Hidden Messages: What Our Words and Actions are Really Telling Our Children
By Elizabeth Pantley
Curt, a bright sixteen-year-old, was bursting with excitement over
his newly earned driver's license. His mother, seeing an opportunity
for him to exercise his helpful tendencies, as well as his newfound
freedom, asked him to go to the grocery store to get hamburger for
dinner. The look on his face was jubilant! His mom had never trusted
him with such a task.
He grabbed the car keys and made a mad dash for the garage. She went
to the kitchen to begin dinner preparations. By the time she'd
finished and set the table, she began to worry. Time passed - and
still more. Where was Curt?
Just as she was considering a trip of her own to find him, Curt came
trudging through the door - without hamburger. "Where's the meat?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "They don't sell hamburger at our grocery
"Of course they do, Curt!" she exclaimed. But he sighed loudly and
persisted, frustrated that his mother didn't get it.
"I went down every aisle twice, Mom, and they do not sell
Exasperated, she asked Curt to get back in the car, and she climbed
in beside him. On the way to the store, she muttered, "It's just
like always around here. If I want something done right, I have to
do it myself." Once at the store, she marched over to the meat
cooler, Curt dragging behind. She pointed dramatically and announced
She was stunned when her son, looking very puzzled - a beacon in a
sea of cellophane-packed ground meat - said, in the sincerest of
voices, "I don't see any hamburger."
It took seconds for her to make the connection. Her son - her
driver's-license-toting, beard-growing, college-bound son - had
never been asked to help with grocery shopping! Nor had he ever
prepared a meal! The truth was that he couldn't recognize raw
hamburger if she threw it at his head! That head was currently
shaking back and forth in amazement. "Wow," he said, "I've never
seen it like that before."
When the fog cleared, other thoughts crept into her head: he'd never
done a load of laundry! He'd never balanced a checkbook! He'd never
changed a flat tire! He'd never sewn on a button, or mended a tear
in his pants! He'd never even packed his own lunch! Since she'd
always done all these things for him, he'd never had the opportunity
to do them for himself - and now her son, who was rapidly approaching
full adulthood, had no idea how to perform any of these common
rituals. She, with all the best intentions mixed with a bit of
all-too-human impatience, had unknowingly failed to prepare her son
for his foray into the real world. She was a good mother - too good.
The Hidden Message :
"Don't you worry about any of these tasks. I'll do them for you.
I'll always be there to do them for you."
Think About It
Sometimes, raising responsible kids isn't so much about what we do,
but about what we don't. By being "too good" of a parent we rob our
children of opportunities that help them develop tools for success
in adult life - tools that can't be bought or given, but must be
forged by experience. Every task we complete for our children is a
task not done by our children.
I can imagine you now shaking your head at this page in protest,
asking a valid question: "But my job is to take care of my children!
Aren't these tasks a part of my job?" Read this answer slowly and
Your job is to raise responsible, capable young people who
eventually leave your home to build independent lives; your job is
to help them develop the skills necessary to do that. So, you should
feel good about teaching and transferring some household duties to
your children, knowing that this is an essential gift that you're
This is a process that should begin early and continue at a regular
pace. Introducing important life skills to your kids when they turn
eighteen isn't feasible and might just be impossible. For one,
teenagers are busy; they're eager to get on with life and have
little patience to learn mundane skills such as loading the
dishwasher. For another, they've already developed habits that are
hard to break. So, it behooves us to bring our babies into childhood
with a constant eye toward what we're doing for them and weigh it
against what they could be doing for themselves.
Having said that, I maintain that it's perfectly acceptable to
choose to cater to your child at times. If your child is sick, of
course, you shouldn't tell him to get out of bed and make his own
chicken soup. If your child is unable to complete a task on his own
- due to his age or abilities - it's an act of mercy to help him
out. Consideration as a character trait is every bit as essential as
independence. The difference in these cases is that you're offering
- your child isn't expecting.
Changes You Can Make
Begin by learning one useful word, to be uttered to yourself at
times when you catch yourself doing for children things they should
learn to do for themselves: "Don't."
