Teaching Cause and Effect – How Chores Empower Kids to Face Difficulties

Here is my TEDxWilmington talk on anxiety in kids and teens and how it is exacerbated by kids not learning cause and effect.

We have a crisis on our hands:

Anxiety among children and teenagers is growing to pandemic proportions.

Watch the talk and read the written version below.

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To solve it, let’s first understand why it is happening.

Here’s the culprit: Our kids are bombarded with over 4000 messages day.

Each of those 4000 implies one of three dangerous ideas that impart anxiety in our hearts and minds. They are:

-Other people are better than you

-The world is a dangerous place

-And you deserve cool stuff just because

Cause and Effect

My anxiety storyBecause of them, kids grow up not learning cause and effect and this leaves them feeling powerless, helpless, and out of control. We often think of these as symptoms of anxiety, but as a psychotherapist for over 20 years, as a mother of anxious kids and as a sufferer myself, I know them as causes of it.

Breaking Down the 3 Causes of Kid Anxiety

The first is social media’s constant encouragement to compare ourselves to the ideal pictures that we see. We don’t see the messy parts of our peers’ lives, and this tricks us into thinking that they don’t have any. Without context, it seems that the smiling people are just born lucky rather than doing anything to get there.

The second is that traumatic events on the news make life on earth appear more and more dangerous even though statistically the world has never been safer. Media outlets share the scary bits – making it seem random and out of control.

cause and effect - taught by doing choresBefore TV, when you experienced a threat, you were present and could use up your adrenaline responding to the situation. Now we witness violence very far away, and there’s nothing to do but helplessly replay it in our mind.

The last is marketing that touts, “you need this because it is cool and you deserve it.” Companies know that if you think you have to work for something to get it, you’re not going to buy it. Children under 18 see an average of 1.5 million of these entitled ads a year.

Of course, nobody gets anything just because. Disappointed kids not having learned cause and effect, don’t know why they can’t have it, and come up with their own false conclusion: They must not deserve it.

And then, they can’t figure out what they did wrong- and so don’t know how to fix it. They feel worthless, powerless and out of control.

See the pattern? When you think of yourself as powerless, you feel like you can’t handle anything. And in an unsafe world, this is terrifying. With this constant message bombardment, we adults are freaking out! How can our young people not be overwhelmed too?

Taking Their Power Back

And, what do you think kids and teens do when they feel out of control?

Yes, they try to get in control. Unfortunately, too many go down paths of what I call “Pseudo-power”. Because it feels like power but it is fleeting and not ultimately satisfying so the person has to keep seeking and demanding it. Yet, they still feel anxious.

Kids try to either control themselves through substances, screens, cutting and tragically, suicide. Or they try to get control over others, by bullying, sex or shooting up a school.       

When our children are anxious, we are desperate to help, and we take things off their plates to ease their stress, unwittingly reinforcing helplessness that keeps anxiety in power.    

What if we did the opposite? 

Do you remember as a child, your parents asking you to do chores?

How many times did you hear, clean your room, make your bed, take out the trash!

And the generation before me did four times as many as we did, and they walked to school three miles uphill both ways!

What if I said that by bringing back household chores you can actually calm your anxious kids?

When kids do chores, even if they grumble and groan, they are doing something to their mind, body, and spirit. They’re learning that they have agency in their life, that they can take action (the cause) to handle challenges, make changes, and create good results (the effects).

Chores empower kids to make the life they want, earning it through hard work and problem-solving. Feeling empowered ultimately decreases anxiety. This kind of power? It is real. It is tangible and not fleeting.

“Do Your Chores!”

Here are three kinds of chores to integrate into your household for maximum benefits.

The first kind is “Tedious chores” like laundry, vacuuming, and dishes. Resistance to mundane tasks is natural, but giving into the resistance makes them feel like a victim which leads them to feel trapped and out of control. Luckily doing these tasks daily decreases resistance when faced with them in the future, making life easier.

The second kind is “Challenging chores” like fixing a fence, babysitting, or helping in your office. These help kids hone skills in critical thinking. They need practice in developing ideas, researching, and learning how to ask for help. When the job is complete, there is a sense of accomplishment, increasing self-worth and self-reliance.

The third kind is “Generous chores” where they contribute to others. This could be volunteering at a soup kitchen or helping grandparents. These helps kids feel good about themselves. As they witness hardships greater than their own, they appreciate their lives more. They notice that even through difficulty, people still express love and gratitude. This experience reveals a safer, more hopeful world to live in.

With these 3 kinds of chores, kids learn that they can effect change where they see a problem. They can respond to life instead of being vulnerable victims of it. When they believe in themselves, that is the key to living happier.

Trust is the opposite of anxiety

When I was young I worked in the yard, made lunch, cleaned grandma’s attic, and scrubbed toilets, gaining confidence that I can create good results in a challenge. I cured my own anxiety. And now, whatever happens in life, I trust my ability to figure things out.

The more people trust themselves the less anxiety they experience.

I raised my kids with chores. While they might-a had fun sorting socks as a toddlers, they hated washing dishes as teens. Kids’ brains are evolutionarily designed to conserve calories, so of course they resisted. I made them do it anyway. Listen, if I was going to be the meanest mom ever, at least I could earn the title. 😉 

Having built self-trust through chores, my kids step up to challenges. My 26-year-old asks his boss to coffee to share his fresh ideas. My 18-year-old moved across the country to teach himself to surf. And, my 14-year-old? We’re still working on her.

Teaching Cause and Effect

Chores have been part of human parenting since time immemorial. There was a lot to do to survive and everyone had to help out. In recent history, life has become so convenient that we all seem to do fewer chores. Unfortunately, we are facing a rapid growth in anxiety and depression, an opioid crisis, and mass shootings, as people try to find some control in their lives. Let’s give kids a sense of real and lasting control. Let’s teach them cause and effect: to know that they are powerful, purposeful agents of their lives who can do anything once they set their mind to it.

Assign chores, to yourself, to your children, to your grandchildren, to your employees.

Let a little elbow grease build that confidence that can take down anxiety, and raise kids into a calmer, happier life. 

Let me know what you think and please share this video to spread it far and wide.

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