Teaching families the skills necessary for a successful home life requires patience and know-how. As a professional organizer who specializes in helping families function better, I have firsthand experience with this fact.
And in the past 25 years, I have discovered eight essential skills that have come to my aid over and over again as I've helped families find answers to their organization challenges, work together as a team, and increase their sense of personal responsibility. These skills are best taught to family members one at a time—perhaps in a family meeting where instruction can be given, training can happen, and practicing can be done. Then the skill can be practiced for a week or two until the new routine becomes a more permanent habit.
Skill #1: Individual responsibility leads to group success. Make clear and definitive assignments to each family member.
In many families I work with, there is no clear understanding of where the children's responsibilities end and the parents' jobs begin. The muddled responsibility line causes never-ending challenges. You can change that situation right away.
As an example, let's talk about laundry. If children are in charge of putting their soiled clothing in the dirty clothes basket in the bathroom when they bathe or shower, this skill should be taught and practiced. It is the parents’ role to make the expectations clear and then offer motivation to get the chores done in a timely manner, day after day.
I often suggest that families implement individual "laundry" responsibilities by having a family meeting where it is decided who does what and when. In this meeting, it might be concluded that Mom will do laundry on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. All family members are to put their dirty clothes in the bathroom baskets when they bathe or shower. Any other clothing that needs Mom's special attention is to go in the dirty clothes basket in the laundry room.
Dinner on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evening will be served only after family members have put their clean laundry away. To remind all dinner-comers of their responsibilities, place plates upside down on the table. Then, turn the plates over as each person reports that his or her freshly laundered clothes have been hung in the closet or placed in the appropriate drawers. Such a plan is sure to lead to group success.
Skill #2: Bedrooms are a mini-home. Make beds and tidy bedrooms every morning.
A made or unmade bed in and of itself is not important. The skill you are working to achieve is the steadiness of doing something simple day after day so it becomes a part of the "background" of your lifestyle. In addition, when all family members make their beds and tidy their bedrooms each morning, much of the private space of the home is kept neat with just a little effort on the part of each family member.
I have found it useful to have a standards sheet for family members new to this skill. Each morning they can check off the various items needing their attention (such as making the bed, hanging up clothes, etc.). Having such a sheet is also useful for communicating the expectations of the parent to the child when it is time to check the bedroom.
Skill #3: Help out at meal time. Clear your place at the table. Push your chair in at the table. Put one additional food item away.
This skill is useful to relieve mealtime stress from the cook and dishwasher. It shows family members that if everyone helps a little bit, then a lot of the work can be done quickly.
Again, it is important that each family member be specifically in charge of his or her individual dishes and one other item after the meal is completed. Mom might assign specific tasks by saying, "Jon, you are in charge of the pepper and salt. Rachel, you can take care of the napkins. Michael, you get to be our butter dish waiter by putting it away. I'll do the leftovers, and Dad says he'll wipe the table after meals. We'll all push in our own chairs. With everyone helping a bit, the dinner dishes will be done in no time at all."
Skill #4: Don’t put it down, put it away. Everyone keeps their personal items picked up, especially in the public areas of the home.
This skill is somewhat elusive because it takes self-discipline.
When I work with families on this skill, we set up a mock situation. After taking a tour of the home, we decide upon one area of action. I usually suggest focusing on the family room. In our mock situation, I place several magazines around on the couches, an empty glass on the end table, and some shoes near the TV. Then a discussion is held about items that had been put down instead of being put away. I then ask for a volunteer and time one family member as he or she cleans up the mock messiness to see how long it takes.
Of course, putting items away is not about time, it is about habit. I establish this idea by placing the items in a messy state again and letting a second family member try to beat the first "put away" time. And on and on we go with the game.
The goal for the next week is to have a family room that is returned to order again and again because family members using the room put their items away, not put them down.
Skill #5: Learn to finish.
The skill of finishing is best taught initially in the room that sees a lot of family members each day and can become quite messy without consistent "finishing."
With younger children, it is enough to focus on flushing the toilet, checking the toilet paper, and helping them hang up their towel after bathing. With older children, teenagers, and adults, the skills might include washing their toothpaste spittle down the sink, putting their toothbrush and the toothpaste away, and getting their dirty clothes inside the laundry basket.
Again, a family meeting might be held where the specifics of what a "finished" bathroom looks like are discussed and clarified. Successful "finishing" marks could merit a treat at the end of the week.
Skill #6: Seek to serve. Help Mom or Dad 15 minutes every day doing what they want you to do. Mom or Dad will, in turn, do what you would like to do once a week on "your day."
Kids spend a lot of time whining about having too much to do around the house just with regular chores. Yet there are special circumstances that seem to come up each day where a little extra help would really make a difference to most parents.
Thus the skill of service. Ask family members to come to you sometime during the day and ask how they can help out. Set a timer for 15 minutes and let your children serve you in unique ways, according to the demands of the day.
This is countered by children having one day of the week where Mom or Dad will do what they want for the same 15-minute period. Often children will ask for a book to be read aloud, for a few minutes together at the basketball hoop, or for help with their latest school project.
This back-and-forth service in the home sets the stage for bigger service projects outside the home and creates a "sure, I'll be happy to help" attitude.
Skill #7: Regularly return the whole home to order. Clean up the house three times a day, usually before breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
This skill helps keep the home neat and teaches family members that any little job done frequently is much easier than a bigger job done less often. Because food is a great motivator, choosing to clean up before meals will bring a higher rate of success.
For example, a mother might say, "Dad will be home in fifteen minutes. I have dinner prepared, but, oh, the mess we have around the house! I have hot spaghetti and meatballs for all 'Italian sailors' that can help make our home ship-shape for inspection by Daddy when he arrives home. Let's set a timer and go to work."
Skill #8: Practice self-initiative. Do one chore every day without being asked.
This skill is also somewhat elusive unless there is specific training about both the principle and the practice. It is useful for a family meeting to be held where each family member is given a chance to choose a daily chore they will do for the whole week without being asked or reminded. It is useful, as with all family projects, to make up a written chart with commitments written down plainly.
For example, a father might receive the following commitments from his family. "Kent will put away his backpack on the hook in his bedroom when he first comes home from kindergarten. Eliza will set the dinner table at four P.M. Mom will have dinner ready by six P.M. I will start doing dishes right after dinner. Everyone will do these chores without being reminded."
There are many other important skills to learn together as a family, but these eight skills seem to make the most difference to most families I work with. In no time at all, the laundry is being put away in a timely manner. Bedrooms are neater. Meals go more smoothly. The family is working together and it is easier to maintain order.
Of course, there will be bad days, but the skills are there to be practiced again when things settle down. All in all, it makes for a happier family when the home and life are a bit more organized.
In Marie's book, The Children You Want with the Kids You Have she details a "Training Children to Work Master Plan" for helping children learn a variety of essential skills needed to have a good work ethic, a responsible character, and the opportunity to live in a home that functions well. Now available at Deseret Book.