Years ago I went to a business seminar by Andrew Smith of APT (Accelerated Planning Technique). He based his planning method on the idea that every large project – no matter how large – could be broken down into “manageable bites.” A manageable bite is any single task that you could write down on a Post-It note sized piece of paper and say, “Diane, can you do this for me?” If I can look at that piece of paper and say “Yes! I can do that!” we have a manageable bite.

MP900049745I thought that concept looked as if it could apply to family life and first tested it on my almost five year old.

Her room was an absolute tip; clearly in a state that was far too hard for a child to know where to start let alone how to complete. “Deb, this room looks far too hard to tidy.

Would you like me to show you a way to make it much easier?” She fell for it. “Come and sit next to me and I’ll write while you talk.” (That’s a sure winner with a talkative child).

5-step checklists for kids

We looked around the room together and made a list of things that needed doing. We put a □ (tick box) after each item, so that the finished sheet looked something like this.

Task Done?
Shoes in pairs
Blocks in block box
Clothes in cupboard
Pens in pen-box
Books on Shelf
Rubbish in Bin
Soft toys in net

Deb was very enthused about ticking every item done and pretty soon we could see the carpet in her room.

Just in case you think this looks far too simple…it is!

Since then, I have developed a few other strategies that increased the likelihood of our children taking responsibility for groups of tasks that look overwhelming and very unattractive at the outset.

Let’s look at how we could make it work to get homework and chores done after school.

Step One You be the scribe

Find pen and paper and sit down with your child saying, “You’ve got lots of things that need doing this afternoon. Let’s find a way of making it easier.” Let them do the talking and you do the writing.

Step Two – Put in the good things first

Begin with something like, “Well, you’ll need afternoon tea and then sometime during the afternoon you will need a couple of out-door breaks”

Afternoon tea
Ten Minute Break
Ten Minute Break

Notice how attractive the list looks. You have probably got your child at least mildly interested.

Step Three – Add the responsibilities

Ask your child, “What are your homework responsibilities for today?” and then “What are your household responsibilities?”

By doing it this way, you give your child a sense of ownership of what she need to do – rather than you telling her and her putting up resistance.

Step Four – Add two sets of tick boxes

The left hand side is for your child to choose in which order she is going to do the tasks.

This gives her a further sense of ownership of the process. The first few times, most children will choose to have afternoon tea and have the breaks at the start. Let them…and don’t despair. Pretty soon they will prefer to alternate work and play, to do some tasks and then have a break.

The right hand side is for them to tick tasks that are completed. Some children like to show you each one as they go along. Some children like to do the lot and then show you. That is a matter of personal style.

You now have broken the afternoon’s responsibilities down into manageable bites.

Order Task Done?
Afternoon tea
Ten Minute Break
Ten Minute Break
Write Essay
Set table

Step Five – Offer to help

There is a lovely business concept called “The leader as servant.” By offering a hand over the toughest spots, you are encouraging and leading your child to achieve things that they might otherwise find overwhelming.

With the room tidying, it goes much better if you offer “Which is the task you least like? I’ll do that for you.” With the homework, it makes more sense to say, “Which are the hard ones that you will need my help for?”

Step Six – Review and Congratulate

When everything is done and ticked off, be prepared to be delighted and impressed… but don’t take their word for it! Always go through everything that has been done. Firstly, it gives you a chance to enthuse about their accomplishments and secondly, it gives you a chance to be sure that everything was indeed done.

My children remind me that one of the less pleasant things I did as a parent was, when greeted with “Everything’s done now, Mum, “ was to say “That’s wonderful, darling. Now take me on an inspection tour.” It was amazing how, at that moment they would remember a missed task. “You just wait there, Mum. There’s something that just needs a bit more done.”

But that looks like hard work, I hear you say!

The setting up and inspection may take up to ten minutes of your time, but for that you may get up to two hours of productive time. I think that is a pretty good trade off.

George Dana Boardman wrote “Sow an act…reap a habit; sow a habit…reap a character; sow a character…reap a destiny.”

By helping your children in the way I have described, you are teaching your child the excellent habits of breaking big tasks down into manageable bites, of interspersing work with play and with seeing commitments through – all habits that will serve them well for the rest of their life.

And if that is not sufficient incentive, remember that you are making your life a lot easier.

Coping with Memory Loss…Mum’s!

Having raised two fairly organised children who took a great deal of self-responsibility and then having an eleven year gap, we had this little treasure who we raised rather like an only child with four “parents” all eager to meet her every need. By the time she was six, “Mum as Memory” was getting a little tired and jaded and starting to forget to put some rather vital things in her school bag. It was clearly well past the time to delegate the responsibility – to her!

Make two lists

I made up two check lists. The first had the standard contents of her school bag for each day. The second was a chart … Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday etc with the list of activities and equipment for that day. I rapidly learned that “Music Gear” or “Swimming Gear” was not enough. For training purposes – and for peace-of-mind purposes – we are far better off with precise lists e.g. Music Gear – clarinet, sheet music, notebook. Swimming Gear – togs, dry towel, plastic bag. And, if you really want to make your life extra simple and teach your child a skill for life, put these lists onto Memo-cube paper with a □ after each item for your child to tick when done.

Check lists save stress…Yours!

Why would you want to go to all this trouble? Firstly there is the greater purpose. We want to teach our children methodical habits for life. Our babies, to use Richard Gordon’s definition, are “very short people with no discipline at either end.” Our job as parents is to raise them to be self-disciplined adults. The hallmark of a self-disciplined adult is that they have the ability to break down complex tasks into “manageable bites” and the determination and self-restraint to see the list of tasks through.

However, there is also a very selfish reason why you may wish to go to all this trouble to train your children to be methodical and responsible. The sooner we start training our children to be responsible, they sooner we don’t have to be.

Know which day of the week it is

Having set up the two school-bag checklists (one for every day and one for particular days) all we have to do is work out which day of the week it is and say “Go and check your bag. It’s Tuesday.”

Stop right there

Now comes the really hard bit. Stop there. Don’t do anything else. Above all, don’t check that they have followed through. Our job as parents is to arrange their world so that our children have the opportunity to make safe mistakes and learn from them. Allow them the learning experience of not checking the lists and the consequences that follow.

It is never easier than now for them to learn that lesson.

However, I need to warn you…it is hell to watch.


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Diane Levy’s warm, humorous, practical and commonsense approach to raising children is evident in her writing, her speaking and her private practice in Auckland as a family therapist. Her main focus is on coaching parents. She is also the author of the best-seller “Of course I love you…NOW GO TO YOUR ROOM”, “They look so lovely when they’re asleep” and “Time Out for tots, teens and everyone in between."

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