Show children they're needed and they'll pitch in to help

``Sorry, guys. I can't stick around after school tonight. I've got to go home and get dinner started.'' It was the third time in three weeks that Bruce had made a similar statement. As I glanced at my fifth-grade student, I realized that the loss of time with his buddies appeared to bother him not in the least. Bruce's eyes were alight. He seemed a full inch taller than earlier in the day. His chest actually expanded as he spoke.

Many kids might have resented the responsibility that had recently become Bruce's. But he gloried in his new role. Now that his mother had found a job to help the family's financial difficulties, it fell to the children to start the evening meal on those days their mother worked. Thursday was Bruce's day.

Later, during a noon recess, Bruce explained it to me. ``We're a family. And families stick together.''

He was not the most scholastically oriented student who ever entered my classroom. Far from it; he found most of his school work a bore. He was much more interested in helping his father maintain the huge tractor-trailor rig he drove whenever a load was available.

In fact, Bruce was handier with his fists than with the week's spelling list. One trip per week to the principal's office was par; two trips were common.

Several months into his meal preparation schedule, I chanced to see a strange thing. Bruce actually backed away from another boy on the playground. It was not that he was afraid. Like most of those in my classroom, he fought poverty and all that went with it. Fighting was part of life.

One of his friends explained it to me this time.

``Ah, heck. Bruce can take Freddie with one hand tied behind his back. But today's Thursday.''

It came clear in a flash. Thursday was meal day. Bruce could not risk having to stay late. He knew his family was counting on him and he took his responsibility seriously.

Sometimes, however, teaching responsibility can be trickier in homes where two cars and VCRs are the norm and daily duties aren't crucial to survival. An acquaintance and her husband found this out when they approached the task with their two sons.

``We're going to pay the boys for doing their chores,'' she explained. ``We all sat down and decided what chores needed to be done. Then we divided them between the two. We've assigned each boy the same number of chores.

``These chores must be done daily,'' she said. ``If even one chore is not completed, that boy gets no pay for the entire week.''

That was the plan. It worked well for two full weeks. Then Joe's basketball game got in the way of cleaning his room. It was not fair to impose a financial penalty for something not his fault. His younger brother missed walking the dog twice the next week because of work on a science project. It would have been unfair to deprive him of his week's pay.

Soon after, the entire venture flopped. The chores just weren't getting done -- despite the $5 allowance.

As is often the case, it was my own family dealings that shed light on this reponsibility situation. We were all sitting over dinner recalling adventures past.

``Digging out the sage and cactus when we first moved to the country was the worst thing I ever did,'' my son Sean confessed.

His brother instantly agreed. ``I thought we would never get finished.''

It had been a long job. Our family had labored together in the heat of July and August amid dust and insects and aching muscles.

``You never complained,'' I reminded them. ``Or at least you never refused to pick up your shovel,'' I quickly amended.

The two exchanged a glance.

``We had to get the place ready to live in,'' said one.

``You and Mom could never have done it alone,'' added his brother.

I realized that their hours of unpaid labor had given them something more valuable than money. Like Bruce, they knew their help was needed, and that fostered a sense of responsibility to get the job done. That kind of motivation doesn't come from money.

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