How to Raise Confident, Compassionate Kids
When Kay Wyma noticed an attitude of entitlement in her five children, ages 3 to 14, she embarked on a campaign to introduce them to basic life skills, from doing laundry to hosting a dinner party. In an excerpt from her book, Cleaning House, documenting the yearlong project, Kay recounts the epiphany behind her quest.
Before getting too far along, let me introduce myself. My name is Kay Wyma. I’m a recovering enabler, procrastinator, controller, manipulator, and so much more.
Primarily, though, I’m wife to Jon and mother to five kids who have begged me to disguise their identities because, as everyone knows, close association with parents can be fatal to one’s social life. Plus, these issues aren’t about a certain set of kids. We’re all dealing with youth entitlement—in our own homes, at schools, or in the workplace. Here’s the cast of kid characters at my house:
/ Boxster, age 14, hopes one day to drive the car that inspired his nickname. He fully embraces the typical characteristics of the teen years. His siblings drive him crazy, and he consistently prefers food prepared outside our home. Yet the kid’s character rivals that of most adults. He is unabashedly loyal and puts forth amazing effort when compelled. But compelled he must be if we expect him to break free from teen apathy.
/ Snopes, age 12, is our fact checker, a no-nonsense gal who keeps track of what’s going on and is quick to point out inconsistencies, especially any involving a mom who might be traveling a mile or two over the speed limit. Since the day she was born, she has been blessing those with whom she comes into contact—except, on occasion (usually in the morning), her siblings.
/ Barton, age 10, is a quiet, responsible kid who’s on top of everything. She earned her nickname because, like Clara, founder of the Red Cross, this child epitomizes volunteer service. Like all tween girls, she has her less-than-lovely moments, but more often than not, she is my go-to girl, even when I don’t know I have a need.
/ Fury, age 8, shows a stubborn resistance to change, much like a corralled stallion determined to shake loose any weight on its back. But when the kid buys into the task at hand and chooses to use that tenacity for good, watch out. He is a hard worker who gets the job done and done well (once we get beyond the protests).
/ Jack, age 3, is too young to care whether he has an alias, poor kid. His name could be Poppins, because like Mary, he’s “practically perfect in every way.” So we’re spoiling him a bit—while hoping our efforts won’t land him in the rotten category. Perfection aside, he does have one small, often annoying habit he’s been feeding: he’s known by many as the Future Hoarder of America.
It’s a world where my name changes multiple times a day. For large portions of the day, I go by James, as in “Drive me to school, James.” “My stomach needs a Slurpee. Take me to 7-Eleven, James.” “I have a pressing engagement at the soccer fields. Drive on, James.”
At other times I’m Flo (“Yo, Flo, I ordered chocolate chip pancakes—not Eggo waffles!”); Alice (the Bradys’ trusty house-management expert—all right, maid); RoboCop (no description necessary); Nacho Libre (why are teen boys compelled to communicate via wrestling and bug slugging?); and Matt (as in Welcome).
I’m a regular gal. No PhD, no counseling degree, no company letterhead. I’m a mom. A mom whose home has somehow become the epicenter of entitlement, a place where children have grown accustomed to being served instead of serving. Where kids whine instead of work.
I first realized my problem while talking with my sister-in-law after the mind-numbing “I think I’d look best in a Porsche” conversation. This realization was reinforced as I later walked upstairs to see four disheveled beds surrounded by excessive levels of kid crud and clutter. I returned downstairs and instructed one of my dear precious ones, Fury, to head to his room and make his bed.
“Why should I make my bed?” came the response. “That’s your job.”
My reaction was swift.“What? That’s my job? Where do you get off thinking that’s my job? I’m your mother. You don’t tell me what I do. And by the way, I do a lot more than make your bed! Lots. Oh, and I may not be able to help you with your algebra, or add and subtract multiple numbers, or remember grammar rules, or…well, that’s beside the point. Just so you know, though, I used to do complicated math stuff. Yeah, when I worked in an office, I did deals. Big deals. Huge deals!”
Okay, so I didn’t say any of that, but I wanted to. Truth is, I had no response. I was caught off guard, shocked and in disbelief that the child could actually think that.
Clearly things were amiss. Action was required.
Enter the “Experiment.”
One fine February day, I decided that my kids had a few things to learn about life. Things that are key to productive and independent living. To that end, I developed a list of duties I wanted my children to master before leaving our nest. Then we launched into the Experiment: a 12-month endeavor to teach our kids how to be productive in our home. Each month I introduced a task to help equip them to reach their full potential. I gave them responsibilities, such as making their beds, doing the laundry, cooking meals, and other jobs designed to help them learn how to do life.
Given my own issues as a recovering procrastinator, implementing this strategy has been a challenge. Don’t be fooled by any semblance of organization. In fact, I’m a founding member of the Women’s Auxiliary for the Organizationally Impaired. Just thinking about the Experiment initially made me want to crawl in bed and pull the covers over my head. (Of course, I haven’t showered without interruption in 14 years; why I thought I could have a moment of silence alone in my bed is beyond me.)
But I can’t ignore the serious consequences of allowing youth entitlement to continue un-checked. These kids are part of the generation that will be leading the world in a few short years. Not only that, but they—all of us, in fact—were created to work. It’s been around since the beginning of time, an integral part of man’s existence, a privilege before we made it toil. (See Genesis 2–3.)
