"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
September 03, 2015
Teaching Children to Respect Possessions
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Question:

My children tend to destroy things. Furniture, toys, clothes, dishes, walls — they are not respectful, even of their own possessions. It is a problem in our home, and also when we visit other people. Do you have any ideas for how I can teach them to respect things? Do we just have too much stuff?

Answer:

Teaching children to respect and care for their home and possessions is an important parental duty. It is achieved by consistent training, starting from the first time little Timmy says, “Goo,” and throws his strained carrots at the wall. Or pulls over a lamp. Or jabs a fork into the tabletop. Or dumps his milk on the couch. Or crumples the pages of a book in his adorable little fists.

When these things happen — and they will happen — it is the parent’s job to say, in a tone of kind but firm instruction, “Oh, no, Timmy. We are gentle with the book. See how we turn one page at a time, so gently. That way we can read our book over and over again, and the book stays nice and new.”

It is my belief (or perhaps my hope) that if you repeat this conversation one hundred million times, it will have an effect.

In the meantime, it is up to parents to patiently teach and enforce clear rules about how to care for the family’s home, car, yard and possessions. The effect (hopefully) will be children who show respect for not only their own home, but for the homes, cars, yards and possessions of others. And for public spaces such as churches, offices, parks, schools and public washrooms.

In your case, you seem to feel that your family is lagging in this area. I applaud you for noticing and for resolving to do something about it. It would be easier to say, “Well, people are more important to me than things,” or “Oh, it’s just an old couch so who cares,” or “It’s the kids’ house, too. I want them to be able to live in it,” or some other excuse.

But caring for people and caring for things are not mutually exclusive — they are separate duties. Whether your possessions are new or old, fancy or plain, they should be treated with care. Not only will it save you the money and aggravation of replacing things, but it will provide you with a more relaxing and enjoyable home.

Knowing how to care for things will also help your children when they visit other people’s homes. Children who dent the walls, spill milk on the couch and run around like wild animals are seldom invited back for a second visit. Your children will feel more comfortable and will have more positive social experiences if they have learned and practiced at home the way they ought to behave in public.

Here are some typical house rules:

  • All food and all drinks stay in the kitchen.

  • Gum is an outside food (for children, at least).

  • Running, jumping and throwing things are exclusively outside activities.

  • Close doors and drawers gently. No slamming or flinging.

  • No jumping or climbing on furniture, including beds.

  • Sit gently on the seat of the couch or chair, not on the arm or back.

  • Don’t touch the walls.

  • Don’t touch blinds, curtains or shutters.

  • Don’t touch knick-knacks, lamps, lampshades, pictures, sculptures, plants or anything marked “Lladro.”

  • No shoes on the furniture.

  • Anything messy (art supplies, play-dough, potting soil) must be used at an approved table with appropriate protection for said table.

  • Be gentle with things. Don’t crack, dent, scratch, scuff, mar, rip, tear, peel, pick at, soak, break, bend or cut things.

  • Clean up after yourself.

This seems like a daunting list if you are not used to it, but it can become second nature. I’m sure you, for example, do not scribble on walls or pick at wallpaper seams. Your children can learn to do the same.

I can also assure you that following these rules actually makes a house more comfortable to live in, not less, because you spend less time and money on cleaning, repairs and fretting, and more time enjoying life.

Here is how you might approach the actual instruction.

First, realize that this is a long-term project. Even if you make steady progress, it will take years of practice for your children to become truly civilized. Do not be discouraged if their improvement is slow or if they are unable to apply lessons from one area (no jumping on the couch) to another (no jumping on the bed). They are children, and all children need to learn civilized behavior.

Two, it sounds like you are talking about a big change for your family. I suggest you start small, with the one thing that bothers you most, and work from there. It could be the state of your couch, broken toys, dented walls or constant banging on the piano.

If you are married, talk through your goal and your proposed plan with your spouse. One parent alone is unlikely to change the way a household works; you will develop a much better plan if you work together. You will also have double the enforcement capability and double the eyes looking for and praising good behavior.

Three, identify the cause. Your children “tend to destroy things” and are “not respectful.” But what do they actually do that causes things to break or be ruined? Do they spill food on the furniture? Use their forks as chisels? Crash into the wall at the bottom of the stairs? Play rough games in the house?

When do these behaviors happen? Are there conditions around the house that need to change? Would it help to rearrange the furniture, throw away the broken toys and furniture, or lock up the Sharpies?

Four, decide what substitute behavior you will teach to replace the destructive behavior. Think of a positive way to explain it. For example, “Timmy, a fork picks up food and carries it to your mouth. It does not scratch the table or your ear. It only carries food from your plate to your mouth.”

Or, “Kids, we are not going to drop toys from the top of the stairs anymore. Dropping things from up high is an outside activity and it breaks the toys. If you want to drop things, you can drop tennis balls off the deck.”

Five, prepare to modify your own behavior. This project will not work unless you are totally committed. So don’t bite off more than you can chew. Make sure you choose objectives that you are willing to enforce, even when it’s inconvenient.

Six, have a family home evening. Start by discussing things you do well as a family. Maybe you are always on time for church, or have nice table manners. Then you could say, “But there are some things we could improve. Dad and I think our family should be better stewards of the things we own.”

Give a brief definition or have a short discussion of stewardship. “We would like to show better stewardship of our couch. We’d like it to look nice and to last for a long time so we don’t have to replace it, and so we can feel proud of our home.” (You may need to dispel the notion that only expensive or new items should be treated carefully.)

Then, get out a piece of paper and ask the children for ideas. Mention specific problems with your couch and ask for ways to improve or eliminate those problems. “If I lift up this cushion, I see popcorn and Polly Pocket dolls and socks. None of those things belongs under a couch cushion. What can we do about that?” Or, “This arm is getting wiggly. How can we prevent further damage?”

Write down the family’s suggestions and make a short, bullet-point plan. Make sure the plan reflects the main behavior modification that you identified in your pre-FHE planning. Hang your plan on the fridge or in some other visible spot.

Seven, for your FHE activity, clean the couch. Get out the vacuum and clean it as best you can. Collect the loose coins, vacuum every crumb, fluff the pillows, straighten the cushions. Make the couch look as good as it can look. Take a picture and hang it on the fridge with your plan.

Eight, eat a treat.

Nine, consistently enforce your plan. When you see a child heading for the couch with a popsicle, refer him to the plan. When you see a child leaping from the couch to the floor, refer him to the plan. When you see a child doing flips over the back of the couch to impress his friend, refer him to the plan. Have the offending child clean up his mess and restore the couch to its best condition.

Even more importantly, praise the children when they follow the plan. Identify good behavior and say, “Timmy, I see you took off your shoes before sitting on the couch. That’s good stewardship of our couch. Nice job.”

Finally, you asked if you just have too much stuff. You might. If you think your children are careless because there is always another toy to play with or because you are willing to purchase new items to replace what they have broken — or even if they have simply become accustomed to mounds of broken stuff — you should stop buying things.

“If I break this, I won’t have it anymore,” is a valuable lesson that can only be learned by experience.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!


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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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