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How To Give Your Kid Chores And Other Parenting Lessons From Entrepreneurs

Crib Notes summarize all the parenting books you’d read if you weren’t too busy parenting. For great advice in chunks so small a toddler wouldn’t choke them, go here.

In Raising Can-Do Kids, Richard Rende and Jen Prosek take a break from the popular trend of looking at how other countries raise their kids better than we do and focus instead on those new heroes of the American Dream: The entrepreneur. Specifically, they suggest that things like adaptability, ingenuity, creativity, and perseverance — the entrepreneur’s toolkit — aren’t learned in academic environments that punish failure or recreational environments that demand rigid structure. But that’s exactly what kids get the most of these days.

READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Chores

The authors identified skills common to people like a tech visionary who pioneered VoIP and streaming video, the founder of an influential fashion media company, and a successful restaurateur (because, seriously, have you tried to get Elon Musk on the phone lately?), examined scientific literature around those skills, and then distilled that into practical parenting strategies. In truth, the connection to entrepreneurs seems a little thin, given that all of this stuff sounds like a good approach to life no matter what it says on your business card.

Still, their research is compelling and the advice is easy enough to follow, so what do you have to lose? If nothing else, you’ll raise yourself a can-do kid; if you’re lucky, they’ll start a lemonade stand that brings in enough to cover the monthly cable bill.

Rende and Prosek cite “cognitive exploration” — kids’ natural tendency to explore, manipulate, and discover the world around them — as a predictor of success in both entrepreneurism and academic pursuits. But, now that kids have pre-K schedules more rigorous than your Monday calendar (and middle school schedules that would make a diplomat wince), their ability to engage in cognitive exploration is limited.

What You Can Do With This

  • If you have babies, physically position them for exploration. Even before they can move on their own, put them in seated and walking positions, because research shows doing so aids in the development of motor skills, which are the physical basis of exploration. No word on whether making them dance like this will ensure future moves on the dancefloor.
  • As kids get older, turn your home into a “children’s museum.” That means creating “exhibits” that mimic the function of the rooms they’re in — i.e. a kid-sized counter in the kitchen with different things to represent food and utensils. The less fancy (think strips of cloth for bacon) the better, as this forces kids to combine cognitive exploration with creativity. Also, it’s way cheaper.

Innovative Thinking
As your kid grows from exploring their world all cognitive-like, their next party trick needs to be “counterfactual reasoning,” to which you nod knowingly despite having no clue what it means. It means the ability to “consider possible alternatives to something that has already happened.” as well as “figuring out possibilities for the future based on observations of the past.” Basically, they’re growing up in a world where the answer to every question is in everyone’s pocket, so knowledge itself isn’t that impressive. Knowing how to use that knowledge differently is what’s really cool.

What You Can Do With This

  • Figure out how much unstructured play time your kid currently gets and then find a way to give them a whole bunch more. Encourage them to pretend as much as possible (hence the cloth bacon in their little kid kitchen).
  • Guide, don’t teach. There’s overwhelming evidence at this point that, the more directives kids receive during play, the less engaged they get. Let them be in charge and play the role of curious participant — “Why, yes, I was wondering how that makeup would look on my face!”
  • Arts and crafts are actually open-ended exercises that focus kids on the “doing” part of problem solving. The more kids do, the more innovative their thinking will become, so they can’t really “overdo” arts and crafts. Just buy a bigger refrigerator if that’s a problem for you.

Doing (AKA: A Note About Chores)
The ability to do stuff is crucial for kids (hence the book’s title) and chores have been used by parents for generations to encourage that “can-do” attitude. But recent research has contradicted older studies suggesting that kids who do chores are ultimately more likely to succeed in life. The author’s parse the newer research to determine important nuances in precisely how to press your kid into the family service in the most productive way possible.

What You Can Do With This

  • Don’t pay them for chores, because it makes the reward external, and they’ll reap more long-term benefits if the reward is internal because it becomes self-motivating.
  • When they’re still young and easily influenced, purposefully conflate chores with play time. Crank music, dance, turn broom sticks into microphones. The fact that you can neither sing nor dance is immaterial (because they’re too young to know the difference and, frankly, neither can they).
  • Carefully select chores for them that they can excel at, so they easily associate the task with a job well done. If your kid doesn’t excel as much at laundry folding as they do at grass mowing, you’re just going to have to have more kids.
  • Let them see the ground-level grunt work associated with your own job, whether it’s administrative tasks or cleaning up the office. Point out that proficiency, competence, and mastery of any skill requires plenty of repetition and drudgery. Show them the “Wax On, Wax Off” scene from Karate Kid.

Optimistic Opportunity Seeking
The difference between optimistic people and pessimistic people lies in their relationship to effort; the former embrace it and the latter disengage from it. “The power of thinking positive doesn’t derive from the notion that good things will magically happen, but rather from the belief that an application of appropriate effort can take a given situation and make it better,” they write — and they mean it so much they used those italics.

What You Can Do With This

  • Encourage younger kids to get out of their comfort zone by taking on small, attainable challenges like going down the bigger slide or helping you make dinner. Your positive reinforcement makes them actually like being out of their comfort zone, as opposed to being … you know … uncomfortable with it.
  • Encourage older kids to take risks, which means raising their hand in class when they’re not sure of the answer, trying out for a school play, or choosing a demanding class where a good grade isn’t ensured. It does not mean drinking from a hot sauce bottle or bus surfing.
  • Model positive thinking in your own life. A study in Australia showed that cranky babies with positive moms turned into toddlers with good relationships, while happy babies with negative moms had contentious relationships as toddlers. Presumably, this holds true for dads, too, but who knows for sure thanks to those sexist Australian researchers?