Teaching your kids to value their possessions can be hard as a parent. As adults, we recognize that the things we own are hard-earned and generally not easily replaceable. So, we take care of our possessions and expect our kids to have the innate awareness to do the same. We are inevitably disappointed when our energetic toddler smashes and breaks his toys. It seems he doesn’t care at all about his things. Most of the time, we fail to realize that toddlers must be taught what it means to value one’s possessions and take care of them.
As a mother of toddlers and a former classroom teacher and administrator, I have learned that an integrative, hands-on learning approach is the best way to teach this. Kids learn by what they see others doing and what their superiors tell them to do. They also learn by experimenting with new behavior and taking note of your reaction when they behave a certain way.1
My Lesson Learned
Once, I was doing an educational outdoor activity with a few 3-year-olds. This involved putting flowers into a planter and watering it. I was happily sitting with the children and doing most of the work by pouring potting soil into the large pot, taking flowers out of the tray, 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. The whole pot was knocked over in mere seconds, soil spilled and flung everywhere, and little colorful flowers were ripped from their stems. It was like a miniature battle scene with destroyed plants and a big mess. From an objective standpoint, the children didn’t seem to value or care about the objects we were using.
I realized then that engaging the children more would have been a better tactic. It would teach them to value the activity and the objects (pot, soil, flowers). 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
Parents have many opportunities to nurture their children’s understanding of what it means to value their possessions. We want to help them learn how to respect their toys and the objects they encounter daily. Here are some ways you can do this at home:
Model the Behavior You Want Your Children To Follow
As caregivers, sometimes we forget how significant this is. Children learn through imitation, so model the good behavior you want them to do. You may even slow your speech, hand motions, and actions to ensure your kiddos see and hear what you’re showing them.2 For example, I connected with each child as we “re-did” the flowerpot activity. I explained our goal as a group (to put flowers safely into the flowerpot) and how to do it (“Gently place your hands on the outside of the pot, like this,” etc.). They could better mimic me when they saw what I was doing and what cooperative, thoughtful behavior looked like in action.
You can “act out” the behavior you want them to do with their toys at home. Better yet, you can show them how you value your possessions and treat them with care. The next time you remove your coat, connect with your child and talk them through how you gently hang it up because you want it to stay clean until the next time you use it. They will grow to understand that when we care about things, we value them, too.
Be Clear About Expectations
Sometimes, we overlook that children don’t know what is expected of them.3 While it seems straightforward to us as adults that you don’t rip flowers off their stems, to a child, this may be an exciting or interesting way to learn more about a flower. Children may disrespect an object or toy simply because they are so excited to hold it that they accidentally break it. A good example is my story above, where the kids broke the flowers out of sheer excitement and curiosity.
Be clear that your expectation is for them to handle the object “gently” and “with care.” Or, if your child has gotten a new toy for their birthday, state that you expect them to play with it respectfully, then explain what that 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 clarifies to your child the expectation of how you want them to value and take care of their items.
Be Clear About Consequences
You may have a child going through a chapter of development where they repeatedly seek to destroy items around the house, whether it’s their toys, other family members’ belongings, clothes, food, or general furniture and objects. This may simply be a period of growth and development. The destructive behavior might be their way of playing and discovering how things work based on their curiosity to learn information.4 You may even have an engineer, scientist, architect, doctor, astronaut, or contractor on your hands!
In this circumstance, you can apply the techniques for teaching children how to value possessions. But also establish the consequences of not following those rules in your household.5 For example, if your child is playing with cars and starts to crash or throw them against each other, take the toys away. Then, explain why you took them. Slowly ration the cars back out once he calms down and follows the rules you have laid out.
You can say something like this: “You are breaking your cars and playing in unsafe ways. In our home, we treat our toys nicely and 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 treat him well. You can try again with one car, and if I see you playing safely, I will give you another one.”
Let Your Child Practice Responsibility
There are many opportunities throughout a given day or week where our little ones can learn to take responsibility for themselves and their belongings. This helps them build a good foundation for healthy self-reliance and independence and teaches them to respect objects.6 Getting dressed in the morning is a great place to start. Have your child participate in the process of picking out their clothes and shoes. While doing so, discuss (in simple terms) the importance of caring for our bodies, clothes, etc. When we empower our children to make their own choices (i.e., what pair of pants to wear) and are present while they do so, we can help shape it into a positive experience.
You can also teach your kids to practice responsibility by giving them tasks or chores and rewarding them for their positive behavior. Offer small, reasonable rewards for cleaning up their toys or taking care of a toy, for instance. This can teach your little one about money and the concept that items have value.
Encourage Your Child, Even if They Make a Mistake
Making mistakes is a part of learning. If your kiddo isn’t valuing their possessions, try to reframe the situation in your mind as a great way to learn something new together and bond. There are exponential positive outcomes when you approach a bump in the road with a vision for success and positivity.7
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 your expectations). Tell your child your expectations for valuing and caring for their possessions. And give them chances to practice taking responsibility through a reward system that praises their helpful behavior or respectful choices. This will reinforce their desire to make positive choices in the future.
Remember to stay positive and encourage your child as you’re teaching them to value their possessions. Give yourself encouragement, kind words, and parenting affirmations, too, for being a parent who wants to learn and grow. You are awesome, and you’ve got this!