Earlier this year, my husband traveled out of state for several days for a family emergency. This complicated my already-shaky morning routine. We usually split the tasks of taking care of two dogs and making sure our kindergartner is ready for the school bus. So the first morning he was gone, I said, “Naya, I need your help. Will you please put food in the dogs’ bowls while I take them outside?” “Okay, Mommy,” she replied, cheerfully.
I put her in charge of the evening feeding, too. The second evening when I reminded her to feed the dogs, she balked. “Why do I alwaaaaaays have to feed the dogs?” Tired and trying to make supper, I swallowed several snarky responses, including “Oh, really? Two days and this is already a problem?” After several moments of whining, I turned and squatted to her eye level. “Tell you what,” I said in a half-joking, half-serious tone. “You feed the dogs, and I’ll feed YOU.”
When Mark returned from his trip, he resumed taking care of the dogs and Naya was relieved of her duties. Weeks later, he had to leave again. I again enlisted Naya to be in charge of the dogs, but this time, with more intention. I coached her to use her strong voice to make them sit before she filled their bowls. I had her let them outside and call them back to the house. “She’s six,” I thought. “If anything, we haven’t given her enough responsibility for her age.”
Another voice in my brain protested. “She’s just a little kid. Why burden her with the responsibility for another creature’s well-being? Just let her be.”
Then I remembered the 4-H kids who raise livestock.
One of my early duties at Farm Bureau was to assist with the Sycamore Farmer’s Club Junior Fair, held at the Sandwich Fairgrounds in conjunction with the 4-H livestock show. I worked in the livestock office, tabulating results and preparing premium payouts. Now and then I would take a break to wander the fairgrounds and watch the kids in action.
Having not been in 4-H growing up, I’d had limited exposure to livestock showing (aside from a brief stint helping show my cousin’s sheep—a story for another day). Watching the kids at the Sycamore Farmer’s/4-H fair, I found myself fascinated. Children of all ages were hauling feed, grooming animals, and leading creatures many times their own size into show rings. Parents and other adults were there, too, but it was the kids’ poise and confidence that captivated me. Most of them seemed to know exactly what they needed to do, and they were doing it with pride and enjoyment.
I wasn’t a mother yet. But I realized I wanted that sort of experience someday for my own child.
Back to my present internal debate about how much responsibility to give my daughter. When Mark was gone the second time, Naya was again whiny and resistant when asked to care for the dogs. “How do I teach her that pitching in is a part of being human?” I wondered. “How can she feel that growing up and taking on responsibility isn’t just drudgery? How can the added weight she’ll have to carry not feel like a burden?”
Then it hit me. Make her feel proud. Let her know how much her help means to our family. Let her carry the weight of responsibility with a sense of accomplishment. I found that a quick hug and “Thank you for feeding the dogs, sweetheart. That’s a big help,” makes her beam with pride.
Once she has a job she’s in charge of, we can help if needed without taking away her ownership. If the dogs are dancing around their food bowls, she’s getting dressed, and the bus will arrive soon, I can say, “Naya, would you like me to feed the dogs for you this morning?” It would be easier for me to just do it. But she needs to know it’s still her job. Taking on the weight of responsibility is the only way to gain maturity.
Adults will agree that responsibility brings stress. More responsibilities? Heavier burden. Can we reframe some of our own and our kids’ responsibilities as opportunities instead?