Taking good care of things is a lifestyle. For those of us who are committed to that lifestyle, passing its values onto our children is important. We want them to be mindful and appreciative of what they have, and we want them to learn to care for the things — as well as the people — in their world. Teaching children to take care of things isn’t complicated.
For example, to foster a caring approach, you might teach your child to:
Put her things away
If you’re like me, you like things tidy. So it’s hard to resist following your child around, picking up after her all the way. But you’ll both be better off if you don’t. Teach your child to put away her own toys, especially, but also her clothes, accessories, and school things. Putting things away when they aren’t being used is one of the most basic steps in taking care of them.
Help your child by providing easy-to-access organization, especially when she’s little. (A big basket to toss all the stuffed animals will be much easier for a toddler to handle than designated shelves to stand them up on, for example.) Once your child is older, use more detailed storage to teach organizing and sorting skills. Two of our daughters have carts for their kids’ Lego pieces, and they taught them at a young age to sort the pieces according to colors — turning clean-up into an enjoyable learning activity. Teach your school-age child to unpack her schoolbag when she gets home, too (with designated places for papers, lunchboxes, and clothing).
Clean his room
It may not always be up to your standards, but having your child clean (as in tidy) his own room gives him responsibility for taking care of his things and his environment. Find ways to make the job easy — and enjoyable — for him. Reducing the amount of stuff in his room will help. (This is one of many reasons to go easy on the number of toys you provide for your child.) Providing bedding that makes it easy to make a bed is helpful, too — a big comforter rather than blankets that need to be arranged and tucked just-so, for example.
If your child responds well to incentives, consider a reward system. And if your child doesn’t like to clean his room because he doesn’t like solitary work, keep him company. Help him a little bit (just make sure it’s still his job), or do another task in the room (like weeding outgrown or out-of-season clothes from his closet) while he works on tidying.
Once he has the tidying down, teach him to do a weekly cleaning (simple dusting and sweeping or vacuuming, for example), too. Show him how to strip the bed when it’s time to launder sheets, and have him help you put them back on. Eventually, he’ll be able to do it all himself!
Learning to craft a clay pot or hammer together a little birdhouse teaches kids what goes into making things. If a child has sewn a simple napkin, she’ll have a deeper appreciation of the hand-me-down quilt on her bed. If she’s helped you craft candles or bake bread, she’s more likely to appreciate the hand-crafted items you see at a fair or the bakery.
Most kids love being outdoors and digging in the dirt. Teach your child how to plant vegetables and/or flowers. Follow up by caring for the plants and harvesting them together. If you’ve grown something to eat, help him prepare the food to serve, with pride. If you’ve grown flowers, have him fill a little vase for the dinner table or his desk. Provide your child with a houseplant. Teach him the name of it and how to tend it. Put it in the sink for watering to make it easy for him. You might even teach him to propagate it!
Composting is super easy and fun for kids to do. It will teach your child about cycles of decay and nourishment, about not wasting food and other natural matter, and about tending. Kids can water and even turn compost. Consider a bin that’s kid-friendly (not too high to reach into, easy to turn, etc.). Explain how compost works, and have her help dress the garden or flower beds with the compost when it’s ready.
Food waste is a big deal, but there’s no need to lecture your child about how many children are starving in India. He’ll just wonder why you don’t send them his leftover couscous. Instead, show him how to wrap up his leftovers and put them in the refrigerator for him (or someone else) to enjoy later. Teach him to sit down when he’s eating (not run around with food in his hand or mouth), and to be thoughtful about the food he’s eating. Talk at the dinner table about what you’re eating, how it was grown, and where it came from. If you’re inclined, say grace before your meals to show your gratitude. And always thank the cook!
Care for books
Happily, most children love to read, and books provide a terrific opportunity to show a caring approach. Once your child is past the board-book stage, teach her to turn book pages carefully and not leave books susceptible to damage by being splayed and strewn around. Designate a good place for her to shelve books as she’s finished reading them. Talk with her about what goes into the making of a book. Explain how someone wrote the story, someone drew all the pictures, someone designed the cover, someone printed the book, someone bound it, someone shipped it, and someone sold it to you (or lent it to you) to enjoy.
Once your child is old enough, provide a piggy bank and allowance (or a way for him to earn some money). Then give him the responsibility of purchasing a few things for himself. Teach him how to evaluate what would be the best use of his money. Is the item something he will enjoy for a long time? Will it last a long time (is it well made)? Is it something he’ll be able to take good care of? Would he rather save up for one special, long-lasting item rather than buy a lot of disposable little things that aren’t particularly special?
Show your child how to tape a ripped page in her book and glue the handle back on the broken cup. Teach an older child how to patch and mend clothing. If you have the opportunity to visit a place where people fix things — a shoemaker, a tailor, a furniture maker, or repair shop (I wish there were more of these!) — be sure to take her for an outing there. Or perhaps you know someone who is refurbishing a piece of furniture or restoring an old car. Schedule a visit and a chat about the project.
Take pride in his efforts
Whether your child is coloring, tying his shoes, or playing sports, focus on his efforts more than his results. It’s fun to rave about the scored goal or perfect score on homework. But it’s more important to place emphasis on the thing he can control — his effort. Celebrate his successes, of course, but be sure to tell him you like how carefully he worked to make that difficult letter “S,” or how you admire him for being so thoughtful about his color choices. He’ll learn to appreciate his own efforts and the efforts of others, too — all of which translates into a mindful view of the things in his life.
Giving presents is something most kids love to do, and the process provides plenty of opportunity for learning. When it’s time for your child to give a gift (to a friend at a party or a relative at the holidays, for example), enlist her help in deciding what to give (or even let her decide, if she has the skills). Teach her to be thoughtful about what the recipient might really enjoy. (Does your friend like to paint? What’s Mom’s favorite color?) And explore the possibility of her making something to gift. (She’ll soon learn that handmade gifts are always valued.)
Be sure to let her help you wrap the gift creatively, and with as little waste as possible. Can she fashion some wrapping paper out of something you have around the house — an old map, leftover wallpaper, newspaper, or her own artwork? Have her think about the message she wants to tell the recipient, and help her create a card, too.
It’s important for kids to learn that there are others who don’t have what they have. But first-hand experience is more valuable than lectures. One of our daughters makes a point of having their four children do a volunteer activity together each month. They have delivered meals to the elderly, served lunches at a soup kitchen, chosen and delivered items for homeless people, and sent letters to veterans, for example. I know that this has given the kids a valuable perspective.
Most communities have volunteer coordinators who can direct you to places that need help. Or do a simple online search for opportunities. Be prepared for lots of questions from your child, and take the opportunity to talk about important topics, such as needs versus wants and resources.
Teach by example
Of course, kids are great imitators. So one of the most important things you can do is set a good example for your child. He’ll notice that you carefully arrange the shoes by the door rather than pile them in a heap. He’ll hear that you found a new home for the leftover paint rather than throw it away. And he’ll see that you knitted a pink scarf for your aunt’s birthday (pink is her favorite color). Talk about your caring-to-keep efforts when your child is around. Have an out-loud discussion in his presence about choosing an appliance that will last and a table that is beautifully crafted.
There are so many values we instill in kids every day, by the choices we make ourselves and by the lessons we take the time to teach them. Being mindful, thoughtful, and appreciative — and learning to take good care of things — is something I love to pass along.
Are there things you do to teach your child to be mindful about things? Please share!
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