the best predictor of a child's success — defined as not using drugs, quality relationships, finishing education and getting started in a career — is that they began helping with chores at age three or four. The study found that it was important to start young.
Rossman is just completing an analysis of data from a study that followed 84 people from childhood into their 20s.
While there are no guarantees, chores are the core of a strategy that makes children active members of a family that builds bonds by working together, helping children develop a sense of pride in their accomplishments and improving communication. The chores have to be part of a family endeavor with everyone involved. In other words, if you think you can lie on the couch, television remote in hand, while the kids rake the leaves, forget it. Children also have to be involved in the decision-making process, determining what work needs to be done and when it needs to be done.
The Earlier the Better
The younger they start, the better, say the experts. And that means 2- and 3-year olds can be expected, for example, to put away toys, albeit with some help. If a toddler wants to help sweep with a baby broom, by all means let him or her help. If you're starting with older children, you've got to add tasks incrementally. Otherwise kids will do chores only as long as you're willing to browbeat them into doing them.
The strategy of giving children family responsibilities works because it gives them a sense of belonging to a team and being a contributing member of that team, according to Janis Keyser co-author of Becoming the Parent You Want to Be (www.becomingtheparent.com).
Children, especially older ones, desperately want to belong to a group and chores make them an active part of an important one: their family. Chores also build a sense of confidence and competence, traits that help them resist peer group pressure.