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Raising a Responsible Child

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My child skates through life avoiding his responsibilities.  I have to wake him up and pick out his outfits even though he has an alarm clock in his room and can choose his own clothes.  If I don’t nag, threaten and bribe, homework won’t get done – He even needs special reminders to hang up his coat. Shouldn’t all these things be his responsibility and not mine? 

It’s the start of a new school year and the perfect time to take stock of how well your child is handling his responsibilities.  School, after all, is full of assignments, deadlines, and homework – not to mention he must also take care of his books, school supplies, and personal belongings – all without assistance from you.  If he’s having any trouble juggling these things, it can impact his grades, his teachers can become irritated, and even if he comprehends all his work, his self-esteem can be knocked down a notch or two. Has a teacher ever said, your child understands the material but he doesn’t get his assignments in on time?

Responsibilities touch virtually every aspect of your child’s life – from school to extra-curricular activities to his relationship with you at home.  So take a moment and reflect. How is he doing right now?

  • Do you find your child avoids his chores or other responsibilities at home?
  • Do you find you are often doing things for your child that you know he’s capable of doing himself?
  • Do you often become frustrated or angry because he neglects to take care of things he should?
  • Does he get overwhelmed because he postpones things?
  • If you give him a responsibility do you feel you can’t count on him to come through?
  • Do you resort to nagging and reminders to get things done?

If you’ve answered yes to any or all of these questions, it sounds like your child’s responsibility “muscles” need a little exercise.  Here are some tips.

Are “areas of responsibility” clear? Hand over responsibilities and don’t give undue service

The first thing I check when a child is struggling with responsibility is whether a parent is being overly helpful or giving undue service. Every responsibility in your family belongs to somebody—you have your jobs and your child has his. You make dinner but your child sets the table. Your child needs to know which responsibilities are his. This can become unclear if you are too quick to take over. Here, I’ll pack up your knapsack for you so we can get out the door on time or I’ll feed the dog tonight because you still haven’t finished your homework. Although this approach saves time at the moment, it creates confusion about who really owns the responsibility. Before you know it, your child is expecting your help with these things. He waits for assistance or puts in less effort. The bottom line:  Be clear about which responsibilities your child owns and never (except for rare occasions) take over your child’s jobs – even if it means experiencing a natural consequence like being late. When stress happens often, change your routine to make more time for your child’s responsibilities.

Chores are the best way to strengthen your child’s sense of responsibility  

Kids need to exercise their “responsibility” muscle. The more practice they get, the better they become at solving the problems and challenges that responsibilities bring. I was recently at a friend’s house when her eight-year old son came home from school.  He walked in the door and moved through his jobs like a well-oiled machine. The jacket was slipped over the hook, the knapsack emptied out on the kitchen table, and the cupful of food deposited in the dog’s bowl. He’d been home for only five minutes and he’d taken care of three responsibilities. The best way to learn how to manage tasks is to do them a lot. 

Emptying the dishwasher, frying an egg, and folding laundry are all of daily tasks that have to be done in every family.  Shockingly, research has shown that kids today do less than half an hour of work a day – far less than children did in the past.

Chores teach kids responsibility but they also teach them how to cooperate and think about the needs of others.  Family meetings are the best place to establish chores together and follow up if commitments aren’t kept. 


The Top Four Reasons Parents Don’t Hand Over Responsibility

  1. Time pressures – Not enough time for kids to handle their jobs independently
  2. Efficiency –  Parent feels it’s easier to do it himself – no fights, nagging, or arguments
  3. Perfectionism and Control – Parent wants things done right and on time
  4. Pampering – Parent loves to do things for his/her child. It’s a way of showing love

Which one best explains your challenge with handing over responsibility? Is there another reason?

What should I do when...?

Your child forgets to take his library books back or pack his gym shorts on the days he has P.E.  He doesn’t remember to study for an important test or set the table.  What should you do?

  1. Use a Natural or Logical Consequence 
    The best way to respond is to take an action that will help him learn why he should take care of his responsibilities. Teach him by letting him experience the outcome of his actions. Consequences are connected to the problem at hand.  Food left in the lunchbox? You can’t pack his lunch in his lunchbox the next morning. I couldn’t put your lunch in your lunchbox because it wasn’t emptied out yesterday. How do you want to handle this?  This puts the problem where it belongs.  Solutions can include finding another container or cleaning it and packing it himself.  This kind of “inconvenience” is a simple way to nudge your child towards responsibility. Forgot to study for the test?  The disappointing grade and the frustrating feeling of not knowing the answers will remind him why it’s important to go over his notes and crack open the textbook.  These are the real-life results that happen when you don’t take care of things. Have faith he can learn from the consequences. Most importantly, don’t lecture or criticize.  These two things rarely help him learn.  Instead, they discourage him and teach him to tune you out. 
  2. Problem Solving
    Tackle problems together.  Encourage your child to think of ways he can get on top of his responsibilities.   It’s your job to remember to take out the garbage on Friday.  Can you think of a way to help you remember?  Tap into his creativity to come up with solutions.  Everything from sticky notes stuck on the bedpost to using his I-phone to program self-reminders are great ideas.  Don’t lose faith in him if he makes a few mistakes as he’s learning. 
  3. Take Time for Teaching  
    If you want your child to learn a responsibility, don’t assume he can figure out how to do things just by observing you. Children gain self-confidence when they are taught in a patient, calm manner.  Make time to show your child how to do the job properly, and this shouldn’t happen when you’re rushing out the door. Pick a teachable moment, when your child is relaxed and open to learning.  Use slow, careful movements, don’t talk too much, and let your child focus on your hands as you’re working.

    How to Make a Green Salad

    “Tear the lettuce into pieces this size.”  Demonstrate how to tear the lettuce.
    “Now, put it in the salad spinner and wash the lettuce.”  
    Demonstrate how to wash the lettuce
    , start the spinner by turning this handle.” Show how to turn the handle, put the clean lettuce in a bowl, rinse and dry the spinner, and put it away.
    “Voila!  You’ve made a delicious salad!”  
    Watch your child look proud.

    Do the job together a few times. When your child knows all the steps, hand over the responsibility.


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