Teaching Kids Basic Life Skills—Initiative and Appropriateness

Knowing how to model the difference between initiative and inappropriateness can be one of the most important skills any parent can develop.

“No! Singing and dancing while seated and having dinner is not proper behavior, son.”  Sound familiar? How about “OK, the idea of making our neighbor laugh when he’s going through a bad spell was good, but giving him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich using the garden tools we borrowed instead of bread was probably not the best way.”

I’m sure you can come up with your favorite examples of your child’s inappropriate behavior and others of her initiative gone awry, but the question is can you model the difference between taking initiative and being inappropriate clearly and convincingly? The key is finding something which when done correctly is appropriate and shows initiative and when done poorly is simply wrong.

One day my son wanted to do something special to be recognized for his initiative by his home room teacher. He decided that since the light beige walls along the hallway that led to his classroom were pretty dirty he would wash them on his own.

So, during art class he decided to borrow some bowls and rags, and during outdoor recess he slipped back into the school building and proceeded to use the rags and the school’s bathroom soap to clean the walls off. He remembered being surprised at how blue the wall’s dirt made the water when de dunked the rags into the water-filled bowls. But, undaunted, he worked hard to finish his masterpiece. When the bell rang ending recess he looked back to see one long blue dripping smudge now covered the once beige walls.

When he got home, mortified at having spent the afternoon in detention, but feeling worse at having to repeat what his teacher had said about the effort—“not the smartest thing you’ve ever done”— my son skipped dinner and went to bed early that evening. I answered the many phone calls from his friends who wanted to hear the story from the horse’s mouth and ended up having a talk with them and their parents.

The next day, I dropped my kids off at school early, feigning an early business meeting. I then waited by the drop off area and picked up the many parent notes his friends dropped off. I then stopped by the principal’s office. After she read the notes she walked me to a janitor’s closet and opened it, leaving me to my business. At recess, the playground monitor was instructed to give my son and five of his friends permission to go back inside the building to do a special chore. When they rounded the corner to enter the blue-beige hallway the principal was waiting wearing rubber gloves and carrying a pair for each kid.

As she handed the gloves out and led them to the corner where I had stacked the janitorial equipment and supplies she said: “I want to let you know how proud I am that you took the initiative to help me keep the school cleaner. I particularly liked how you convinced your parents to write such great notes asking for permission to do this work. If you could tell me where you want me to begin, I would like to join you in doing this important task.”


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