Cultivating Independence

VMS Community Blog
Posted October 3, 2017
by Julie Schlossinger, Lower School Director

When should students start participating in household chores? A lower school parent recently asked of me this, and I always respond by referencing Jim Fay, founder of the Love and Logic philosophy, which is used extensively by lower school teachers. Fay believes all human beings need to feel needed and to know that they're making a contribution — even kids. On his website and in his parenting books, Fay notes "...they (children) can't feel that way if they don't have chores and make contributions to the family." 

Student independence with life skills is a topic I field each school year from both parents and teachers. More and more students come to school each year lacking independence in the areas of self-help and basic chores. Even some students in upper elementary (grades 3-5) need help zipping their jacket, taking out the trash, and using a vacuum. 

In the VMS classroom, as early as kindergarten, students are expected to care for themselves when it comes to the basic life skills of: putting a jacket on, cleaning up after their snack and lunch, blowing their nose, using the bathroom, changing their shoes and boots, and participating in classroom jobs like vacuuming, taking out the trash, and cleaning tables. 

It’s obvious to teachers which of their students participate in chores at home and which do not. There is a spectrum of life-skills development seen in classrooms. Those who are more independent have an easier time, while those who are new to chores and sharing responsibility for caring for a common space can struggle at times with the skill or with their attitude about being asked to contribute. 

How can parents help their children develop these important life skills? They can start by setting families expectations for household chores. This could take the form of a family meeting to discuss and identify chores. Families can make a calendar or chart of the chores and post it in a common area like the kitchen or mudroom. Children should be involved in the planning and contribute their ideas for chores. Parents should not expect perfection, instead, the focus should be on keeping a positive, relaxed attitude. Parents should resist the temptation to jump in and complete tasks, as this undermines the whole point of childhood chores and responsibility. 

Some families include an incentive such as earning a family board game on the weekend if all the chores were completed during the week. Ultimately, the goal is to help children internalize the sense of feeling that comes when contributing to something larger than themselves. They need to learn they are members of different communities—two in particular, family and school. 

Additionally, students should develop personal self-help skills beginning at a very young age. Toddlers should be taught how to clean up their toys, preschoolers should be taught how to put their jacket on and how to change their shoes, and kindergarteners should be taught how to buckle a seatbelt. 

The earlier you start, the easier it will be. You might think your child is too young for certain chores or life skills, but children are often more capable than we think, and often eager to help. Two notes of advice — praise, praise, praise, and be consistent. Children thrive on positive encouragement and praise, and children suffer when parenting is inconsistent. 

Click here to read a great article by Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, a recent VMS parent book club book. Jessica is a regular contributor to PBS Parents. 

About Vail Mountain School

Founded in 1962, Vail Mountain School is a K-12, coed, independent school in Vail, Colorado. Our philosophy is to provide a demanding, college preparatory, liberal arts education in an atmosphere of mutual respect between faculty and students, where nurturing a healthy self-concept and stimulating academic inquiry are parallel objectives. Intentionally designed cross-age programs promote role modeling, responsibility, self confidence, and a sense of community. Our location in the Rocky Mountains allows us to integrate the outdoors into the academic and cultural fabric of the school through hut trips, all-school Ski Fridays, and other experiential learning opportunities. The result: our graduates possess a quiet confidence that serves them well in college and in life—confidence to assert themselves in their first college level essays; to raise their hand in a class of hundreds; to live on their own for the first time, to meet with and engage their professors; and to lead among their peers.