The big, beautiful, complicated lesson of independence

This goat is going to teach my family something much bigger than us. 

This goat is going to teach my family something much bigger than us. 

After years of good intention, I’ve finally begun an allowance system with my 12-year old son. I’ve written six articles on the subject, interview big-name financial experts and crowd-sourcing hundreds of tips from savvy parents. I just could not get it together until a month ago. I don’t deserve any mom rewards just yet – it is a crude system with a complicated calendar assigning chores to most days of the week. At the end of the month there is a $10 bill (for now), opportunity to earn extra for going above and beyond, and hopefully, empty trash bins in every bathroom.

The motivator to put this all into action at last was really that I want to teach my son to be industrious. He’s smart and studious and sensitive and has a report card that shines. But there’s more to school, and eventually work (and of course the never-ending labor of the house and car and kids and love and life) than that. I want to show him the value of being a self-starter, a person who says, “Hey, I want to solve that!” or “I can take care of that for myself!” or “I want to make a better and bigger life for me – and for others!” Will allowance solve that? No. But it is a step in the right direction that only costs a few dollars.

What he really wants is independence, to walk home by himself after school, to stay alone for short periods of time, to have more say at the family table. Before privileges comes responsibility, I tell him. First show me that you can remember to clean your bathroom without being reminded, or figure out what to do when you realize you haven’t packed a school lunch and it is one minute before we walk out the door. Tell me how good it feels when your Barcelona jersey is clean and put away (OK, shoved in the drawer) rather than balled up at the bottom of the hamper – all because you did your own laundry over the weekend. And explain how you will choose to spend your earnings wisely, or save them, or donate them or possibly earn even more next month. Then, sweet boy, we can talk about riding your bike to a friend’s house solo.

With responsibility comes contribution. His chores are a way to be a part of the work of this home, to see how each small act of love and generosity and kindness builds to make a safe and happy and healthy place for us all to live. That includes cleaning off the kitchen counter, and it also means picking up your sister’s toys without being asked and taking some of the grocery bags when your mom is juggling too much up the four flights of stairs to our door.

It’s funny, isn’t it, that in order for a kid to be independent, we need them to first learn how they contribute? It seems like a paradox, but it is really quite clear. My boy can’t take off on his own without understanding that he matters at home, and so I need to know where he is, that he is safe, when he will be back and that he can handle the new freedom. In order to leave (for a play date or fun activity or when he goes to college), he’s got to understand how he’s leaving his home behind (a toy-tornado ravaged home or with a dishwasher loaded and running?).  Where we go matters, how we impact and contribute to our communities is important, and I want him to learn that at home first.

From there, I want him to see how he contributes, where he has responsibility, and where to be industrious at school, in his Tae Kwon Do studio, with his friends, and eventually, in his city, his country and his world. It’s big, but I feel assured that it starts small.

I want my son to be connected to children like this girl, in powerful, important ways. Photo courtesy Heifer International.

I want my son to be connected to children like this girl, in powerful, important ways. Photo courtesy Heifer International.

While he’s learning all this, one salami sandwich at a time, I will be adding in more opportunities for my son to flex the muscles he’s building carrying all that recycling back down four floors.

We will be talking about how to help out our neighbors with acts of kindness. We will be writing thank-you notes. We will be donating toys and clothes to organizations that serve kids my son’s age, right in our own city.

But we have a bigger family commitment to make that stretches out far beyond our front door. It feels very important to invest in other families whose needs are far greater than our own. And so we will contribute time and some of those hard-earned dollars (both his and my own) to Heifer International.

Heifer International has the immense mission of working with communities to end world hunger and poverty, and to care for the Earth. How they follow through – contributing (ding! tween keyword!) to nearly 25 million families in 125 countries over the past 70 years – is by providing partners with livestock, training, tools and education. This gives each partner both food and reliable income as cows provide milk, bees produce honey and chickens deliver eggs.

Children from a community in Rwanda are invited to the home of a Heifer International partner to drink goat milk from her farm. Photo courtesy Heifer International.

Children from a community in Rwanda are invited to the home of a Heifer International partner to drink goat milk from her farm. Photo courtesy Heifer International.

This model is exactly what I want my son to see as a thriving way to invest in others while developing skills. Heifer International’s partners become small-scale farmers, which provide security for their families, enable their children to attend school, and also bring opportunity, income and sustenance to their wider communities.

A Ugandan mother and son feed their family goat. Photo courtesy Heifer International.

A Ugandan mother and son feed their family goat. Photo courtesy Heifer International.

In turn, the families Heifer International serves achieve self-reliance. That gift goes far beyond their own front door.

When our family invests in Heifer International, we are saying, “We believe in you” to the 4 million families that the organization aims to serve by 2020. We also affirm that families around the world matter to us.

Here’s where we come back around to the lessons of the world applying in our own kitchen – and the tenets we take on by unloading the dishwasher carrying through to a family harvesting vegetables in Kenya: It is all about opportunity. It is all about someone who cares (mom, an incredible organization, a family thousands of miles away) giving us access to the tools we need and the chance to put them to work. It is about the affirmation that we are seen and valued and worth investment, especially the one billion people living in poverty right now.

GOATS! 

GOATS! 

Plus, GOATS! There are hilarious goats and adorable baby chicks and fascinating bees involved! Whatever my son is ignoring about the virtues of vacuuming, he’ll learn ten times over by a messaging involving a goat.

We are responsible for contributing to the house around us, and that roof extends far beyond us to homes continents and oceans away.  And responsibility leads to independence, which leads us all much further than my son can pedal on his bike.  With independence comes impact, and the opportunity to be more, do more, help more. It’s a profound cycle.

We have a lot of work ahead of us in our family. Staying on the allowance track requires vigilance all around. We also have a lot to do in this big, wide world, and for the families who are an opportunity – and just one goat – away from changing their own lives, impacting their whole community.

My son and I? We are here for it, and it will be tracked ten bucks, a few shares of livestock, and many dishes and discussions at a time.

One more awww-pic so you can see all the adorableness at work. A BABY SHEEP! 

One more awww-pic so you can see all the adorableness at work. A BABY SHEEP! 

 

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This post was produced with support from Heifer International. All opinions are, of course, my own. All allowance ten-dollar bills doled out from my own purse.