So I set out with trepidation but sincerely hoped we all—especially me—could complete the Experiment and do our part toward replacing the “I’m here to be served” attitude with a “Look what I can do through hard work” mantra. Along the way I learned that success is not just motivating them to work; it has a great deal to do with stopping myself from doing it all, remembering to get my hands off, and being okay with their hands-on learning.
The following pages detail my yearlong effort to transfer responsibilities from my shoulders to theirs. I’ve tried to document the good, the bad, and the ugly moments of my attempt to lead my kids toward responsibility and independence, capability and confidence. We have yet to arrive in the land of the fully equipped, but at least we’re headed in the right direction.
Just the other day, I needed to handle a phone call. I’m not sure why, but failing to notice the time, I returned a call at 5:45 pm, the bewitching hour, no matter the age of your kids. As if on cue, the 3-year-old fired up the whine, which quickly escalated to a demanding scream.Stuck at the stove stirring a stubborn banana cream pie filling, I emphatically motioned and mouthed to the nearest sibling (Barton), “Please take care of Jack. I need to finish this call.” Wrinkle-browed, she thought about balking, but true to character she jumped right in.
Several minutes later, still in the midst of the phone call and still stirring the filling, which refused to thicken, I heard screaming upstairs.
Then a very loud “Oh, noooo!”
At this point I faced a choice. I could end the phone call, quit stirring my concoction, and actually be a responsible mother. Or I could stay the course and finish my pie. I, of course, opted for the latter.
With sweat now literally dripping off the elbow of my stirring arm, from having stood over that stove for close to 45 minutes, I noticed Barton standing next to me, scribbling on a piece of paper. When done, she lifted it for me to see. With spelling and grammar skills parked upstairs at the scene of the accident, she had written, “Jack went Pee on the flor upstairs.”
Since I’ve established my obsession with my pie and phone call, you may not be surprised that I didn’t immediately head upstairs to clean that mess. I looked at the able-bodied child next to me and remembered that she’d been introduced to Lysol months ago as part of Task 4.
“Would you pleeease clean it up,” I mouthed, knowing full well pee outside a toilet bowl is a big request.
In a whisper, she begged, “Mommm. Noooo!”
Boxster stood close by, gawking and laughing at the entire scene because it involved a bodily function. I turned to him.“Will you go clean it up? Come on. You can do it. I’ll make it worth your while.”
“No way! I wouldn’t do it for 50 grand.” “Don’t worry about it,” I muttered. “I’ll just clean it later.”
Both kids slipped away, and I began to wrap up my call, confessing all that had transpired. Before I could finish, however, Barton returned, scribbling another message. When she held up the paper, I saw that, under the frantic initial note, she had written, “I cleened Jacks Pee.”
(No doubt stunned by the experience, her spelling and grammar skills were still upstairs.)
What could I do but smile—for so many reasons. That she would reach beyond her comfort zone and clean a disgusting mess, change the kid’s clothes, and place the dirty clothes in the washer warmed my heart. She did a job she didn’t think she could handle. She went beyond what I asked.
Moments like this, when my kids and I both get a chance to see how capable they really are, assure me that the Experiment wasn’t just a harebrained idea. Crossing hurdles like these prepares her (all the kids, really) for much more challenging situations in the future.
One thing I’ve learned is that the journey of life goes more smoothly when you’re traveling with someone. Roads traveled alone tend to lead to disaster and sometimes despair.
I’ve also learned it’s a good idea to tap older and wiser resources. So, as we began the Experiment, I volunteered a few veterans to travel with me as I chronicled our adventure on my blog. These seasoned souls come from different backgrounds and experiences, but all share the common bond of survival and were more than willing to offer tips and tactics learned from their own travels. I call them my Ironing Board because they helped me smooth out the wrinkles—not the facial ones caused by parenting stress (although I’m sure I could use some help there), but the uneven patches in our family life that left me feeling rumpled and creased.
In addition to my Ironing Board, guest bloggers offered great insight and helpful hints on navigating our road. I also extended an open invitation on my blog to anyone brave enough (or desperate, or in need of comic relief ) to come along for the ride and share ideas, innovations, and insights. Friends from all over the world, from all walks of life, have told me they have the same parenting issues with their kids, in India, Australia, Great Britain, and even impoverished western Africa.
Just the other day I was chatting with my sweet friend Clara. She comes twice a week to help me with Jack so he can avoid living his life in a carpool line. Believe it or not, all my kids napped at home in their own beds when they were little. I wanted Jack to have the same opportunity, so I whittled my school carpool responsibilities to a minimum except for the days Clara helps me. I shared with her my ideas on our Experiment and how the kids would be assuming some of the chores around the house. Being a mother of four, she commiserated. She told me that she’d been so frustrated with the mess in her teenage son’s room that she had taken his door off the hinges. She then told me that her 18-year-old doesn’t see any reason to get a driver’s license. Why should he? Everyone else can drive him.
The only way to conquer youth entitlement is one house at a time. What a privilege we have to celebrate all that these kids have to offer and to help them realize their potential by bringing on the work. It’s incredibly exciting to consider the abundant possibilities just around the corner for a generation empowered by parents and other adults who believe in them, support them by teaching real-life skills, and then pile on the responsibility.
Think about the ramifications of unleashing this tech-savvy crew on global economic issues, seemingly incurable diseases, and age-old political conflict. So here’s to seeing what can happen when we tell our kids, “I believe in you, and I’m going to prove it by putting you to work.”
Let the empowering Experiment begin.
Adapted from Cleaning House, by Kay Wills Wyma, by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.