My 5-year-old son, Thomas, ran past me on his way to the stairs that led to his room. “Slow down,” I automatically called out one of our family rules as I finished folding a pair of jeans. Those family rules were meant for teaching our young kids responsibility and would be instrumental in what happened next. I heard a thump followed by a cry of pain and hurried into the living room. “Are you OK?” I asked.
“I slipped on Michelle’s shoe,” Thomas said, tears rolling down his cheeks.
My husband and I have four kids, but that day there were certainly more than four pairs of shoes in the living room. Our children had gotten into the habit of kicking off their footwear wherever they were. It didn’t bother me when they were younger, but it did now.
After talking with my husband, we decided we needed to motivate our children to pick up after themselves. We wanted them to do what was right, not just what was convenient in the moment — starting with their shoes.
A New Plan and New Family Rules
Our strategy was simple. Any shoe or sock left behind belonged to me. So I picked up shoes and socks throughout the day and then gave my kids an opportunity to earn them back.
When one child asked, “Where are my tennis shoes?” I replied, “You left them in the dining room. If you want to dust the bookshelf, they can be yours again.”
I was completely surprised when this plan worked. After a few shoes were paid for with chores, the footwear miraculously found its way into the proper place without my help. And unexpectedly, our shoe experiment branched out.
At the end of each night, I used to pick up toys and take them to our children’s rooms. But our kids started to do that task on their own. (I think they were afraid the shoe rule might extend to their toys.)
Though I wish we’d started this exercise when our children were younger, I’m glad we began it when we did. The shoe rule was the first step in helping them realize why short-term convenience isn’t always the best answer to a problem.
Going Deeper With Teaching Kids Responsibility
As our children grew, the shoe rule gave us a basis for having other conversations with our kids. We used it in our discussions about choosing to do what was right in the areas of personal responsibility and moral decisions.
Was saying an unkind word when they felt hurt the best action? Or was holding their tongue better so as to keep from hurting someone’s feelings and learn self-control? Should they cheat off of a friend’s paper or get the grade they deserved, which forced them to study harder?
Because my children had a tangible example for understanding why they were making decisions, they were better able to think through outcomes. They found that taking responsibility not only for their material possessions but also for their social actions was difficult but important. And sometimes doing what was right felt unfair, such as when a sibling appeared to be held to a different standard.
At those times, we talked about Paul’s encouragement in Galatians 6:9: “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” With each choice to do what was right, my children learned that doing good was seldom the most convenient path, but it had rewards. Not saying an unkind word kept friendships stronger. Not cheating made them better students.
Over time, our kids began to understand how their choices had short-term and long-term consequences. What started as a family rule to get our kids to put away their shoes grew into a great way of teaching our kids responsibility. That rule became a good example of how doing right was a much better choice than doing what was convenient.