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Four Fundamentals for Raising Competent Kids

My four adult kids joke that the reason we had a large family was to ensure that we had free labor around the house. They goodnaturedly complain that by the time they were 6, they were involved in household chores and work in the yard. They’re right. Guilty as charged! Yes, we did put them to work early and often. The end result is that they also brag that they know how to do things that many of their friends are clueless about.

They know their way around a toolbox, a fuse box and a hardware store. They aren’t flummoxed by badly written instructions for putting together anything that needs putting together. They know how to jumpstart a car without starting a fire (as a couple of their friends did). By the time they left home, all four of them could cook basic meals, do laundry, clean a bathroom, tend a garden, paint a room and fix things around the house. Oh, now that they are out on their own, they may choose not to do such things. (Neither of my daughters voluntarily cooks. My sons often let cleaning go until expecting company.) But they know how and there is pride in the knowing.

I’m sure we’ve made many mistakes as parents (as I’m equally sure my kids would be glad to attest). But my husband and I are pleased that we’ve raised young adults who have the skills needed to take care of themselves and the satisfaction that goes with it. They are competent and confident — attributes that help them be successful in any relationship or activity that matters.

Studies confirm our instincts that doing chores while they were growing up mattered. (I love when that happens.) In a long-term study of men by Harvard University researchers, it was found that “childhood industriousness” (having tasks outside and in the home) is an important factor in predicting a successful adulthood. In his studies, Dr. Marty Rossman, a professor of family education at the University of Minnesota, has determined that being expected (and taught) to do chores from an early age has a direct impact on becoming a well-adjusted adult.

Why? I think it’s because kids who’ve been raised with experience in successfully managing household chores develop a fundamental belief in themselves as capable human beings. As the kids develop skill in doing increasingly challenging tasks, their competence and self-confidence can spread to managing money, time and stuff; maintaining relationships with family, friends, and partners; and generally making good choices and decisions. Problems, whether with objects or with people, are seen as issues to solve, not as an assault on their self-worth.

Competence isn’t one of those inborn traits. It’s learned. It requires us as parents to model and teach the skills children need to grow up feeling, and being, capable of handling life’s many challenges. Here are some ideas gleaned from our efforts to raise competent kids:

  1. Promote a can-do spirit.
    Parenting competent kids requires modeling that setbacks are not reason to fuss, swear, or give up. They are problems to be solved. Oh, OK. Everyone is allowed a little fussing and maybe even a little cussing when things don’t go our way. The inclination to throw up our hands and want to give up is only human. But after we’ve done all that, the problem is still there.

    It’s important to show our kids the tremendous satisfaction, even joy, that comes with overcoming an obstacle or mastering a new skill. Teach your kids to take a deep breath, to analyze the situation and to think of ways to approach it. Most problems can be managed, either by working at them or by finding appropriate help.

  2. Take time for training.
    You’ve probably heard the proverbial expression: “Give a person a fish, and you feed him for a day. Show him how to catch fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” It’s true. Fixing our children’s problems for them may relieve the immediate stress, but it doesn’t help them learn to handle things on their own.

    Yes, it’s often quicker and easier to just do it. But that approach does not foster a sense of competence (except competence in getting mom or dad to do something). Whenever possible, it’s important that we take the time to patiently, calmly teach whatever skills are age-appropriate so the next time whatever it is happens, the kids can do it (or at least more of it) themselves.

  3. Provide lots of practice.
    Most skills of daily living aren’t learned at one go. Whether it’s setting the table, doing the laundry, saving for much-wanted and expensive new sneakers, fixing a broken toy or mending a relationship after a fight, kids need us to break the issue down into learnable steps and to encourage them to do pieces of it on their own. A useful teaching model is “Watch me, assist me, do” with as many repetitions as a kid needs.
  4. Model asking for help.
    Sometimes we can fix an appliance, recover from a loss, illness or an addiction or repair a huge mistake on our own. Sometimes we need a mechanic, doctor, or therapist to help. Competent people do their best but also acknowledge when their best isn’t good enough. Their pride doesn’t get in the way of asking for some instruction or assistance when a problem is beyond their own skills. Raising competent children requires making such decisions a visible process. It means trying our best but also explaining how to know when it’s wiser to admit our incompetence and call in some help.

Gardening photo available from Shutterstock

Four Fundamentals for Raising Competent Kids

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Four Fundamentals for Raising Competent Kids. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.