As a parent, it can be hard knowing how to teach your kids to value their possessions. As adults, we recognize that the things we own were hard earned and generally not easily replaceable. So we take care of our possessions and we expect our kids to have the innate awareness to do the same. We are inevitably disappointed when our energetic toddler smashes his toys and breaks them. It seems that he doesn’t care at all about his things. What we fail to realize most of the time is that toddlers need to be taught, in a variety of ways, what it means to value one’s possessions and how to take care of them.
As both a mother of toddlers and former classroom teacher and administrator, I have learned that the best way to teach this is an integrative, hands-on learning approach. Kids learn by what they see others doing, by what their superiors tell them to do, and by experimenting with new behavior and taking note of what your reaction is when they behave a certain way.
My Lesson Learned
Once, I was doing an educational springtime activity with a few 3-year-olds. The outdoor activity involved putting flowers into a planter and watering it. I was happily sitting with the children and doing most of the work myself by pouring potting soil into the large pot, taking flowers out of the tray and placing them into the pot, and covering the plant with new soil. I had instructed the children to watch me and help water the flowers. The kids were bursting with energy and having difficulty not touching the colorful flowers.
I turned my back for a split second to pick something up, and the children suddenly descended upon the flowerpot like bees to honey. In mere seconds, the whole pot was knocked over, soil spilled and flung everywhere, and little colorful flowers were ripped from their stems. It was like a miniature battle scene with plants having been destroyed and a big mess made. Needless to say, from an objective standpoint the children didn’t seem to value or care about the objects we were using.
I realized in that moment that engaging the children more would have been a better tactic. It would teach them to value not only the activity, but the objects (pot, soil, flowers) themselves. So, I started over. This time I engaged the children in the task by having them help. One held the pot while others planted flowers and another child watered. This activity turned out to be much more than just flower planting. It was about learning to respect the objects they were using and the process we were all engaging in.
Teaching Your Children to Value Their Possessions
Indeed, there are many opportunities for us as caregivers to nurture our child’s understanding of what it means to value their possessions, and to help them learn how to respect their toys and the objects they come into contact with daily. Here are some ways you can do this at home.
Model the Behavior You Want Your Children to Follow
It sounds obvious, but as caregivers sometimes we forget how significant this really is. Children learn through imitation. Model the good behavior you want them to do. You may even slow down your speech, hand-motions, and actions to make sure that your kiddos actually see and hear what you are showing them.
For example, I made sure to connect with each child as we “re-did” the flower pot activity. I explained what our goal as a group was (to put flowers safely into the flower pot) and how to do it (“gently place your hands on the outside of the pot, like this,” etc.). They were better able to mimic me when they saw what I was doing and what cooperative, thoughtful behavior looked like in action.
At home, you can “act out” the behavior you want them to do with their toys. Better yet, you can show them how you value your own possessions and treat them with care. Next time you’re taking off your coat, connect with your child and talk them through how you gently hang your coat up because you want it to stay clean until the next time you use it. They will grow to understand the concept that when we care about things it means we value them, too.
Be Clear About Expectations
Sometimes we overlook the fact that children don’t know what is expected of them. While it seems straightforward to us as adults that you don’t rip flowers off of their stems, to a child this may be an exciting or interesting way to learn more about a flower (and there may be a good time and place for letting children do just that).
Sometimes children disrespect an object or toy simply because they are so excited to be holding it that they accidentally break it. A perfect example being in my story above where the kids broke the flowers at first out of sheer excitement and curiosity.
Be clear that your expectation is for the object to be handled “gently” and “with care.” Or, if your son or daughter has gotten a new toy for their birthday, state that your expectation is that they play with the toy respectfully and explain what that actually means.
For example, “I’m glad you like your toy, son! We expect you to take good care of it. This means trying not to break it and putting it away safely when it’s time to clean up the playroom.” Hearing your words emphasizes and even clarifies for your child what the expectation is around how you want them to value and take care of the items they possess.
Be Clear About Consequences
Sometimes, you may have a child going through a chapter of development where they repeatedly seek to destroy items around the house. Whether it’s toys of their own, other family member’s belongings, clothes, food, or general household furniture and objects. This may simply be a period of growth and development. The destructive behavior may be their way of playing and discovering what things are and how they work, based out of a curiosity to learn information. You may have an engineer, scientist, architect, doctor, astronaut, or contractor on your hands!
In this circumstance, you can readily apply the techniques for teaching children how to value possessions, as laid out in this article. But also establish what the consequences are in your household for not following those rules. For example, if your child is playing with cars and starts to crash them against each other or throw them, you can take the toys away from the child. Explain why you took them. Then slowly start to ration the cars back out once he calms down and begins to follow the rules you have laid out.
You can say something like this: “You are breaking your cars and playing in ways that are unsafe. In our home we treat our toys nicely and we keep ourselves and others safe. I don’t want you to hurt your brother by throwing that car. I want you to take care of your brother and to treat him well. You can try again with one car, and if I see you playing safely, then I will give you another one.”
Let Your Child Practice Responsibility
There are many opportunities throughout a given day or week where we can give our little ones opportunities to learn how to take responsibility for themselves, and by extension, their personal belongings. This helps them to build a good foundation for healthy self reliance and independence, as well as teaching them to learn to respect objects.
Getting dressed in the morning is a great place to start. You can have your child participate in the process of picking out their clothes and shoes. While doing so, talk to them about the importance of taking care of our bodies, the clothes we wear, etc. We can discuss with them in simple terms what this looks like. When we empower our children to make their own choices (i.e.: what pair of pants to wear) and are present with them while they do so, we can help shape the whole thing into a positive experience.
You can also teach your kids to practice responsibility by giving them tasks or chores and offering them rewards for their positive behavior. Offer small reasonable rewards for cleaning up their toys or taking care of a toy, etc. This can begin to teach your little one about the idea of what money is and the concept that items have value.
Encourage Your Child, Even If They Make a Mistake
Remember, making mistakes is a part of learning. If your kiddo is not valuing their possessions, try to reframe the situation in your own mind as a great way to learn something new together and to bond. There can be exponential positive outcomes when you approach any bump in the road with a vision for success and positivity.
Be patient with your child when they fall short of your expectations. Model good, respectful behavior by “show and tell,” (show them what you want them to do and use words to explain what your expectations are). Tell your child what your expectations are around valuing and caring for their possessions. And give them chances to practice taking responsibility through a rewards system that praises their helpful behavior or respectful choices. This will reinforce their desire to make positive choices in the future.
In summary, stay positive and encourage them. Give yourself encouragement and kind words, too, for being a parent who wants to learn and grow. Heck, you’ve made it to the end of this article, you are awesome. You’ve got this!