If you give a kid a list, the impossible becomes achievable.

When I was a special education teacher for high school and elementary students, I embraced lists – not just for me, but for them. Oftentimes my students would get in trouble for not meeting expectations because they weren’t sure what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. It was assumed they just knew. My favorite part of my job was helping them break down expected tasks and provide clarity regarding vague directions like “pay attention,” “behave,” and “come prepared.” 

Once the steps were outlined with check-off boxes, the students’ behavior immediately improved. They better understood what was expected of them before class started, while the teacher was instructing, and when it was time to pack up. A critical piece of the success is that we made the lists together. The students’ input was important. It was their list, not mine. I was merely there to support and encourage them. Many of their parents loved the school lists so much they asked for help creating home lists. Little did I know this would serve me well as a parent years later. 

My ten-year-old daughter has a love/hate relationship with her list. She dislikes it because it infringes on her love of relaxation, approaching tasks creatively and leisurely, and just going with the flow. But unfortunately, life cannot be lived like that all the time. My daughter’s daily task list provides direction and empowers her to follow through on tasks independently. 

Last week, school resumed after a two-month summer break. Unfortunately, it came upon us so quickly that we failed to have her list in place. I thought about the list once or twice during the summer but secretly hoped that perhaps like her older sister, she would initiate her own lists and time management tools. By Day 2, it was clear she is not yet to that point. 

My husband and I found ourselves sounding like a broken record: 
“Have you made your lunch?” 
“You need to make your lunch.” 
“You have 5 minutes to make your lunch. The bus is coming, and I'm not driving you to school.” 

With every repetition of an uncompleted task, frustration grew. Tensions rose. Dependency grew. Although I was able to remain calm on a very difficult Friday morning, I realized the list was imperative for her future success and the wellbeing of our present relationship. 

On Saturday morning, the two of us sat down and looked over last year’s list. I asked her what needed updated and how she would change it to help her even more. She quickly decided she would like to break the long list of evening duties into three separate categories: 1) Afterschool duties 2) After dinner duties 3) Bedtime duties. I loved this idea because last spring she had the tendency to wait to start ALL her evening duties until 8pm and then it became another tension-filled situation. 

She also mentioned it would be helpful to note exactly how long she had to complete each morning task. Last week, she was taking 20 minutes to get dressed which resulted in only 3 minutes to eat (not her style) and gather her school supplies. Another tension-filled situation. Knowing that getting dressed in ten minutes will give her 10 minutes to eat will help the whole morning run smoother. 

Supporting her time management further will be a portable kitchen timer. This means instead of being the taskmaster, I can now be the encourager. This also means she has a good chance of completing her afternoon and evening duties by 8:15pm which allows time to watch a show together, play a game, or play on her electronic device. Having free time at night with one or both of her parents is very motivating to her. 

In fact, I saw the motivation driving her this morning as she plowed through her list (see photo) with no prompts from me. It reminded me of how surprised my students’ teachers were by the sudden motivation in their typically problematic students. Perhaps it was the awareness of the problem, the clarity of goal, or the positive expectation that made the difference. Perhaps it was the fact they knew I’d be checking in, investing my time and attention in their success. Regardless of what initially created the motivation, something sustained it. Feeling capable is powerful; knowing you achieved something with your two hands is reinforcing. 

Which is why I have come to believe this: 

If you give a kid a list,
He knows what he needs to do.

If you give a kid a list,
Conversation turns from nagging to praise.

If you give a kid a list,
She’ll begin to make her own. 

If you give a kid a list,
The impossible becomes achievable. 

If you give a kid a list,
He hears: “You are capable.” 

If you give a kid a list,
She sees that meeting a goal begins with one small step. 

If you give a kid a list, 
You give belief. 

And a kid can do a lot with a little belief,
Especially when it comes from someone he or she loves. 

Why endure another tension-filled day? 
Give a kid a list. 
The path to peace and promise has never been so clear.

Two final notes about lists – 

1) Lists do not have to be fancy or have words. I started giving my daughter lists many years ago. I was just about to flip my lid one morning when I grabbed a sticky note, drew a picture of a lunchbox, a pair of shoes, and a water bottle and handed it to my then five-year-old. There was a little empty box next to each item. She never got ready so quickly. She’s 14 and now makes her own reminder notes. It’s a beautiful thing. 

2) Insert paper lists into a page protector so it can be wiped and reused each day! Thanks to one of the members of this community for that idea!

Thanks for being part of the The Hands Free Revolution.