This is one of the few times in parenting that you can be proud of
the things you DON'T do. Next time you see that crusty cereal bowl,
hum your mantra - "Doooonnnnn't" - and refrain from taking it to the
sink. Instead, call your child, point to the bowl, and ask him
politely to take care of it. When you see those clothes lying on the
floor just outside the shower door, stop yourself - "Doooonnnnn't" -
and ask your child to put them in the hamper. Don't pick up those
crumpled-up snack wrappers left on the kitchen counter - "Doooonnnnn't."
Request that your child give them a proper burial. Resist the
temptation to move the morning along by packing your kid's lunch. "Doooonnnnn't."
Instead, call her over to the counter, and guide her through the
These lessons needn't be dreary. For example, next time you're about
to put in a load of laundry, don't simply trudge off to the laundry
room - "Doooonnnnn't." As you pass your child, who is reclined on
the sofa watching TV, ask him to turn off the tube and join you for
a quick laundry lesson. You both might take pleasure from the time
you spend together, talking among the whites and the darks, enjoying
a few moments of conversation as you teach another valuable life
Yes, I know. You'll have to go though this drill again and again...
But eventually, one bright day, you'll realize that some learning
has taken place. (And just maybe your child will have caught on,
too.) As if by magic, your child will have taken care of that cereal
bowl without a word from you - and you can celebrate the fact that
he's moved one step closer to being responsible for himself. And as
a bonus, you'll have moved one step further from frustration.
Of course, this approach calls for common sense. You can't expect a
three-year-old to cook his own dinner or a five-year-old to mow the
lawn. Start with simple age-appropriate responsibilities and add to
these as your child becomes more mature and capable. The beauty of
gifting your child with the skills of responsibility and
independence is that each skill is a building block upon which many
others are balanced. First your child learns to count the spoons and
fetch the napkins, then he learns to set the table, next he learns
to fill his own plate with food, after that he learns how to make
the salad, and before you know it, he has the skills to prepare an
My three older children, at the ripe old ages of eight, ten and
twelve - have the skills necessary to do exactly that. On several
occasions, they have been given the privilege of planning and
preparing a meal. The three of them discuss a menu plan and create a
shopping list. Then Mom, Dad or Grandma takes them to the grocery
store and the three kids do their shopping (as the adult-in-charge
sips a coffee at the front deli counter.) They bring their groceries
home and prepare the meal. It is absolutely delightful to listen as
the three of them converse and discuss the details of the
preparation, "Do you think these pieces are too big?" "How long do
you cook beans?" "Do you think this is enough cheese?" The meals are
very creative, usually colorful and even tasty. In addition to
knowing that they have learned important life skills, the glow on
their faces as they bask in the success of their endeavor makes it
So how do you get to this point? If your little one is younger than
six, consider yourself in the "training stage." This is a time when
learning occurs and habits form. I know: it's so much easier to pick
up your child's toys than to go through the labor-intensive process
that "letting your child do it himself" really is. It does take more
time and energy to "let" your child pick up his toys, tie his shoes,
and pour his juice; as the "help" you need to give is often more
complicated than if you would have done it yourself. In the long
run, however, you'll save yourself a virtual lifetime of catering to
a child who has never had the opportunity to assume these
responsibilities at a young age. Such a child will see you as his
personal valet and will resist giving up such a luxury. Wouldn't
Plus, taking the time and expending the patience to help a willing
and enthusiastic three- or four-year-old learn to unload the
dishwasher is a lot easier than trying to teach a busy, uninterested
teenager, and then deal with the frustration when he doesn't keep up
If your child is over six, every missed opportunity to teach a
useful household task prolongs your child's dependence. Every single
time you pick up a dirty sock, a used tissue, a crusty cereal bowl
or a misplaced toy - every time you do this - you teach your child
to believe in the "cleanup fairy." This is not only frustrating for
you, but also difficult for your children when they move out of the
house and discover that the "cleanup fairy" neglected to pack up and
move with them.
This is one of those parenting tasks that are difficult for most of
us. But the benefits are great. Perhaps the most wonderful payoff in
allowing your child to master life through age-appropriate tasks and
skills comes from the boost to his self-esteem. The more capable a
child is, the more confident the child will become. With confidence,
and a full repertoire of important life skills, comes a stronger,
more positive self-image that will enable your child to take on
whatever life imposes.
Copyright © 2001 Elizabeth Pantley. Excerpted from
Hidden Messages – What Our Words and Actions are Really Telling Our
Children, with permission by NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group Inc.