We recently added a new puppy to our household, bringing the dog count in our house to two. While we had considered adding a companion to our home for our one-year-old puppy, it was not part of our plan for this year. Our boys were eager to have another puppy and very persuasive in their desire, but ultimately what convinced us to welcome the new addition was the opportunity this presented to help our children take a big step in their maturity.
Our boys are 9 and 11, which means they are getting close to the teenage years as well as the earliest age they can begin the “adult maturity” stage of life. There are many important tasks we hope for them to master as they prepare to exit the child stage of maturity, not only life skills (like cleaning their rooms) but maturity tasks. One of the key child level maturity tasks is learning to do hard things – things that children don’t feel like doing. While our boys have grown the last couple of years in the tasks they help out with around the house, they still have a ways to go in the area of responsibility and taking ownership of their part in things.
One of the trickiest parts of helping our children learn to do things they don’t feel like doing is helping them find the motivation. Sometimes motivation can be a reward they are looking forward to or avoiding the consequence that comes with lack of follow through. The best motivation is joy-based and relational, which is why we often try to link privileges and responsibilities.
As Chris and I prayed about the boys’ entreaty to add a puppy to the household, we saw a unique opportunity where the reward and responsibility are deeply entwined. We shared with our boys that we do not have the capacity to add the responsibility of another dog to the house and they eagerly said they would take on all the work for both dogs. We talked through many scenarios they would encounter (like taking dogs out when they want to be playing with friends or cleaning up puppy messes even though they think it’s gross) to help them understand the responsibility. They were still eager and willing to do the extra work. We warned them that at the end of a month of having the puppy, if they weren’t doing their part or were complaining about the responsibilities we would look at finding a new home for the puppy.
The transformation in their attitude towards responsibility after only a couple of weeks was remarkable. They took ownership of the tasks for both dogs and only occasionally grumbled when it took them away from playing. After 2 weeks of somewhat sleepless nights for me getting up with the puppy, I told them I needed extra help with non-puppy things because of the extra work I had in the middle of the night and while they were at school. They willingly pitched in helping with extra tasks around the house and were happy to be helpful.
I am not saying everyone needs to go out and get a puppy, but finding age appropriate ways that your kids can learn to do hard things – things they are not in the mood to do, and help them find satisfaction and reward in the midst of the responsibilities is a crucial part of raising future well-adjusted adults. The reward might not always be as big as the cuddly cuteness of a puppy, it might instead be the privilege of game time, allowance or a little later bedtime. The reward could also be simply the time with you and the joy you build together as they work alongside you. Or the satisfaction of recovering when they get upset rather than an upset derailing their day.
For more about how to uniquely help our children at each stage of maturity, check out Chris’ newest book: The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-filled Kids. We appreciate Jim Wilder and the Life Model for teaching us these things.