Teaching kids to take initiative

Written by Kari Patterson of Sacred Mundane.

When he showed up with our dinner, I could barely believe my eyes — this was a kid! What kind of kid does this??

Let me explain. My husband frequents a local coffee shop, and gets to know the baristas. He had often chatted with one in particular, a guy named Christian. Turns out one day Jeff had shared with him about a difficult season we were in. In response, (after asking Jeff’s permission), Christian took the initiative to coordinate—and personally deliver—dinners out to our house the following week.

Now, I was already floored that someone I had never met was willing to bring us meals (we live a long way out of town).

I was further floored that this person was a guy (sorry, but usually it’s the moms who think of things like meal-delivery!).

But I was completely floored when this guy showed up and looked barely old enough to drive.

He was 21. With a wide, bright smile, he was respectful and kind, talking at length with our kids, admiring our home, and hand-delivering a nutritious meal made by his mom. He was clearly a go-getter, working part-time while also going to school and pursuing his passion in a creative career while also serving in his church.

I soon discovered he was one of 7 brothers … all homeschooled.

Ah. As soon as he left, I looked at Jeff and said, That’s why we homeschool. I want to raise kids like that.

It’s remarkable to see young people who take initiative. That is, they don’t just follow the rules, do the least amount of work possible, wait for someone to offer them options, or live self-absorbed. They are proactive, looking for ways to grow, learn, excel, serve. They take responsibility.

They’re leaders. That’s what I want for my own kids, and probably you do too.

As parents, one of the critical transitions to help our kids make is from being merely responders (obeying our commands), to initiators (proactively seeking to do good). This had already been on my radar all year, and the interaction with Christian encouraged my efforts all the more.

So, here are 4 suggestions for teaching our kids to take initiative:

  • Ban Bored

With even the youngest children, the easiest way to encourage initiative is to refuse to rescue them from boredom.

As toddlers, our kids knew they were not allowed to use the “b-word.” That is, “I’m bored” has never been muttered by our children, and the result is they know how to take initiative to find something meaningful to do.

There is always a tree to climb, a book to read, a box-fort to build, an anthill to discover. Necessity is the mother of invention, so if they need something to do, they’ll invent ingenious ways if we’ll let them!

  • Ask questions

As kids get old enough to begin moral reasoning, we can begin asking questions instead of only giving commands. Even preschoolers can consider,

“Before going outside, what do you think needs to be done in your room?”

“It’s time to eat dinner, what do you need to do to be ready to eat?”

“That girl on the playground is all by herself, how could you make her feel included?”

“There’s garbage on the sidewalk, what could we do about that?”

As they get older, we can expand their attention:

“Let’s walk through the house together, what things do you think need to be done before our guests arrive?”

“You have your first baseball practice tonight, what items will you need to collect so you’re all ready to go?”

And, of course, some fun role-playing questions:

“If the cashier accidentally gave you back a $10 bill instead of a $5 bill, how should you respond?”

“If a new family comes into church, how could you make their children feel welcome?”

“If all the seats in the room are taken, and someone with a cane walks in, what would you do?”

  • Thoroughly equip

We are usually reluctant to take initiative and step into a role or task, unless we feel confident that we can complete it well. It’s no different with our kids.

I cannot expect my child to step out on her own unless she’s been thoroughly equipped to do the job well.

While role-playing questions and instruction are certainly helpful, we also need to take our children through any given task over and over until they are confident in completing it themselves.

One of the ways our kids learn initiative is with a Help Wanted ad fixed to the refrigerator. Anytime the kids want or need to earn money, they can check the job postings for the day (check-marks indicate which jobs are available that day), and ask to be hired. If I hire them, they complete the task, then I evaluate, and if it’s done well they are paid the price listed.

I love this system, but it definitely takes a lot of effort at the beginning, teaching them the jobs well enough that they can complete them entirely on their own. I thought ironing was easy, until I tried to teach my 8-year-old! She’s definitely getting the hang of it, but it takes time to teach them well (as we all know!).

  • Offer incentive

This year we began offering “Initiative Bonuses” to our kids, and it has worked wonders!

Each day, they have the opportunity to earn 2 initiative bonuses. First, if they do all their chores in the morning, on time, without being reminded, and without complaint, they get a 25-cent bonus.

Then, if they do all their schoolwork on their own without being reminded, (of course they can ask for help on certain problems as needed), without dawdling or complaining, they earn another 25-cent bonus.

Add all those up and that’s the ability to earn $10/month just by taking the initiative to do all their daily tasks on their own. That seems like a great deal for a kid, and, let me tell you, that’s a GREAT deal for me.

Your turn! How do you teach your kids to take initiative?

About Kari Patterson

Kari Patterson and her family live out in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. As a 2nd-generation homeschooler she espouses the same philosophy her own mom did in the 80s: Cultivate a love for learning and one's education will never end. She bakes bread, brews kombucha, speaks at conferences & writes at Sacred Mundane. Her new book Sacred Mundane is available now.


  1. Oh!!! So good to read this morning. It is right in line with what has been on my heart for my kiddos and a reoccurring conversation with my husband. Can’t wait to share it with him and implement some of these ideas 🙂 Thanks.

  2. This is so good! One of the ways we get our kids to take initiative relationally is how we teach them to reconcile with their siblings. We don’t really believe in a forced “I’m sorry”, but we do say “you really hurt so and so. Is your relationship with them whole or broken? What do you think you can do to fix it?” A question about your jobs, Kari. How do you balance giving praise for effort versus excellence? I’m sure it depends on age. My kids are 7 and under, so I definitely am still in the teaching phase. I definitely want to teach excellence but want to praise effort… Thoughts?
    June’s latest post: 8 Tips for Surviving Sickness in a Big Family (When Mom Gets Sick)

    • I agree, can’t force a heart-change but you can lead them to understand the weight of selfish actions. Good question about effort–I definitely praise effort, and then gently explain any tips or ideas to do the job with even greater skill. That’s another reason it’s important to give them age-appropriate jobs. If they *can’t* do it well, it will probably just be frustrating to you both, but if you give them jobs they are reasonably master (with hard-work and practice) then they’ll grow in confidence and you’ll be satisfied with a job well done. Just my two cents!
      Kari Patterson’s latest post: Teaching kids to take initiative

  3. I *love* the idea of the Help Wanted poster! I have always quibbled with the idea of a weekly allowance, but I now realize THIS was more how I was raised (and it worked)–to volunteer for cleaning or jobs around the home for money that need it on a rotating basis. This makes sense! Thank you for giving me the light bulb moment 😉
    Sarah M’s latest post: April Titles // 2017

  4. This is such an excellent bunch of ideas! My kids are eager to make money, but I’d never thought of giving bonuses for doing school and chores without being told. That is brilliant! I’m going to make a list like that.

  5. Love everything about this! Thanks for sharing some really great concrete ideas!

  6. Great ideas and suggestions for empowering these little people to think for themselves and see messes and take responsibility to fix it. Thanks

  7. Super encouraging and practical! Thank you!
    Julie’s latest post: noah two-year adoption interview.

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