The Joy of Initiative

In my last post, we talked about raising truly obedient children. The tricky thing about obedience is that if your only objective is to get your child to do what you say, you're probably not raising a "truly" obedient child.


You might be thinking, "Uh, that's the very definition of obedience," and I suppose you'd be right; but the truth is there are different levels of obedience.

Level one is obedience that comes from fear of punishment. This is the lowest level, but it's still obedience.

Level two is obedience that comes from hope of reward. Most people would probably consider this the highest form of obedience; but there's one higher still.

The highest level of obedience is basically doing what's asked of you because it's the very thing you want to do as well. Actually, you probably don't have to be asked to do this thing anymore because, again, you wanted to do it in the first place.

Now you might be asking, "Uh, how can it be obedience if I wasn't asked to do it?" Good question.

Performing and doing the job well was the reward and the only reward you were interested in receiving.

The answer is you were asked to perform this task at one time, probably many, many times; but then something happened. You took "ownership" of the task. It became, not something to do out of fear of punishment or hope of reward, but something you wanted to do regardless of these things.

Actually, performing and doing the job well was the reward and the only reward you were interested in receiving.

Think of all the menial things we do simply because completing these tasks and doing them well brings us joy. Folding laundry neatly. Giving a room a fresh coat of paint. Mowing and trimming the lawn. Cooking a delicious meal. Organizing a hall closet. Scrubbing the kitchen counters until they sparkle.

None of these tasks are what we would consider "fun", but there is joy to be found in them. The difficulty is helping your children to discover it. Maybe a little fictional story will help to get this point across.

A Little Illustration 

Let's say it’s early afternoon and you’ve just received a call from a friend. “I hope I’m not imposing, but I’ve needed to return your casserole dish for what seems like forever and I thought it would be nice to sit down and chat. Would it be ok if we drop byPlease say no if this is a bad time.

It’s rarely a “good” time for you to accept impromptu engagements, but you say yes anyway. 

Oh, yay! How does 3:30 sound?”

Well (you think to yourself) 3:30 sounds like the time you steal away to your bedroom for your much coveted 15 minutes of “me” time, but oh well. “That would work just fine. See you then!

A quick glance at your watch reveals it’s 2:12. A quick glance at your house reveals it’s time question your sanity.

How am I going to get this place ready for company?

You recall past visits with this particular friend in her home and how perfect everything was. There was even the time you dropped by unannounced with more than a little hope that she would open the front door and you could peer into “real” life. Nope – still perfect.

The children. I’ll get the children to help.” 

Orders fly and some groans go up, but you remind them it’s all for a good cause – their friends will be here soon. “Mark, you load the dishwasher and wipe down the counters. Samantha, pick up the living room and vacuum please. And Katie, you, um, you . . . uh . . . “

Katie has a bit of a reputation for doing the least possible amount of work that’s expected of her. She also has a pension for working in little capsules of time divided by periods of play. The capsules last all of 2, maybe 3 minutes. The periods can last for up to, well, as long as she can possibly get them to last before you realize she’s no longer working.

In short, the only way to get Katie to do anything is to police her and this of course takes you away from performing your work, so sometimes it’s actually quicker to do her job and your job.

Hence, your struggle to come up with a task for her that’s more demanding than stacking magazines on your coffee table.

No, you won’t do it. Sure, you’ll soon be hosting the queen of hospitality herself, but my if your daughter doesn’t need to learn some responsibility!

And Katie, you clean the bathroom. And I mean clean young lady! Sweep the floor, replace the toilet paper roll, and . . .”

Just then the baby begins to scream and you’re off to see what that’s all about. 15 minutes later you remember Katie.

As you make your way to the bathroom, you find her sitting in her room pouring a pretend cup of tea for her teddy bear. “Katie, is the bathroom finished?”

Yes Mama.

“Well, let’s just go check on that, shall we?” 

On the way to the bathroom you spy something which tells you that the bathroom is, in fact, not clean; the same blue towel that was half sticking out of the bathroom doorway 15 minutes ago is still there.

Katie! You said the bathroom was clean! The toilet still needs scrubbed and…

“But Mama, I did what you told me to do.” ”

“I told you to clean the bathroom!”

You told me to sweep the floor and replace the toilet paper roll so I did.”

Couldn’t you have at least picked up the dirty towels before you swept?

The reply comes quite matter of factly. “But Mama, you didn’t ask me to pick up the towels.

Sound familiar? It does to me. Let’s just say the events above were loosely “based on a true story” (I’m just not gonna say how loosely). The point is that children can struggle with initiative and it’s not difficult to understand why.

Help Your Children "Own" Their Work

Initiative is what I consider a “201” level character attribute, the reason being that it can’t possibly involve any sort of request or requirement on your part. When you instruct your child to do something and they do it, we call that obedience. It's a “101” level attribute (and a very important one at that). Initiative, however, requires considerably more of them in that they must act on their own.

As I’m sure you know, it can be hard enough to get children to do things they’ve been told to do. How much harder is it to get them to do things that need to be done without being asked? As it turns out, not much harder. In fact, it may even be much, much easier.

The secret to instilling initiative in your children has a lot to do with ownership and the joy that comes from a job well done.

Let’s look at one aspect of being a child that causes parents a great deal of consternation – messiness. In short, most parents like a clean house while most children seem to believe their mission in life is to rid the world of clean houses. : )

Ok, so that’s a bit of a stretch, but I think it’s safe to say that children are generally quite messy. Why? Because tidiness isn’t valuable to them. So the bathroom’s a mess – how exactly does this effect little Katie’s ability to host a tea party with her stuffed animals?

Children couldn’t care less about messy rooms. They’ll happily play in or around them. Usually, the only thing that makes keeping things tidy valuable to them is the “wrath of mom.” It’s a simple equation – clean room = happy mom. Messy room = angry mom; Hmmm . . . better clean my room (or, at least that’s the idea).

But what if you could help your children see that keeping a clean room is valuable in ways that have nothing to do with staying in your good graces? What if they could begin to take ownership of a task and reap one of the most important, if not the most important, benefits of a job well done? The benefit? Joy.

No doubt, children like being children, but they also like doing things that make them feel “big”. My sons have complained bitterly about washing a sink full of dishes (“It’s soooo haaaaarrrddd dad!!) but have happily string-trimmed their great-grandfather’s pond in the blazing hot sun with nary a complaint (“It was hard work dad, but we got it done!”).

What’s the difference here? 


For one thing, the string trimming held more value to them. Actually, we didn’t even have to ask them to do it! Running a dangerous power tool probably had something to do with it (lol) but once they finished up you could see the joy all over their faces. It was the look of ownership, and it’s one of the key components of true initiative.

Advanced Obedience

We all want obedient children but hopefully we want so much more than that. Obedience is great, but in its most rudimentary form it’s basically them doing things that make you happy. There's not necessarily anything wrong with that, but what you really want is for the things that make you happy and the things that make them happy to be one and the same.

In the end, there are two ways to get Katie to clean the bathroom – you can ask (or demand, as the case may be) that she clean it or you can strive to instill in her the value of a clean bathroom and allow the ownership of the task to motivate her to keep the bathroom clean.

While it might be easier in the short term to shout at or threaten Katie until she cleans the bathroom, nothing could be better than if she were to take initiative. Not only would she do the job without being asked, she’d likely do it better. It’s a win-win.

If you’ve ever taken a moment to step back and admire a bed well made or a freshly painted room you’ve felt the joy of a job well done.

Far from threatening our children for not performing a task, we want them to taste of the joy that comes from blessing others through earnest work; for in tasting it they will have discovered the fountainhead of true obedience.