Single Dad: How My Daughter Taught Herself to Be More Responsible
Written by Jeremy Bangs
I’m not exactly sure what lead me to mowing the lawn for the first time when I was a kid, but I don’t think compassion for others was foremost on my mind.
More likely, I just wanted to use the mower because I thought it was cool. I probably saw it as my transition from childhood to manhood. My dad probably saw it as his one-way ticket to a cold glass of iced tea.
Whatever it was that put me behind that mower, I never expected I’d be there for years to come. I tried to hand it back to my dad once I’d lost interest, but that’s not how these things work.
Mowing was only one of my formative experiences with chores.
As a younger kid, I had an allowance for a while which taught me two things: (1) I’m not motivated by money (further evidenced by the journalism degree to come later), and (2) my folks didn’t enjoy the added administrative burden that came with putting me on the payroll.
In my teens, my mom worked most nights and I’d help my dad straighten up the house before she got home. Think of any movie scene where the bad guys frantically hid evidence before the cops showed up with a search warrant and you’ll have a pretty good idea what it was like for me and my dad from 9-9:30pm most weeknights.
To be fair, I’m sure there were lessons in responsibility and conversations about doing my fair share that went along with these chores. I just don’t remember them well either because such things fade with time, or because I’m a parent now and I’m employing a bit of revisionist history to simplify the task of teaching my 9-year-old daughter helpfulness. Also, my dad was a junior high school teacher who, along with my mother, played me like a fiddle as I grew up so who knows how they pulled these things off.
Either way, chores were just responsibilities to me and I carried that curmudgeonly attitude with me into parenthood. My basic approach has been, “When I was a boy, things needed to be done. I was told to do them. I did them. The end.”
I have found this approach only works if your kid is blindly obedient. Olivia (Livvy), my daughter, is not. She asks, “Why?” a lot. She reasons, and she misinterprets direct orders as debatable suggestions. In other words, my authoritarianism has led to some pretty tough situations when it comes to getting her kid clutter off my living room floor, like shoes, socks, jackets and backpacks
I needed a new way. I needed some outside help. And I got it … from a hamster.
On Dec. 21, 2018, a winter white dwarf hamster named Nugget entered our lives. I don’t remember much about being at the pet store that night. Livvy was a tornado of excited giggles and squeals as we made our way through the store’s vermin section. All I remember clearly was that I managed to lock eyes with Livvy long enough to say, “Cleaning her cage is all you, kiddo.”
Just as children have done throughout the 10,000 years or so since humans first domesticating animals, Livvy swore she’d clean the cage. The road to parents cleaning hamster cages is paved with such promises.
So imagine my surprise a week later when Livvy stood at the top of the stairs and said, “Dad, can you show me how to clean Nugget’s cage?”
I hadn’t even brought it up. It barely needed to be cleaned. But, like my dad did the day I asked to push the lawn mower, I seized the moment and we set about cleaning Nugget’s cage. I did a little scrubbing, but I spent most of my time talking Livvy through the process.
A week later, I told Livvy it would be a good time to clean Nugget’s cage while I cleaned the kitchen.
“OK,” she said as she ran upstairs to Nugget’s cage.
She didn’t ask why. She didn’t weigh it as a suggestion. She just did it. I’d even go as far as to say that she did it happily.
I was happy, too. But I was also totally confused. I had blindly stumbled into parenting’s victory circle, and I needed to retrace my steps so I could find my way back the next time I tripped over her shoes and socks.
What finally donned on me is that Livvy wasn’t cleaning Nugget’s cage because she told me she would. She did it so Nugget had a clean place to live. Livvy felt a genuine sense of responsibility, born out of her own natural sense of compassion, to take care of her pet.
Ignoring the fact that keeping Nugget’s cage clean is more important to Livvy than keep our own home similarly clean, I made a point of heaping praise on Livvy for what she was doing. More importantly, it was an opportunity for us to have a positive conversation about helpfulness. These conversations flow so much easier while riding the wave of a success. The more we’ve talked about it, the more she has beamed with pride. Better yet, she’s looking for new ways to replicate that feeling.
It seems the doors to helpfulness have swung wide open. Just the other day, I told Livvy we needed to straighten up the house before her friend came for a sleepover. Livvy’s job was cleaning her room and her bathroom. No problem – she tackled it with vigor.
The other night, after I’d slipped on the ice for the thousandth time this winter and further angered my sciatic nerve, Livvy blew me away with a tremendous act of kindness. We were out to eat and had just sat down at our booth when the clerk announced Livvy’s milkshake was ready. I stood up to and started toward the counter, but Livvy stopped me and said, “I’ll get it!” as she ran past.
When she got back, I asked her if she thought I was going to take too long to get her milkshake. She laughed, then said, “I just thought it would be easier for you with your back.”
Now we’re cooking!
As I learn more about the specific character strengths I want to explore with Livvy, I’m discovering that each aspect of character is made up of its own array of fundamental elements. Helpfulness isn’t just about the element of responsibility and doing the things we have to do. There are many elements and each one can be a gateway to understanding the overall concept. Compassion just happens to be one of those elements that already resides in Livvy and once I recognized its link to helpfulness, all I had to do was nurture it a little bit (and cave in to buying a hamster).
Take a look at the character strength of helpfulness at www.familiesofcharacter.com and reflect on what you’ve done that has worked and what hasn’t. Consider the elements of helpfulness and which of those elements come naturally to your children that might be used as gateways to understanding what it means to be helpful.
Jeremy Bangs is a single father of a 9-year-old daughter. He spent more than 17 years as a writer, photographer and managing editor for community newspapers along Colorado’s Front Range.